Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am exceedingly grateful to the Keep Me Posted campaign, which has led the way to this debate. It is already supported by 33 of our most respected charities and is being joined every day by more supporters.
We are living in a fast-moving, fast-changing society of which one sector, digital access and digital communications, is threatening to take over our lives, leaving out in the cold not only the millions who do not yet have broadband but the elderly, the disabled, their carers and members of their families. While some might be able to go online, very many are not able to and, in any case, they want to hold a piece of paper in their hands showing what they have left, what debts have been paid and what might be owing. They are caused great distress by not being allowed to do so. They are the obvious victims. On access to broadband, we hope that we will hear tonight from the Minister that the Government are aware of the need to get on as quickly as possible.
There are also people who, like the people whom I have described in what I call the priority areas, can go online but do not always want to do so. They want to pay their bills with cheques or postal orders, and certainly not by direct debit, which we now realise has caused great hardship to many people. There are a lot of people out there who have computer skills but are angry about the extra costs that they incur if they choose not to use those skills.
Big companies, banks and utilities all claim that they must cut costs—and they are right—in order to satisfy their shareholders and to safeguard their workforce. They have made these cuts by requiring online communications. While they are entitled to take that approach, they should also consider their customers, who cannot afford, are not able or do not choose to use these online services. This is not cutting into profits as such. It is taking advantage of some of the big savings that these companies have made by going online as far as they have.
Every day, I receive examples from people who have annoyance and expense because they do not want to go online. Where they have an alternative telephone line to ring, it is always the most expensive one. For example, Which? recently reported that customers of EDF can expect to encounter an average delay of 19 minutes and nine seconds before they can get on with asking their questions. One can only imagine the enormous cost of that.
While BT does not charge anybody for a paper statement except businesses, that includes even the smallest businesses. People who receive paper bills are not told for the first time until page 3, in the smallest possible print, how much they must pay. For those who want to pay by cheque or postal order because they have no other alternatives, it is often very difficult to find to whom the cheque should be made out. That is not put in a prominent position where they can read it.
On top of that, we receive blandishments every day from Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and all these people on the huge savings—£75 in the case of Waitrose—to be made if we will only change our accounts to online ones. We are no longer dealing with an equal society of any sort. There are those who are incapable of doing these things online. There are those who are capable but, for one reason or another, do not always want to do so and do not want to be penalised as a result. Furthermore, research has shown that households with online bills or statements are less likely to check them and more likely to fall into debt.
Things are moving very fast now and we cannot allow them to continue at the present pace without at least putting some safeguards forward to protect the people whom I have described from incurring charges either from freedom of choice or, very often, because they have no alternative. In replying to this debate, I hope that my noble friend will accept that there is a real and urgent need as we move forward to protect consumers’ choice in this matter and to preserve their existing right to exercise it. If we do not do that, more and more problems are likely to arise in the areas that are most vulnerable and more and more annoyance will be caused with companies that are not in any way co-operative. Above all, the right to hold a piece of paper in your hand—to look at what your bank statement is, what your bills are, what has been paid and what has not—is very important.
This is not just for all those vulnerable people or those others whom I have mentioned who have choice. Many people in high positions in society today are still not ready to accept that they must pay a price for receiving anything on a piece of paper. Only the other day, I had to ring the secretary of one of our foremost doctors. She said, “Well, I have got it on the computer but must print it out before I can see it”. I said, “Oh, thank goodness—one of us. What a wonderful welcome this is. Thank you very much”. “Oh,” she said, “but Dr X”—one of the most prominent doctors in the country, and who is not old—“has said over and over again that he hopes that when he dies he still has a lot of sheets of paper around him with writing on. Then he will die content”.
This is a social problem. It is a consumer problem. It is a problem where, certainly, the utilities have taken liberties because of the breadth of their market. The time has come for regulators, at the very least, to step in and approve a code of practice in these matters. This issue is becoming more and more urgent and I hope that noble Lords and my noble friend will treat it with the urgency that it deserves.
