Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to initiate a debate under your wise and experienced chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of the way in which the mobile phone industry operates, its acquiescence to mobile phone retailers who offer unrealistic cashback offers, and the consequences for customers when retailers go into liquidation.
I should first like to talk specifically about Dial a Mobile, which was an independent retailer of mobile phones in the Bordesley Green area of my constituency. It ceased business on 30 August 2007 with, it was subsequently revealed, debts of £12 million and more than 90,000 customers who were connected through the company to the networks of the big five providers, Orange, T-Mobile, O2, Vodafone, and 3.
Prior to being contacted by constituents who were affected by the collapse of Dial a Mobile, I confess that I did not know much about the mobile phone industry or how it operated. Like an ever-increasing number of people, I use a mobile phone, and I had a contract with an airtime provider, but I did not know how the cashback system operated, the relationship between the airtime provider and the retailers, or the powers of the regulator, Ofcom. Having spent several months dealing with issues arising from the collapse of Dial a Mobile, I now have a good knowledge of how the industry operates, and I find what I have learned extremely disconcerting.
My concerns are not mine alone; they are shared by the European Unions Communications Commissioner, Viviane Reding, who has serious concerns about how the mobile phone industry operates, particularly in this country and, as she calls it, its cosy relationship with Ofcom. She is alsorightlyextremely concerned about the vulnerable position in which many customers find themselves when mobile phone retailers go into liquidation.
I should explain that cashback is one of a range of incentives offered by mobile phone retailers to attract new customers or to poach customers from the network airtime providersthe big five to which I referred. In a highly competitive industry, the retailer is paid lucrative commission by the airtime provider for each new customer signed up for the providers network. To entice customers to sign up, the retailer will offer part of its commission to the customer, which is payable, usually in stages, when the customer has been with the network for a certain period, in most cases 12 or 18 months. That sounds quite innocent;
indeed, the customer could, in theory, have a sizeable amount of their contract payment reimbursed by the retailer.
However, there is a catch, and it is a very big catch. The retailer in the mobile phone industry is under huge competitive pressure to offer bigger incentives to get customers to sign up to the network that pays the biggest commission. To retain business, therefore, the retailer will offer bigger cashback offers to the customer. Slowly, as happened with Dial a Mobile, a business model evolves whereby if more than four out of 10 new customers claim their cashback, the retailer loses money and goes bust.
If a mobile phone retailer simply went into liquidation and could not honour its customers, and the contractthis is importantwith the customer became null and void, it might not matter too much. It could be put down to the normal cut and thrust of businesssome you win, some you lose. However, there is a clear difference in the mobile phone industry because of the way in which the system operates. To all intents and purposes, two contracts are involved. The contract that includes incentives such as cashback is between the retailer and the customer, but a network supplier insists on a contract with the customer when a customer hooks up to it. Also, as with Dial a Mobile, the network supplier disclaims responsibility for incentives such as cashback that are offered by the retailer. It insists that the customer pays the full amount to the network provider; otherwise, it will take legal action against the customer. That could, as is the case with many customers of Dial a Mobile in my constituency in east Birmingham, result in bailiffs being sent in and the customer getting an adverse credit rating.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): My hon. Friend is talking about a similar problem to one that occurred in my constituency with Cell Fones UK; indeed, local trading standards officers have been liaising closely with those in Birmingham. Is he aware that his constituents, like mine, have often not signed, or even seen the terms of, the contract to which they are tied with the mobile phone companies?
Some 90,000 customers were affected when Dial a Mobile went into liquidation, but since it went bust in August 2007, a number of other retailers have gone into liquidation. There are now hundreds of thousands of people who had contracts with mobile phone retailers that have gone bust who thought that those contracts were null and void because the retailer had not honoured its cashback obligations. Yet some network suppliers insist that they have contracts with customers, whether written or unwritten, and that customers should pay airtime contracts in full, and threaten legal action. Of course, mobile network operatorsthe big fivesay that they will consider any representations that customers make on their merits, but they have not disclosed how many contracts they hold through retailers that have gone bust, such as Dial a Mobile, nor have they disclosed how many individual cases they have considered on their merits.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Sunday Mail campaign in Scotland? Jane Barrie, the leading reporter, has highlighted the fact that the companies involved targeted the poorer people in our communities, who are now being pursued by the bailiffs to whom he referred.
