Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence



  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 we welcome:

    —  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 body—an Office of Communications (OFCOM) for telecommunications and broadcasting;

    —  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 Panel.

  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 providers;

    —  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 whole—both 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.

January 2001

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