My Lords, this House has a proud tradition of speaking up for the vulnerable in society and this evening the Question for Short Debate in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, stands firmly in that tradition. I congratulate her on it.
It is bad enough having to pay bills; it is worse having to pay for the bills you have to pay. Yet that is increasingly the situation with Britain’s rapacious utility companies. The mini-scandal we are debating this evening first came to my attention when a letter arrived in our post saying that, from July 2013, we would have to pay £1.50 for each paper bill BT sent to us—that is, £6 a year. That seemed—and still seems—wrong, so I complained to Ofcom. In her reply to me of 19 June, Colette Bowe, Ofcom’s chair, said:
“We believe providers are entitled to make commercial decisions on the methods through which they provide bills and whether they impose charges to do so”.
I was under what appears to be an illusion that Ofcom was supposed to be about regulating the market, not prostrating itself before its imperial diktats. She went on to say that Ofcom did,
“protect certain vulnerable groups from being charged for receiving bills”.
At that stage, my heart started beating faster with excitement. Then she cited the main group that this applied to: the blind and visually impaired. So, thanks to Ofcom, if you are blind you are entitled to have the bill you cannot read free in any format you choose. You could not make it up.
What is wrong with Ofcom’s supine stance? It is simply this: yes, it is right that the transformative culture of IT has advanced, should advance and will continue to advance. That is altogether a good thing. Those who support the position of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, tonight are not in any sense technological Luddites. However, it is an essential precondition of such technical advance that those who cannot benefit from it for one reason or another should be protected from it to the maximum extent possible, and are not penalised simply because they were not lucky enough to grow up, as our children have, in an age where being online was completely natural to them. New technology will be more successful if it is adopted by people as a free choice, not forced down their throat.
I will illustrate my point by quoting some figures from the ONS about daily computer use among adults. It is rising, yes, but in 2013 it still stood at 70%. That means 30% of the population not accessing a computer daily, either because they cannot, or do not have a computer. They may not have a computer because they cannot afford one. They do not have the good fortune that we rightly have as Members of this House in having one provided. They must buy it themselves and that is not an easy thing for everybody to do.
Not surprisingly, the figures for old people are very much lower. For those over 65, daily computer use is about half that of the population generally: only 37% of people over 65 access their computer once a day. Roughly 6 million pensioners, therefore, would struggle to get their bill by computer.
Let us say that half of them—that is a guess, but probably not far out—are BT subscribers. That means that BT might hope in time to make £18 million a year out of its new policy—money screwed out of pensioners, fully franked by Ofcom; money that alone would pay the £5 million bonus of BT chief executive Ian Livingston nearly four times over. Gosh, it is not surprising that they get big bonuses when they think up such brilliant wheezes to screw money out of their more vulnerable customers.
You would have thought that Ofcom might have had some regard to public opinion. Eighty-four per cent of people think that they should have a choice of how they get their bills, according to an Opinium Research poll for the campaign Keep Me Posted, to which the noble Baroness referred. Forty-one per cent fear that they might miss a payment without such bills. If we think particularly of older pensioners, those are the kind of things that make them worried sick. They do not think, “Oh dear, I might have forgotten to pay”; they think that their telephone might be cut off so that they could not ring the doctor or the hospital if they have a fall. Those things matter to them. Indeed, £6 matters to a pensioner a great deal more than it does to some other people in society.
BT and the other anti-post billers will not act. Why should they? It is already given them. Ofcom will not act. Why should it? The free market is its creed. So who is left to act? The Government, who, perhaps in the forthcoming communications Bill, need to legislate to bar the imposition by charge of online-only billing. That would cost Ministers nothing—the Treasury will be glad to learn that—but would be a much appreciated sign that they understand that the vulnerable must be protected against the vagaries of the unregulated free market.
My Lords, I had a very nervous, sleepless night last night. When I was at the Bar with a difficult case, appearing in front of a difficult tribunal, I had sleepless nights, too. On those occasions, I used to lull myself to sleep. I would find myself fantasising about scoring 100 in a test match at Lord’s against Australia, before lunch, against Lillee and Thomson without a helmet on. That was an amazing way of relaxing before a difficult day in court. I never got more than 50, because I did not need to; I had fallen fast asleep.
