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Mr. Kirkwood: Of course I recognise that a great deal of front-line, leading-edge technological work is being done in radio transmission and communication. I welcome that because it opens up opportunities that rural areas otherwise would not have.
The market will not offer an incentive for companies to move into areas such as south-east Scotland, where there are two or three times as many sheep as there are people and households. The Government are right to say that commercial forces have a part to play, but there must
Column 924come a time at which the really disparate areas such as the highlands and the south-east and south-west of Scotland and parts of Wales benefit from active positive discrimination by central Government, if it is necessary. If, as a result of this evening's discussion, the Minister could tell me that if all else fails the Government will consider dealing with that problem by plugging that gap, I would be reassured.
BT and Mercury have been crying out for the chance to create a truly national infrastructure and I understand that BT is prepared to put up £15 billion of its own money. As there is no need for taxpayers' money, I do not see what the Government have against that. We are in serious danger of missing an opportunity if we do not allow it to happen.
What should the Government do? First, they should allow BT and Mercury to re-enter the market. Secondly, because of the educational importance of the subject, the Government should commit themselves to a project to link every school, college and library to a national super-highway more widespread than Super-JANET, which has been a brave and relatively successful attempt to link universities. Thirdly, and finally, the Government should provide some guarantee of their commitment to ensuring that rural areas are not left behind. Some of my hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), would agree with Mr. Newt Gingrich and give everyone on income support a laptop. That is a slightly strange idea in some ways; but at least Newt Gingrich and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham recognise the importance of such
infrastructures to our future, and of motivation, commitment and vision. That is probably the only resemblance between them. Today's children will need technological skills if they are to obtain jobs. Technology is invading the workplace, and it will invade the home as well. My party has produced a policy that we consider coherent, which is contained in a document entitled "As Far as the Eye Can See". I recommend it to the Government.
I hope that the Minister's response will be positive. I congratulate the Select Committee on a very good report, which has given us an opportunity to engage in an important debate.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) on his report, and on the interesting debate that has resulted from it. I believe that many people outside will also find the debate interesting.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Back-Bench committee that I chair chose today for a demonstration of the Internet, which is to take place in my office at 6 pm. Hon. Members may wish to go to my office--which is at 3 Dean's yard--at that time, or perhaps at 7 pm, when the debate has ended. The demonstration is to take place there because the House is so technologically backward that it is impossible to find a Committee Room in which to hold a demonstration of the Internet.
One Committee Room--Committee Room 15--has an integrated services digital network line. In the past, I have booked that room with the full co- operation of the Serjeant at Arms and, at the last minute, have been told that I must use Committee Room 14, Committee Room
Column 92521 or some other room that has no ISDN line. That makes any demonstration of the Internet impossible. The Minister smiles; I am sure that he understands my frustration. I think that many people would like to see what the Internet can do, so I have decided to go ahead with the demonstration--but, as I have said, it will take place in my office rather than in the main building.
My constituency is fortunate, in that it could be described as "wired up". It contains a very good cable company, Cambridge Cable, which has installed fibre-optics throughout the city and is now beginning work on some of the surrounding area in East Anglia. Of course, we also have an excellent university, which has promoted fibre-optic cable and has been one of the main proponents of the JANET and Super-JANET networks. An on-line media experiment is currently being conducted in some homes in the Cambridge area, allowing people to choose educational and video services. I am conscious, however, that not all my constituents have access to the new technology. I have therefore tried to convene a small group to work in the city, examining ways of providing access for a much wider range of people than those who can afford the modems and computers that they will need in their own homes to gain access to the technology. We have devised an on- line city project, involving city and county councillors and a number of other agencies. They will consider the provision of information that is socially useful rather than commercially useful. I refer to housing transfer lists, bus timetables, advice on benefits and other information to which ordinary people would like access. We intend to put in a number of installation points in libraries, community centres, schools, shopping centres and the shopping concourse in Addenbrooke's hospital, because those are the sorts of places where we think it best for people to get access to the Internet and the information on it. This is a continuing experiment, and an important one. It illustrates the principle of universality, which is one of the most important principles that we have to work on. We must ensure that we do not end up with an elite, intellectual group of people who have access to this information via new technology and an underclass deprived of the educational and employment opportunities and other benefits that new technology can bring.
super-highway--teleworking--means that people who are cut off at home because they live in rural areas and cannot come into the cities can work at home and need no longer be cut off?
