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Telephone Premium Services

Volume 165: debated on Wednesday 17 January 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. John M. Taylor.]

9.13 pm

I did not think that I would be called, because of all the shenanigans on the Conservative side. However, I am on my feet and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise again the issue of telephone premium services. I fear that I am in danger of being politically typecast, so I shall have to be careful.

Telephone premium services were introduced in January 1986. They caused immediate controversy. There were large bills and children were being corrupted. In one case, three young children in the London area were abducted through a liaison made with an older person who was keying in to the telephone services and having conversations with young people.

Those embarrassing events led the industry to respond in what I regard to be a timid way. In August 1986, it created an organisation called the independent committee for the supervision of standards of telephone information services—ICSTIS. It was funded—and still is—by British Telecom, the main recipient of the profits from those services. Various trade organisations were set up and various codes of practice were published. Throughout 1986 and 1987, the embarrassing and controversial cases still appeared in the newspapers and on television. There was a great response, throughout the country to the interest that I took in the matter.

The Director General of Oftel, whose remit from the House under the Telecommunications Act 1984 is to represent the consumer interest, was very much involved. I shall later discuss the various cases in greater detail.

The Director General of Oftel, under considerable pressure and clearly within the remit given by the House, finally made a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in July 1988, and its report was published in January 1989. There then followed considerable consultations with interested parties, but the interests of the consumer and those who have fallen victim to the services during the preceding three and a half years were not sufficiently taken into account. I gave evidence to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, had several meetings with the Director General of Oftel and had considerable correspondence, but not one of my recommendations was adopted. I do not take that as a personal insult.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that all the matters that we discussed recently in a television debate were conceived by the industry. The cornerstone of the new licence amendment is a code of practice that will be supervised by the ICSTIS. It is a new code but, in effect, it is only the old code in a new wrapping. The first code has gone by the board. There have been three codes in three years and we are told that this one will solve all the problems. It seeks to provide monitoring of the multiline chatlines, when up to a dozen people engage in what is mostly banal conversation, but which can be dangerous. It envisages age control, where young people below a certain age will be barred from using the service. It also envisages compensation for high bills.

I shall first deal with monitoring. In 1987 there was a chatline called Talk about, which was owned by British Telecom. It was taken out of service after a great deal of controversy and after much heartache for many families. When the controversy was at its height, the Liverpool city council trading standards office made a fetish of monitoring—almost 24 hours a day.

British Telecom was persuaded to carry out an almost one-to-one monitoring exercise. It is nonsense to suggest that monitoring can solve the problems about which I am speaking. I shall show how many people have become involved in monitoring. It will then become clear that it is nonsense to suggest that monitoring can solve the problem.

It is suggested that age control will help. How in goodness can a telephone monitor judge that a girl is younger than 14, 15, 16 or 17? Publicans cannot do it. Sophisticated as some youngsters are, it will be virtually impossible to do it on the telephone. In other words, age control is another nonsense which has been dreamt up by the industry to protect its profits.

The most ludicrous proposal is the so-called compensation scheme. That idea came from the industry when families were driven into debt with telephone bills of £4,000, £5,000 and a record £7,000 because youngsters had used the telephone without consent. If a compensation scheme could overcome that, I would be the first to say that it should be given a try.

If a product or service, before being delivered into the market place, needs a compensation scheme to underpin it or to make it legitimate, the service or goods in question cannot be worth a candle. Again, the industry creating protection for itself dreamed that idea up and it was taken on board by the Director General of Oftel.

The market about which I am speaking is so defective that it must be addressed not by the Director General of Oftel but by Parliament. It is defective to the extent that the market can survive only if people steal calls on the telephone at home or at their workplace.

My next remarks will interest the Minister because I have with me a cutting from a newspaper which this morning said that a business in the Minister's constituency had been landed with a telephone bill for £19,000 because of an employee's obsession with chatlines.

About two years ago I began to appreciate, as households were being driven into debt, how small businesses could find themselves faced with huge charges as young employees, ill-supervised—particularly where it was not possible for small firms to provide call-barring equipment—ran up huge telephone bills.

I have done a great deal of research into the whole issue. I would not care to think how much it has cost me in telephone calls to funny and seedy chatlines in recent years. Indeed, economy has had to be introduced into my parliamentary office and we have had to do less telephoning.

So concerned was I about the possible plight of small businesses that I wrote to about 600 chambers of commerce, one of which was in the Minister's constituency, where the company to which I referred has been saddled with a telephone bill for £19,000, a reasonable irony for tonight's debate.

Why am I so bitterly opposed to telephone message services, and why have I put so much time into the argument, and run the risk of being typecast? It is because of the experiences that I have outlined tonight, and the research that I have carried out.