Last night was different. I got my 100 before lunch against Lillee and Thomson and thought to myself, perhaps I am needed in Australia at the moment. Then I scored a hat-trick in the World Cup final—all headed goals—against Germany. Then I scored a winning try against New Zealand down in New Zealand. Then I started batting again in another test match, this time against the West Indies with Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Garner, and I was 75 not out before I fell asleep. This is one of the more nervous occasions for a new speaker.
I begin, however, by saying that I cannot see any reason for being nervous at all. Since my arrival here, I have received nothing but kindness from everyone, without exception. Whenever I have been lost in all these many corridors, someone has found me. If I may say so, the officers of the Lord Convenor of the Cross Benches have been tireless in their patience with me in my anxiety to get this ordeal over. I thank you, my Lords, and through you, all the many people and staff here in the House who have been so kind to me.
I declare my support for the noble Baroness on the issue which I wish to address in relation to the generation—sadly, a passing one—for whom the new world of technology is not something merely to be passed by but, to some, represents something of a nightmare. This is not dealing directly with the matters currently in debate, but how often do they find that disembodied voice from, say, Hyderabad, of huge assistance to them? How often do they find a disembodied Home Counties voice telling them that they must listen and then press one of 10 numbers on their telephone and then, having found their way through to which one it should be, press the appropriate number, then come up with another five numbers which they have to listen to and press? What about the machine that you stick a card into that produces cash, but that you cannot tell has failed to give you the correct amount? What about the necessity of remembering codewords and passwords, when everyone tells you that the one thing you must not do is to write them down anywhere in case someone finds out what they are?
I declare an interest. My mother is 94 years old. Like so many of her generation, she is intrepid. Like so many of them, happily, she values knowledge rather than tricks. New knowledge, she is still interested in—new tricks, not. I suspect that there are many like her. They were well into their 80s when Facebook, Google and Twitter were invented. Can we please all remember that none of those existed only 10 years ago? They were taught, when young, to check their bills and their bank accounts carefully. Indeed, some of us remember our parents receiving the cheques which they had sent. Some of us, I dare say, are old enough even to remember having received the cheques ourselves. For them, a computer is not part of everyday living—not for all of them; of course some are adventurous and wish to enjoy the fruits of modern technology, but some do not. For some, online billing is a meaningless concept and they do not wish to have anything to do with it.
What is the real cost to the utility companies which do not provide paper billing for those individuals? I am ignoring the notional figures. Some expert consultant will tell a company that the cost is vast, enormous or huge. I suggest that the real cost cannot be all that high. There is a postage stamp and a member of staff to press the button on the company computer to produce the goods.
I end by asking, can we, should we not, offer the particular generation on whom I have focused my attention—the sadly but inevitably diminishing generation about whom I have spoken—something just a little more generous than penalising them for failing to keep up with the world as it is?
My Lords, in this short debate, I am delighted to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and have great pleasure in congratulating him on his excellent maiden speech. It was original, amusing and very informative. For those of us taking part in this debate, it is valuable to hear from someone who has such a wide experience of the law, and therefore has an understanding of how citizens deal with authorities and how they try to deal with the bureaucracy that goes with them. I did a little research, as we are required to do when new Members come in. I understand that the noble and learned Lord is very keen on cricket. Indeed, his maiden speech proved that to be the case, so perhaps I may commiserate with him over the rather sad events of the weekend for the English cricket team.
I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes for introducing tonight’s debate about the difficulties facing consumers who cannot get paper billing without penalties. How you view this matter will probably depend on one or more of the following factors: how old you are, as we heard very clearly in our maiden speech this evening; how big or small a player you are in today’s complicated society; how well off you are; and where you live.
