Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Information Technology

14. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what steps he is taking to promote the wider use of information technology. [19454]

Mr. Ian Taylor: The information society initiative promotes the beneficial use of information and communications technologies across all areas of life, and includes the £35 million programme for business, and information technology for all, which aims to help all sections of the community get hands-on experience of the technology for the information society.

Mr. Bruce: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the keys to spreading information technology throughout our communities is to build up our telecommunications utilities network? Was he as surprised as I was yesterday that the shadow Chancellor threatened not only to take that investment money away from British Telecom as a utility but said that all companies which were regulated and licensed, but not necessarily privatised, without discrimination, would come under the windfall tax? We can see that the biggest threat to increasing information technology and telecommunications is a vote for Labour.

Mr. Taylor: Nothing surprises me about the way in which the shadow Chancellor tries to find money for his

19 Mar 1997 : Column 878

spending pledges--even from people who thought that they had cuddled up to him and done deals with him. It seems absurd that, at the very moment when we have had a breakthrough in the World Trade Organisation which will liberalise world telecommunications--we in the United Kingdom led that change by liberalising early in the 1980s--the shadow Chancellor believes it right to place an imposition on BT and worsen its competitive position.

Mr. Hoon: It has been said that the difference between government and opposition is that Governments do things and Oppositions talk about doing things. Is it not clear from the Government's information technology policy, which seems to consist mostly of press releases, consultation documents and Green Papers--largely talking about doing things--just how much the Conservative Government are preparing for opposition?

Mr. Taylor: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has forgotten that it is good to talk. The Government's programme for the information society initiative is the best managed anywhere in the world. We liberalised our telecommunications well before anyone else. We announced that we were liberalising even international telecommunications last summer. Before I gave away the licences at the end of December, British Telecom had reduced its international prices three times. Our success in telecommunications is often quoted as one of the top three reasons why inward investors want to come to Britain. Our content industries have been let loose to communicate with each other electronically and we have led the basis for the digital television revolution. That is not bad. There is more to do. I look forward to continuing these arguments and applying the policies after the election.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of promoting information technology is through the market? Does he agree that the privatisation of such companies as British Telecom and AEA Technology has brought outstanding success in promoting information technology? Does he agree that they have promoted that technology and brought it to the benefit of the ordinary consumer, for example by installing fibre-optics throughout the land?

Mr. Taylor: British Telecom is, this year alone, investing more than £2 billion in upgrading its infrastructure at the kerbside simply to meet the competitive challenge the cable industry has brought about in what is called the local loop. That is the market working. The Government do not have to instruct companies to do those things. We do not have to do cosy deals at party conferences. If the Government regulate and let the market act, the consumer benefits. Schools are being linked up to the networks by the force of the market. The cable industry and BT have offered fixed-price ISDN packages to schools to allow them to make more use of the super-highways. Conservative policy is delivering in every corner of the country every aspect of the information society. More and more people realise how important that is and why it is attached to the continuance of Conservative government.

19 Mar 1997 : Column 879

Regional Support

15. Mr. Campbell-Savours: To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he next intends to review the level of his Department's financial support available to each region of the United Kingdom. [19455]

Mr. Greg Knight: Every element of the Department's expenditure is kept under regular review as part of the public expenditure survey process.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Does not the experience of my constituency since 1979 encapsulate the problem for constituencies throughout the north of England? In the 1960s and 1970s, under Labour Governments and successful regional policies, 3,500 jobs were created in my constituency; in the 1980s and 1990s, under conservatism, 3,500 jobs were lost. Is it not clear that the Government have been involved in what can only be described as an act of industrial sabotage? May I ask the Minister not to give me a series of fabricated unemployment statistics in reply to my question?

Mr. Knight: Where has the hon. Gentleman been? We have had a severe world recession, and that is what caused difficulties, not only to his constituency, but to many others. That recession is now over and we are targeting the aid that is available in areas where the need is greatest. If the hon. Gentleman looks to Cumbria and the north-west region, he will see what is available: £30 million in European Union funding to help people get back to work; £20.7 million of regional selective assistance grants to help people get back to work; and, in Cumbria, £15 million of the single regeneration budget. That is what he should be welcoming. If there is any disappointment among his constituents about the recent past, it is because they have not had a Conservative Member of Parliament.

Mr. Booth: Regional policy is not a matter of spurious figures dictated by overmanning that has been cut out, or even by a world recession. Is not regional policy about ensuring that regions have freedom through lower taxation, lower inflation, lower interest rates and lower regulation--all policies that we are putting through?

Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend is absolutely right but, in fairness, structural funds have a role to play and we want those funds to be targeted more effectively. On the broader picture, however, he is right to say that what matters to business and to the job creators is a stable macro-economic climate--low inflation and low taxes. That can be delivered only under a Conservative Government.

Dr. Howells: Does the Minister agree that one of the most important determinants of the economic health of regions and national regions is the transportation infrastructure? Is he aware of the huge bills facing local authorities in Wales, Scotland and rural areas of England in particular as a result of their having to strengthen road bridges to accommodate the rise in maximum lorry weight from 38 to 40 tonnes? What are the Government going to do to get money from Europe to allow those hard-pressed authorities strengthen those bridges? After all, it is a European directive.

Mr. Knight: The hon. Gentleman is aware that discussions are currently taking place across Europe on

19 Mar 1997 : Column 880

the administration of structural funds. Specific applications are primarily matters for monitoring committees and, as I understand it, the issue to which he refers is capable of being looked at under the structural funds regulations. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Transport and the local monitoring committees will wish to address the matter after 2 May.

Privatised Utilities

16. Mr. Robert G. Hughes: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what plans he has to alter the structure of utility regulation. [19456]

Mr. John M. Taylor: The Government's immediate priority is to enable the electricity and gas regulators to continue to drive forward the opening of these markets to full competition in 1998, for the benefit of consumers.

Mr. Hughes: Does my hon. Friend agree that the indicator of the regulators' success has been lower prices for consumers of gas and electricity and substantial infrastructure development and investment by the water industry? Would not all that be put at risk by the Labour party's so-called windfall tax? When water quality is particularly important to my constituents, who have experienced problems--fortunately now over--with Three Valleys Water, is not the election message to them that Labour's windfall tax would mean higher gas and electricity prices, but lower quality drinking water, less money for sewerage schemes and, what is more, no money for flood relief schemes? All those are vital to my constituents, and all would be put at risk by a so-called windfall tax.

Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend is correct to lay out that litany of the dangers of electing Labour. Not only do we know nothing about the windfall tax; we do not know the basis on which the consumer would be charged. We have a policy called RPI minus x, which means less than inflation pricing policy. The Opposition Front Bench are divided on that; we have had one signal from Leeds, West and another from Pontypridd. Will Labour Members tell us about the windfall tax and their pricing policy? We are getting two messages at the moment--both bad.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Will the Minister address his own responsibilities for a change and tell us why, if those companies are so efficient, they have not considered abolishing standing charges, and why so many of their elderly pensioner customers are deeply disturbed, not by the excellence of the service that they receive, but by its expense?

Mr. Taylor: Charging policy is a matter for the industry. The hon. Lady should listen to the answer. In any computation of a fair return on capital, which is a matter of interest to the shareholders, one must consider the historic cost of installing the equipment, for which standing charges are a form of rental. It is an equitable policy.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Shareholders' interests always seem to come first.

Mr. Taylor: Shareholders have an interest, as do consumers. Consumers have benefited to the tune of 70 per cent. of efficiency gains; shareholders have benefited to the extent of 30 per cent. of efficiency gains.

19 Mar 1997 : Column 881

Next Section

IndexHome Page