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Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Boswell: Yes. We are anxious to make progress on these Benches, but I give way to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Davis: I thank the Opposition spokesman for being so kind. May I bring him back to the point raised earlier

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by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the extent to which the information given to the spectrum management advisory group should be made public?

Giving information to a narrow group or industry group can create a barrier to entry. That is the sort of thing that the Conservative party always tries to prevent. We want to see the maximum possible competition. Surely we should draft the Bill to ensure competition by making the information available to all, not just to some narrow industry group.

Mr. Boswell: Indeed, Conservative Members are believers in open government for the many, not for the few. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) performs a very reasonable task in making that point. He is essentially saying--this would be my merit order, if I may borrow another analogy--that the ideal is the release of information into the public domain. The second best is release of the information to the spectrum management advisory group, if that is as far as it may properly go. The third best--I fear that that is where the Government are unless they accept our new clause--is simply to keep the information in house.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): One shouldgive acknowledgement to the Government. Between proceedings in the other place and here, the industry was keen to see a spectrum management advisory group set up. The Government, by press release, said that they would set one up. I hope that now, because of the amount of time that has elapsed, the Government have been able to think again. Nowhere in the Bill does it say that the group will be set up. My hon. Friend rightly says that we do not know who will be members of the group. Will it be just a few Labour councillors, as there are on most quangos being setting up now, or will it really be representative?

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend and I share the common objective of preventing the group from being merely a press release. We do not want what I might call a metaphorical spectral spectrum management advisory group. We want a real one and we want to hear more details of it than have been given to us so far. But, of course, I defer to the Minister. She is an honourable Lady. I am sure that her intentions are entirely of the best, but her explanations are urgently required.

In that spirit, I shall not detain the House very much longer on this group, but I wish to refer to amendment No. 9, which is bracketed with new clause 1. The amendment provides for some transparency in the issue of grants. If they are to be issued for research and to take forward the use of a limited national resource, the spectrum, they must be seen publicly to be used to best effect. That is an important matter of accountability, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden will be as concerned with it as anyone.

Some years ago, I chaired a grant-making charitable trust. We always gave considerable details of our modest grants in our annual report.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Has my hon. Friend noticed that sitting behind him are no fewer than three former Ministers who were associated with the

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Radiocommunications Agency and laid the foundations for the Bill? Does that prove that for new Labour, one can read old Conservative--with one difference: we are more committed to open government than are Ministers of the so-called open Government?

10.30 pm

Mr. Boswell: I would not wish my hon. Friend to tempt me too far. The Government are clearly on message tonight.

It is important that there should be the maximum possible transparency. It is somewhat distressing that a Bill that received a Second Reading as long ago as 29 October should have mouldered until now, before its further consideration. There was a Committee stage, but that took place in the middle of November, long before I joined the shadow Department of Trade and Industry Front Bench. Some of us have been preoccupied with one or two other considerations up till now, but we are pleased to be here to discuss the Bill.

We are here not to fight the principle, but to ensure that the details are properly secured. Like any proper attitude to legislation, those details should begin with a commitment to the maximum openness of information. That is the purpose of the new clause.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to support my hon. Friend by speaking to new clause 1. The issue of access to information arising from the Bill was discussed a little in Committee, but the discussion tonight can be more focused, now that it is clear that the Government's intention is to establish a spectrum management advisory group. It is incumbent on the House to consider the purposes for which that is to be used. The adoption of the new clause would improve the Bill and would implement the Government's intentions.

The principle of openness in respect of telecommunications activities is well established. As the Minister will know, the Telecommunications Act 1984 began a process of increasing transparency in the issue of licences, which has greatly benefited the telecommunications industry. It has not helped one competitor to obtain an advantage of information over another, but, for reasons that were made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), transparency in the marketplace and availability of information are essential to create a better marketplace.

We are moving through the system of spectrum pricing to a device that is intended to create a market. If it is our intention to create a market, we must provide the mechanisms that help to make markets work more effectively. Pre-eminent among those is the availability of information. A market in which there is differential information among those participating is a distorted market.

It would be remiss of us to agree to a Bill whose later clauses should be based on a high level of transparency for those who are putting in bids for auctions for spectrum allocation, if the information available to them would be inadequate.

One or two issues have arisen, and it might be helpful if the Minister referred to them. First, I wish to refer to the Radiocommunications Agency's database. I do not profess to be sufficiently expert to be able to articulate

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the concerns in detail, but there is concern in the industry that the amount of information available on the database, the form in which it is available, and the reasons for agency decisions--for example, in relation to the assignment of applications for fixed links and the plotting of fixed links across the country--may not be sufficient. We ought to look through the database for greater understanding of the allocation of spectrum, the reasons why spectrum has been allocated to particular purposes and the reasons why applications for particular spectrum or fixed links have been turned down.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Has not the Radiocommunications Agency always been a technical organisation--looking after worries about signals interfering with one another--but is now having to move to a market-sensitive role? The user group was clearly designed to help the agency come up with the right decisions. The Government must tell us how they will extend the agency to allow it to fulfil these new functions.

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend makes a good point which will inform our discussions as we proceed through Report. The agency--with which I have had dealings in the past--has acknowledged expertise and produces a fine service in relation to the technical management of the spectrum. However, we are looking towards a different structure, which includes an assessment of economic and consumer benefits, and so on. This pre-empts slightly discussions on subsequent new clauses and amendments, but it is relevant to this new clause.

Within the responsibility for the assessment of consumer benefits and the allocation of spectrum on the basis of bids--and the more efficient management of spectrum for economic, and not simply technological, purposes--is an understanding of the marketplace within which the operators--those making applications to the agency--are having to work. There is considerable sensitivity in the industry which wants assurances about the degree of information it will receive.

Can the Minister assure the House that, in planning and implementing changes to the agency's database, the amount of information available to operators will be at least as full as is available at present? Secondly, in designing the database and the relationship that operators will have with it, will she work closely with the industry to ensure that that is achieved to the maximum? The spectrum management advisory group will doubtless have a role, but the Minister must look beyond that group to the industry more generally.

My second point is that, after the Committee stage, it was put to me that some transparency in the way in which the agency assigns links would be highly desirable, but there was concern that information being acquired by the agency was not necessarily being put into the public domain where it might have had greater value than it has simply resting with the agency and the Department.

Particular reference was made to a report--commissioned, I am told, by the Radiocommunications Agency--carried out by the university of Bristol. It was designed to look into calculating spectrum congestion as part of research into trying to understand on what basis one can implement excess, not administrative, pricing to try to manage spectrum better. One needs an understanding of how spectrum congestion has occurred.

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It was suggested that the report could be published, but, at that time, had not been. Is the Minister aware of the report and the effect that it might have on the calculation of spectrum congestion? Perhaps it is appropriate for the report to be put into the public domain, in the spirit of openness encouraged by new clause 1. I hope that that is the Department's intention.

I shall rest on those two questions and the general proposition that not only is it desirable that the availability of information should be encouraged specifically through the spectrum management advisory group, but information should go beyond that, into the industry to ensure that, when we discuss spectrum allocation, the market is fully informed through an understanding of the ways in which the agency allocates spectrum, and the terms of the licences that it offers.

Licences are confidential documents between the agency and the operator. That is perfectly legitimate, but, in the marketplace, transparency in licensing has become the norm in relation, for example, to telecommunications operators. There is a case for transparency to be carried through into the agency's licences as well.


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