Examination of witnesses (Questions 160
TUESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2000
and MR JIM
160. We do not even know if there are fewer
call boxes now than there were three years ago. This is part of
the Universal Service Obligation that a big utility like BT is
supposed to fulfil. One cannot blame BT if you cannot police them
or require them to provide decent information and make sure that
they are doing something in the time they say they will do it.
(Mr Edmonds) Sir, I have a huge number of complaints,
letters, both from Members of Parliament and members of the public.
The provision of public call boxes does not figure in terms of
an anxiety that is put to me. If you have an anxiety, Members
of this Committee have anxieties, it has not been an issue in
my three years at Oftel. That is giving you an honest answer.
161. The fact is they dominate the market.
(Mr Edmonds) Yes.
162. They have doubled the price.
(Mr Edmonds) Yes.
163. They have reduced their service, for example.
(Mr Edmonds) Yes.
164. Are you aware, for example, that you now
have to pay for a directory enquiry?
(Mr Edmonds) Yes, I am. That was part of the package
Chairman: There is no telephone directory in
a call box necessarily or at one of these phones. Do you not think
that is part of the Universal Service Obligation? If you are caught
short you have to make a phone call, you do not have the number
and you have to pay twice as much to even get the number you want.
Helen Southworth: Also it is very disconcerting
for people with visual impairment who are one of the main users
of that service and now have no access to it. I cannot see how
that is meeting Universal Service Agreements if it excludes those
165. I find it very strange, Mr Edmonds, that
at a time when most of the other regulators are embracing the
social obligations you seem to be allowing BT to walk away from
(Mr Edmonds) I gave you the correct answer to the
question. I have no power to stop BT putting up their charges
in their call boxes. I have no power to stop BT introducing a
charge for directory inquiries.
166. You have a power to protect the Universal
(Mr Edmonds) Indeed.
167. In a way which makes the service appropriate
for the public's needs.
(Mr Edmonds) I have no evidence that the service is
not appropriate to the public needs. If that evidence is put to
me I will clearly consider it but in this context, as I have said
to you, Sir, the Universal Service and public call boxes has not
been an issue during my period at Oftel.
168. The Treasury have commissioned WS Atkins
to investigate the steeply rising costs of Regulation. I wonder
if you could tell us what your dealings have been with WS Atkins
during their inquiry into this?
(Mr Edmonds) Yes. I have worked very closely with
WS Atkins who are a firm who are currently looking at the efficiency
relativities of the utility regulators. We have provided WS Atkins
with a huge amount of material about what our costs are, what
our cost drivers are, where we feel that we are under resourced,
and we are waiting eagerly for the report that they make to the
169. Could you share some of the information
you have given to them with us?
(Mr Edmonds) Surely. What we have talked to them about
is where our costs are, what our manpower is, the fact is manpower
in Oftel has risen over the last two or three years. We have given
them the costs of the various services that we provide. We have
told them about the dramatic increase in the amount of correspondence
that we have had, the dramatic increase in the telephone communications
that we have had. We are waiting for them to draw some conclusions
about our performance compared with those of other regulators.
170. Are those conclusions going to be publicised,
as you understand, or are they going to be kept secret?
(Mr Edmonds) I do not know. It is a report which has
been commissioned by the Treasury. The Treasury wanted to know
what efficiency looked like in order to be better able to satisfy
themselves but each year I go to them and ask for resources and
say they are going into an organisation that is competently and
professionally run. Whether the report is going to be published
is a question for the Treasury rather than for me.
171. You are expecting that you are going to
get more resources from the Treasury rather than fewer, are you
(Mr Edmonds) Yes, to be honest. I think that the challenges
and demands that Oftel face, the demands that we have risen to
over the last few years, do require a greater resource input,
yes. It may not be hugely greater but I think that we are very
stretched to carry out the work that we carry out.
172. Your budget has already nearly doubled?
(Mr Edmonds) No, no, no, no. My budget is about £12
million at present. It has gone up by, I think, 12 per cent in
the last year. That is not a doubling.
173. Not in the last year. How do you answer
the charge that the more you spend, the more you increase your
staff budget and the less effective you become? What response
have you given to this chap, Olly Rehn, the head of Commissioner
Liikanen's Cabinet, who said in September: "The UK has relegated
itself from the premier league (of European telecoms Regulation)
to the relegation zone of the second division". Did you give
him a strong blast?
(Mr Edmonds) I gave him a very strong blast and I
gave a very strong blast to Robert Verrue, who is the Director-General
of the Telecommunications Directorate in Brussels. I think it
was totally and absolutely unfounded and I think if you were to
look at media coverage subsequently you would have found that
the Commission retracted totally the allegations made by that
apparatchik. I think it was a very ill-judged remark for
him to make and I think it was totally unfounded in terms of both
the performance of Oftel and in terms of the performance of the
UK sector generally.
174. Have they apologised?
(Mr Edmonds) I have had a profuse apology from Robert
Chairman: On that happy note then, Mr Edmonds,
can I say thank you for the evidence you have given us this morning.
We will want, obviously, to pursue it and we will get some written
information from you as well. Can I just make the point that we
will be hearing evidence from BT and other operators and service
providers we intend before Christmas. We probably, I think, I
know I have got one organised, and I think probably some of my
colleagues would like to visit one of the local exchanges to appreciate
for ourselves the various options and how they are being addressed.
We would like to see perhaps some of the exchanges chosen within
the bow wave and it may well be that these are the easiest ones
to organise because they are the least busy, but that is another
thing we shall have to see. Anyway, if we have difficulty with
BT we may well come to you and say "Can you help us to put
this lot into line?" Having said that, thank you very much
for coming this morning.