Multiline chatlines are one of the specific problems that I have come across. I know of a case where three children aged 13, 14 and 15, tried to commit suicide when huge bills of between £3,000 and £5,000 dropped on to the doormat. I know from correspondence from people throughout Britain that families are still struggling with the debts that have been run up in such a way.

I anticipated the possibility of fraud, and I alerted the Director General of Oftel a long time ago to the fact that unscrupulous chatline companies, once they get a line from British Telecom, are divorced from scrutiny and supervision. I thought that people might be encouraged to break into other people's homes and businesses, use the chatline, leave the phone hanging there for hours on end, and the chatline proprietor would split the difference with the perpetrator of the crime.

I am sad to say that that has happened on a number of occasions. Several cases are now going through the courts, and two court cases have been concluded in the past three weeks. We should not clutter up the courts with a new crime—telephone chatline stealing.

The other game that I detest and find despicable is the so-called interactive game in which the caller can be kept on the line for a long time, sent from one part of the game to another. The games are designed to keep the caller on the line and the caller is usually not the person who has to pay the bill.

Tape messages are another problem. One usually sees offensive adverts for them. Out of respect for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and because it would probably be an affront to the House, I shall not read out the offensive adverts that appear in The Sport today—they need to be seen to be believed, they are so bad.

The worst problem is with one-to-one calls—usually a girl talking to a man. One finds them in the poorest parts of city centres throughout Britain, but Manchester seems to be the capital. A young woman is employed to speak, typically to a male caller, at all hours of the day or night and the conversation has to be about sex.

I have brought to the attention of the House on a number of occasions the different problems associated with such lines. They are corruptive of women and, in my view, there is a correlation between the institution of those lines during the past four years and the number of crimes that are perpetrated against women on the streets. Some people think that they are useful and they argue that they are a safety valve. They say that sexual inadequates use the lines to blow off steam and that they are no problem to anyone else.

Interviews that I have conducted in my office with young women who have worked on chatlines suggest that the opposite is the case: those women feel corrupted and dirty, and a number have said that they felt like "verbal prostitutes". No doubt someone will now say, "They do not have to do it."

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs
(Mr. Eric Forth)

They do not have to do it

The Minister is not strapped economically; like most hon. Members, he is all right, thank you very much. Outside the House, however, are one-parent families—women who work at night when the kids have been put to bed. There are people out there who have not a hope in hell of getting a reasonable job. People in economic difficulties will do many things to earn a crust; women have been known to walk the streets because they have been dragged into economic difficulties.

I hope that the Minister will take that aspect rather more seriously. Women are being corrupted. Let me appeal to the Minister in his capacity as a family man who, I believe, has two daughters of his own, rather than as a desiccated Minister who is far above these matters.

During the campaign led by newspapers and television producers, we have from time to time been able to infiltrate some of the one-to-one chatline companies with women journalists. On the most recent occasion, a woman who engaged in such work for two and a half days told me—10 days after the experience—that she felt damaged by it. She could not talk about it to anyone for a long time. She confirmed what others have told me many times when I have spoken to them in my office or in their own homes. What they have to listen to, and the memories that they go away with, have no place in a civilised society.

As has been said before in the House, typically the man who telephones must hear a female voice, and while he is talking to that voice—often in a public phone box—he is usually masturbating. Such men describe how they are going to go away and abuse their own children, and even their domestic pets. All this stems from the legalisation and legitimisation of the involvement of a great British corporation—indeed, an international corporation—in improper activities. The House of Commons should do something about it, and it is the Government's responsibility to help us to do something.

Where do I stand? If he is consistent, the Minister will probably say that I am denying people choice, but, on the contrary, I am arguing for choice. I am saying that the subscriber should be able to choose whether his or her telephone is used for these awful services. That would kill them stone dead overnight. Consumers, most of whom have a good deal of sense, do not want to spend their money on the tripe and garbage that we are discussing.

I want the introduction of a contracting-in system. I want subscribers to be able to sign a piece of paper telling British Telecom, Mercury or Racal that they actually want their telephone receivers to bring them such services. That would solve the problem. There should be free itemised billing. The quarterly bill should include a list of the calls that have been made so that they can be challenged and so that any calls that have not been authorised by the subscriber are immediately apparent.

There should be a total ban on the one-to-ones and the multilines, I have heard on the multilines drug dealing, racialist comments that made my hair stand on end, and young girls making liaisons with older men. Those services have no right to survive.

There should also be a ban on the lurid advertisements. The advertisements in certain newspapers cause deep offence to many people and need to be cleaned up. A statutory body should be set up, independent of the industry, created by Parliament and funded by Government to supervise what remains of those services.

I take some comfort from the fact that one or two unexpected allies have rallied to my cause. Not least is the chairman of British Telecom, Iain Vallance, who described the services as a blight on the industry. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. As the chairman of British Telecom has said that it is a blight on the industry, we should jolly well do something to assist him in removing it.

