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Mr. Boswell: As the Minister says, we have had a constructive debate on some extremely important issues. We are disappointed that the Minister is disinclined to accept any of our new clauses, but she has made some noises that give us some comfort. In particular, we were interested to hear her support for the principle of a secondary market. If such a great trading Bill were to be initiated--one hopes that it would be less complex than that introduced in New Zealand--Conservative Members, if not Liberal Democrats, now absent, would wish to give it a fair wind.

Having listened carefully to the Minister's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New clause 8

Report of Director General of Telecommunications on use of electro-magnetic spectrum

'.--The Director General of Telecommunications shall report to Parliament annually on the use of electro-magnetic spectrum as it affects the United Kingdom, and may recommend to the Secretary of State measures for more efficient use of the spectrum.'.--[Mr. Boswell.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

1.30 am

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 13--Report of Director General of Telecommunications: adverse effects on competition--

'. The Director General of Telecommunications shall report to Parliament whenever he believes that the allocation of electro-magnetic spectrum has had an adverse effect on competition, and, when such a report is made, the Secretary of State may re-allocate the electro-magnetic spectrum as he sees fit to encourage competition.'.

New clause 14--Radiocommunications Agency--

'. It shall be a duty of the Radiocommunications Agency to oversee the management and regulation of the electro-magnetic spectrum, to ensure the effective operation of plans for the efficient use of the spectrum and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on the most efficient use of available capacity.'.

Amendment No. 4, in clause 2, page 2, line 38, at end insert--

'(d) a report from the Director-General of Telecommunications as to the likely effects on consumers and other users.'.

Amendment No. 11, in page 2, line 38, at end insert--

'(2A) In exercising his powers under section 1 and in his consideration of matters specified in subsection (2) of this section, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the views expressed by the Director General of Telecommunications; and he shall not make any regulations under section 1 unless he has previously received an opinion from the Director General of Telecommunications on the implications of the proposal for competition and consumer benefits.'.

Mr. Boswell: This is a somewhat more manageable group of new clauses and amendments or, to use more

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modern phraseology, a rather more focused group, which centres on Conservative Members' concern for consumers' interests. They are very much informed by the contribution of Oftel, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) in reading some aspects of that report, on which he is a greater expert than I am, into the record.

The Minister has shown some encouraging signs of response to the Opposition's position, and it is important that the interests of the consumer and user of radiocommunication services should be built into our consideration and, more particularly, the operation of the spectrum allocation in practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who restrained himself during our previous debate, mentioned earlier his concern that the Radiocommunications Agency, which is essentially a technical body with great expertise in that area, might not be by itself the most appropriate vehicle for representing that consumer interest. Our position on the new clauses and amendments is that there should be an Oftel input. That is written across the group.

An analogy could be drawn with the relationship between the Radiocommunications Agency, where the technical experts look at the frequencies and the parts of the spectrum from the point of view of their technical compatibility, and the Radio Authority, which issues licences for broadcasting services with regard to other factors, including the entirely welcome growth of community radio. We may have some reservations about the exact way in which that may be done in future, but it is broadly along the right lines and has been positive for the commercial radio industry.

New clause 8 provides a consumer input into what might become an annual version, albeit perhaps a rather shorter one, of tonight's debate. We could have a debate every year on the annual report. We could ask questions about it and see where we were going. It would not merely be a report in the narrow, historic and archival sense; it would enable the Director General of Telecommunications to recommend to the Secretary of State measures to achieve a more efficient use of the spectrum. We envisage a rolling process of review, assessment and update.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said in his very powerful contribution on the previous group of amendments, we realise how fast technology is moving. Therefore, it will be necessary annually to analyse the position--partly the demand side and partly the supply side, such as the new availability of compression. It is terribly important that that process has a consumer input, and that would meet the Oftel case for involvement.

Many aspects of telecommunications services have an Oftel input, almost by definition. It is important to bear that in mind, given the success--I think I can reasonably claim--of the previous Government, the inclination of the present Government not to reverse at least the basis of that thinking and the structure of regulation in the industry. Of course, the consideration is not specifically about licensing; it is about the policy issues that have arisen, in the director general's opinion, during the year.

The House will appreciate that new clause 13 is closely related to that matter. However, rather than having a technical efficiency test, it has a rather different one--

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whether the allocation of the spectrum has had an adverse effect on competition. In other words, to take the hypothetical case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), there might be a problem with someone hoarding a series of licences and unfairly occupying an attractive part of the spectrum. That could be deemed to be anti-competitive, which would generate an adverse comment from the director general. In turn, that could lead the Secretary of State to reallocate the spectrum as she thought fit.

I envisage that process of report and decision making strengthening the Secretary of State's position, not least in administrative law. If the Secretary of State were disposed to make the reallocation, it would not be easy for her to establish the grounds under which it would be made. If there had been a separate report from Oftel, that would provide a much stronger basis for her decision. That would be principled, and a good way of going forward.

New clause 14 imposes a duty on the Radiocommunications Agency, and invites it to oversee the management and regulation of the electromagnetic spectrum. Indeed, that is essentially its remit. The new clause is worded to ensure the effective operation of plans for the efficient use of the spectrum and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on the most efficient use of available capacity. That, again, would underpin her position in administrative decisions, whether on pricing or on reallocation of spectrum, because there would be some principled basis on which she could proceed, rather than it being done arbitrarily. That would help to safeguard her position.

The important point about the three new clauses is that, in different ways, they provide a means of running past both the House and public debate--as well as providing advice to the Secretary of State--some important and sensitive issues relating to the operation of the Bill's objectives.

Amendment No. 4 relates to clause 2, which lists some issues to which the Secretary of State should have regard when exercising

The list is pretty comprehensive, but the amendment would provide for the fact that, if there is to be a pricing structure, and the Secretary of State is to make decisions to modify the existing practice, that is likely to affect consumers.

The effects could be direct--for example, how much people would pay for their radio services. They could also be more oblique--if services were no longer available, were priced out of the market or suddenly became increasingly attractive. One of the most attractive features of the radio regime to which I referred is that it has brought in many operators with quite small catchment areas.

The arrangement may not be ideal, but it is certainly a step forward. Oftel could rightly comment on such matters. The overall track record is of a great deal of market liberalisation and some world leadership in the allocation of scarce resources.

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Amendment No. 11 would require the Secretary of State to take Oftel seriously. The regulatory process would allow matters to be discussed in the House, so we could look at them and see how they shake out.

The amendments come from slightly different directions, and taken together they send an important signal--from the Opposition and, I hope, from the Government--that the consumer should come first. The new clauses and amendments would provide a suite of measures to ensure that our objective--I hope that it is shared by the Government--can be delivered.

We hope that the Minister will consider whether our proposals are the best way of building the consumer element explicitly into the Bill and whether there are alternatives or, at least, give us the assurances that we, and the consumers that we claim to represent, would want.

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