Beginning with the generational issue, I am 68 and I can use modern technology but I find it difficult to completely trust it, if I am honest. I like important things to be on paper. I understand that most self-employed people find it easier to collate pieces of paper for their tax return; that is certainly the case for me. I am also much quicker on paper—I have my notes for this speech on paper because of that. I may not be entirely rational about this but I have a terrible fear of having my identity stolen. I think it was listening to some programmes on the radio about it that set this off. It is mainly because I cannot really imagine how I would sort out such a situation, given the busy life that I lead here. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I suppose that I really am a bit of a Luddite.
My mother, too, is 94 and she has been diagnosed with dementia. There is absolutely no way that she could lead her life online. We have to remember that this will always be the case for some of us. We are living longer and there will be more people who are unable to remember passwords and so on, which have already been mentioned this evening. I am sure that my grandchildren will not feel the same way as I do and I know that my daughters are quite happy to lead their lives online. But between myself and my mother there is a wide spectrum of others who cannot or do not want to live theirs online. I understand that there are something like 7 million adults—they are largely elderly but include vulnerable and disabled adults—who cannot access the internet. Many people also live in rural areas which still have no internet access, although that is getting better.
Turning to the size issue, Judith Donovan, who is the chair of the Keep Me Posted campaign has said,
“At present the public appetite for paper bills does not correlate with the preference”
of large organisations, which is quite true. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, talked a lot about BT and Ofcom. Within the communications sector, two in 10 companies give customers the choice of a bill format when signing up. I understand that in three-quarters of the cases, customers are charged for paper bills. There are issues about this. BT charges me £5 because I want to pay by cheque and post—I am the Luddite. However, I have done slightly better with O2, with which I have changed my arrangements and got a new phone. They said, “Of course, you realise that under this new arrangement you are going to have to have the bill on your phone”. However, somehow they forgot and I am still getting a paper bill, so I am doing all right out of that.
There has been much discussion in recent months about the big six energy companies, which was touched on this evening. I choose to pay by cheque and post; I pay more for it and pay more than I need to. But those who are less well off and cannot access the internet have no choice; they have to pay more for their fuel. They are often living in some of the least energy-efficient homes and on low incomes. They are a group that some of us in this House campaign on: the fuel poor. Yes, being paperless is cheaper and more profitable for the companies. It is more environmentally friendly. But is it fair to make the most disadvantaged in society pay a premium for the services and goods that they require?
Despite our living in an era when everyone seems to have a smartphone or an iPad, one-third of UK households do not have a personal computer, 20% of disabled people are not online and 53% of those who say that they never use a computer are disabled. Of course, in my age group eight out of 10 of those aged 65 or over want to keep their paper statements. This rises to nine out of 10 in the over-80s. As has been touched on, in another 20 or 30 years the situation may be slightly different, but for now I hope that the Minister will take on board the important and pressing issues raised by everyone in this debate. I hope that he can give us rather more comfort than he did when answering a Question on this very issue which was put to him by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, in this House last month.
We must all thank the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, for getting this debate in front of the House tonight. I thank also those who have rallied to her cause and who, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, are not Luddites. It is a particular delight that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has chosen this debate in which to break his silence in this House. He may feel that he is needed in Australia at the moment but as he introduced the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, today, who is from Wales, perhaps he should take up rugby instead. We are rather more successful at that.
The case that has been made out by the noble Baroness is quite clear. The service exists, after all, for consumers who pay for it and make the providers’ profits. Those consumers should therefore have a free choice of whether to have a paper or an electronic bill, with no price tag attached to either. This is part of a broader issue of defending consumer rights, especially where consumers cannot shop around to get a better service. We are all fed up of being charged when we want to book our theatre tickets, for example. After all, you cannot go to the theatre without a ticket so it is not an add-on to what is being provided; it is an essential part of it. One cannot shop around for which theatre to go to, as the play is on in only one place. Even budget airlines are beginning to realise that the allocation of a seat and the purchase of a ticket are an essential part of the journey—as opposed to a cup of coffee, which may be an add-on. So, surely, it ought to be in the areas of energy and the telephone.