Mr. Godsiff: My hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent point. The mobile network operators target the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. They also target people who think that there is such a thing as a free lunchbut those people then find out that there is no such thing as a free lunch but that a price tag is attached.
As my hon. Friend said, many of the customers being pursued, such as those with Dial a Mobile, did not sign a contract with either the retailer or the airtime provider. However, the airtime providers say that once a customer has been linked by the retailer into their network, a contract exists. They expect full payment under that alleged contractfull stop, no argument.
One would have expected Ofcom, the regulator, to have been aware of the problem before the end of 2007, when Dial a Mobile and several other retailers went into liquidation. Ofcom was indeed aware of the problem. On 31 July 2007, it issued a press release stating:
Ofcom welcomes new code on mis-selling in mobile markets but warns of consequences of failure.
It went on to say that the five mobile network operators had more than 66 million active customer accounts, and that Ofcom was receiving in the region of 400 complaints a month from people who believed they had been misled by mobile phone retailers. It said:
Ofcom has discussed the nature of these complaints with MNOs directly and industry has responded
with a code of practice which defines the best approach to promoting and selling mobile services.
The code of practice, written by the mobile operators, sets out minimum business standards on prohibited sales and marketing practices, details of proactive monitoring, due diligence, and how complaints to mobile network operators should be monitored. Furthermore, it says that mobile operators can determine how to apply those principles to their own retail channels. It also refers to selling incentives. But as is often the case with written documents, the devil is in the detail. One should always read the small print. In my opinion, the code of practice makes the voluntary code not worth the paper it is written on. The most important sentence in it is to be found on page 5, which states:
Mobile operators do not, however, underwrite the obligations of other legal entities.
The network operators are not interested in whether a retailer goes bust and cannot honour his obligations, because there will always be another one prepared to chance his arm to get business. Once the retailer has linked the customer up to the mobile network operator, the customer is, to use a fishing expression, hooked and netted. If the customer tries to escape, the mobile network operators send in the barristers and bailiffs. Of course, the mobile network operatorsthe big fivewill say, Oh, what you are saying is grossly unfair, and that they do not expect retailers to use 40 per cent. business models, which are unsustainable. As someone once said, They would say that, wouldnt they? One of the five3certainly encourages its retailers to do just that. In a letter to a retailer, 3 says:
As promised, here is confirmation of our belief that many retailers currently operating cash-back schemes are experiencing a 40 per cent. redemption rate. This is based on feedback from a range of businesses operating both a Distant Selling model and a high street retail model. Perhaps the highest profile success story of a business operating this model is Dialaphone, whose results speak for themselves.
The power of the mobile network operators and their absolute determination not to give up these highly lucrative contracts, however they were obtained, can best be seen in their attempts to pressurise local authority trading standards departments, which have valiantly tried to help affected customers. Birminghams trading standards department was inundated by calls after the collapse of Dial a Mobile. Chris Neville, the head of the department, told the trade magazine Mobile on 13 September that
The directors of Dial a Mobile told us that any documentsany contractswere shredded and never passed onto the MNOsand that was routine.
They said the network providers knew this, and that this has been the case for a few years, and theyd been happy to accept customers via a phone call
I pay tribute to Chris Neville and his colleagues. Based on the lack of written airtime contracts, they advised customers to give notice to their airtime network provider of their intention to terminate their airtime contracts. Chris Neville said:
The air time providers are getting upset at the advice we put out and are putting pressure on us to remove our advice.
The trading standards department was being told by the mobile network operators that it was not serving the best interests of their clientsthe people who live in Birminghambut that the operators were doing so.
The mobile network operators say that they have what the Independent Mobile Phone Dealers Association, a reputable body, calculates to be more than 1 million customers of failed retailers since 2005. Mobile network operators are saying, We have them over a barrel. We dont want trading standards or Government Departments
interfering, and Ofcoms in our pocket. We want to be left alone to pursue them through the courts for the millions of pounds that these contracts are worth. I therefore ask, what is the regulator, Ofcom, doing? It is supposed to be looking after the interests of consumers.
