Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Ian Taylor: I wish to add just a few words, particularly on access to information.

Although it does not look like it, the Bill is a dramatic step forward in how we manage a scarce resource--radio spectrum. Radio spectrum is something which people cannot see, so they do not necessarily think that it has any great value, but it has enormous implications for the running of the economy in an age of digital communications, most of which will increasingly use the radio spectrum in some form to effect those communications.

The Bill also begins the transformation of the merger of fixed and mobile telephony. It will have a big impact when we move to digital television, which will free up a lot of local spectrum because the same amount of power around a particular transmitter will not be needed. The analogue spectrum needs to be kicked on from transmitter to transmitter, which creates great local disturbance. Digital signals are much clearer and travel further, and therefore will give back a considerable amount of spectrum, which we can use successfully. The way in which we use it, however, should be a function of market pricing.

In each of the areas that we are talking about, the public will need to understand fully what is going on. The Bill does not introduce a hidden tax. It is not some method used by the Government to penalise people. It is, dare I say it, a Conservative measure designed to use the market to enable a scarce resource to be properly managed between willing users.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): On Second Reading, we were slightly surprised that the shadow Secretary of State reversed the pledge in the Conservative manifesto and opposed the measure, saying, in contrast to what we have just heard, that the Bill introduces a disguised tax. Most other Conservative Members who spoke supported that view.

However, it seems that tonight, we shall hear a reversal, and that most Conservatives will take the opposite view. I am curious about whether those mass conversions

11 Mar 1998 : Column 664

happen individually, or whether the Conservatives have a sort of session, as the Reverend Moon does in South Korea, and it all happens simultaneously.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, I must point out that we are now going rather wide of the mark. I remind him that both the new clause and the amendment are tightly drawn.

Mr. Taylor: I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Far be it from me to enter into a discussion about the shadow Minister in any case. We do not always agree, but I am sure that on that occasion, he was merely probing to find out what the Government's intentions really were.

Mr. Boswell: Will my hon. Friend take a little advice from me, as I am a former Whip? If he praises the Bill too intensely, the Government may have a deathbed conversion to old Labour and suddenly decide that they favour it less--something which I am sure my hon. Friend would wish to avoid.

10.45 pm

Mr. Taylor: I was allowing ample opportunity for my hon. Friend to probe deeply into the measures, about which he has obviously thought carefully, and the proposed amendments. No Bill, whatever its origin, is perfect, and it is the job of the House to consider closely what its impact will be. The Bill is important, which is why I am anxious that we should have as much public information as possible. However, much as I support my hon. Friend's probing, I remind him that he had already said that he approved of the principle of the Bill. That is the general point on which I rest.

I certainly welcome the measure in terms of the discussion and the spectrum management advisory group, but I urge the Minister to ensure that, as my hon. Friend has said, as much of the information that can be made public will be. I used to have ministerial responsibility for such matters, but sadly, the Minister now has that responsibility and I do not. Both of us, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh),have at one time been responsible for the Radiocommunications Agency.

For reasons that we shall not debate in the Chamber, some of the agency's work is not capable of being put into the public domain, but that is not true of areas in which there will be a dramatic move forward and a new system of management, and in which we shall also need an understanding of what will and will not be fair. When we are not auctioning but merely introducing administrative pricing, there will be a need not only for an advisory group, but for public confidence in its work. That is why I endorse the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), which were most pertinent.

Mr. Ian Bruce: First, I declare a financial interest in that I am a paid adviser to the Telecommunications Managers Association. However, I also make it clear that I have had no briefing on the Bill from the association, and that I speak only for myself, from my own knowledge of the issues.

11 Mar 1998 : Column 665

I am grateful for the congratulations that were offered to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and me on our drafting of the amendments and new clauses, but I must admit that much of what I have produced in that line comes directly from Oftel's views on the future of spectrum pricing. The quality of the drafting is, as always, due to the Table Office, which turns one's thoughts into proper parliamentary language, and I hope that the way in which the amendments and new clauses read will be clear enough to enable hon. Members to discuss the issues.

This week, several people have made such comments as, "There's that fellow Bruce again, going in to bat throughout the night," so may I also tell the House that the Opposition have no intention of delaying things, filibustering or anything else. The only reason why we are speaking on the amendments and new clauses at this time of night is that the Leader of the House and the other powers that be have decided to schedule important Department of Trade and Industry Bills after other Bills have been dealt with.

Mr. Boswell: For the record, does my hon. Friend accept that Opposition Front-Bench Members and, in my experience, Back-Bench Members too, never intend to delay the consideration of a Bill? We are anxious to give any Bill merely that consideration which the issues that it raises and its importance properly deserve, and that is exactly what we shall do tonight.

Mr. Bruce: I was certainly not accusing my hon. Friends of filibustering. I do not want to go wide of the narrow amendments in explaining our position. These are important matters. I would much rather be at home with a glass of Scotch in front of the television--would not we all?--than here with a glass of water having to speak at this late hour. However, anyone who was present for the Report stage of the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill yesterday will have heard the best speech in the Chamber this year, and possibly since 1 May, when the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) spoke so eloquently.

I am glad to see still in his place the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). There is only one Whip for the Department of Trade and Industry and he seems to be here all the time. It has been suggested that that may be because the hon. Gentleman is being punished by his party for not running the National Minimum Wage Bill in quite the way that was expected. However, I hope that he has a restful week next week.

I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to make those general remarks. However, I want specifically to talk about the spectrum management advisory group. As I said in an intervention earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), that is the creature of the Government. The industry, and certainly the Federation of Communication Services which, at various times, has briefed me, have made it clear that they felt that it was extremely important that there should be some form of industry group which would advise the Radiocommunications Agency, so that any commercial clashes or problems could be ironed out before they affected the industry.

I am glad that Labour Members are now great enthusiasts for the free market in telecommunications. We shall not remind them what happened during the

11 Mar 1998 : Column 666

privatisation of British Telecom; that is much too wide of the mark. However, we genuinely welcome their conversion.

At the beginning of the Bill's passage through the House, the Government said that they were persuaded that there should be an advisory group, but there is still no flesh on the bones of that. The new clause seeks to tease out from the Government what they are thinking, and to put on the record the fact that without some mechanism to ensure that the spectrum management advisory group is privy to information, it will not get anywhere.

Unless an advisory group believes that there is a genuine dialogue between those with power and those who are simply advisers, it will take its bats home. If it is not listened to, and without the information that it needs to do its job, its members will wonder what is the point of giving up their time. I suspect that the members of this advisory group will be volunteers. With your indulgence Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that the Minister will tell us who will be on that body. There is always the worry--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is pushing my indulgence a little too far. Will he now stick tightly, please, to the new clause?


Next Section

IndexHome Page