Memorandum submitted by the Advisory Committee
on Telecommunications for Disabled and Elderly People (DIEL)
1. OFCOM should hvae an overriding duty
to promote the interest of consumers and this should include promotion
of universal access.
2. Communication is a two-way process; access
issues affecting disabled consumers can affect able-bodied consumers.
3. Equal opportunities in employment for
people with disabilities should be extended to cover the provision
of all electronic communications networks and services.
4. DIEL would like to see greater clarity
of both definition of the "consumer' and the "provider",
throughout the Draft Bill.
5. DIEL believes that the duties of the
Consumer panel should include monitoring the effectiveness of
the new regulator.
6. DIEL believes the Consumer Panel should
be able to advise OFCOM on whether its remit continues to be sufficient.
7. On the scope of the Panel, DIEL believes
that its remit should be at least as wide as the remit of OFCOM.
8. DIEL would like to see the Consumer Panel
empowered to advise OFCOM on the consumer implications of policy
9. DIEL believes that appointments to the
Consumer Panel should be made by the relevant Secretary of State.
10. DIEL would like the Consumer Panel to
have the power and resources to establish appropriate consumer
committees, including a committee to represent the interests of
consumers who are older or disabled.
1. The Advisory Committee on Telecommunications
for Disabled and Elderly People (DIEL) is one of the six Advisory
Committees on Telecommunications (ACTs). The ACTs are statutory
bodies established under section 54 of the Telecommunications
Act 1984. DIEL advises the Director General of Telecommunications
(at Oftel) on issues affecting telecoms consumers who are older
or disabled. This submission focuses on some consumer issues in
the Draft Communications Bill, and especially the Consumer Panel,
affecting people who are older or disabled.
2. DIEL wishes to remind the Joint Committee
that in its deliberations it should take into account the issue
of the ability of able-bodied people to communicate with disabled
people. There may be additional financial costs to overcome for
both parties unless adequate measures are taken. Isolation is
a major problem for many disabled people, and it is no solution
for example, if say, textphone users have an affordable accessible
text relay service to reach able-bodied people such as friends
and relatives, but able-bodied people have to pay high prices
to contact hearing impaired people.
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 recognise the separation
of content from service delivery but are not convinced that the
Consumer Panel should have no role in content matters. DIEL will
give further thought to this issue before responding to the DTI/DCMS
Bill team by 2 August 2002.
4. We note the general duties of OFCOM in
Clause 3. Although Clause 3(1) is not explicit, it appears that
in carrying out its work OFCOM should have regard to such of its
duties as appear relevant in the circumstances. DIEL believes
that OFCOM should have an overriding duty to promote the interest
of consumers, ie duty 3(1)(a) taking precedence. We would go further
and refine this Clause to include an overriding duty to "promote
universal access". This would encompass access by people
in remote areas and on low income, but also disabled people, whether
their needs were for accessible networks and services or for affordable
and accessible equipment. It should cover broadcasting (sub-titling
and audio-description) as well as telecommunications. OFCOM's
duty would thus become much more definite than the present wording
of "further the interests" etc.
5. Clauses 11(3) and 224(2) refer to promotion
of equal opportunities in employment for "disabled persons"
in provision of television and radio services. These and other
equal opportunity measures should be extended to employment that
involves the provision of all electronic communications networks
and services, ie including telecommunications.
6. DIEL recognises that the Draft Bill is
ramed by EU communications legislation. Whilst EU dierctives and
the Draft Bill cover all forms of electronic communication, including
both mobile and fixed telephony, it is unclear whether the general
conditions, as drafted, include mobiles. They should do so (at
least where applicable), in addition to indirect access and other
calls and access products.
7. DIEL understands that the new EU directives
rule out regulation of equipment. There may be scope for this
via the RTTE directive (separate from the new raft of EU legislation).
There is a need to ensure there is scope for using universal service
to prescribe the availability of accessible and affordable equipment,
eg provision for the regulator to determine that certain telecoms
network operators must offer customers textphones for rental.
8. Referring again to Clause 3, 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 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 or older or disabled people in residential
homes. 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
9. Clause 96(1)(a) refers to "communications
providers"persons who provide an electronic communications
network or service. This term may be intended to encompass companies
like BT but it is not clear whether it covers numerous small businesses.
It is noteworthy that as a group, people who are disabled are
far more likely to be self-employed than the population in general.
10. DIEL would urge greater clarity of definitions
of the "consumer" and the "provider". This
is necessary to ensure awareness of rights and responsibilities,
as users of communications services, and regulatory obligations,
11. In Section 96(2) the Consumer Panel
is set to advise OFCOM and "such other persons as the Panel
think fit". DIEL 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 DIEL to respond
to DTI and other government consultations and we have given views
to other bodies, including the European Commission. We believe
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 Commissionindeed all
relevant bodies, both national and international.
12. Clause 96(3) lists the functions of
the Consumer Panel in addition to giving advice to OFCOM. DIEL
believes that this should include monitoring the effectiveness
of the new regulator in pursuing its duties as they affect all
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.
13. 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
14. 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 OFCOM. The SoS should also take decisions on removal of members,
should the need arise. We recognise that the regulator may have
a role in appointments, eg knowledge of suitable candidates, advice
on the expertise required.
15. Further thought will need to be given
to the transition to the Panel and there may be a case for retention
of some of the current members of the ACTs as members of any Consumer
Panel sub-committees that are set up, either on a country or interest
group basis. DIEL recognises the need for "new blood"
and supports open competition to recruit the best candidates for
appointments but we believe that there is valuable knowledge and
experience amongst existing ACT members that could assist new
appointees grapple with the new and complex electronic communications
16. 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 and for bodies to
represent the interests of older and disabled people and small
17. 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 groupsthe latter should include a committee to
promote the interests of communications consumers who are older
or disabled. We would stress that the solutions required for disabled
people are diverse to the point of being totally distinct from
one another. The only common ground between hearing and visually
impaired people, for example, when it comes to electronic communications,
is on the general level of rights and entitlement. Resources will
therefore need to go beyond setting up sub-committees, eg to engage
consultants, conduct hearings, or whatever is required to continuously
and adequately pronounce on and push for disabled people's requirements.
18. We welcome the spirit and the letter
of Clauses on consumer complaints. 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