Another ally is the Director General of Oftel. I understand that many of the complaints that he has received since 8 December resulted in his staff replying in writing and sometimes by telephone. In at least two of those telephone calls, members of the public have been told to contact their Members of Parliament as there is a need for a change in the legislation.

But that is where I came in. I said four years ago that there needs to be a change in the legislation. I have said it in the House, outside and in every television studio in the land. It is a simple matter to look at the problems that I have outlined and the case that I have proved and that other people have proved and change the legislation.

I said earlier that it was imposible for ICSTIS as presently constituted to monitor the volume of calls. We are talking about millions of calls per year. The supervisory committee consists of the princely number of eight staff—one secretary and seven administrative workers. It does not envisage employing more people until the end of the year when they will increase to 10. What chance has such a minuscule organisation of policing the matters that I have been talking about tonight and for a considerable time?

I hope that the Minister has changed his mind since 6 o'clock this evening and has been convinced that something needs to be done not by the industry or by the Director General of Oftel but by the House of Commons. I am supported in that by organisations such as the Conservative Family Concern organisation and many others. Many individual members of the Conservative party have written to me.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's policy of allowing the marketplace to dominate and providing only a weak and ineffective code of practice has been found to be completely ineffective? This evil traffic will be controlled only by legislation. The Minister should recognise that my hon. Friend has yet again brought to the fore one of the unacceptable faces of the enterprise culture.

I am convinced of that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

Over the past four years, I have been extremely careful to argue on moral and practical grounds that the case is unanswerable. Any reasonable person, whether it be a Minister or member of any political party, must see the wisdom of the argument that these services are a facet of the free market and that the problem should be strenuously tackled. Ministers must begin to tackle the problem. There is no chance of its going away, because there is no chance of the present controls working. The industry knows that they will not work, and the greedy people who benefit from these awful services, which are harming innocent people, will flourish as long as Ministers ignore the problems that I have highlighted. I hope to hear something more positive from the Minister.

9.41 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) on raising the subject of telephone message services.

I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman said. He was right to warn the House about the danger of such services. I wonder why Oftel and the independent committee for the supervision of standards allow British Telecom to make telephone numbers available to companies that pour out sexually suggestive, if not sexually arousing, tapes which anyone of any age can telephone.

As the hon. Member for Worsley said, advertisements for those services are not restricted to pornographic magazines but regularly appear in some Sunday and daily newspapers and, as a constituent of mine recently pointed out, even in that all-purpose publication Exchange and Mart. I have some of those advertisements here if the Minister would care to see them.

The telephone advertisements always feature some form of sexual pursuit in their titles that appeal across the range of human desires. Some call themselves "teledates" and others call themselves "contact lines." An advertisement in the Exchange and Mart says:
"Men 4 Men. Ring and listen to other gay men looking for someone special".
The advertisement next to that says "Data-Mate." One can ring either for a woman or a man on "Gay Lines" or on a "Lesbian Line." In other words, they pander to the lowest of human desires.

As I said, those advertisements in Exchange and Mart were brought to my attention by a constituent who had bought that magazine, as tens of thousands of people do, for advertisements for household goods, cars, motor bikes, houses and a range of the essentials of life. To his great surprise, he found page after page of those advertisements under the title "Adult interests."

As a result of my constituent's letter, I wrote to Sir Bryan Carsberg, who is Director General of Oftel, asking why Oftel allowed such advertisements to appear. I should like to quote his reply:
"I do not have any formal powers that would enable me to exercise direct control over these advertisements. However, when I first became aware of the general problems associated with this kind of service, I encouraged British Telecom to take steps to establish a system of voluntary regulations. As a result of that, British Telecom appointed an independent committee, chaired by Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper and chosen to be broadly representative of public opinion, to draw up a code of practice relating to these services. British Telecom made compliance with the code of practice a condition of its contracts and the committee considered complaints.
The code deals with both the content of messages and advertising. Some services have already been suspended as a result of breaches of the code. However, the committee has not so far taken a strong line on advertising, preferring the view that this was primarily a matter for the Advertising Standards Authority.
Some complaints about the advertisements for these services were considered by the Authority but it declined to criticise them. As a result of recent escalation of concern with recorded message services, the committee is now determined to take a stronger line and I believe that it sees advertising, as you do, as a significant part of the problem. It proposes to issue a revised and strengthened code later this month"—
he wrote in March 1989—
"and it expects this to provide a basis for action in relation to advertising.
I think that the best way forward is to try to make the committee's procedures effective and I believe that there is a good chance these procedures will now work well."

