Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Welsh Advisory Committee on Telecommunications (WACT).


  1.  The Welsh Advisory Committee on Telecommunications (WACT) is one of the four national committees set up under the Telecommunications Act 1984 to advise OFTEL. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry appoints its chairman and members.

  2.  WACT naturally concentrates on issues that affect consumers in Wales, and takes a particular interest in the needs of the rural areas. This submission thus focuses on the consumer issues in the draft Bill, especially the Consumer Panel, and on regional representation.

  3.  It has not been possible for our full committee to meet before the deadline set by the Joint Committee. A fuller response, discussed by the full committee, will be made to the DTI/DCMS consultation.


  4.  While having concerns with regard to consumer and regional representation, we welcome the draft Bill. WACT has believed for some time that the plethora of regulatory bodies covering broadcasting and telecommunications should be rationalised. A common set of objectives applied in all areas will encourage consistent decision-making. A single powerful regulator covering the whole range of communications will reduce the possibility of important matters not being addressed, avoid duplication, and make it easier to react as the communications world changes.


  5.  We are unhappy that the list of duties should be presented as though all have equal priority. We believe strongly that OFCOM's principal duty should be to further the interests of consumers and citizens. All the other duties listed, though welcome, must be secondary to this principal duty.


  6.  We welcome the proposal to establish a Consumer Panel, but have concerns about its independence, scope, and composition.

  7.  The proposal that OFCOM will appoint the Consumer Panel members is unwise, and will compromise its independence and credibility. Regulators are under great pressure from the industries they regulate, which makes it very important that the consumer voice comes with maximum authority.

  8.  The scope of the Consumer Panel is limited, essentially to the interests of consumers in relation to the provision of electronic communications networks and services. This is too restricted. Given the existence of the Content Board, it is understandable that the Consumer Panel's remit should not include content per se, but there are many other aspects of OFCOM's work on which a strong consumer voice is needed. These include the use of the radio spectrum, media ownership, and the awarding of broadcasting licences.

  9.  We are pleased to see that it is proposed to make the Consumer Panel represent the needs of small businesses as well as individual consumers.

  10.  We are also pleased to see that there will be a member of the Consumer Panel representing the needs of Wales, but wish to see further statutory protection for regional issues. This is addressed below.


  11.  Just having a member of the Consumer Panel for Wales is not enough for effective representation of the needs of consumers in Wales. There are many aspects to these needs, notably the Welsh language, BT's effective monopoly in most of Wales, the terrain and economic disadvantages of much of Wales, the distinctive regional broadcasting services and the need to work closely with the Welsh Assembly.

  12.  The needs of different parts of Wales are not uniform. Thus there is a clear need for the member of the Consumer Panel for Wales to be supported by a statutory advisory committee with members representing different interests within Wales. The Bill should establish this committee (and similar ones for the other countries). If it is left to the Consumer Panel to establish such committees, their creation and continuing existence will be insecure. (WACT itself is an example of a statutory regional committee protected in law under previous legislation—the Telecommunications Act 1984).

  13.  The White Paper recognised the importance of relationships with the devolved administrations. It is very disappointing to see nothing in the Bill to give effect to this. We believe that OFCOM should be required to liase with the National Assembly for Wales on relevant matters, that the National Assembly should be at least consulted on the appointment of persons representing the interests of Wales (such as members of the Content Board, Consumer Panel, and advisory committees), and that the National Assembly should be entitled to reports from OFCOM and the Consumer Panel on how their work affects Wales.

  14.  OFCOM should be required by the Bill to establish an office in Wales (and also in Scotland and Northern Ireland). The existing ministerial assurance on this matter is not enough; it would not necessarily survive a change of government.


  15.  There is a great deal to be applauded in the draft Bill, and there will be other issues that WACT will wish to highlight. This preliminary response addresses some immediate concerns, and we would be delighted to have the chance to discuss them further with you.

May 2002

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