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


APPENDIX 72

Memorandum submitted by the Advisory Committee on Telecommunications for Disabled and Elderly People (DIEL)

SUMMARY

  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 affecting content.

  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.

DETAIL

  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 unclear.

  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, as providers.

  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 Commission—indeed 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 regime.

  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 businesses.

  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 groups—the 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 ombudsman scheme.

June 2002


 
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