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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Does the Secretary of State accept that under the plan, overcrowding

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will get worse rather than better over the next 10 years? Can he explain why section 2 of the plan does not identify overcrowding as a key issue, and why, on page 61, there is a prediction that even with the specific commitments, some of which the right hon. Gentleman referred to in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam),

Mr. Byers: I would ask the hon. Gentleman to read again the details of the strategic plan. Perhaps he will realise that that was not a totally accurate statement of what is contained in it. There is no doubt that overcrowding in London and the south-east has worsened over recent years. The strategic plan identifies ways in which it can be alleviated. Steps will need to be taken; there will be no quick fix. The strategic plan begins the process of reducing overcrowding on the important commuter links into London and elsewhere in the south-east.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Railtrack was dragging its feet on station improvements long before an administration order was made. At Stafford, for example, we are waiting for an improved car park and improved access to platforms for disabled and elderly passengers. How will the plan's promise of 1,000 station upgrades soon take place?

Mr. Byers: It will be necessary to identify areas of priority. I have just had my first bid in the case of Stafford. We will have to identify where the investment needs to take place. My hon. Friend touched on the important point concerning access to the railways for people with a disability. The strategic plan contains some positive proposals. At long last we have a timetable to end the practice whereby people in a wheelchair are carried in the goods van. That is totally unacceptable. There is a commitment to ensure that that no longer happens by the end of 2004, which is still two years away. I hope that that is one aspect of the strategic plan that will not just be delivered on time, but which might be brought forward. It must be unacceptable to treat people with a disability in that way.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Did the Secretary of State see at the weekend the comments of Bob Crow, the assistant general secretary of the RMT, who said:

What is the Government response to such threats, particularly given the close relationship of many Ministers with the RMT—the Deputy Chief Whip, the Leader of the House of Commons, and, particularly, the Deputy Prime Minister who receives a substantial pecuniary interest from the RMT and who failed to deliver any policy in the past four years, as pointed out by the Minister for Europe?

Mr. Byers: It is clear that the industrial action being taken on South West Trains is creating huge inconvenience for the travelling public. The members of the RMT need to be very careful about the impact that they are having on rail passengers. Their future and their jobs depend on people travelling on the railways.

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If passengers find an alternative means of travel, that is bad news not just for railways, but for the jobs of RMT members. That is an important message for them to hear.

Martin Linton (Battersea): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the strategic plan for its clear national vision of the future of the railway industry, and the high priority that it gives to many schemes in the London area, particularly the East London line extension and Thameslink? Despite the comments of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), many new priorities are spelled out in the document for the first time—in my constituency, for example, the redevelopment of Clapham Junction station, and the eventual implementation of Orbirail. I urge my right hon. Friend to accept that there must be a stronger commitment to the speedy development of a high frequency inner-suburban London orbital network, which would revolutionise rail travel in the inner-London area.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to say that a national vision is contained in the document, but it is very important that we have the specifics to underpin it. As I said, it is important that we do not have merely vague aspirations as part of a grand vision. The specifics of the East London line extension, Thameslink, Orbirail, crossrail and improvements to Clapham Junction will all make a significant difference. Most important, they provide the opportunity for an orbital link in London, which will make a huge difference for people in London. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) will be called next. In London, areas of employment are no longer located only in the centre, but in outlying areas, and we need a public transport and rail system that reflects those changes.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that I must now bring questions on the statement to a close.


Religious Discrimination and Remedies

John Austin, supported by Mr. Terry Rooney, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. David Chidgey, Mr. Khalid Mahmood, Mr. David Atkinson and Clive Efford, presented a Bill to render unlawful religious discrimination in employment and in the provision of certain types of goods, facilities and services and to make provision for appropriate enforcement; to create new offences relating to incitement to religious hatred; and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 April, and to be printed [Bill 80].

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Orders of the Day

Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

5.31 pm

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am pleased to be able to open the debate on this Bill.

In December 2000, the Government published the White Paper "A New Future for Communications", which set out their vision for the future of telecommunications and broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The White Paper recognised that the world of communications is changing rapidly. People now have access to ever more sophisticated technological devices providing an increasing range of high-quality services.

The huge popularity of mobile phones and text messaging, the high penetration of digital television in the United Kingdom, combined with the new interactive services now being offered, and the increasing number of people accessing and using the internet have brought enormous changes in a very short period to the way in which we all communicate and obtain information. Those rapid technological advances, together with growing convergence between the broadcasting and telecommunications industries, are creating further choice for consumers and new openings for British business. We must therefore ensure that the United Kingdom continues to be able to take full advantage of the opportunities that such developments bring.

The White Paper affirmed the Government's aim of making the United Kingdom home to the most dynamic and competitive communications and media market in the world; of ensuring universal access to a choice of diverse, high-quality services; and of ensuring proper safeguards to protect the interests of citizens and consumers. Central to the achievement of that vision was the creation of a unified regulator—the Office of Communications, shortened to Ofcom—that would take over the responsibilities of five existing regulators operating in the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors: the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the Office of Telecommunications or Oftel, the Radio Authority and the Radio Communications Agency.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I congratulate the Government on finally introducing the Bill, which was recommended as long ago as May 1998 by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Why does not the Minister's long list of the organisations that will be encompassed by Ofcom include the BBC board of governors?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be glad to hear that I shall deal with that issue later in my speech.

The current system of regulation, in which a number of separate bodies have responsibility for different aspects of different sectors, grew over a number of years and, indeed, over the last century, when such a separation of

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responsibilities made much more sense. Today, with increasing convergence between broadcasting and telecommunications, the Government believe that it is time to create a completely new unified regulatory body to meet the challenges of this new century. The regulator should be able to make strategic decisions across the sectors, based on expert knowledge of complex, cross-cutting technical, economic and cultural issues. It should also promote competition and high standards, and safeguard the interests of citizens and consumers.

The publication of the White Paper led to a further round of consultation with key stakeholders and other interested parties. The majority of respondents welcomed the Government's overall aims and there was almost universal support for the establishment of Ofcom. Many believed that it would help to simplify the current regulatory regime. The general consensus has been reflected in cross-party support from the main political parties for a unified regulator.

The pace of technological change and convergence has not been as rapid as some people may have predicted only a year or two ago, but it remains vital to ensure that the conditions are right to allow United Kingdom businesses to compete in global markets and provide high-quality infrastructure and content. We must therefore ensure that we have the right regulatory framework to allow business to develop and grow.

The Queen's Speech announced the Government's intention to publish a draft communications Bill later in the Session. It will set out in detail the proposals for the new regulatory regime that Ofcom will oversee in time. Such regulation is by definition complex and it is vital to get the detail of the draft Bill right. When it is ready in the spring, we will undertake full consultation with industry and other stakeholders on its contents to enable them to consider and comment fully on the proposals.

The draft Bill's publication should provide ample opportunity for Parliament to debate the proposed regulatory regime. In discussion in another place, the Government said that time will be found for a Joint Committee of both Houses to undertake the task, should Parliament wish it. We shall therefore invite Parliament to establish such a Committee nearer the time.

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