Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ian Taylor: This is only a mild criticism, but in a way it would have been helpful to have the list this evening. However, I welcome Dr. John Forrest to the chair of the spectrum management advisory group. I also recognise that this proposal has emerged since the general election.

When, as a Minister, I consulted representatives of industry--not an advisory group as such, but a group of people who were advising--it was clear that information could also be publicly disseminated through improved ways of managing the spectrum and securing the efficiency that is, after all, the objective of the Bill. Dr. Forrest ran NTL, formerly the ITV uplinking and networking station, and he is very experienced in the field. Perhaps he will encourage such developments.

Mrs. Roche: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given such a warm welcome to Dr. Forrest's appointment. I think that it was a very good appointment. Although, as I said, I shall put the list in the Libraries of both Houses tomorrow, I should be delighted to help the hon. Gentleman by reading out a list of the other group members.

11 Mar 1998 : Column 670

I have appointed also Dr. Mark Armstrong, who is the official fellow in economics at Nuffield college, Oxford; Professor Sue Birley, director of research and professor of entrepreneurship at the management school of Imperial college; Dr. Kevin Bond of Yorkshire Water; David Brown, chairman of Motorola; Keith Harlow, director of technology, BBC resources; Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim, chairman and founder of Mobile Systems International; Stephen Lowe, product development director of Eurobell Holding plc; Michael Short, director of international affairs for Cellnet; and Andrew Sleigh, director general of information and communication services in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Ian Bruce: They are Labour councillors.

Mrs. Roche: The chief executive of the Radiocommunications Agency will also be a member of the group.

I hope that that list will assist the House. I am sure that hon. Member for Esher and Walton will think so, as I am sure the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) will rethink his remark. It is an extremely distinguished group, and I am absolutely delighted to announce their appointment.

Mr. Bruce: I assure the hon. Lady that it was a playful remark. Although some of the members may also be Labour councillors, I am sure that their expertise makes them better Labour councillors.

Mrs. Roche: I take the hon. Gentleman's remarks in the spirit in which they were intended.

In the light of my comments, I hope that the House will accept that new clause 1 is unnecessary and not press it to a Division.

Amendment No. 9 would require details of grants made under the powers in clause 5 to be listed in the annual report of the Radiocommunications Agency. I emphasise that we are committed to the principle of transparency in the operation of those powers, as we are in the operation of the Bill's other provisions.

The annual report of the Radiocommunications Agency accompanies the agency's annual accounts, which cover all the agency's income and expenditure. The accounts will in future refer to expenditure under the powers in clause 5, but not in more detail than is required by the various directives that govern the form of agency accounts.

I fully agree that additional information about grants paid or offered should be published in the agency's annual report, but I am concerned that the amendment would require an unhelpfully detailed level of information to be published, with the risk of detracting from the annual report's main messages. I do not want to give an undertaking that we will publish details of all grants, because some may be very small. It is possible, for example, that grants may be given to individuals, to assist towards training costs, and not only to businesses.

I certainly agree that it would be right for significant grants to businesses to be listed in the annual report, subject--as I am sure Opposition Members will agree--to considerations of commercial confidentiality. In the light of that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member for Daventry will not press the amendment.

Mr. Lansley: Will the hon. Lady assure the House that, whereas licences granted by the Radiocommunications

11 Mar 1998 : Column 671

Agency to operators under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 have been essentially confidential documents, licences granted under the Bill will be essentially public documents, from which material that is commercially confidential, for example, will be withheld? Does she expect that licences granted under the Bill will become public documents from which such information is withheld?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I shall stick strictly to discussion of the new clause and the amendment.

I hope that I have given assurances that Conservative Members can accept, but, if they are unable to do so, I ask my hon. Friends to reject new clause 1 and amendment No. 9.

Mr. Boswell: I am a little disappointed with the Minister's response, although I welcome the fact that, from time to time, she was complimentary to Opposition Members and to some of our ideas and concepts.

It is reassuring that, at this hour, early as it is, hon. Members are flooding into the Chamber. I am especially pleased to see that I have the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has joined our deliberations, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) who, if he knows about this subject 10 per cent. of what he knows about the national minimum wage, will again enliven and embellish our consideration.

I do not wish to prolong debate on this group of amendments.

Mr. Ian Bruce: It was remiss of my hon. Friend not to say that three members of the Liberal party are present and that we look forward to their contribution.

11.15 pm

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful, but, in the interests of accuracy, I remind my hon. Friend that he means the Liberal Democrat party, not the Liberal party. I am sure that he did not wish to make an unfriendly remark. Those hon. Members are extremely welcome and I very much look forward to their contribution, if not to the debate on the current group of amendments--on which I now conclude my remarks--to the next.

The problem with the Minister's reply, in which she sought to twit us--which nettled me, because I explained in an intervention why I thought it inappropriate--was that it revealed that she did not understand the nature of opposition. It is the duty of an Opposition to oppose, not thoughtlessly--I am sure that, as she is a generous lady, she has never opposed us thoughtlessly--or in a knee-jerk way, but to find selected points of concern, to probe the Government and to seek a response from them.

To some extent, a response has been supplied. If nothing else, the debate has smoked out--or brought over the ether--an important announcement by the Minister on the membership of her new spectrum management advisory group. Although I do not know the gentleman personally, I have no reason to cavil at the appointment of Dr. John Forrest, and I have the endorsement of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) for that remark.

11 Mar 1998 : Column 672

That announcement is extremely welcome and it seemed to me--although I have no precise knowledge of the individual members of the advisory group--that the Minister had assembled a group of big hitters with plenty of experience. I would simply say one thing about the appointments.

I am not clear in my mind about the group's status. It will advise the Radiocommunications Agency. I hope that it will be open to others with a public interest in this matter--such as Opposition Members of Parliament--to approach the advisory group to obtain briefings. In other words, I hope that the group is not regarded simply as advising Government or the agencies of Government.

I do not want to embarrass the Minister into a commitment that she may feel uneasy about making, but I hope that she will reflect on the fact that it is concomitant with the spirit in which the new clause was moved, of openness, transparency and proper exchange of information, that the advisory group should at least be able to talk to us. That would be helpful. Today, I had a very useful briefing from a non-departmental public body--the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. It is extremely useful to have that type of relationship.

As my hon. Friends, with their technical expertise, have said, now that the group has been constituted, there is a real need for it to get to work as soon as possible, because some of these issues need early consideration. If the Bill is to make progress, we need to start taking some fairly early and strategic decisions about the allocation of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The Minister did her best to give reasonable assurances on the specific issues raised by the new clause and the amendment. My points about the duty of an Opposition to probe and tease out the Government's intentions are relevant here. As I understood her comments, the Government have no intention of withholding information that is in the public domain, and information will not generally be withheld unless there is an operational reason for withholding it.

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend will know the phrase, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Does he agree that it might help if the study by the university of Bristol on calculating spectrum congestion, to which I referred earlier, was put in the public domain if it is regarded as being of value in the agency? If it is not put in the public domain, perhaps we should be told why.

Next Section

IndexHome Page