I said that the regulator issued a press release in July 2007, saying that mobile network operators had produced a voluntary code, which they hoped would work. Seven months later, Ofcom launched an investigation into cashback and slamming. Slamming is a separate issue, but we all know what it is. Its true name is erroneous transfers; that is the posh expression. To mere working- class lads such as myself, it is called thieving of business. Nevertheless, I welcome the Ofcom investigation.
to find a permanent fix to these problems.
Although I welcome Ofcoms review of the voluntary agreement, that will not help the hundreds of thousands of people, including the 90,000 customers of Dial a Mobile, who are being pursued by the mobile network operators. Indeed Ofcom has already made it clear that the voluntary code of July 2007 is inadequate and has failed, and that Ofcom itself does not have the powers to compel the mobile network operators to tear up Dial a Mobile contracts.
Mr. Godsiff, in answer to your questions as to whether I have got any powers, as Dial a Mobile has gone out of business there are no Dial a Mobile contracts to tear up.
The problem is, rather, that the Dial a Mobile contracts were supposed to give money to customers to part compensate for the money customers were paying to the mobile operators. Now that Dial a Mobile has gone out of business, customers are often having to pay the full amounts to honour airtime contracts with mobile operators, even though they are no longer in receipt of cash-back payments from the retailer who sold the contract to them.
I would like to pose some questions. First, why did it take Ofcom until July 2007 to announce a voluntary code of practice, drawn up by the mobile network operators, which it now admits is inadequate? Secondly, why has Ofcom now acknowledged that it has no powers to force the mobile network operators to underwrite the unsustainable business models that they are encouraging retailers to adopt?
It may come as something of a surprise to many mobile phone users, particularly the many hundreds of thousands of people who have been affected by retailers going bust, that one mobile network operatorOrangecontributes £2.5 million a year towards Ofcoms running costs. The other mobile network operators are believed to contribute to Ofcoms running costs too. I say believed, because when my office sought the information on this from the regulator, Ofcom refused to release it on the grounds that, if it did release that information, it would reveal the turnover of the mobile network operators. So here we have a regulator, which receives £2.5 million from Orange, one of the companies that it is supposed to regulate, and quite possibly receiving other amounts
of money from other mobile network operators, refusing to put that information into the public domain on the grounds that, if it did so, it might reveal the turnover of the mobile network operators.
I find that very interesting, particularly in the light of Oranges memorandum to the House of Lords Select Committee that looked at the mobile phone industry. In that memorandum to the Select Committee, Orange questioned, quite bluntly, whether the £2.5 million that it was putting into Ofcom every year was:
good value for money for their shareholders.
This sorry saga began with the belated recognition by Ofcom in July 2007 that the industry needed a code of practice; it continued with the inevitable collapse of Dial a Mobile and other retailers who had been encouraged to operate 40 per cent. cashbacks, which were unsustainable business models, and it resulted in hundreds of thousands of customers being ruthlessly pursued by the big five mobile network operators for at least £10 million that is allegedly owed to them. However, if the big five were to reveal the true number of people who have been connected to them through firms that have subsequently gone bust, the independent assessments are that they would have to reveal that the amount that they are pursuing from customers is about £50 million.
Finally, there was a belated acceptance by Ofcom that what has happened over the last six months, including the failure of the voluntary code, has, in its own words, highlighted certain weaknesses, and that is the reason why
Ofcom is now agreeing to launch a formal review to see if formal regulations backed by the full weight of Ofcoms legal powers would provide better protection for customers.
In my opinion, what I have said this morning clearly shows that the mobile phone industry is not only an industry that is out of control but is operating a systemthe cashback systemthat is a totally discredited relic of the past. Indeed, when the furore arose at the end of last year, even some of the network operators themselves backtracked. Mr. Bernie OBeirne, 3s dealer and distributor chief, said:
We would love to ban cashbacks, but legally we cant.
Cashback is really last years problem. Cashback is always going to create problems.
Basically, he was saying that cashback had reached its sell-by date. There is nothing like a sinner who repents, but it does not help the large number of people who are being pursued for money by 3 and the other mobile network operators.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|