Mrs. Campbell: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Many people will welcome the prospect of more teleworking, but it has disadvantages too. Many people work for the social contact, so we shall have to wait and see how that aspect resolves itself. There are advantages and disadvantages to working remotely.
I am perhaps one of the few hon. Members to have a large proportion of constituents who are wired up. I reckon that about 20,000 of my 70,000 constituents have access, in one way or another, to the Internet. About 15,000 people are wired up via the university and have access to electronic mail; I estimate that at least another
Column 9265,000 who work in high-tech industries and in small consultancies from home have such access too, so it has been easy for me to take advantage of the new technology.
Since I started using electronic mail, I have found that about 10 per cent. of my correspondence comes to me in that form. I must inform the House, however, that that does not give me any more time to read the mail than when it comes the usual way in the form of hard copy.
I have also had the opportunity of taking advantage of some of the news groups. Cambridge is fortunate in having its own news group, where I can post views and receive views publicly from some of my constituents. I am pleased to announce that I now have my own home page. I apologise in advance for the gobbledegook, but my code is: http://www.worldserver.pipex.com/anne.campbell/. I hope that everyone will use it to read up on my career and to peruse my constituency newsletters-- not to mention learning about my activities in the House.
I have also taken advantage of electronic mail by becoming the first hon. Member to hold an electronic mail surgery. So far I have held about five of them. They have all been heavily used; there is always a great deal of interest in these events. It is difficult to predict the questions that my constituents will ask by electronic mail at advice surgery times. Some people are puzzled and ask, "Why don't you answer e-mail at any time, instead of only between 5 pm and 6.30 pm on Friday?" I am sure that hon. Members understand that it is not easy to respond quickly to electronic or other mail. At least my constituents know that, at a fixed time every month, I am sitting at my terminal ready to respond to their queries as they arise. That technology has enormous implications for democracy. Several hon. Members spoke about making Hansard available on the Internet, which would be of enormous advantage. Why not make hon. Members' voting records available on the Internet? Why not give constituents the chance to respond to the way in which hon. Members vote or to the remarks that they make? Why not make us more accountable and open to questioning from our constituents?
A few months ago, I asked questions of every Government Department to ascertain the extent to which they were using the Internet and whether or not I could send them e-mail. I know that the Minister has an e-mail address and although I have not taken advantage of that facility yet I am sure that I shall do so.
It would be a great advantage to send to Ministers the sort of e-mail that I receive. I know that I am not allowed to use visual aids in the Chamber, but in waving this piece of paper about, the Minister will appreciate that this is one of seven e-mail messages that I received today, and it is quite lengthy. The only way in which I can provide a copy to a Minister is to produce a printout and a photocopy, attach that to another letter, place them in an envelope and post them.
That is rather tedious and I would rather simply press a button, to pass on e-mail to whichever Minister is destined to receive it--and obtain an answer in the same way that I can post on. My constituents might then ask whether there is any point having a Member of Parliament who just acts as a Minister's post box, and they might start sending their electronic mail to the Minister direct. It is impossible for us to predict future developments and
Column 927the way in which they will change our work in the House. However, I am sure that those changes will be far-reaching and profound. There is a healthy debate in my party at present about the use of encryption on the Internet, which has in turn generated discussion among some news groups. We well understand that some users want their privacy respected, and that others need unforgeable signatures. I am seriously considering that myself because it would be potentially dangerous for someone to be able to forge a Member of Parliament's signature on the Internet. We are beginning to come to terms with such issues and to devise policies, but we need time to form a considered view. I am sure that the debate about encryption will continue.
I want to talk also about the importance of the Internet and the super- highway in education. I was interested to read on the front page of The Times Educational Supplement last week about a Department of Trade and Industry project called "Schools on Line". It is expected to cost about £7.5 million and a pilot is to be launched in June in about 60 schools. I gather that the project will link some schools to the Internet through ISDN lines provided by British Telecom.
