MEMORANDUM SUBMITTED BY THE NATIONAL CONSUMER
The National Consumer Council welcomes the overall
themes of the Communications White Paper A New Future for Communications,
and the proposed streamlining of the regulatory structure. We
will be submitting a response, but this note summarises the main
points we wish to make.
Many of the proposals cover issues that the
National Consumer Council has been lobbying for, and we will be
seeking their inclusion in an early Communications Bill. In particular
the recognition of the importance
of public service broadcasting in the digital era;
the emphasis upon universal access
and the consumer interest;
a horizontal approach to the converging
communications sector, with the creation of a single regulatory
bodyan Office of Communications (OFCOM) for telecommunications
bringing together of the economic
and content regulation within OFCOM's remit; and
the potential for improved consumer
representation, with the establishment of a statutory Consumer
Disappointingly however, there are key omissions
from the White Paper. It lacks:
an overall framework clarifying the
role of public service broadcasting (PSB) and that of the main
an in-depth discussion of options
for funding PSB so that provision is preserved and enhanced in
the future, with the possibility of new entrants; and
plans to bring the BBC completely
under the independent regulation of OFCOM.
We also seek clarification on aspects of the
detail of the White Paper:
the Consumer Panel remit should extend
beyond a narrow definition of service delivery; and
greater regulatory flexibility should
not lead to less effective regulation or consumer detriment.
Dramatic and rapid changes have taken place
in electronic communications delivery and services in recent years.
The changes go to the core of consumers' participation in social,
economic and cultural life.
The consumer interest in this sector and its
regulations is wide-ranging and substantial so we welcome the
recognition in these proposals of the importance of communications,
and the potential both for benefits but also social exclusion.
The aim should be to provide universal access
to a diverse choice of high quality services, to safeguard consumers'
interests, and to ensure transparency, fairness and the provision
of easily understandable information.
The emphasis on universal access is welcomed
but there is a lack of sufficient clarity in the proposals on
how this will be achieved, particularly universal access to Internet
services and to digital television. A clear lead is required from
government for a public information programme on digital broadcasting.
Access to public service channels is a key consumer
concern, and we support the proposals regarding "must carry"
rules, due prominence, and electronic programme guides although
these could be strengthened.We also recommend full consultation
with consumer groups on these issues.
The National Consumer Council supports the Government's
assessment of the danger of market failure in the delivery of
public service broadcasting. We welcome the recognition of the
role of PSB, particularly its democratic importance, role in social
inclusion, and its cultural significance regarding education,
information and entertainment. However, some of the White Paper
discussion is unduly optimistic about the extent to which the
market is delivering content diversity.
We are disappointed that the White Paper does
not present an over-arching framework for public service broadcasting
which would clarify the distinctive roles of all the public service
broadcasters, including the BBC. The White Paper sets out to establish
a framework for the regulation of content across all electronic
communications. It is illogical therefore to exclude positive
content regulation of the primary public service broadcaster from
the remit of the new communications regulator.
The proposals on regional programming are supported,
including the proposal for OFCOM to agree and monitor the BBC's
compliance in this respect. But this also highlights the illogicality
of leaving the BBC out of the rest of OFCOM's remit, as does the
proposal for OFCOM's over-arching codes of practice to apply to
the BBC. Target-setting on regional programming should be informed
by research into consumers' views.
We raise concerns that radio should not be allowed
to become a "poor relation" as it plays a vital role
for many consumers' lives. The provision of public service radio
broadcasting should be clarified, alongside that of television.
We suggest that the Government should look more broadly across
the issue of funding PSB as a wholeboth radio and television.
The proposal to bring together economic and
content regulation within a new Office of Communications (OFCOM)
is strongly supported. The danger of either strand becoming marginalised
can and should be guarded against. OFCOM's establishment will
mean that overlapping issues can be handled together, while distinct
services will not be regulated identically.
Proposals for regulation of quantifiable PSB
obligations are welcome. However, while OFCOM should not become
embroiled in detailed scheduling decisions, it may need to intervene
if these affect overall delivery of access, choice, or quality.
We support less detailed regulatory intervention
on qualitative obligations but stress the balance should not swing
too far the other way. More flexibility should not lead to less
effective regulation or consumer detriment. We support a co-regulatory
system, with backstop powers for OFCOM.
We support objectives and principles for regulation
and we suggest that availability of easy-to-understand information
should be included as well. OFCOM should have a specific duty
to represent the interest of disadvantaged consumers.
We support the general appoach to regulation
and call for it to be informed by a strong consumer input. We
recommend that the BBC is required to consult consumer bodies
and take into account advice from OFCOM when developing detailed
guidelines to implement codes of practice. OFCOM should carry
out regular research on consumers' views as is proposed.
We welcome the new Consumer Panel but we stress
the need for it to have the independence, powers and resources
to represent consumers' interests effectively across broad economic,
cultural and social issues both in the UK and internationally.
Its remit should not be confined to matters
relating to service delivery. The consumer interest in communications
extends into the core of how the sector is run and financed. This
framework determines the availability, affordability, choice and
quality of services and whether they are delivered fairly and
transparently. These issues are linked to many areas which could
be described as citizenship interests, such as the availability
and choice of news and current affairs, educational programming
and freedom of information. For these reasons, the Consumer Panel
should have the power and resources to do policy work on broad
content matters also.
The Consumer Panel's focus should be on the
interests of domestic consumers and small businesses. Like OFCOM,
the Panel should have specific duties to represent the interests
of disadvantaged consumers.
The Panel will require rights of access to obtaining
information and disclosing information, with due protection regarding
possible substantial harm. It will need to be open and accountable
and have a co-operative working relationship with OFCOM, while
retaining its independence. We agree that OFCOM should have responsibility
for complaints-handling, and recommend that the Panel should monitor
patterns in complaints to inform its policy work.