Thursday, 12 May 1994
Dáil Éireann Debate
2. Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications if he will publish regular reports from the Telephone Users' Council which will indicate the impact of the Telecom Éireann rebalancing package on telephone consumers.
Mr. Cowen: The Telecom Éireann Users' Council was a statutory body established under sections 48 and 49 of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act, 1983. As I said before in this House, as recently as 2 November 1993, this body was abolished some years ago and its functions were effectively taken over by the Ombudsman and sections 48 and 49 of the 1983 Act were repealed by section 3 and the Second Schedule of the Restrictive Practices (Amendment) Act, 1987.
In September 1993 I established a less formal, though nonetheless independent, body which is called the Telephone Users' Advisory Group. The main function of this group is to carry out independent monitoring of the operation and impact on consumers of the rebalancing package introduced by Telecom Éireann on 1 September 1993. In establishing this group, I specifically allowed it to determine its own procedures and the frequency of publication of reports is a matter for the group itself.
I have received two reports to date from the group, one in January 1994 and one yesterday, both of which were made public when they were being sent to me and both of which are, I understand, available in the Oireachtas library.
Mr. Hogan: It is a coincidence that I table a Dáil Question on this matter  considering that a report on the subject was published yesterday. Notwithstanding that, there is, like the previous question some confusion regarding this matter. Will the Minister establish on a statutory basis the Telephone Users' Advisory Council, so that it is seen to be independent by the general public? A spin doctor approach is being applied by the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications and by Telecom Éireann in respect of the dissemination of selective information from the various reports. Domestic users of the telephone service are operating on an emergency service, call patterns have changed substantially and there is a basic weekend service for residential telephone subscribers. Small businesses are suffering in respect of increased costs because of the rebalancing package. Will the Minister review the package in the light of this information and take on board the widespread public confusion and concern in respect of the huge increase in charges imposed on residential users and small businesses?
Mr. Cowen: It is unfortunate that the Deputy calls into question the independence of the group set up to advise and monitor on the rebalancing package. He also calls into question the independence of people such as Mr. Tom  McCabe, IBEC, who represents small business people; Mr. Conan McKenna, Secretary of my Department; Mr. Tony McQuinn of the National Social Service Board, Ms. Joan Morrison of the Consumers' Association, Mr. Brian O'Sullivan of Cornel Electronics Limited, Ms Monica Prendirville, of the ICA, Professor Noel Whelan, Chairman of the group, Vice President of the University of Limerick and former Secretary of the Department of the Taoiseach and the former Department of Economic Planning and Development and Mr. Pat Walsh of Forbairt. The next time the Deputy meets them he will be able to make the routine apologies.
Mr. Cowen: It is unfortunate that the Deputy did not have the opportunity to read the report before asking the question. The volume of traffic has increased as a result of the rebalancing in relation to local and international calls. The most recent report taken in two weeks in December 1993 — a busy time on the telephone — shows that people have reverted to their original calling patterns and there are net reductions for business and residential users.
This is a rebalancing package; there are winners and losers. In the overall context we have a more cost competitive tariff system in Telecom. People who express their concern for the strategic future of Telecom fail to face up to the fact that in the absence of a rebalancing package — such as we have — which is in line with the predictions I made at the time despite the grave reservations of many people both in the House and outside, the question of its future competitiveness would be put at serious risk. The facts are in line with our predictions. This group in the overall context is confirming what we outlined at the time. the surveys brought forward by Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats, who had 400 supporters on whom they rely to produce a Bill, indicated increases of the  order of 38 per cent. Clearly we have a more scientific basis in the order of 900,000 bills.
Mr. Hogan: Will the Minister admit that he never indicated that over 50 per cent of domestic users would have substantially increased bills? Furthermore, will he indicate if he has any proposal to increase charges for international business?
Mr. Cowen: There are certainly no proposals to increase charges for international business. Looking at the trends in the communications industry, reductions are the order of the day if one is to remain competitive. If our native telecommunications industry is to stay competitive it will have to follow that trend rather than the one suggested by the Deputy.
For the vast majority of consumers the increase is less than 10 per cent and applies in the main to residential customers with low bills. In the overall context consumers, both residential and business customers, have got a net gain from the tariff balancing package.
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