It is impossible for people to shop around if all the providers are charging for bills, especially when they do not say at the outset what the cost will be or, according to the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, when they write it in such a small typeface that none of us can read it. Even if one shops around for a supplier, the issue of billing will hardly be uppermost in one’s mind as one makes that choice. Effectively, these suppliers are adding a fee over which we cannot negotiate. Yet a bill is an essential component of the contract of service, not an optional extra.
These charges are not just the price of a stamp. Talk Talk charges £1.90 a month, and T-Mobile £18 a year. Given the weakness of the negotiating position of individual customers, it must be for the Government, an ombudsman or a regulator to stand in the consumer’s shoes and sort out the problem, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey suggested. Of course, had the Government not abolished Consumer Focus, there would be such a body. But have this Government any interest in consumers, like the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, former Minister and consumer champion? Apologies—she is a former Minister but she is still a consumer champion.
Do we not care about the old, the young and the vulnerable, who will be those most disadvantaged by having to pay to get a bill? Losing paper statements will disadvantage the elderly, as we have heard; only one-third of over-75s have browsed the internet. However, it is not just the elderly—7 million adults have never used the internet. One in seven does not have the internet at home and does not intend to get it, a quarter on grounds of cost. Some 16 million consumers over 15 do not have basic online skills. Even young people are not immune. One in 10 of those not in employment, education or training feels out of their depth using a computer. E-mails, even for those who are fairly familiar with them, are not always reliable. In fact, if your e-mail gets caught by a spam filter, it may never reach you, making payments easy to miss. Furthermore, online billing requires you to notify a change in e-mail address; it is sometimes easy to forget to do so—and there is no redirection facility, as with our much beloved Post Office.
Another issue, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, is the risk associated with the internet of people fearing that they may lose their identity or access to personal information. One in four new internet users says that they would never share personal information online.
Another problem comes when printing copies of online statements, which may not be regarded as official, and certainly not as proof of address, on those occasions when you need to prove that. People who need a paper copy for tax, or as evidence of a transaction, would have to pay for it, with most banks already charging up to £10 for duplicate statements. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, reminds us, there is also the issue of remembering passwords as well as user names, especially as we are meant to have a combination of letters, capital letters and numbers—so we cannot even have an easy password. That is difficult not only for the elderly but for anyone with dyslexia or dyspraxia.
Another group that has approached me about this is students and flat sharers, who need paper bills so they can all see who owes what, rather than having to give control over bills to just one person. Those who claim expenses may need a paper copy of a bill to make a claim. Some institutions do not accept printed copies of online statements; indeed, the European Parliament will not even accept a photocopy—it has to be an original invoice, to be able to claim expenses. So people will have to pay for that documentation.
The real issue is why providers consider us users as merely a cost. Why should they be able to save money by charging consumers without whom they simply would not be in business? The average energy bill already includes £53 of profits for the company; the least they can do, surely, is to send us an invoice detailing how much to pay, and for what. As Judith Donovan, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, also said:
“This is not an anti-online campaign, it’s a pro-choice campaign”.
We turn to the Government on this. We know that half of those with no access to the internet are in the lowest socioeconomic groups, but they are the ones who will have to pay for paper bills, and the ones who can least afford it. Not only that, but the Government are insisting on universal credit being online. This is surely nonsensical, given that even we here, most of whom can use the computer, want to pay our bills on paper. The idea that those who are not confident with the net should have their whole universal credit claim and income dealt with in this way is ridiculous.
The real question for the Government is what they will do about this situation, in which charges are being added, despite the choice that consumers want to make. The Government have a draft Bill on consumer rights, but how can they even use that phrase while allowing these rip-off practices to continue? We look forward to hearing about some robust action that they will take to make sure that consumers get a fair deal.
My Lords, I first extend my gratitude to my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes for securing this debate. As my noble friend Lady Maddock has mentioned, I am aware that my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes asked a supplementary question in this Chamber on a similar subject during an Oral PQ raised initially by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. My response to her question, and my response to some other questions, clearly did not strike a chord in this House. I recognise this and have had a few weeks to reflect on the subject further.