He then advised me to write to Mr. David Wiseman, the Secretary of ICSTIS, which is what I did. In his somewhat anodyne reply, Mr. Wiseman enclosed two copies of ICSTIS leaflets. One is headed "Premium Rate Telephone Information and Entertainment Services", and states:
"What is ICSTIS?
The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services…is an independent watchdog which supervises premium rate telephone information and entertainment services.
Premium rate services cost more than an ordinary telephone call.
Currently, calls cost 25p per minute cheap rate and 38p per minute at all other times of the day. Of course, these rates will be higher for calls made from telephone boxes, hotels, etc.
These services provide both information and entertainment (such as weather forecasts, financial information, sports results, games, and stories) over the telephone. Most of these services consist of recorded messages provided by private companies called Service Providers, each of whom is responsible for the content of the message or service as well as any associated promotional material.
The independent committee, ICSTIS, has produced a Code of Practice that sets the standards which the Service Providers must observe. If they break the Code, their service can be removed from the telephone network."

From that leaflet and from Sir Bryan Carsberg's letter, one would have thought that, 10 months later, I would not be supporting the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), who has powerfully made out the case against these message services. He will probably agree that there has been no appreciable change and that, if anything, such services have proliferated.

If one chooses to buy soft porn magazines one can see literally hundreds of these advertisements in a single column. That shows that these services are profitable both to the providers of the tapes and, sadly, to British Telecom. I must declare an interest, for I have a small shareholding in British Telecom. It gives me no pleasure to be a shareholder in a company that is making money out of such a grubby business.

One must ask what can be done. Some advertisements at least trade on what can only be described as obscene titles, but, as is often the case with that sort of material, they end up as a rip-off in every sense. The actual message will probably be fairly innocuous and, I suspect, carefully produced to be just within whatever the lawyers who advise the companies believe allow them to claim that they are not obscene. If the titles are obscene, the companies will no doubt claim that the content of the tapes is not obscene. It must be on those grounds and on those alone—what other reason could there be?—that ICSTIS does not seem able to put into effect the code of practice, the details of which I have already given to the House.

However, whether these "services" are rip-offs or not, and whether or not they are verbal prostitution—or, as I would prefer to put it, a verbal form of striptease—the fact is that they pander to the lowest tastes in human beings. They do nothing for the reputation of British Telecom and they make me wonder why neither Oftel nor ICSTIS has yet been able to produce the necessary procedures to prevent the trade from continuing.

I recognise that when a company initially asks British Telecom for a telephone number with which to provide a service, British Telecom cannot know exactly what is involved. However, I no longer believe that British Telecom, Oftel or ICSTIS can have avoided noticing the advertisements that appear not only in pornographic magazines but, as both myself and the hon. Member for Worsley have already said, in daily and Sunday newspapers and in other publications as widely read as Exchange and Mart. It is no good those organisations putting their heads in the sand and saying, "We had no idea that this was going on," because it is their telephone lines that are being used. They are profiting from the services. It is high time that they took their duties more responsibly.

The advertisements and the services that they present to the public can do nothing for the reputation of British Telecom or persuade any of us that privatising British Telecom has enhanced the reputation of our national telephone service. By the same token, while the advertisements continue unabated, there must be a question mark over the effectiveness of Oftel and its Director General. Why has he not been given the formal powers, which in his letter to me he said that he did not have?

Is my hon. Friend the Minister satisfied that we can continue without bringing forward such formal powers for the Director General and without asking ICSTIS to look again at its code of practice with a view, not to offering slaps on the wrist, but to giving the sort of teeth that will banish these advertisements from our daily and Sunday newspapers and from publications that lie about the house and can be seen by people of all ages and both sexes? That should not happen. I believe that we have it in our power to prevent it from happening.

9.52 pm

It is a sad sign of the times that we must have this debate, but it is also sad that we are seeing the true face of the Minister and his party, with a few honourable exceptions. There is no doubt in my mind that Alexander Graham Bell would turn in his grave at the knowledge that his wonderful invention was being used widely for such a perverted purpose. It is a sad sign of the times that so many people are using such services for misguided or perverted reasons, and it is also sad that once-responsible businesses are choosing to boost their profits by providing these revolting services.

It is not that the services pander to healthy appetites—whatever that may mean—because today's newspapers carry a selection of advertisements from one company, Leeds Communications, which offers no fewer than 19 lines, including "Rubber Lust", "Wet 'n' Wild", "Ready and Willing", and "Out of Control". Another company encourages men to fantasise about girls at school with its "Gymslip" line. Another offers girl lovers.

The Minister is well known for his support for private enterprise, but I should have thought that even he would draw the line at some of those advertisements. Apparently not. The Minister supports the independent committee for the supervision of standards of telephone information services, the regulatory body charged with vetting obscene calls on chatlines and associated premium rate lines. Each year, an estimated 45 million calls are made on sex lines. The watchdog body has one person permanently monitoring the lines with back-up from eight people who can be called in from other duties. Those were the figures that it gave to me today. There is one person to monitor every 5 million potentially obscene calls. If someone is caught making an obscene call, the penalty under section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 is £400.

