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Mr. Lansley: New clause 13 and amendment No. 111 concern two important aspects of the Bill that were debated in Committee but were in a sense remitted to a later stage.

As the Minister will recall, it was said in Committee that, if the Minister did not feel able to accept the amendments that had been tabled--their objective was that the duty to pursue consumer benefits should be included in the Bill--the Government should consider, and perhaps table, amendments on Report. Although four months have intervened, the Government clearly have not seen fit to table an amendment in such terms, but it is very desirable for us to achieve a related but different objective by means of the intervention of the Director General of Telecommunications.

1.45 am

Although the Minister was careful to reflect accurately in Committee the representations made to her by the director general, it should be said that the director general has been quite clear about the advice that he would give. Let me pre-empt my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), and quote from the letter that the director general sent to my hon. Friend. The director general takes the view that


I well understand why the director general takes that view. Under the Telecommunications Act 1984, he has an obligation to ensure that there is a statutory duty to promote the interests of consumers. On the basis of what is now approaching 14 years' experience of promoting competition and consumer benefits in the telecommunications industry, he rightly sees no reason why he should not, and every reason why he should, impress on the Government the view that the Bill should provide for a similar duty. That is clearly not the route that the Government wish to take, but, if they object, there could be a valuable proxy in the form of the intervention of the director general in the way provided for by amendment No. 11.

Under clause 3, consumer benefits might readily be assumed to be realised in the economic utilisation of the spectrum arising from the auction process, because--in theory, at least--those who are buying will do so on the basis of their best estimates of the economic value that can be derived, and on the assumption that that will be achieved by provision for consumer benefit.

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The amendment is therefore not designed to have an impact on clause 3. It is designed to add to clause 2 the provision that the matters that the Secretary of State must take into account in exercising powers under section 1--as it will become--will be circumscribed, in that the powers can be exercised only when the director general has expressed a view on, in particular, the competition and consumer benefits. Until he has expressed such a view, regulations under section 1 should not be made. That will bite on the issue of licences where auctions do not apply.

The point was not responded to in Committee. The Minister may have had a chance to reflect on it since then, and may wish to answer now, but in Committee the Government asserted that all the matters to be taken into account under clause 2 would also, of necessity, be taken into account in issuing licences under clause 3 where auctions applied. It is a matter not just of selling to the highest bidder but one of taking other matters into account.

The Government's clear intention in the Bill was to ensure that the matters specified in clause 2 were dealt with in clause 3. However, curiously--as Ministers have been told--clause 1(5) is designed specifically not to include in clause 3 the regulatory power of clause 1. Moreover, the duty that amendment No. 11 would impose on the Secretary of State to consider the opinion of the Director General of Telecommunications should not be read as implying that an opinion from the Director General of Telecommunications must be received on competition and consumer benefit before, for example, a licence is sold at auction.

It might be useful if the Minister were to tell us whether she has had an opportunity since our debates in Standing Committee to reconsider whether our construction of the Bill was accurate. The question--which is perhaps best dealt with in debate on the next group of amendments--arises of how, despite Ministers' assertions, those important matters to be considered are dealt with in clause 3.

The debate in Standing Committee on consumer benefits was important. Although the Director General of Telecommunications is not the final arbiter of consumer benefit--in all markets, the consumer is the final arbiter on that matter--that person is a good proxy as the final arbiter.

As Members on both sides of the Committee felt that it was desirable that consumers should be the ultimate beneficiaries of the process, I was surprised at the length to which Ministers went to specify in the Bill provisions that they themselves regarded as something of a proxy in delivering benefits to consumers, and at the fact that they would not make that clear. In Standing Committee, the Minister said, for example:


That is a very strange approach.

If I were to talk to operators and manufacturers, I do not think that they would say, "We think we should be treated on an equal basis with consumers; we all have interests as stakeholders in this industry. The Government should not put consumer interest above the interests of mobile telephone operators or of fixed-link radio operators." I think that they would say, "Yes, you should put consumer interest first, because we think that that is

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the primary interest. If we in industry do not serve consumers first and provide them with benefits, there is no purpose in being in industry or in utilising spectrum for commercial purposes."

If--as I have always found to be true--industry is prepared to put consumers first, it is extraordinary that Ministers should themselves be unwilling to put them first, as can readily be done. The possibility open to Ministers is to use the Director General of Telecommunications, who has proved to be a tried and tested pursuer of consumer benefit.

In the past few days, we have been reminded--by the strictures of the retiring Director General of Telecommunications to mobile telephone operators on their charges for fixed-link calls to mobile telephones--of the vigour with which the director general pursues consumer interest. It would be very difficult to dispute that the current director general, or his successor, is anything but a useful and valuable proxy in establishing consumer benefit.

The second value of new clause 13 and amendment No. 11--the point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), so I shall not elaborate--is that, by taking that route, we diversify the sources of advice to the Secretary of State on the utilisation of spectrum, not only for technological purposes but in relation to the development of compression techniques and other uses which are not necessarily in the commercial arena.

The advice of the Director General of Telecommunications will enable the Secretary of State to link decisions taken on the allocation and use of spectrum to an economic analysis--with which the Director General of Telecommunications is increasingly concerned, because of the pricing control mechanisms applied in the telecommunications industry generally--and to an analysis of the convergence of different technologies of broadcasting, telecommunications and radio telephony.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) that, as those technologies converge, legislation should not become too tied to technology. If we include the Director General of Telecommunications explicitly as a source of advice to the Secretary of State on issuing licences, the Secretary of State will be better equipped to take decisions, having benefited from an intimate understanding by the appropriate regulatory body of the convergence of communication industries and of telecommunications services. That will improve decision making.

We need not elaborate the advantages that the Radiocommunications Agency brings to these questions. Notwithstanding those advantages, the agency would not necessarily assert that its specific expertise on telecommunications industries generally, or its economic analysis, was superior to that of the Office of Telecommunications. I believe that the Radiocommunications Agency would acknowledge that the Office of Telecommunications can add value to decisions taken in this context.

I single out for the Minister, from the valuable group of new clauses and amendments before us, new clause 13 and amendment No. 11 as measures that would especially serve to improve the Bill. They would help the Secretary of State to take decisions, and they would provide

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reassurance. The latter aspect has been strongly emphasised tonight by Conservative Members, and it was emphasised in Committee by Liberal Democrat Members, who are not now present.

The benefits of explicitly providing for the consumer interest were very much to the fore in our deliberations in Committee. The Minister has an excellent opportunity to respond positively to the debate in Committee by amendment on Report.

Mr. Ian Bruce: I am grateful to be called to speak at this early hour, and I do not intend to make a long speech on this group of amendments.


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