In replying, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge on his maiden speech, on sharing his passion for this issue with the House today and on speaking up for those who are concerned about the advances of the digital age and the so-called generational issue.
I say at the outset that I fully recognise and understand that there are those in this House and elsewhere in the country who, as individuals or for business purposes, may wish to continue to receive statements, bills and other documents through the post. I also recognise that some people may never wish to go online, nor indeed even use a computer, let alone other modern gadgets such as iPads or smartphones. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, both made the good point that some people cannot afford a computer. Again, I respect this. However, noble Lords cannot fail to notice that, whether we like it or not, the movement towards a fast-paced and rapidly changing digital age is inexorable; indeed, my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes alluded to this very fact. For example, some 60% of the UK population now have a smartphone, and we are responding to the huge demand for a comprehensive rollout of broadband.
The backdrop to this debate is therefore rather complex. The pace of change is fast. If we press the rewind button—if I may be allowed to use that term—e-mail only really became widespread during the late 1990s. Some noble Lords may recall the first cordless phones, as big as a brick and almost as heavy. Now we manage our lives using mobile phones, and even more, from having health gadgets on our wrists to writing e-mails using voice recognition. Doing all sorts of things on the move, be it checking on the weather or traffic, paying bills, even finding places and locating friends using satellite tracking, is becoming the norm. I hasten to add that I need to be brought up to date with all these gadgets myself.
The focus of the debate today is on how we help those facing difficulties or charges when wishing to retain the option of receiving traditional bills and statements through the post. I am the first to say that I have some sympathy with the traditional approach, but if I tried to hold back the tide of change I could on the other hand be accused of being a latter-day King Canute. The sons, daughters and grandchildren of many noble Lords here today do not feel the same need for paper. In exactly one month’s time, many will be sending Christmas e-cards to friends and relatives. Some people lack the space or inclination to store reams of bills. They want information at their digital fingertips, not buried somewhere in a pile on the coffee table. I recognise some of the statistics that have been adduced this evening about people being less efficient if they receive bills online.
The challenge to service providers is therefore to cater for the full spectrum of their customers, providing options and reassurance on billing and prices for the digital and non-digitally minded alike. The questions before us are, first, whether there should be an ongoing, default right to receive documentation through the post by request; secondly, if so, who should foot the cost; and, finally, how it might be underpinned by legislation. I reassure noble Lords that there are already several protections in place for the vulnerable, including the elderly. The Equality and Human Rights Act ensures that the rights of those physically unable to access material online are protected. More generally, the Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012 prohibit excessive charges being applied to specific ways of paying, such as paying over the counter at the Post Office. Regulators such as Ofwat and Ofcom ensure that protections are in place, in their sectors, for the most vulnerable. As was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, blind or visually impaired people can get their bills in an accessible format such as Braille. In the energy sector, for example, suppliers are not able to levy an additional charge for sending paper bills, but they may still offer a discount to those paying online. In so doing, I make it clear that they are not penalising the paper bill recipient but sharing genuine cost savings with the online customer.
Business is responding. For example, special tariffs for telephones, such as BT Basic, are available to those on low incomes, providing paper bills at no additional charge. In banking, thanks to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, access to transactional accounts is being broadened so that more people can use electronic payments.
I hope that this provides some reassurance but, as I said before, the digital age is moving rapidly upon us and much of it is driven by demand for efficiency and savings. According to the Digital Efficiency Report in 2011, the cost of an online transaction is 20 times lower than a phone one, and 30 times lower than a postal one. Companies cannot ignore such figures and the Government also need to consider savings.
