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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the interesting part of the Question is the response of BT to competition. We have already seen early indications that there will be competition on price, quality and type of service. Of course, one service has already offered a lower price, and BT has now provided exactly the same services offered by the competitor. I have found again and again in my business experience that monopoly providers will not innovate or provide new services, claiming that they are not wanted by the customers or are too difficult to do, but as soon as competition emerges they suddenly become possible. This is a classic example where a monopoly provider has not innovated or made new services available. Competition has been introduced, and we now see proper regard paid to the customer.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, does the Minister agree that that is a classic example, to use his words, of a large corporation caring not a jot for its customers but following the example that the Government so persistently set in terms of a love of complexity and complication and eschewing the simple solution?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I do not totally agree. There is no very simple solution. Three-digit numbers cannot be used because those have very largely been taken up, so six-digit numbers have to be used. However, they are not insuperably difficult numbers to remember. They are numbers such as 118 118 and 118 000, and there are very simple ways to remember them.
Lord Acton: My Lords, two or three years ago, when I was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I had occasion to try to find the code for Italy. It took me 11 telephone calls, including two to my wife to complain about the United States, before I got the number. Is that not an awful warning of the higher qualities of service that my noble friend expects?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am not totally clear about the issue raised. I very much sympathise with the noble Lord's difficulty in getting the number for Italy, but I do not think that wholly relevant to what is really quite a small change in the numbering system for directory inquiries in this country.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, is not the serious point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that if the competitor says, "Would you like us to connect you?", there is no indication to the customer that it may charge up to 10 times more than BT would charge for that same call? Surely that is highly unsatisfactory and very damaging to the consumer.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, if there are different pricing systems, it is inevitable that they are slightly more complicated to understand than if there is one. Again, that is in the nature of competition. It is very clear that the services and their pricing structure have to be made known, with the services monitored by an independent body to make certain that they are properly marketed.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many people would like to access the telephone numbers they require via the Internet but unless there is some regulation of the fees charged by BT they will not get them any cheaper? Under the Communications Bill, does Ofcom have the power to regulate the amounts charged by BT for the use of its database?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the great advantage of the system is that there is competition and that cheaper services are already being provided.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, if the Answer given by my noble friend to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, on competition is true, why is it that Onetel offers national telephone calls at one-third of the price of BT and BT refuses to respond in any way?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, presumably, in due course BT will have to respond because customers will go elsewhere.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that Oftel always acts in the consumer interest? I point out in particular that twice most weeks and certainly once every week I receive an expensive press release from Oftel. When I have asked about the cost of themthey always come beautifully presented in quality envelopesI have been told, "Don't worry. It's nothing to you, it's all paid for by the telephone industry". That seems to overlook the fact that we, the public, are paying for the telephone industry.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, presumably if there were no press releases, Oftel would be accused of failing to communicate with the public. The question of the paper that they do it on is, I am afraid, not covered by brief. It is probably not a major overhead to the system.
Lord Carter: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the new service will continue to provide the discounted services that are currently available for disabled customers?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, a specific numberthe 195 serviceis for customers who are unable to use a conventional telephone book because of disablement. That will remain completely unchanged.
Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:
The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, no, we do not.
Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I am grateful for that unequivocal Answer. Will the Minister confirm that the idea involves a proposal to set up a planning centre in Brussels by 2004? Does she agree that that planning centre would duplicate or be in direct competition with SHAPE and NATO? When the idea is put forward at the ministerial Council meeting in Greece, will Her Majesty's Government make it clear that they will have absolutely nothing to do with it?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that my Answer was clear and unequivocal because that is exactly what it was designed to be. As I understand it, there are some suggestions about a planning centre. However, Her Majesty's Government remain committed to the inclusive, the intergovernmental, the NATO-friendly approach to the ESDP which the EU and NATO have agreed. We will therefore not support the development of a small, inner core within the European Union, particularly one involving a mutual defence commitment. So the noble Lord can rest assured that we shall be opposing it.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that her clear and short answer to this particular project is extremely welcome? But has she noticed that her colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, has recently spoken about the overall decline in EU military spending generally? What is the point of developing either this initiative or any others outside NATO when budgets are shrinking and when the funds will not be available for a proper European Union united defence?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Answer was designed to be clear and short, particularly after what the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said about the Government's love of complexity and complication. I hope that on this issue he will agree with me that the Government have been admirably uncomplicated and clear.
Her Majesty's Government have increased military expenditure. However, we believe that it is important to use the European mechanisms not only to try to encourage our colleagues in the EU to spend more on defenceand I notice that the noble Lord raises his eyebrows but we shall continue to press where we
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, perhaps I may take the opportunity to thank the noble Baroness for what she kindly said. Does she understand that I have always regarded her as a shining example of simplicity and plainnessplain speaking? If she would be kind enough to give just a bit of a lesson to the neighbour on her left, I have no doubt that the noble Lord will benefit from it.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am bound to say to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that it is not very gallant to call a lady simple and plain.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, is the new operation in the Congo being organised on a European basis? If so, what framework does that joint peace enforcement exercise come under?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, the United Nations Secretary-General requested that a short-term international force be deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo with a specific remit, including to secure Bunia airport and other vital installations in Bunia, as well as protecting the civilian population. The mandate for such a force was decided in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1484. The EU had decided to conduct an ESDP operation to fulfil the mandate. We are discussing numbers of troops to be sent from the United Kingdom and I hope that that will be decided within the next 48 hours or so.
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