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Telecommunications: Monopoly Relaxation

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 13 January 1981

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2.56 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what benefits will accrue to the customer from the relaxation of the Post Office's present telecommunications monopoly.

My Lords, as a result of the relaxation of the telecommunications monopoly, the user will be able to obtain from the market the terminal equipment he needs, when he needs it, at a competitive price. Secondly, he will benefit from a considerable expansion in the range of equipment and services available as a wide range of manufacturers and others, who are freed from the restrictions of monopoly, are able to exploit advances in information technology; and, thirdly, the stimulus of competition will improve British Telecom's services.

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend very much for that Answer I feel much encouraged by the fact that this should, I think, be a great asset to our telecommunications system. What I wonder is whether he could tell us at all when it is likely to take place. I am not sure whether or not the Bill has gone through the House of Commons yet, but is there any time schedule involved?

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful for my noble friend's great interest in Post Office affairs, and I hope that I can soothe her fears by saying that it is the intention of the Government that the Bill should proceed through this House during the course of this Parliamentary Session.

My Lords, would my noble friend confirm that 83 per cent, of the homes which have telephones have only a single instrument, and that it is the intention of this Bill that for both rental and installation purposes it should remain in the hands of the Post Office? Would it not help consumer choice if consumers were allowed not only to buy extension telephones of their choice, but also to make private arrangements for them to be installed, so long as that does not destroy the integrity of the Post Office network? Would this not be a freedom which it would be well worth giving? It would speed up the process of extending the use of telephones and would also cheapen that process, both of which aims are highly desirable since we are one of the only countries which has an enormous waiting list and very expensive installation costs for telephones.

My Lords, I can confirm that my noble friend is approximately correct. I think that at the moment approximately 16 per cent, of residential subscribers have an extension telephone, which I think means more than one listening apparatus, in the house. So far as the expense is concerned, certainly I do not believe that the United Kingdom is at the bottom of the league in that respect, or even in respect of delay in installing telephones. But I am happy to confirm to my noble friend that it is the intention of the Government, and indeed of British Telecom, to improve the range of choice and, indeed, the efficiency of the telecommunications service.

My Lords, I am a little puzzled by this question of competition. Would the noble Lord explain how a competing organisation would use the existing network, or would they themselves have to construct an entirely new network over the whole country?

My Lords, I understand that the existing network will remain part and parcel of the responsibility of the British Telecommunications Corporation. The private organisations would be allowed, under certain circumstances, to attach various instruments to offices, houses or other residences; but the network, the actual wiring which goes from one place to another across the country or under the pavements of our great cities, will remain the entire responsibility of British Telecommunications.

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the Bell telephone system in the Unites States allows every Tom, Dick and Harry to interfere with their installations?

My Lords, the noble Lord may have some very interesting examples from the United States and I believe that we should try even to emulate the United States. That is what the Government and the British telecommunications systems intend doing.

My Lords, is it not so that in the last few months British Telecommunications have very largely extended the choice of instruments available and that consumers already have a considerable choice? Furthermore, if we were to follow the points put by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, there surely will be great fear by the subscribers with regard to the maintenance of their instruments. Is this not a very real fear which subscribers will have once this Bill proceeds?

My Lords, I am happy to confirm the first part of the noble Lord's supplementary question. So far as the second part is concerned, one objective of the Government in the Bill which we shall be presenting to your Lordships is to seek efficiency to the consumer. As far as possible, we intend to see that that is improved.