My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have supported the European Commission’s objective of reducing the cost of international mobile roaming phone calls for consumers in Europe. In order to ensure that this objective is achieved, we have worked closely with the European Commission, other member states and the European Parliament. Our aim is to achieve a solution that is beneficial for consumers, will maintain competition and innovation in this important sector, and is practical to implement. We have received considerable support and co-operation from other member states in working towards this goal and look forward to that continuing. We think that an agreement on the regulation is possible before the summer.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he will be well aware, a handful of operators have great power in the European mobile telephone market. Like many other noble Lords who have made calls abroad or called home from abroad, I have been astounded by some of the extortionate charges that appeared on my bill the next month. Do the Government really intend to back this legislative instrument laid down by the Commission, or is the intention to dilute its present form?
My Lords, we support the development of this regulation and hope, as I said, to have agreement by June. The proposals, which we support, are anticipated to cut the cost of mobile roaming calls by about 40 to 60 per cent. We are proposing a package that includes a wholesale cap on prices, a consumer protection tariff and an average retail target.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the rapid expansion of low-cost Voice over Internet Protocol services will automatically force phone companies to reduce costs because they are provided free over the internet using both computers and, increasingly, mobile phones? Without any interference from the EU, that will happen.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House has just begun an inquiry into mobile phone international charges and hopes to report before Easter? Will he therefore talk to the business managers and seek to ensure that there is a debate in this House before the European Parliament votes? That is not normally the situation with debates on Select Committee reports, which normally occur after the horse has bolted.
My Lords, I declare an interest in the same inquiry and the same sub-committee. Will the Minister renew the Government’s congratulations to the European Commission? After it announced this investigation into roaming charges, three companies are abolishing the charges and two more are substantially reducing them. The Commission has now announced a drive against excessive bank charges on cards and accounts and to ordinary customers. Will the Government act in the same way with the Commission on the bank inquiry as well?
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a 40 to 60 per cent reduction in charges is much too little? My last bill was £7.50 for downloading just 1 megabyte, which is nothing these days. Surely the Government need to do much more to get charges down to a competitive rate.
My Lords, that is what we are currently discussing in negotiating the reductions. We need to ensure that the industry remains competitive, and there is a wide range of tariffs to give consumers a choice, but of course we want to achieve the best result we can.
My Lords, on a day on which Mr Sarkozy is campaigning for the French elections among 300,000 French citizens and voters in London, and when we already have perhaps the same number of British citizens living or owning homes in France, is it not time to pay much more attention to reducing the cost of all these types of cross-border transactions?