Documents considered by the Committee on 19 January 2011 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents


9 Missing children hotline

(32306)

17296/10

COM(10) 674

Commission Communication: Dial 116 000: The European hotline for missing children

Legal base
Document originated17 November 2010
Deposited in Parliament3 December 2010
DepartmentBusiness, Innovation and Skills
Basis of considerationEM of 22 December 2010
Previous Committee ReportNone
To be discussed in CouncilNo date set
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared; further information requested

Background

9.1 In 2007, the Commission adopted a Decision requiring Member States to reserve a six-digit number range starting with 116 for services of social value which contribute to the well-being or safety of citizens or help those in difficulty.[41] The Decision also specified that Member States had to reserve the number 116 000 for the operation of a hotline to report missing children and ensure that, by the end of August 2007, the competent regulatory authorities — Ofcom in the UK — were in a position to make the number available to potential operators of the hotline.

9.2 A Commission survey in June 2008 revealed that Member States had done little to advertise the availability of the number to potential operators. In 2009, the European Parliament and Council adopted changes to the EU regulatory framework for telecommunications which, amongst other things, required Member States to:

  • encourage the provision within their territories of services of social value using the 116 prefix;
  • ensure that disabled end-users are able to access 116 services;
  • ensure that citizens are adequately informed of 116 services and how to use them, especially when travelling in other Member States; and
  • make every effort to provide citizens with access, via 116 000, to a hotline to report missing children, at the latest by 25 May 2011.[42]

The Commission Communication

9.3 The Commission says that the purpose of reserving the number 116 000 for a hotline to report missing children is to "ensure that the same service is always associated with the same number across the entire European Union. Having the same hotline number will help children and parents in distress to find help when outside their Member State of origin, for example if a child goes missing during a family holiday."[43] It wants the hotline to be fully operational, and to provide the same high quality of service, in all EU Member States. According to the Commission, so far it is only operational in 13 Member States (including the UK, where the Commission says that the hotline is "partially operational").[44]

9.4 The Communication considers the obstacles which have prevented the hotline from becoming operational in all Member States, highlights possible solutions and best practice, and suggests minimum standards needed to guarantee a high quality of service.

Obstacles to implementation of the hotline

9.5 The Commission identifies two key issues which have delayed the implementation of the 116 000 hotline in all Member States. First, studies indicate that there is a general lack of awareness about the hotline and insufficient information in some Member States to enable potential hotline operators to apply for assignation of the number. Second, difficulties in financing the hotline have deterred potential operators. The hotline has to be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by suitably qualified individuals who are able to respond in more than one language. Staff training costs are therefore likely to be substantial. Moreover, as the hotline is required to be a freephone number, potential operators may not be willing or able to cover the costs of calls. At a practical level, it seems that 116 000 number may not be available to all users of mobile phones or to those making international calls.

Examples of best practice

9.6 The Commission highlights examples of good practice which have helped some Member States to overcome the problems associated with costs and lack of awareness of the hotline number. These include information campaigns; close cooperation between Member State governments and their national regulatory authorities to identify suitable hotline operators; and various funding options to cover the running costs of the hotline. Some hotlines are financed wholly or partly from public funds; from national lottery grants; or by telecoms operators as part of a corporate social responsibility programme. In one Member State, mobile phone operators have agreed to cover the telephone costs of calls to the hotline.

Common minimum standards

9.7 The Commission says that it is important for parents and children to receive the same quality of service and assistance when they call a 116 000 hotline, regardless of where they call from. It identifies a number of best practices established in Member States where the hotline is already operational which include:

  • ensuring that the service is available in the language of the Member State in which it is provided and also (at a minimum) in English;
  • providing specific staff training and a follow-up service, where appropriate, after the closure of a case;
  • ensuring that transnational cases are re-directed to the relevant authority; and
  • encouraging cooperation agreements between hotline service providers and the relevant national enforcement or judicial authorities.

9.8 The Commission says that it will continue to monitor progress by Member States in implementing measures to make the hotline fully operational, including through an annual stakeholders meeting, and may propose legislation if it considers that insufficient progress has been made within a reasonable timeframe.

The Government's view

9.9 The Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries (Mr Edward Vaizey) welcomes the Communication which serves as "a timely reminder to all Member States that 116 000 should be implemented as soon as possible" so as to ensure "that all EU citizens, wherever they are in the 27 Member States, have access to this important pan-European service."

9.10 The Minister explains that Ofcom is responsible for the reservation and assignment of the 116 000 number in the UK. The number was allocated to the charity "Missing People" and its chosen telecommunications provider (British Telecommunications) in May 2010. 116 000 operates alongside the charity's existing helpline numbers and will replace them from April 2012. The Minister says that low-key promotion of the 116 000 number will start in January 2011 at selected UK entry points, based on pan-European marketing material provided by Missing Children Europe, followed by a high profile launch of the number in April 2012.

9.11 The Communication states that the 116 000 hotline is only "partially operational" in the UK because one (un-named) communications provider in the UK does not currently provide access to the 116 000 number. The Minister continues:

    "In the UK, only British Telecom has an obligation to provide access to all telephone numbers. However one operator has taken the commercial decision not to provide access to 116 000. This decision has been taken as it is their view that the wholesale charging structure was unacceptable for a 'free to caller' number originating on a mobile network and therefore would not cover their costs of efficient call origination. (Note: the UK has gone further than the Decision and requires calls to some 116 numbers to always be 'free to caller' rather than 'freephone', where charges can apply provided the caller is informed).

    "Ofcom are currently in negotiations with the operator on this matter and are considering whether access obligations for 116 000 could or should be strengthened.

    "It is worth noting that there is a new requirement in the amended telecommunications package (Article 27a of the Universal Service and Users' Rights relating to Electronic Communications Networks & Services directive — 2002/22/EC) for Member States to promote all 116 numbers. This should include measures to encourage the provision of those services and to ensure that disabled end-users have access to these numbers whilst travelling.

    "Work on implementing this is being taken forward by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as part of the larger project to implement the Revised European Communications Framework package of directives. The Department will work closely with all interested Government Departments and agencies in the implementation of these provisions."[45]

Conclusion

9.12 While it is clear that implementation of the hotline is further advanced in the UK than in many other Member States, we note with concern that it is still not considered to be fully operational because one telecommunications provider does not provide access to the 116 000 number. We think that this is not only highly regrettable, but that it is also likely to be highly counter-productive if, as the Commission suggests, further EU legislation may be proposed to ensure that the hotline is fully operational in all Member States. While we are content to clear the Communication from scrutiny, we ask the Minister to inform us of the outcome of negotiations currently being conducted by Ofcom to ensure universal access to the 116 000 number in the UK.


41   See Commission Decision 2007/116/EC of 15 February 2007, OJ L 49, 17.2.2007, pp 30-33. Back

42   See Article 27a of the Universal Service Directive (Directive 2009/136/EC, amending Directive 2002/22/EC); HC 19-xviii (2008-09), chapter 13 (3 June 2009) and HC 19-xiv (2008-09), chapter 1 (22 April 2009). Back

43   See paragraph 2, page 3 of the Commission's Communication. Back

44   The hotline is operational in Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.  Back

45   See paragraphs 38-41 of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum.  Back


 
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