Possible Times Thunder

It’s bad enough having to pay bills. It’s worse having to pay for the bills you have to pay. Yet that is increasingly what Britain’s rapacious utility companies are demanding.

The House of Lords last night debated a motion by Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, a former consumer affairs minister, attacking the practice of the utilities in charging customers if they want paper bills.

This mini-scandal first came to my attention with the arrival of a notice from British Telecom. If I wanted to get bills by post in future, it said, I would have to pay an extra £6 a year. This seemed to me to be wrong so I complained to OFCOM.

In her reply to me of 19th June, this is what Colette Bowe, their chair,  said. “We believe providers are entitled to make commercial decisions on the methods through which they provide bills and whether they impose charges to do so.” I thought OFCOM was supposed to be about regulating the market, not about prostrating itself before its imperial dictats.

Ms Bowe went to say that Ofcom did  “protect certain vulnerable groups from being charged for receiving bills” citing the blind and visually impaired. So if you are blind you are entitled to have the bill you cannot read free in any format, online or paper. You could not make it up!

My Lords what is wrong with OFCOM’s supine stance? It is simply this. Yes, it is right that the transformative culture of IT has advanced, should advance and will continue to advance. The supporters of Lady Oppenheim-Barnes motion last night were not Luddites.  We do however believe that there is an essential precondition of such technical advance. It is that those who for one reason or another are excluded from its blessings are not thereby unduly or unfairly penalised. New technology will be more successful if it is adopted by free choice than if it is forced down people’s throats.

According to the ONS, daily computer use amongst adults, in 2013, stood at 70%. That means that 30% are not accessing the computer daily, either because they can’t or because they don’t have a computer. The figure for older people is, not surprisingly, lower. It is about half that for the population generally: that is to say 37% of people over 65 access the computer once a day.

Roughly 6 million pensioners therefore would struggle to get their bills by computer. If say half of them are BT subscribers, that means BT might hope in time to make £18m a year  by its new OFCOM-endorsed policy of  screwing pensioners. That alone would pay the £5m bonus of BT chief executive Ian Livingstone nearly four times over.

You’d think OFCOM might have regard to public opinion. 84% of people think they should have the choice of how they get their bills according to an Opinium Research poll for the campaign “Keep me Posted”. 41% fear that they might miss a payment without such bills – and you can be sure that amongst pensioners, the figure would be much higher.

BT and the other anti-post billers won’t act. Why should they? It’s all revenue for them. Ofcom won’t act? Why should it? The free market is its creed. So who is left to act? The government, which needs, perhaps in the forthcoming Communications Act, to legislate to ban online-only billing. This will cost ministers nothing – but it would be a much-appreciated sign that they do understand that the vulnerable have to be protected against the vagaries of the unregulated free market.

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