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Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have had a letter from the Leader of the House asking me to withdraw a remark that I made in a point of order to Madam Speaker earlier today, and I am pleased to do as she requests. I said that the right hon. Lady had admitted to losing a letter that I had sent her, about getting letters answered in a sensible time by Ministers. She has written to remind me that in fact she said that her office had not received my letter of 21 January. She is an honourable Lady and I must accept that that is what happened, so I am happy to withdraw my earlier remark, but clearly we must have an inquiry as to why letters to Ministers are going astray.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Madam Speaker will have noted the hon. Gentleman's withdrawal of his earlier remarks.

11 Mar 1998 : Column 657

Wireless Telegraphy Bill [Lords]

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

New clause 1

Access to information

'Any information held by the Radio Communications Agency relating to the assignment of the spectrum, shall be made available on request to the Spectrum Management Advisory Group and to users of the spectrum.'.--[Mr. Boswell.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

10.15 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 9, in clause 5, page 5, line 4, at end insert

'and shall be listed in the annual report of the Radio Communications Agency.'.

Mr. Boswell: One or two hon. Members may be aware that I have been a long-standing supporter of Aston Villa football club, whose motto is, "Be prepared". It is a principle in this place that one should be prepared for anything, as I am sure the Government are at this hour tonight, after the wise passing of the 10 o'clock motion.

It is with some gratitude, as well as trepidation, that I avail myself of the opportunity for the first time to involve myself in matters concerned with wireless telegraphy. In doing so with all due diffidence, I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), in respect of his technical expertise, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), in respect of his legal and administrative expertise, as well as to their knowledge of the subject and participation in the Standing Committee. To use a story that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire related to the Standing Committee, no doubt any No. 404 web server errors on my part will be duly and immediately corrected by one or the other of them.

I would not wish to cause any undue trepidation by my arrival at the Dispatch Box. Although I have already announced my football allegiance, my cricketing allegiance is to my county of birth, which is Essex. One of the most distinguished cricketers of yesteryear in that county and an Essex man indeed was the late J.W.H.T. Douglas--"Johnny won't hit today". Unless severely provoked, I was not going to set myself up in the role of being typecast as Mr. I.W.G.L.T. of Daventry--I.W.G.L.T. standing for, "It will go late tonight". However, I am deeply encouraged by the support that I am receiving from my hon. Friends in that part.

I have to admit that these matters were clearly exquisitely debated on Second reading and in Committee. The Government had a certain lead provided by their predecessor in this matter and had the benefit of wise advice in those considerations.

The new clause and the amendment seek further elucidation of the Government's position and reinforce our determination to ensure that the changes, which we do not oppose in principle, are genuinely for the assistance of users and consumers of the spectrum.

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New clause 1 represents a welcome to the Government's initiative in setting up a spectrum management advisory group. We want the Government to provide as soon as possible further details of their thinking on the operation of the group. We offer them the opportunity to start sharing those details tonight. If the group is to represent users and to function properly, its members must have access to information--that is the purpose of the new clause. In complimenting my hon. Friends who drafted the new clauses, I should say that mostly they are written in plain English, so that even I can understand them.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I hope that I am not pre-empting anything that my hon. Friend is going to say, as I may have been slightly guilty of doing so on a previous occasion. The new clause specifically says that

something called the

    "Spectrum Management Advisory Group and to users of the spectrum".

Does that imply that information would be in the public domain, or does he intend that it should be more restricted? It is important that that is cleared up early on.

Mr. Boswell: My right hon. Friend has an amazing capacity for anticipating questions that even I have asked myself and, indeed, of which I was modestly hoping to dispose. Either he has some power of telepathy, which may be useful in relation to spectrum matters, or, conceivably, he has particularly keen eyesight and can read my notes over my shoulder.

As I said, the advisory group must have access to information to function properly. That information will usually be properly releasable to the group and into the public domain. It may be necessary to make provision for cases in which there are aspects of that information that are properly available only in confidence.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Boswell: I readily give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), whom we are pleased to see in the Chamber because of his close involvement with these matters in the previous Administration. His undoubted expertise will assist us in our deliberations.

Mr. Taylor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on this issue. Before we experience the full charge of the radio waves between my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and him--which I am sure will lie at a very high part of the spectrum and so should be attractively priced from the point of view of the revenues that could be raised--I remind Conservative Members that they should take credit for the Bill. We drafted it, we nurtured it and, in many cases, we would have removed many of the difficulties, not all of which have been perfectly translated by the Government. The industry has shown by its responses that it takes a keen interest in

11 Mar 1998 : Column 659

the Bill. The Government have undoubtedly picked up an interesting piece of legislation, but it requires the scrutiny that my hon. Friend is about to give it.

Mr. Boswell: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for his previous contribution, but also for the contribution that I am sure he will make tonight. The Bill builds on his personal achievement in taking these matters forward, but, as he has very generously, and with characteristic modesty, conceded, everything--even a good idea from a Conservative Government--brooks examination and may be capable of improvement.

In tabling the new clause, we are saying that it may be sensible to provide in the Bill for the release of information either under controlled conditions, or directly into the public domain, so that the spectrum management advisory group can consider how things are going. The new clause certainly gives the Minister an opportunity to say how she believes information should be released.

If the group is to do that job properly, it is essential that the information is provided. That is the major reason for the new clause, but a second and important one is that, taking the Government's declared philosophy of freedom of information, information should not be withheld by the Government unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.

We sometimes have difficulties in getting information from the Government and in getting answers to our questions, but that is something that we hope to underline by introducing our new clause.

Mr. Forth: Will my hon. Friend give way before he leaves that point?

Mr. Boswell: I readily do so.

Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend expect that the Government will accept the new clause? It strikes me as somewhat odd, following what he has said, that, if the Government really believed in the oft-repeated philosophy of open government and freedom of information, such a provision would have been built into the Bill from the outset. Does my hon. Friend know why it has to be our new clause that puts into effect the Government's own philosophy? Why was it not in the Bill already?

Mr. Boswell: My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. If there are occasions when Opposition Members have been guilty of paranoia in finding it surprising that Ministers have not accepted our entirely reasonable amendments to other legislation, that does not mean that they were not out to get us. I really do not know why the Government did not include such a provision from the start. The Minister has an opportunity of redeeming herself by explaining tonight why it should not be accepted.

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