The project was not entirely news to me because I had heard about it from various contacts in education before I read about it. I understand that when the Secretary of State for Education heard of the DTI's grandiose plans, in the words of my informant she went ballistic because she did not think that this was a good time to put extra money into schools when the Government had been unable to find money to fund the teachers' pay award. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
It is obviously desirable, if not essential, to put schools on line as soon as possible. There should not just be one line inside the front door. We must think about how to provide infrastructure in each school so that every classroom can have access to the Internet. Such a project will not be inexpensive: it will require a great deal of resources. I realise, as do all my hon. Friends, that it cannot be done quickly but must be planned and that there must be a strategic framework for seeing how it will develop.
Mr. Ian Taylor: Obviously, I cannot comment on newspaper headlines; the hon. Lady will have to wait for formal announcements. It is important to understand that in working with industry the DTI is obviously keen to encourage industry to produce projects for schools. In that sense, we are reinforcing the Department for Education announcement in January of a £3 million scheme to encourage industry to present ideas. I especially welcome the pledge by the Cable Communications Association to wire up every school in franchise areas with optical fibres.
Mrs. Campbell: I am grateful to the Minister for that information. It is encouraging to know that Ministers are thinking along those lines. However, I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will say later in the debate that the universality principle is just as important in schools as it is in homes. The way forward must be planned, to ensure that people will not be disadvantaged because a cable company does not have a franchise in their area.
The use of the information super-highway in education is a most exciting and forward-looking idea, and it could do a great deal to raise standards in education. It is
Column 928important for us to get there first, because that will give our children enormous advantages over students in other parts of the world.
I should like to put in a word for two organisations that have been particularly helpful and useful in promoting that kind of education. One is the National Council for Educational Technology. It has pioneered some miraculous and imaginative schemes, which have done a great deal to point the way to raising standards. The other organisation is the BBC, which over the years has set an excellent example in educational broadcasting without which our schools would have been much poorer.
The real challenge for the future is to determine how the BBC can be financed so that it can go on providing that core of educational work, which is vital to schools. In future, the licence fee may not be an appropriate way to do so, because at the moment it covers a television set, and those who do not have sets do not pay the fee. In future those with computers may have to pay the licence fee because two or even three technologies--the computer, the television set and the telephone--may be combined in a single piece of equipment. How to ensure that the BBC continues to be an excellent provider of vital information for our schools and citizens is an exciting challenge. 5.4 pm
Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel): I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), for reasons that I shall shortly explain. I apologise for not being present for the start of the debate. However, hon. Members may be pleased to know that, thanks to the improvement of communications in the House, I have heard every speech in the debate from the comfort of 1 Parliament street. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) on his speech, which dealt with his Committee's report. I am willing to be quizzed by any hon. Member as to whether I heard his speech. The only part of the debate I missed was during the minute that it took me to go from 1 Parliament street to the Chamber.
For reasons that I shall explain, I had not intended to speak in the debate. I decided to do so after hearing hon. Members' speeches, because they prove that this debate is most useful. It has touched off two themes in my mind, which I am keen to put to the House. I welcome what the hon. Member for Cambridge said, because, as chairman of the parliamentary and scientific committee, I can tell her that much of what she said bears on the convergence of technology, which is causing us to look at structures in the Commons and the Lords as we consider how to address our minds to the real technological changes that we face on a personal level.
As chairman of the parliamentary information technology committee and the parliamentary space committee, I can tell the House that we had to address our minds to that. There is also the cable and satellite group. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope that he will address some of those changes because some aspects of technology and the opportunities for British industry are the themes that I should like to address.
Much of the debate has touched upon the consumer, the user of technology. As I said, the new technologies present opportunities for British industry. In the context of the user, I was pleased to hear so many references to
Column 929Internet. Those of us who had opportunities at college, university or elsewhere to see Internet in action appreciate that it has made considerable headway. The hon. Member for Cambridge made that her major theme, and she was right to suggest that it could present opportunities, but also a major challenge.
Over the past 20 years in this place, the growth of contact with Members and the weight of paper upon us have become major problems. Would electronic mail help to solve them, or would it add to them? Will instant access mean that we shall reflect the views of lobbies that are geared to high tech in a way that might lead to staffing implications? That is an open question, but we shall have to address it as more and more hon. Members come to terms with modern technology.
