Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Telecoms Advisory Panel


  1.  The Chairmen of the six Advisory Committees on Telecommunications (ACTs) meet regularly in a non-statutory forum—the Telecoms Advisory Panel (TAP)—to co-ordinate their work and to raise matters with the Director General of Telecommunications. The ACTs themselves are statutory bodies established under section 54 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 and represent the interests of consumers, particularly those with least power in the market.

  2.  This submission focuses on consumer issues in the Draft Communications Bill, especially the Consumer Panel. We make comments on some Clauses in the Draft Bill and provide draft terms of reference (see appendix) for the Panel that we envisage are necessary to represent and promote the interests of consumers effectively.

  3.  We note that a separate OFCOM Content Board is envisaged and understand that the Consumer panel is not expected to deal with content issues. We recognize the separation of content from service delivery but are not convinced that the Consumer Panel should have no role in content matters, as we point out in para 11 below. The TAP will give further thought to this issue before responding to the DTI/DCMS Bill team by 2 August 2002.


  4.  We welcomed publication of the Draft Bill and associated documents, including the Regulatory Impact Statement (RIA). The Government's intention expressed in the draft Bill to develop a coherent approach to communications regulation and to set up a single regulatory body is particularly welcome and should bring benefits to consumers as well as to the industries concerned.

  5.  We note that only BT commented on the initial RIA, which was published separately but at the same time as the Communications White Paper. This has led to the assumption in paragraph 28 of the current RIA that there are no serious concerns amongst other participants in the consumer sector. This may not be a valid assumption.

  6.  The ACTs did not respond to the initial RIA due to oversight; having received copies of the White Paper the reference to the initial RIA contained in the White Paper (para 9.3.3) was missed. In the TAP response to the DTI/DCMS, the Draft Bill, the RIA and the policy document will be taken into account. We urge the Joint Committee to take full account of and seek views on all documents published by the Bill Team.


  7.  In Clause 3 of the Draft Bill it is proposed that OFCOM will have a duty to further the interests of "persons who are customers for services and facilities". We note that the term "consumer" is used sparingly in the Draft Bill and only in the context of the Consumer Panel. The category of "persons who are customers" is too narrow and does not take account of other persons as users, ie it seems to imply only persons who have a contractual or pre-contractual relationship with a service provider. It appears to exclude, for example, other members of such a person's household as well as people in hospitals, residential homes and other institutions. Relevant "persons" should be defined as widely as possible, ie everyone in society in their role as a buyer or potential buyer and user or potential user of services. There are a number of other relevant terms used in the draft Bill, such as "citizens" (Clause 4(5)), "members of the public" (Clause 12 (1)(a) and (b)), "end users" (Clause 38(1)(a)), whose relationship to "persons who are customers" is unclear.

  8.  Clause 96(1)(a) refers to "communications providers"—persons who provide an electronic communications network or service. This term may be intended to encompass BT but it is not clear whether it covers, for example, an individual with a website who establishes a streamed news service, accessible by citizens in the UK and beyond. TAP would urge greater clarity to ensure that the appropriate parties are aware they have regulatory obligations.


  9.  In Section 96(2) the Consumer Panel is set to advise OFCOM and "such other persons as the Panel think fit". TAP welcomes this wide brief and would be opposed to attempts to narrow this to (essentially private) advice to OFCOM. Our working relationship with Oftel allows the ACTs to respond to DTI and other government consultations and we have given views to other bodies, including the European Commission. This is beneficial for consumers and Oftel. We would welcome explicit clarification that the term "persons" in this context includes government departments, other official bodies and international organisations such as the European Commission—indeed all relevant bodies, both national and international.

  10.  Clause 96(3) lists the functions of the Consumer Panel in addition to giving advice to OFCOM. TAP believes that this should include monitoring the effectiveness of the new regulator in pursuing its duties as they affect consumers. The new legislation attempts to be "convergence proof"; if the need should arise the Consumer Panel should be able to advise OFCOM on whether its remit continues to be sufficient to regulate the changing communications sector.

  11.  On the scope of the Panel, we believe that its remit should be at least as wide as the remit of OFCOM in relation to delivery of electronic communications services. While it would not be appropriate for the Consumer Panel to deal with specific content matters, such as complaints about taste and decency, or unfair treatment, it should nevertheless be empowered to advise OFCOM on the consumer implications of policy affecting content, such as "walled gardens" and the objectivity of electronic programme guides


  12.  Rather than OFCOM, we believe that appointments to the Consumer Panel should be made by the relevant Secretary of State (SoS). This is essential to ensure a measure of independence from the regulator. The SoS should also takes decisions on removal of members, should the need arise.

  13.  Clause 97 contains provisions for consumer representation for each of the four nations of the United Kingdom but does not prescribe how this should be put into practice. In contrast, the current Telecommunications Act (TAct)1984 contains provisions for advisory bodies of this kind. We believe that there should be specific provision on the face of the Bill that permits the Panel to establish and adequately resource consumer committees for the regions/nations/other interest groups, eg consumers who are older or disabled. There are differences of opinion amongst the members of the TAP on whether the Bill should oblige the Panel to set up country committees but the majority view would support such an obligation and all recognize that there may be a political necessity to mandate them.

  14.  In appointing members of the Panel, the TAP proposes replacement of Clause 97(4). The current Clause is incomplete. For example, ethnic minorities and children are missing from the list. Suggested wording could be:

"The Panel shall ensure that it is able to give informed advice about the interests of persons disadvantaged in their access to or use of communications services through disability, age, location, income or otherwise. It may establish such mechanisms as seem to it appropriate for informing itself about those interests and for taking action to further them."

  15.  Although there is reference to "small business customers" in Clause 96(2), there is no reference in Clause 97 to the interests of small businesses. We regard this as an omission (and retrograde in the light of the current provision in the TAct). The TAP is considering its view but there may be merit in establishing a separate OFCOM panel for small business users with 6 to 50 employees. There is sufficient commonality of interests between smaller enterprises with up to 5 employees and residential consumers for their interests to be represented by the Consumer Panel. We note that this will require changes to definitions of consumers in sections of the Draft Bill. We also note that the new Telecoms Ombudsman will deal with disputes raised by these two groups with maximum awards (including costs) up to £5,000.


  16.  We welcome the spirit and the letter of these Clauses. They should provide a secure basis for the improvement of complaints handling and dispute resolution procedures, and in particular for the development of an effective ombudsman scheme.

June 2002



  The purpose of the Consumer Panel is to represent and promote the interests of the consumers of communications services. To this end it shall be provided with adequate resources to:

    —  conduct such research and consultations into the concerns of those consumers as it thinks necessary, establishing such consultative mechanisms and procedures as it deems necessary, co-ordinating research with OFCOM to avoid duplication;

    —  advise OFCOM and such other persons as it thinks necessary about issues in which it believes there is a consumer interest; including advice to the regulator on OFCOM's own research programme;

    —  review, monitor and report to OFCOM on the effectiveness of its policies and practices in pursuing its duties as they affect consumers;

    —  take what steps it believes necessary to draw consumer concerns to the attention of relevant bodies, both national and international;

    —  speak out publicly when it wishes to draw attention to matters affecting the consumer interest;

    —  advise OFCOM about the programmes of consumer research it may wish to undertake;

    —  co-ordinate programmes of consumer research with OFCOM's Content Board;

    —  monitor the performance of the bodies dealing with consumer complaints and disputes and review the substance of those complaints and disputes;

    —  publish an annual report.

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