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Mr. Bruce: It is important that we know who will be on the group, and that it will be a wide spectrum--[Interruption.] I apologise; that was an unintended pun. Industry may come to the Government and say, "This is wonderful; it is exactly the group that we want", and agree what sort of information will be exchanged--but in all that cuddling of each other, no one will remember to say, "What about the consumer?" What about people who do not have technical knowledge, but who want information about how spectrum is being divvied up--so that it is not just good for the Government and the industry, but in the public interest? I know that the Government are keen to say that they want to do things in the public interest, and that is what we want to hear now.

I appreciate that this is a narrow group of amendments, so, without further ado, I shall sit down and hope to hear the Minister say that she has been persuaded by our arguments on new clause 1, and that she will set us on the right track for this evening's business by accepting it.

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I welcome the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) not to his responsibilities, but to the issue before us. This has been Department of Trade and Industry week in the House. I understand that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber yesterday evening listening to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and that he had a little difficulty keeping awake during his right hon. Friend's speech. I heartily congratulate the hon. Gentleman on managing to keep awake for his own remarks.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) is here this evening, as I agreed with many of his remarks. He played a large part in the initial development of the Bill. I share his view that, on the surface, this does not appear to be the most exciting of Bills, but I am sure that he and other hon. Members here tonight agree that in terms of economic growth, wealth creation and job creation, it is vital to the country.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Daventry on the principle of the Bill. It was right and proper of him to probe its effects. I also welcome the

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Opposition's U-turn. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the right hon. Member for Wokingham said on Second Reading:


    "We shall oppose it, but we shall not jeopardise business because I shall shortly reveal to the Minister how to handle the matter much better . . .


    The Bill sums up all that is wrong with the Department of Trade and Industry. It is bad for business and will cost us jobs and technical leadership. It is mean-minded".--[Official Report, 29 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 933-41.]

How extraordinary it is, but I am always glad when sinners repent.

Mr. Boswell: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for taking such care to read the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) in such detail and then relaying them to the House.

Does the hon. Lady appreciate that one of the major elements of our concern about the Bill is the cost to business of the proposed changes unless there are better safeguards for the possible charging regime--a matter which does not arise on this new clause but which we shall discuss in a moment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Can we therefore, for the time being at least, stick to the new clause that we are discussing?

Mr. Boswell: I think that my intervention is immediately germane to what the Minister said. Will she accept that my right hon. Friend did not seek to divide the House on Second Reading?

Mrs. Roche: Indeed. That is exactly what I said; but the right hon. Gentleman said, "We shall oppose it." I pay tribute to other Conservative Members, who did not take that course. There was a reversal of attitude in Committee, when industry representatives made it known to them how much they disagreed with their original stance.

I am not in a position to accept the new clause or the amendment, but I hope that by offering some explanation and assurance I can persuade Conservative Members not to press them to a vote. I believe that both are unnecessary and would add nothing to the rights of spectrum users, and that the new clause would give rise to difficulties for the industry.

11 pm

The Radiocommunications Agency is fully committed to transparency in its management of the radio spectrum and makes available a great deal of information to users. I am sure that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton agrees, as he has had responsibility for it in the past. The agency's commitment is demonstrated by the extensive consultation that it already undertakes through a network of standing consultative committees and through ad hoc consultation exercises such as that currently under way on implementing spectrum pricing. That will be further reinforced by clause 6. The agency also publishes and consults on a comprehensive survey of the use of the radio spectrum.

The new clause would do nothing to help users. The Radiocommunications Agency already makes information available in accordance with the requirements of the code

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of practice on access to Government information anddata protection. That means that it already provides information on request, subject to overriding considerations such as national security, law enforcement or commercial confidentiality: matters which are not recognised in the amendment.

Mr. Boswell: In no sense do I want to entrap the Minister in my question, but will she confirm that, at least broadly, the categories that she has outlined represent the limits under which the agency operates in restricting information and that, by implication, all other information is already released?

Mrs. Roche: In the main, yes. I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I appreciate the spirit in which he says it. The agency is committed to transparency.

Greater access to the agency's database of assignments was raised in a wide-ranging public consultation in 1994. The responses showed significant concern about national security and commercial confidentiality, as one would expect. It would be possible for a competitor to gain information from the database about frequencies used and the disposition of transmitters, and hence the extent and nature of licensees' businesses, which could be very damaging commercially.

Mr. Ian Bruce: I want to explore the other side of the argument that most of the information is already available to the public generally. Might not there be a problem about information that is quite properly given in confidence to an advisory group but would not normally be given out generally? The agency might not have the power to do that.

Mrs. Roche: I do not think that there is a problem. There are many examples of circumstances in which, within the restrictions of the code, one tries to give as much information as possible. When a special advisory group is charged by Government with a special function, it is perfectly proper, and indeed not unusual, for confidential information to be released to that group. When the Bill was discussed in the other place, similar concern was expressed by Lord Derwent--who takes the Conservative Whip there--on behalf of mobile telephone operators. He explained that operators would not wish detailed information about matters of this kind to be released. He made that point very strongly.

The new clause does not provide safeguards for licensees, such as law enforcement agencies and security companies, that have a legitimate reason not to disclose details of their assignments in case the information assists criminals. I am sure that all hon. Members want the status quo to be protected. The agency is continuing to develop plans for greater access to its databases, but it must have regard to the sensitivities of licensees who have legitimate reasons for wishing information about their assignments not to be made available.

Mr. Lansley: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: Just one more time.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous in giving way. Does she acknowledge that

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while both sides of the House understand the commercially confidential issues that the industry--quite properly--wants to be protected, that must be balanced against the interests of those who want to enter a market? Does she agree that we must not go too far and allow the protection of information in the marketplace to become a barrier?

Mrs. Roche: I could not agree more. In all such matters, a balance must be struck. We must ensure that there is a market for new entrants: that is how competition is promoted. On the other hand--quite legitimately--commercial confidentiality must be protected. As the hon. Gentleman will know, such issues crop up all the time, not only in relation to management of the spectrum and the Radiocommunications Agency but in relation to other matters.

The new clause requires information to be made available to the spectrum management advisory group. I am glad that the group was mentioned, because it was an initiative of the present Government. Indeed, the idea was raised in another place. I see that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) agrees. Quite properly, the Government went away and considered the matter. I am delighted with the approval that has been given to the establishment of the group. I intend it to have a significant input in matters relating to the management of the of the radio spectrum.

We have continued the work of setting up the group since my earlier announcement. I am pleased to say that Dr. John Forrest has agreed to become its first chairman. Dr. Forrest will bring to his position wide experienceof radio use in the defence, broadcasting and telecommunications industries, and I am confident that he is ideally qualified to lead the group in its task of providing Ministers with independent strategic advice on the management of the radio spectrum. Tomorrow, I will place in the Libraries of both Houses a list of members of the group. Between them, they represent a wide range of experience and expertise covering all the major categories of spectrum user. I think it important for the group to have direct access to Ministers, and I look forward to working with it in the coming months.


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