However, there are wider drivers for change facing all of us that I might also mention. I mentioned earlier that it was a complex picture. Banks, councils and utilities, and the Government too, know that there is an increasing demand from their customers or citizens to go green and cut paper. People want to receive bills, receipts and statements online, reducing their impact on the use of natural resources. One can understand why. I might ask how many of your Lordships—I might ask myself this question—spend the weekend sorting through the post and seeking the right recycling bin to throw out those statements, receipts and circulars which you judge you will never read again. While doing so, you may well also wonder at the number of trees cut down to create all that paper. As a result, the specific question for us here is whether government should focus its efforts on controlling how business responds to customers—reflecting nominal and justifiable charges to certain bills—or on making markets more competitive to the benefit of all customers. Our stance remains to leave operational decisions to companies to act within the commercial spirit while putting in place the appropriate regime to ensure competition and protect the most vulnerable in our society.
It may be that in 20 years’ time, when I am approaching my eighties, this will be a largely paperless world. However, as the Government have committed, those not online will not be left behind. The Government’s approach to assisted digital exemplifies best practice in helping people access digital services and the benefits that going online can bring. Business should be looking to provide similar assistance. This House may recognise that, with advancing technology, the number of people feeling disfranchised by online billing is likely to diminish over time. That does not mean that we ignore the needs of the older generation. Options are there for those who wish to choose paper, but businesses should continue to meet the needs of their customers, both young and old.
In the time available I will address a number of questions that were raised.
I can reassure the noble Baroness that that is not the case. We are encouraging businesses to bring in processes that will help more the vulnerable—I have already spelt out what we are doing. The Government, of course, provide the framework, but we believe that it is very much for companies to decide to put themselves in a position to help people in this respect.
It is in the interest of companies to look after all their customers, otherwise they will go away. That includes all those people who are vulnerable and, as I mentioned earlier, all those across the spectrum who require the service. As I mentioned earlier, looking at the generational issues the picture is complex in terms of the current needs of customers.
My noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes raised the issue of some companies not being up front about the charges, which is a very fair point. In the communications sector regulations are in place that prescribe that such charges must be set out in a clear, comprehensive and easily accessible form so that consumers can make informed decisions. The consumer rights directive will mean that suppliers should obtain consumers’ express consent to any extra charges and that they should not use a tick-box approach that requires consumers to un-tick boxes in order to avoid charges. The directive must come into force by June 2014.
The noble Baroness also raised the issue of charging premium-call rates. In April, Ofcom announced plans to simplify the pricing of telephone numbers such as 0800 numbers. Under its proposals, calls to 0800 numbers from mobile phones will be free. Ofcom will publish the final proposals shortly. The noble Baroness also raised the issue of payment by cheques. There may be a legitimate charge for paying by cheques rather than paying electronically, but this charge is not levied as a norm. Any such charge would need to have been justified by relation to the additional cost. That is underpinned by the Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012, to which I alluded earlier.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised the issue of the response that he received from Ofcom about his question regarding a charge from a bill from his service provider. I repeat that what companies charge for their services is a commercial decision. In a competitive market consumers have choice and can move to a different provider. On the role of regulators, more widely, the Government have announced a number of reviews that look at competition and consumer issues. That may help to address the comments raised earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. For example, the PM has asked the regulators to instigate an annual review of the state of competition in the energy market. Ofcom published telecoms proposals in the summer and the Government have called on the industry to provide greater price transparency, particularly in communications with customers at the point of contract renewal.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised the generational issue of those aged over 65 who are offline. The Government are committed to helping people access the benefits of digital services. The Government Digital Service Digital Inclusion Team is working closely with the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, to ensure that we protect the vulnerable.
My noble friend Lady Maddock made a good point about security online. Trust and security are major concerns and the Government are working with the online security industry to make it simpler and easier to protect individuals online. My noble friend also asked about charges for telecoms paper bills. Recipients of paper bills are not generally charged extra, even though they are being charged more than the discounted price. Should companies wish to charge for a paper bill or make a reduction for a digital bill or digital payment, they must ensure that the charge reflects only the different processing costs incurred.
This House may recognise that, with advancing technology, the number of people feeling disfranchised by online billing is likely to diminish over time. I fully accept that there remain those who continue to wish for, and, indeed, need, paper through the post in the form of receipts, bills and statements, but we do not believe that legislating further on charging for paper bills is necessary when options are available and protections are already in place for the most vulnerable.