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Session 1997-98
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Standing Committee Debates
Wireless Telegraphy Bill [Lords]

Wireless Telegraphy Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee A

Thursday 13 November 1997


[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]

Wireless Telegraphy Bill [Lords]

10.30 am

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Mr. Maxton. At our previous sitting, I touched on the fact that I was a member of several other Committees. Yesterday, I was a member of the Committee that discussed the Merchant Shipping Draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Maritime Differential Correction Systems) Order 1997--as was my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). The order dealt specifically with the allocation and re-allocation of spectrum for global positioning systems and navigation, and we were alarmed that the Minister who opened the debate had not consulted her colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry on the allocation of spectrum.

My point of order, Mr. Maxton, concerns whether you have received notice from the Minister in this Committee that she has had urgent discussions with her colleague. We could get into a great muddle if orders on similar matters are being made elsewhere in the House.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order for me. It is a matter for Government Departments and, if necessary, the Opposition.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): On a point of order, Mr. Maxton. On Tuesday morning, the Minister was kind enough to answer my question about responses from industry to the consultation document. It is advertised in the consultation document's summary of responses that copies of those responses from companies, of which there are 40 or more, are available on the Radiocommunications Agency's website. I subsequently looked on the Internet and found no such responses. Will it be in order to refer to those responses as though they had been published, when they are not available to members of the Committee in the way that was described?

The Chairman: Given that the responses are not available to members of the Committee in the Room anyway, that is not a point of order for me. I am concerned only with what happens in the Room.

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Further to that point of order, Mr. Maxton. I understand that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) was told by my officials that a summary of the responses went on to the site at the beginning of last week. If he is having difficulty in surfing the net--and I accept that that is a difficulty--I am sure that my officials will gladly help him. We are always anxious to be of assistance.

Mr. Lansley: Further to that point of order, Mr. Maxton. I have a copy of the summary of responses; it states: "The full responses, except for material requested to be kept confidential, will be made available on the Agency's Internet site"

But full responses are not available.

Mrs. Roche: The responses are on the site. I am a little surprised at the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire. Although I was educated at the other place, I always heard that Cambridge was famous for its new technology and I pay tribute to its excellence in that area. However, we shall give the hon. Gentleman any assistance that he needs in accessing the net.

The Chairman: There is nothing easier than accessing the net.

Clause 1

Charges for wireless telegraphy licences

Amendments proposed [11 November]: No. 26, in page 1, line 8, to leave out the words `or renewal'--[Mr. Ian Bruce.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 27, in page 1, line 8, leave out from "licence" to "there" in line 10.

No. 16, in page 1, leave out lines 13 to 15.

Mr. Lansley: In view of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), I shall not delay the Committee by discussing amendments Nos. 26 and 27 in detail. I wish simply to point out their benefits.

Amendment No. 26 would delete the words "or renewal" in line 8. Perhaps the Minister will elaborate on the purpose of those words. If the term of a licence comes to an end and a licence is then issued for a further term, that constitutes the issue of a licence. The words "or renewal" seem otiose--a word in common currency when I worked in the civil service many years ago. They seem doubly unnecessary when, at line 9, the Bill states: "subsequently at such times during the term of the licence".

It seems that the Secretary of State is able not only to provide, by regulation, for sums to be paid on the issue of a licence but subsequently during the term of the licence. Renewal does not seem to be distinct and different from issue.

In pursuit of plain English, the Minister should explain why it is necessary in lines 8 and 9 to say: "where regulations under this section so provide".

and then, in line 10, to say: "as may be prescribed by the regulations".

If the amendments were accepted, subsection (2) would be plainer and simpler. It would then say: "On the issue of the wireless telegraphy licence and, where regulations under this section so provide, subsequently at such times during the term of the licence there shall be paid to the Secretary of State by the person to whom the licence is issued--".

That seems clear and comprehensive, and it simplifies the legislation in the process. My admiration for [Mr. Lansley] parliamentary counsel knows no bounds. I remember parliamentary counsel impressing upon me, when I was a civil servant, the need to amend legislation to reduce the scope for ambiguity but, in this case, not only have they put on a belt, but they have added braces.