The profits from porn lines are enormous. Over a dozen chat lines and phone line firms have revenues in excess of £1 million. The penalties are puny. Not one prosecution has been brought against a company in four years. The chatline industry is laughing all the way to the bank. One paper today even flaunts that fact in an advert. It is called "Dial if you Dare". It dares people not only to take the risk of being caught, but to risk being prosecuted. Another advert calls its British Telecom number "Banned Lines".

As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) said, the effect on women can be devastating. Parents cannot stop their child or a young teenager from ringing the phone lines. Firms cannot stop unscrupulous or irresponsible people from running up massive bills.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) concluded by putting a list of questions to the Minister. I, too, have a list of questions. Why has it taken him four years to produce a code of conduct that will control sex lines? The third code is claimed to be effective, but we know that it will not be. Why does the Minister rule out legislation when the code of practice is patently ineffective? Why does he not provide tough laws to control chatlines when the watchdog body appears to be toothless? Why does he refuse even to meet the Director General of Oftel to discuss the need to protect the public?

Why is the Minister taking no action to prevent British Telecom from giving detailed technical advice on how to set up filth lines? Why are the people who run chatlines not vetted to screen out the paedophiles and perverts? Is he satisfied that nine staff can monitor 45 million sex line calls? Does he believe that a £400 fine for chatline obscenities deters firms which make millions of pounds?

British Telecom claims that sex lines are a blight on the industry. The advice of the Director General of Oftel to my constituents and others is to contact their Member of Parliament to lobby on this matter.

The Minister must know that British Telecom will not tackle the problems. The business generates multi-million pound profits for it. The Minister has a choice. He can endorse market sleaze or accept the four-point plan proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley. It is time for the Minister to stand up and protect consumers throughout Britain from this obscenity.

9.58 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) on obtaining it. The interest which the subject arouses is amply demonstrated by the number of hon. Members present for this Adjournment debate.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) should have attempted to introduce party politics. It degraded what has been an entirely serious debate. If he wishes to conduct the debate on that level, however, I must say that I see little mileage in a party that opposed clause 28 of the Local Government Bill in 1988 and opposed the prevention of the promotion of perversion in schools lecturing us on morality. I would rather get back to the major substance of the debate.

The hon. Member for Worsley said that chatlines were driving many people into debt, but they also drive people into crime. In my constituency, one young man has become so addicted to the obscene lines and the obscene services that he breaks into shops to use telephone points.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question propose, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Patnick.]

I agree that the obscene services thus provided can be described as prostitution. The consequence must be that those who make profits from such services are living upon immoral earnings. I was under the impression that that was a crime. I would like the Home Office to be involved with this matter as well as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs.

I, too, welcome profits, but the profits that are made from the innocence and irresponsibility of children are immoral. It is totally unrealistic to expect a young person, particularly a child, to understand that a telephone is not a free instrument and to understand that calls cost a great deal of money, which mounts up. In every home, agitated parents say to teenagers in the normal course of events that they spend too much time on the telephone.

In the abnormal course of events, of which we have heard tonight, problems often occur in families in economically straitened circumstances. In those cases, the mother of the family is often economically constrained to go out to work. She is not at home to exercise control over the use of the telephone and is unaware of what is going on. She is simply unable to exercise parental responsibility, and by the time she realises what has happened it is much too late. In my constituency, telephone bills of four figures have been reported fairly regularly, so much so that a local priest, the Rev. Tony Faulkner, has taken up this issue. He has tried to inject local responsibility into this matter so that parents are more aware of what is going on.

I second what the hon. Member for Worsley said about the effect of such services on women. All of us who have received obscene calls and who have managed to put the telephone down in 10 seconds flat, still know that one can feel extremely shaken up after the event, no matter how tough or self-reliant one may be. Therefore, the effect on women can be extremely damaging.

I appreciate that the Minister will say that it is up to women to decide whether they participate in such calls. That is not true of young girls who ring up such lines for a bit of a giggle and who suddenly realise exactly what is on offer. Obviously, there is also the danger of liaisons being formed and young girls being lured to meet men—there is evidence that that has happened.

I am all for wholly responsible profit-making and initiative in the sort of chatlines that are produced. I see nothing to suggest that the problem is restricted to private enterprise. British Telecom was privatised fairly recently, but the lines that we are discussing have been going for some time.

I am all for responsible commercial enterprise, but we are talking about completely irresponsible commercial enterprise. That enterprise represents immorality and prostitution and those behind it are living off immoral earnings. Even when no obscenity is involved, such enterprises live off the irresponsible exploitation of the young. A little bit of will would stop it. We have heard various suggestions as to how it could be stopped. The hon. Member for Worsley suggested the opting-out method whereby it could be indicated that certain telephone lines were not to be used for such services. We should tackle what will become a growing social evil. It involves the worry of parents who cannot meet their bills, the steady corruption of children, the degradation of women and the promotion of an ugly face of private enterprise which I do not like any more than the hon. Member for Worsley does.

