Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland
Advisory Committee on Telecommunications (NIACT)
1. Oftel is the independent body set up
under the Telecommunications Act 1984 to regulate telecommunications
in the UK. NIACT is one of the six Advisory Committees on telecommunications
(ACTs) in the UK established under the same Act. The Chairman
and committee members are appointed by the Secretary of State
for Trade and Industry to advise the Director General of Telecommunications
on any matter concerning regulation of the telecommunications
industry in Northern Ireland.
2. NIACT's overall focus is on consumer
issues, particularly those which affect telecommunications users
in Northern Ireland. However, we have attempted to consider all
issues raised in the Draft Bill as far as possible, but our main
emphasis is on the structure of the proposed Consumer Panel.
3. NIACT is pleased that steps are being
taken to rationalise the different regulatory bodies for communications.
It has been clear for some time that with the advent of convergence
of telecommunications, television and internet, this would eventually
become a necessity. We support the broad thrust of the Draft Communications
Bill, but there are a few points on which we feel that we must
4. NIACT agrees with the seven duties of
OFCOM, but it is our opinion that the single most important of
these is the first, and this should be awarded some form of priority.
The others, while important, are not so pressing that their absence
would render OFCOM ineffective.
5. We feel that some attention should be
given to whom exactly OFCOM should represent; not only the contracted
users of the communications services, but also all citizens, who
may access the services though they are not contracted to any
company for them.
OFCOM AND DEVOLUTION
6. NIACT's focus is naturally on issues
affecting Northern Ireland, and we feel that there are several
very important issues which, unless Northern Ireland is properly
represented under OFCOM, will not be addressed properly.
7. Northern Ireland faces unique issues
due to the land border with the Republic of Ireland, including:
8. Mobile telephones in border areas and
along the north coast of NI roaming to networks in the Republic
of Ireland and hence consumers being charged for local calls at
international rates and subjected to roaming charges when receiving
calls. This issue, which has been highlighted most recently in
a Study of Obstacles to Mobility published by the North South
Ministerial Council (November 2001), has not been tackled effectively
under the existing Oftel arrangements.
9. Evidence that high international tariffs
for broadband services have led to inward investment being lost
to Northern Ireland.
10. A demand from many consumers in Northern
Ireland to receive TV and radio stations broadcasting from the
11. Conversely, the Channel 3 provider with
a remit to serve Northern Ireland is the one which is most commonly
available in the Republic. This certainly has an impact on the
advertising carried and is increasingly also influencing editorial
12. Difficulties in addressing the issue
of pirate radio stations broadcasting from the Republic for a
Northern Ireland audience and impacting adversely on legitimate
13. Distinctive political arrangements,
including a different party system from that in the rest of the
14. The sensitivities associated with broadcasting
to a region with a divided society emerging from conflict, which
can however still flare up at times.
15. The Belfast Agreement commitment for
the UK Government to:
16. "explore urgently with the relevant
British authorities, and in co-operation with the Irish broadcasting
authorities, the scope for achieving more widespread availability
of Teilifis na Gaeilige [the Irish-medium television station based
in the Republic of Ireland, now known as TG4] in Northern Ireland".
17. And the broader commitments in the Agreement
in relation to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots. Also the implications
of the European Charter for regional or Minority Languages.
18. The statutory equality duties which
apply to public authorities under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland
Act 1998 and which will require the new body to be sensitive to,
and tapped into, local equality interests.
19. Many families are split across the bordertherefore
it is vital for consumers to ensure that OFCOM and ODTR both fully
understand the issues of social inclusion and economic development
throughout the island.
20. We feel that there are areas in the
Bill where OFCOM would not be able to meet these needs without
advice and support from a Committee based in Northern Ireland.
21. It is not sufficient merely for the
Bill to state that Northern Ireland's consumers and citizens should
be represented on the Panel "where practicable". Indeed,
referring once more to Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act
1998, there must be a much more solid and representative structure
to represent Northern Ireland.