I said that I shall concentrate on the opportunities for British industry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the way in which he has sought to raise the public profile of information technology in this field. He gave a press conference on earth observations, which touched on aspects of agriculture and on the opportunity for more effective monitoring of the common agricultural policy, an issue that is near to all our hearts. I believe that he has in mind similar sessions with the media in respect of communications and putting the case for our space industry, for which there are major opportunities in Europe and further afield. I encourage the Minister to say a word or two about raising the profile of what is happening in communications across the broadband network and through satellites. With convergence, Britain's expertise in the field and the prospect of liberalisation within Europe, to which he referred, we should be able in Europe and further afield to take the opportunity to promote British companies that have expertise not only in cable but in satellites. Behind that, it is true that we have a world lead in software. With the coming together of the Government and hon. Members with an interest in the area, there are many opportunities that could be to our national benefit. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to say a few words on the issue. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will feel able to respond to the points that I have raised--if not now, perhaps in more detail later or in writing if he wants to give the matter further consideration.
The Select Committee report has given us a welcome opportunity to bend our minds to the real challenge of the future, the opportunities for industry and the way in which each and every hon. Member will be working over the next several years.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the debate. He is a new Minister, who has been widely spoken of as someone who will take a new and dynamic view.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) on the Select Committee report that was published in July 1994. It is certainly one of the most interesting and informative reports on a technical subject that I have read for some time. We heard some detail about the Internet from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). It made me realise that there was more to the discussion that
Column 930I heard recently on the radio between Pat Kane, who is a pop star but also a graduate looking into the American way of life, and someone at the forefront in the United States who claimed that the Internet is now biological and should have rights written into the constitution.
I realise that it is no substitute for the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, but on that programme I heard about a marriage that had grown out of contact on the Internet. Perhaps it has more human attributes than one would think. I hope that it is working on a divorce package as well. The marriage may have been made not in heaven, but on the Internet--yet it may still end in the divorce courts.
Mrs. Anne Campbell: Does my hon. Friend appreciate that one of the advantages of the Internet is that we can be whoever we choose--male or female, old or young, black or white? That has some interesting implications for our democracy.
Mr. Connarty: I know that people reinvent themselves every day in this place, but I had not realised that they also did so on the Internet. My hon. Friend is the chair of the Back-Bench parliamentary Labour party committee on science and technology. I have tried to take an interest in those matters, but she is far ahead of me. Indeed, I took the trouble to go to Martlesham to see the British Telecommunications experiments. It is clear that there is a future that we have not envisaged if only we allow it to come to us. In my constituency, within a few hundred yards of my home, there is a teleworking cottage in the converted stables of an old house. The great thing about a teleworking cottage, especially in an environment such as Scotland, is that not only can it train people to use computers, but because many jobs can be done across the Internet in various locations close to the company that requires work to be done, it can supply work to people in rural areas.
I am sure that we should be worried about some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, such as the change in social relationships if we begin to use teleworking, but there are great advantages in teleworking for, for example, a lady in a rural area. If she has no work, her choice is either to leave her rural environment or to find a new medium with which to contact the workplace--and obviously teleworking is one.
I was impressed by the Select Committee report, but I was disappointed by the Government's response, which was published in November, because it appears that, in the main, the Select Committee's recommendations have been rejected. The Government state in paragraph 7:
"the existing regulatory framework based on the 1991 Telecommunications White Paper continues to provide the best framework for"
development. They refer to an evolutionary environment. I do not propose that we go into a revolutionary mode, especially as the Labour party has changed clause IV, but I think that there are many reasons to be worried about keeping to the path that the Government are on.
Paragraph 7(b) states:
"the new local delivery franchises for broadcasting services should continue to be awarded on an exclusive basis".
Column 931There is a danger that we shall end up with what was warned of in the Select Committee report, which is local monopolies becoming entrenched, rather than the sort of development that we need to face the potential challenge of the super-highway.
It is clear that the liberalisation of 1984 has had benefits. There are 125 cable franchises covering two thirds of the population--or rather, they pass two thirds of the population. As we have heard, although 3 million households are passed, only 650,000 are connected--only 21.5 per cent. I was surprised to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central say that that is the same percentage as for 1992, so progress seems to have been frozen. Another interesting point is the 15 per cent. increase in telephones in households. No doubt that is aided by the cable companies offering telephony as well as entertainment services. I have read enough to know a little of what my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) said about local networks being only copper in many cases, not optical fibre. The aspiration--indeed, the prerequisite--for the sort of super- highway that we are supposed to be discussing tonight is that there should be optical fibre and, possibly, radio at the end of it to give us the broadband, two-way communication required.