10.4 pm

I shall not keep the House long, but I should like to join in the congratulations of hon. Members from both sides of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), not just for winning tonight's Adjournment debate and choosing such an admirable subject, but for the campaign that he has conducted for some time.

I feel strongly about the subject, largely due to an experience I had which sums up some of the issues involved. I held a surgery just before Christmas and a mother came to see me who was quite upset and distraught. She had discovered that her son was addicted to the disgraceful and pornographic telephone lines provided by British Telecom. Sadly, she actually believed for some time that British Telecom had confused her account with somebody else's because she was receiving such astronomical bills. She thought that they had lined her into a local company. She discovered quite by accident, through the recording mechanism on the telephone, which records the previous number called, that her adolescent son was using these services.

I said that I would take up the case. I was not then familiar with the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley with British Telecom and Oftel. Quite frankly, I could not believe that we had no power, and the firms had no power, to do anything about this disgraceful and expanding practice.

Sadly, I have to disagree with the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), although I accept that many of her colleagues have supported my hon. Friend's campaign and disagreed with their Front-Bench spokes-men on the matter. I am afraid that this is a party-political problem. The solution is simple and anybody with a modicum of common sense can see what it is: with just minor legislative changes we could prevent this disgraceful activity.

I am obliged to ask why we are not taking such steps and why the Government are not taking action. It may be a lesson to some Conservative Members to know that it is because the Government have gone so far that they do not know where to draw the line and stop. They adopt such doctrinaire attitudes towards privatisation, free markets and enterprise that they cannot see the damage that is being done. That is why I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's response.

10.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs
(Mr. Eric Forth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) on having secured the debate and pay tribute to him for the dedication with which he has pursued the cause over a long period. That has been mentioned during the debate and I want to pay tribute to him for having pursued the matter with great sincerity and dedication. This Adjournment debate is an important occasion in the course of his pursuit. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) referred to the amount of support in the House this evening, it is worth recording that although there is an unusually large number of Members here for the Adjournment debate, it is not exactly an overwhelming presence.

Many hon. Members have contributed to the debate—my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson), for Maidstone and for Pendle (Mr. Lee) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). Also present are my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and the hon. Members for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) and for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley). My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) is also here. It is worth recording the names of the hon. Members who have taken the trouble to be here at this relatively late hour to participate in the debate.

I am glad that I shall have a little longer than usual to reply to the many important points that have been made during the debate. I want to reply to them reasonably fully.

First, I want to set in their proper context the difficulties to which all hon. Members have referred. Consumers generally, and particularly consumers of telephone services, benefit enormously from the widely available and openly accessible public telecommunications systems that are provided principally, but not exclusively, by British Telecom.

The availability and accessibility of these systems are at the heart of any public system of telecommunications and these rights are recognised in the duties placed on the Secretary of State and on the Director General of Oftel by section 3 of the Telecommunications Act 1984
"to secure that there are provided throughout the United Kingdom, save in so far as the provision thereof is impracticable or not reasonably practicable, such telecommunications services as satisfy all reasonable demands for them".

It may be that the burden of this debate will revolve round the interpretation of the word "reasonable". That may be the word on which we agree to differ, but in any case this is the basis of the provision of telecommunications services, and these duties are reflected in the licences granted to British Telecom and other national network operators—Mercury Communications, Racal-Vodafone and Cellnet.

However, just as consumers have a right to telephone services, so too do premium-rate service providers. If we qualify such a right we must be sure that we do not undermine that main objective or access to the system.

I also stress that under the terms of the Telecommunications Act 1984 and the licences issued under it the regulation of premium-rate services is the responsibility—rightly—of the Director General of Oftel, Sir Bryan Carsberg, whom hon. Members have mentioned several times in the debate. I make it absolutely clear that Sir Bryan has my fullest support, and that of the Secretary of State, in his work. We believe that he discharges his duties with great responsibility.

The hon. Member for Worsley knows that I am obliged—I take the obligation seriously—to maintain a close interest in the issues raised tonight and I shall ensure that Sir Bryan receives a report of our debate.

It is worth recalling that the services to which the hon. Member for Worsley refers have a common feature, in that they are all charged at premium rate directly to the subscriber's bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to that, but it is worth emphasising that these sorts of services fall into three categories: recorded message services on which the caller listens to a tape recording which could, for example, be a weather forecast or many other sorts of service; multiline or chatline services, which have caused some anxiety and on which the caller has the opportunity of talking to a group of between two and 11 other callers; and one-to-one services, those which perhaps cause the most concern, on which the caller has a conversation with an operator on a subject of his choice, or on one of the subjects in the advertisements to which hon. Members have referred.