Amendment No. 16 is not intended to simplify or to aid the Committee in arriving at comprehensible legislation. It seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State is not given powers that are too wide or that are not subsequently subject to the will of Parliament. As was said at the first sitting, the Secretary of State will have wide-ranging powers under regulation to set the sums paid by licence holders on the issue of a licence, during the term of a licence, for standard classes or for particular cases within standard classes, all of which seems to be necessary. Indeed, that is what the notes on clauses imply.

However, we go one step further. Not only do the regulations set out how the Secretary of State is to prescribe the charges under administrative pricing, but she is given a further discretion, going beyond what is set out in the regulations--which will be subject to negative resolution--further to change the sums to be paid by licence holders, whether at the point of issue, on renewal or subsequently. The Secretary of State is given a third tier of discretion.

It is perfectly proper--indeed, it is necessary--for legislation to provide that the Secretary of State should, by regulation, be able to prescribe what sums should be paid under administrative pricing. It would be impossible to determine the structure of tariffs in the Bill because that would not give the necessary flexibility. It also seems proper and necessary that when the Secretary of State brings regulations to Parliament that set out how the tariff is to be applied, those regulations should be sufficiently comprehensive that anybody reading them would understand them.

In relation to later amendments, we will debate the need for the industry to be certain about the application of administrative pricing. It is highly undesirable that we should include in the Bill a provision that may cut against such certainty. When regulations are brought forward to implement administrative pricing, the uncertainty that industry has expressed to us about how the process is to work and what matters are to be taken into account will be much exacerbated if the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to intervene to change the sums prescribed for classes or individual cases.

As I said during Tuesday morning's sitting, there is an interplay between this amendment and later amendments. We are being asked to deal at this stage with a regulation that will be made under the negative procedure of the House; it would be better--we shall come to this later--if it were made by affirmative resolution. However, if the Committee decides that the regulation should not be made by affirmative resolution, that is all the more reason not to offer tier upon tier of discretion to the Secretary of State.

I understand the urge--it comes upon all of us from time to time--to think that it would be best to have legislation that allows the Secretary of State to do whatever he wishes, in whatever circumstances and at whatever time. However, it is not the Committee's role to legislate in that way--especially when it is, I hope, the objective of all members of the Committee to provide industry with certainty, to reduce compliance costs and to make it clear how administrative pricing will work in subsequent regulations.

Mr. Fallon: You, Mr. Maxton, have wisely grouped these three amendments because they all relate to the issue of clarity. I do not want to repeat the arguments deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset in support of amendments Nos. 26 and 27, but he rightly argued that the companies involved need clarity--they need to know where they stand--concerning charges.

I want to speak briefly to amendment No. 16. Again, the issue involved is clarity. We should reflect upon the fact that the power to impose charges is a power of taxation. When we give a Secretary of State power to tax particular classes or cases, that power should not be exercised arbitrarily. Parliament should be extremely careful about the latitude that it gives a Secretary of State to impose charges.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire has well described the triple tier that will exist under the Bill. We think that the discretion given in subsection (2)(b) is too wide. I note from the notes on clauses that the Department's advisers rely on previous legislation--section 2 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949. The notes on clauses state that the clause's approach follows that of "a similar provision in section 2(1) of the 1949 Act."

It was the word "similar" that caught the eye--as one would expect from a civil servant, it is used rather exactly. The Department does not claim that the clause exactly replicates the 1949 Act, and, indeed, it does not. The phrasing used in section 2 of the 1949 Act is slightly different from that in the Bill. The Minister needs to tell us why the Secretary of State should be given a wider latitude to impose different charges in certain cases.

10.45 am

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire said, no one would want to specify the amount or range of charges in primary legislation and it would be unreasonable to expect the Minister to come back to the House every year or so with fresh legislation to amend that. However, there is no reason why a broad framework should not be laid down in the regulations, rather than allowing the Secretary of State the latitude that she gives herself in subsection (2)(b). If such latitude is given, we--and I am sure the companies involved--would like assurances about the way in which it is to be operated, what kind of cases might be involved and how the fees might be varied outside the scope laid down in the original regulations.

I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance on those points. There is uncertainty in the industry--a concern that has been well reflected in amendments Nos. 26 and 27. I hope that in justifying the additional discretion given in the subsection, the Minister will give us more reassurance about the way in which the legislation will operate.


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Prepared 13 November 1997