I note that the national grid is to have another national network of optics across the grid. Fibreway, a company mainly owned by GPT Ltd., plans a national network along canalways. There will be a number of fibre optic national networks, but they will not necessarily reach what should be the final user. As the Select Committee said in its report, the railways will probably be another alternative for running an optical fibre network. The problem is that that would then link with a series of local networks of a much lower quality, which basically would have been put in simply to get a quick return from selling broadcasting services.
British Telecom and Mercury are locked out of entertainment provision. One of the major concerns of the Select Committee was that without their being allowed access, they cannot get into the broadcast income stream, so they cannot justify the sort of investment required to go from national to local.
Mr. Ian Taylor: On one specific point, it must be clear that BT and Mercury are allowed to do anything they wish, in an interactive sense, with any household in the country. In other words, that is a national possibility. Equally, they are allowed to bid for the new local delivery operators, using their existing infrastructure--again for taking entertainment, and in this case simultaneous entertainment, if they wish to bid. In both those circumstances, the policies that I set out in our response are an advance and show that, although the interactive aspect of BT has been there from the beginning, there are signs that there is competition, and therefore great potential for BT in that market.
Mr. Connarty: I had intended to deal with the point that the Minister made. I do not think that he is telling us that, at this moment, BT could put entertainment down the line nationally to sell to people in their homes. The 20 million telephone customers cannot suddenly be accessed for interactive or broadcast purposes nationally. I picked up that matter in what the Government said.
Column 932In fact, BT had six franchises, but it gave up five of them and retained an interest only in Westminster. The reason was that BT did not feel that that was compatible with its aspiration to develop a national two-way broadband network. The present regulations--or restrictions--have created local, not national, and narrow, not broadband, networks.
I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said about the quality of the Cambridge network. I am sure that it will fit in nicely with a national network, but it is probably one of the few that will. The point is that they will not be able to be stapled together.
That is my problem, coming at the issue very much from a lay person's viewpoint, and looking at what has been created--a series of local network loops that need to be stapled together to make a national network. But there is no main player willing to put the quality all the way down the line and to ensure that the network is put together. I do not know how the network loops can be stapled together to make a national network. Therefore, we may make a super-highway, but there will not be many turning- on points for the community and for users.
The Government's comment about public telecommunications operators was interesting. Paragraph 44 of the Command Paper states, as the Minister argued earlier:
"there is no asymmetry in the regulatory framework".
He argued that BT had chosen to dispose of its cable franchises, but that BT and Mercury were able to act as agents for franchisees or to bid for franchises in local areas. It is worth noting that Mercury has 28 local cable franchises. As has been said before, it is owned by Cable and Wireless. That means that it is 80 per cent. owned by an American company.
No PTO can transmit entertainment nationally. On page 33 of the Select Committee's July report, BT said that, if it could transmit entertainment, broadcast services could eventually have
"such a significant impact on the economics [of broadcast networks] that their provision would allow voice telephony to be offered at marginal cost."
That is an attractive prospect. It reminds me of the vision of "atoms for peace" that was discussed when I was a young boy. It did not come off in that industry.
BT seems to be saying that the main driving force behind its early development will become marginal compared with the fantastic and fascinating services that can be offered. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon made that point. The most important thing is not the infrastructure, but the services that it will carry, yet the Government seem to be locked into regulations. They are worried about the development of the infrastructure when they should look to the future and focus on the services.
People keep talking about the United States' involvement in cable companies. I was interested to note that United States companies have 67 per cent. of the cable market, that Canadian companies have 19 per cent., and that French companies have 5 per cent., leaving United Kingdom companies with only 5 per cent. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that the UK is the only country that allows telephony to be put down cable at the same time as broadcasts. All the advantages seem to be with the companies that will undermine the strength of
Column 933our bigger companies, especially BT, which should be a lead company, with all advantages given. The policy is not sensible.