It is worth recalling briefly the history that has led to the present controls. In response to public concern—like that expressed by the hon. Member for Worsley—over many years about these premium-rate services and about their cost, advertising methods and contents, Sir Bryan decided that regulatory action was necessary. He first tried to persuade British Telecom to agree voluntarily to new measures that gave control over access to these services to the person paying the bill. When this failed, he referred the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Its report was published last year.

The MMC concluded that the services operate or may be expected to operate against the public interest. It specified the effects that were adverse to the public interest by saying:
"Due to the ease of access to the services, and the terms of contract between BT and its customers, the customer has inadequate control over the types of service which can be accessed and over the costs or charges that may be incurred for use of the services, which significantly impairs the value and quality of the telephone service to the customer".

The MMC advised that until the modernisation of the network provided technology to remedy the main adverse effects of these services, they could be remedied or prevented by licence amendments and the MMC specified licence amendments which it believed to be appropriate. The MMC also stated that it did
"not believe that the adverse effects of chatline services are sufficient to justify the virtual cessation of the services".

That is an important statement because the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is independent of Government, as is Oftel. That statement is the backdrop to what I am about to say. It is clear that the MMC did not share in any full sense the points made by the hon. Member for Worsley.

Does the Minister agree that following the taking of evidence by the MMC, worse cases of chatline girls and of chatline services such as those we have been discussing appeared in the media? Because of that, Sir Bryan Carsberg took a stronger line than he would otherwise have taken.

Does the Minister further agree that the Director General of Oftel could make licence amendments without strict reference to the MMC recommendations? He may take them into account, but in the light of new evidence he could have acted differently, and I do not think that he has done so. As I said in my speech, one of the great difficulties is that the Director General of Oftel seems to have taken more account of the industry's views than he has taken of consumers' views.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to put that interpretation on Sir Bryan's conclusions, but I repeat—it is important to remember—that I and Sir Bryan have to pay due regard to what the legislation specifies and what an independent body such as the MMC says. The Government also have to pay due regard to what Sir Bryan and Oftel say. That is the way that the thing works. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that in many ways it is preferable for such matters to be dealt with by bodies that are independent of Government rather than to have a political overlay. I regard that as a virtue, not a shortcoming. In many other cases the hon. Gentleman might agree with me, and if he reflects on the matter I think that he will agree in this case, too.

It is incorrect to suggest that to legislate in this matter would be relatively simple and straightforward. The hon. Gentleman has not faced the difficulties that Ministers have to face when legislating. First, there is the difficulty of getting a priority place in the legislative programme and secondly, there is the extent of commitment to legislative change. There are no wands to be waved in such matters even if the wish were there. I do not regard legislation as appropriate in this case and I shall explain why.

Following the MMC report and having closed its own chatline service, British Telecom withdrew services from chatline operators. That decision is still the subject of legal action and I cannot comment further upon it.

That brings me to the present measures. In the light of the MMC report and following the appropriate consultation, Sir Bryan has introduced new controls which give strong protection to the consumer by making amendments to the network operators' licences. They may now provide the facilities needed by premium chatline and one-to-one services only if the director general has approved a code of practice which regulates the provision of the services and, most important, sets up a fund to compensate customers with excessive bills arising from unauthorised access to the services.

As recently as 7 December, Oftel approved two such codes of practice—one for multiline chatline services and another for one-to-one services. Both are administered by the independent committee for the supervision of standards of telephone information services. I stress the word "independent". I make it clear that a body that is chaired by as eminent an individual as Louis Blom-Cooper can hardly be regarded as in the pocket of either British Telecom or the service providers. I am sure that anyone who casts an eye over the committee's other members will be satisfied of their probity, integrity and independence. I resent the suggestion that they are in any way in the pocket of British Telecom or of the service providers. They are sturdily independent people of great reputation and probity. The House should know and understand that, and acknowledge it.

Public perception outside this House is as important as the Minister's regard for the members of the committee. I have no criticism of them as individuals, but the committee is funded by British Telecom and the other network providers, who appointed its members in the first place. That body includes an individual who is himself a chatline provider, albeit at the respectable end of the business. However, no consumer interest is represented on the committee. If it was broadly based and totally independent of the networkers, it would be more acceptable.

Nor is the committee wide-ranging in social or geographical terms. Its members all come from a narrow social background and work or live in London. There are other parts of this great country of ours than London.

I do not dissent strongly from some of the hon. Gentleman's points, which will be considered when reviewing the future membership of the committee. However, given that its members include a consultant physician, a head teacher, and someone who calls himself a consumer policy adviser, I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's main criticism. I do not want to get unnecessarily bogged down in the composition of the committee, and hope that I have said enough to convince the House that its members are highly qualified and independent.