22. NIACT believes that this legislation
insists upon a Northern Ireland member of the Consumer Panel,
who actually resides in the Province, as well as a Northern Ireland
Committee drawn from all sections of the community to support
him/her. This way there is a body within Northern Ireland which
is ideally placed, as NIACT is now, to consult all relevant groups
about any decisions being made by OFCOM before submitting to the
23. This Committee support structure, as
well as offices in Northern Ireland, should be laid down in statute
to ensure that it is unaffected by cost cutting, as has happened
in the past.
24. Scotland, England and Wales each has
several areas for which they require individual representation,
and as the White Paper had stated its intentions to co-operate
with and work with the devolved assemblies and parliament, NIACT
feels that there is no other option than to lay down in statute
provision for regional representative committees in all four countries.
NIACT welcomes the establishment of the Consumer
Panel, but there are some areas of the legislation where we have
some very grave concerns.
It seems unnecessary to establish a prescriptive
list of the Consumer Panel's areas of interest. Paragraph 96(2)
should simply allow the Panel to advise OFCOM about the interests
of all small-to-medium sized business and domestic consumers and
citizens in relation to any communications consumer issue. Restricting
its activities to a list undermines its powers somewhat.
It is stated that the Consumer Panel should
carry out research "at the request of OFCOM". This should
not preclude any research that the Panel wishes to carry out separately,
and should not restrict the Panel's activities in any way. We
do welcome, however, the obligation on OFCOM to have regard to
the Panel's advice, and the obligation on OFCOM to state publicly
the reasons why it ignores such advice.
It is concerning that in paragraph 96(5) and
96(6) there are restrictions made on the information the Panel
may have access to, and that OFCOM may decide on what information
should be made available to them. Doubtless, the members of the
Consumer Panel will be bound by the Official Secrets Act and the
Data Protection Act; therefore, there is no need to restrict what
information is given on the basis of sensitivity. This restriction
should be removed, and the Panel should have access to whatever
information it feels is relevant to consumer issues.
NIACT's membership and Chairman are all appointed
by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and can only
be removed by the Secretary of State. In our experience, this
provides for a completely independent and impartial advisory body.
While we appreciate the compromise position
attempted in the Draft Bill, where the Secretary of State approves
appointments made by OFCOM, NIACT feels that the Bill should go
one step further and ensure independence by stating that members
of the Panel are appointed by the Secretary of State without the
involvement of OFCOM.
OFCOM should have no input into the Panel's
agenda or which issues it chooses to address; neither should it
choose which issues to consult the Panel on. The Consumer Panel
should be consulted on all decisions that OFCOM wishes to make,
and then the Panel can decide which ones it is appropriate to
respond to. Equally, there should be an obligation on the Consumer
Panel to keep OFCOM informed of the progress of anf final report
from any work undertaken.
NIACT welcomes the directive that the Panel
should take account of the views of various special needs groups
such as small businesses and the disabled and elderly. However,
we cannot see how one representative from each group can possibly
represent all of the views of each sector, and we are concerned
to note that there is no mention of minority race groups, which
face a completely different variety of problems compared with
the other groups, and have a different variety of needs.
After all, the needs of a visually impaired
person differ greatly from those of someone with mental illness,
or someone with mobility impairments. One person on the Consumer
Panel with an interest in one of these disabilities will not be
able to represent this group effectively unless he/she is supported
by a committee with a wide range of disability interests.
Since 90 per cent of businesses in the UK employ
fewer than 10 staff, perhaps the definition of small business
should be reconsideredthe needs of a micro-business such
as these will be markedly different to one employing 50 staff.
But we do feel that all businesses, not just small ones, should
be able to avail of this representation.
NIACT would propose that there is a statutory
committee to represent each of these special groups, as well as
one for each region, and that each committee is represented on
the Consumer Panel. We would also point out that each special
needs committee should seek representatives from each of the regions.