As a lay person, I find it freakish that the Government should forbid the 20 million plus customers of the PTOs to get on to the highest technology, the super-highway and the Internet. The Minister said that the intention is to consider the use of wavebands and radio in sparsely populated regions. The map on page 19 of the Select Committee report shows a small, fragmented area of black, which denotes the cable franchises in Scotland, plus only a little line around Aberdeen.
That is where the economic argument will come in. We might get the radio bands, but unless the project is supported by the Government or taken up by a company such as BT, which is big enough to take on extra infrastructure costs--as part of the public service return for the cash that it will receive from investment--I do not know how it can be done. No small, local cherry-picking cable companies could undertake such a project.
We have talked about the regulations, but a strong argument is advanced on page 46 of the report that there might be a single regulator. In the future, we shall have not cable, wireless or telephone companies, but a single stream of digital information, which will be in many forms as it is translated and transposed for use by the consumer and by companies. There is a strong argument for bringing together the Office of Telecommunications and the Independent Television Commission, to consider whether there should be one regulator. I note that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of National Heritage have regulatory roles as well. We need to get ourselves into the right mode and deal with who will regulate, rather than just with what the regulations will be. My final thoughts are simple and possibly naive. They deal with what people at the other end of broadcasts may be thinking. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge explained the Internet. When television was first invented, it probably frightened off anyone who wished to buy a television, but it is now so commonplace in our homes that people do not see it; it is only a decoding machine, picking up signals practically from the ether. It has become simple to operate, but that does not mean that it is a simple device.
I hope that, in making our decisions on the super-highway, we realise that we should have something that the end user will use. It should not be used just to put down pulp films. It must be a simple device that allows people to extract and receive all the aspects of the information revolution that are coming. It is clear that, if all people participate, the country, the economy and our ability to survive in the world will grow. Many people will be left out if an all-access interchange on the super-highway is not achieved. I must admit that, although I am fascinated by Internet explanations and I have a modem that allows me to get on to it, I am put off by the complexity of getting in and by other matters that were explained by the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall). I am put off by the fact that what comes out of it might engulf me, and I would not be able to cope with it. That is the worry of people in the home and in business. We must consider the interfaces and the end points as well as the highway as we develop it.
Column 9345.26 pm
Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe): I apologise for being unable to attend the beginning of the debate. I declare an interest in the cable industry. I have the privilege of claiming to be the oldest living inhabitant of the British cable industry. I was persuaded by the visions of my then right hon. Friends in 1981-82. I believed that, as the phrase was then, the cabling of Britain was the future. I was co-founder of a company that subsequently became the Cable Corporation, of which I have the honour to be chairman.
Our vision in 1981-82 was flawed, because, as it turned out, it was not possible to create a cable television industry in this country until the telecommunications structure was liberalised. That transformed the panorama in such a way that this country has made unparalleled progress and is, incomparably, the leader in the field. Although some leaders in the rest of the world have discovered the communications super-highway--the Vice- President of the United States, the Japanese and the Germans talk about it- -we have been plodding along heavily and with great financial difficulty, and doing it. The statistics have already been given to the House about the number of kilometres we have, the number of homes passed, and the billions of pounds that have already been spent. We are a long way down the road, and far further towards a super-highway than any other country.
The Government have not been given enough credit for that foresight, with the honourable exception of my hon. Friend the Minister. Ministers do not take enough credit for what they have achieved. I pay credit to my hon. Friend, who has been a shot in the arm to this exciting industry.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Government and this country are so far ahead, why, in chapter 2 of their Command Paper in November of last year, did the Government say:
"The full scope of the opportunities offered by the convergence of telecommunications, broadcasting and information technology is only now becoming clear"?
The Government have only just woken up.
Mr. Whitney: No. These questions are entirely relative, and have to do with the development of modern technology. A great deal is only now becoming clear. I mentioned Vice-President Al Gore a moment ago--it has become clear to his scriptwriters but, meanwhile, we have on the ground miles and miles of fibre-optic interactive network. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should cavil. This should not be a cross-party battle. We should for once all recognise that Britain happens to be ahead. It is sad that the hon. Gentleman feels it necessary to take such a carping approach.