If an operator fails to comply with one of the codes of practice approved by Oftel, ICSTIS can make a recommendation to Oftel, which can in turn authorise British Telecom to disconnect the service. As right hon. and hon. Members must be aware, one such disconnection has already taken place and another service has been withdrawn voluntarily. Evidence of failure to comply with the codes can come either from monitoring of the services by ICSTIS or from a complaint. I hope that any right hon. or hon. Member who has grounds for complaint will use the machinery available under ICSTIS to initiate the complaints procedure.

The codes of practice, copies of which have been in the Library for some time, provide strong consumer protection. They require service providers to contribute to a fund sufficient to compensate any subscribers who face large bills as a result of unauthorised access to their services. One of the terms of the compensation fund—claims to which will be considered by an adjudicator, Sir John Bailey—is that where the adjudicator is unable to identify any firm evidence to support either acceptance or rejection of a claim, the benefit of the doubt shall normally be given to the customer, which is an important protection.

The Minister said that he does not believe that new legislation is necessary. I am not a great believer in censorship, but a whole village in my constituency is served by a telephone exchange having the STD prefix 08993. I am having problems because people using digital telephones just have to add another "9" and my constituents find themselves being asked for cricket scores or weather forecasts, which is not too bad, but for other services such as "Kinky dreams", "Naughty nymphette", "Rubber bust", Waiting for it" and "Wet 'n' wild".

My constituents are harassed by these calls. People have to be protected. I am talking about a rural area with a substantially elderly community. I am pressed by people who are getting obscene calls. We are the legislators and we must do something about it. That is where democracy is. We have to protect people from harassment and perversion. I hope that the Minister will explain clearly why he will not introduce legislation to save people from harassment.

In the five minutes that are left I shall attempt to give a clear explanation. I hope that I shall be allowed to press on. I accept absolutely the validity of the hon. Gentleman's point. If he has not done so, I hope that he will approach British Telecom to discuss the problem. If he has any difficulty about that, I hope that he will come to me.

I have raised the point with British Telecom, and we had a heated exchange. British Telecom more or less said, "Sorry, it is not our problem. It would cost us too much to change STD numbers." I was more or less told to go forth and multiply.

I hope that the heated exchanges will be limited to the House and will not spread to British Telecom, where they could be disastrous. I hope to answer the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Under the terms of the code of practice, ICSTIS has the right to visit the premises of operators without notice, to require that reasonable information and co-operation be provided, including written records in the case of one-to-one services and tape recordings in the case of chatlines, which must be retained for a period of six months.

Service providers are required to do everything practicable to prevent access to the services by those under 18 years of age. In saying that, I recognise the difficulties with that provision. Even now there is an argument about the sale of cigarettes to under-16s by tobacconists. There is a continuing argument about the sale of alcohol in pubs to under-18s. I emphasise the general point that the new provisions have been in place just over a month. We have not yet had time to see how effective the codes of practice, the compensation fund, and the other provisions that ICSTIS has in its power will be.

I hope that all hon. Members and the public will take the fullest opportunity to use the mechanisms that are available to find out whether they are adequate to cover the requirements raised in the debate. I believe that they should be. Equally, I can see that they may not be. If so, we will have to consider the matter again. Oftel will, as will others. The reason why I resist further legislation is that I believe that the mechanisms that we have provided, which are much more flexible than anything provided under legislation, should be adequate. If they are not, it is to them that we should look.

I must hurry in the two minutes remaining to me to say a word about the content and advertising of the services—another matter raised in the debate. I understand the concern of hon. Members. I looked at some of the advertisements earlier this evening to check on their nature.

The codes of practice incorporate the British code of advertising practice and the British code of sales promotion practice, as well as other provisions requiring disclosure of the cost of the services, and details of the service provider and restrictions on aiming the services at young people. ICSTIS has written to the National Press Association and the Association of Free Newspapers informing them of the existence of the new codes of practice.

It has begun an investigation into the advertising and promotion of adult services, examining ways to improve the standards of advertising and restrict the placement of advertisements, particularly in publications readily accessible to children. The investigation will involve service providers, network operators, the Advertising Standards Authority and relevant newspaper publishers associations and European and international authorities. ICSTIS is also taking action to make the general public more aware of its role, to look into European experience with premium rate services and to see what more can he done.

I ask hon. Members to give the measures that we have put in place the fullest opportunity to work and to use the complaints services and the existing mechanisms. We will reconsider the matter when they have had a chance to operate to see whether they have had the effect that I expect and hope they will. If not, I will expect Oftel and the MMC to return to the matter, and I shall do so as well. I hope that over the next few weeks and months we will see a dramatic change and the improvements that all hon. Members have urged upon us. I expect that to be the case, but we will watch the position closely.

The motion having been made Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.