Mr. Caborn: The hon. Gentleman is being a little economical with the truth, and giving a rather narrow reading of history. I am not making a party political point, but will he accept that the vast investment that went into British Telecom and the British communications industry occurred when it was in the public sector? I do not wish to detract from British Telecom--it is a first-class company, a global player. It wants to invest £15 billion to £20 billion--that is the offer that Iain Vallance
Column 935made the Government, but it has been turned down because the regulatory system, which was correct in its infancy, is no longer correct, because circumstances have changed. We are not moving with the times: that was the fundamental argument in the Select Committee's report.
Mr. Whitney: I know it was; I had the privilege of reading the report. Although he did not recognise the point in his intervention, I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that British Telecom had the opportunity afforded by the cable revolution. It had six franchises of its own, but opted out and walked away from them. I feel no ill will towards British Telecom. If it wishes to spend £15 billion in the future, let it do so. Although it is behind the eight ball, it is being slow. Billions of pounds have already been spent. I am the first to wish that more of the investment in the industry was British. When we formed our company, the great majority of investors were British, but--I am sure hon. Members are acquainted with this sad phenomenon--the relative short-termism of British finance meant that it was a long haul. Many people invested as, let us say, venture capitalists, and thought that they would be involved for three years and then get out. That, however, is not the nature of this industry.
My company has been spending money for 12 years, and only last year became cash-positive. There cannot be many big industries where that sort of time scale is acceptable, so we have to give credit to the investors, whether they be American, Canadian, French or British, and recognise what they have done and are doing. They are creating a fibre-optic network for this country, at no cost to the taxpayer. That was the vision of the Government and the Department of Trade and Industry way back in 1981-82. It has been realised.
I hope that British capital will come back as the industry matures. The financial institutions have been pretty slow on the uptake, and slow to understand the potential. It is now being understood, and I am optimistic that British capital will come back to an exciting and important national industry.
The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) is no longer in his place but I wish to pick up a point that he made. He referred to the national network and the unsatisfactory stapling together of local networks. I hope that I can bring him good cheer, because that is happening very effectively.
There is in place something called the London Interconnect, which essentially joins the M25 area and beyond--from Berkshire to Essex--by means of fibre-optic connections. The quality is excellent, as good as anyone could wish for in this advanced stage of the technology. Plans are already well advanced to link region to region so that we have a fibre- optic national grid--again, at no cost to the taxpayer. The Minister has already explained the opportunities available to British Telecom. From my experience with my cable company, I can testify to the fact that British Telecom's service improved out of all recognition virtually overnight, and the winner is the consumer.
Column 936almost no deployment of optical fibre by those companies in customers' homes? Does he share my concern that that is where we are falling behind?
Mr. Whitney: It is true that there is a technical problem with the last drop, but I am confident that, in the next year or two, the last drop connection and a great many other interactive services will appear. The hon. Gentleman's intervention brings me to my next point.
Progress has, of course, been much slower than many of us would have wished, and certainly slower than the cable companies would have wished. They have a strong interest in getting the network in place quickly, so that they can earn revenue. There have been a range of tax changes, with which I shall not bore the House and with which many hon. Members are probably familiar, but that caravan is now rolling fast. Over the next year or two, I believe--in fact, I know--that there will be a range of new interactive services that will develop much more rapidly than they have so far, and more rapidly than seems likely in any other country.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall), there are great opportunities for British industry. I hope that large and small technical industries are fully alerted to those opportunities and to the challenge.
There are two further opportunities for Britain. The first concerns investment, and the second involves the provision of all the technology that the industry will need. Fundamentally, there is a terrific opportunity for British consumers and British business. Businesses in my area are happy to have BT and our local cable company supplying telephony services. Everyone benefits--as, for example, with the schools initiative.
I emphasise that this has been a success story. British Telecom has been given opportunities in the past and has great opportunities for the future. The structure created 10 or 12 years ago has not only stood the test of time but shown that it is capable of developing to the very great benefit of this country. We should rejoice in that fact.
Mr. Connarty: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I must apologise to the House. When I spoke earlier, I did not declare an interest. I was previously sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers, representing postal workers, which has amalgamated with the National Communication Union, which works in the telecom industry and is now called the Communication Workers Union. Had I not been sponsored by a union, however, I would not have changed what I said.