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3 Dec 2002 : Column 828—continued

8.10 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): I want to declare an interest, as recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. I worked for BT for 31 years. I am a member of Connect—the union for professionals in communications—and my researcher is funded by

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Connect. I am also the chair of the all-party group on telecommunications, so it is probably safe to say that I have more than a passing interest in this subject.

I prepared a long speech, but as the debate has progressed, many points have been raised on which questions need to be answered. Unfortunately, as many of those issues were raised by Opposition Members who have since left the Chamber I cannot put my questions to them, so I shall make my points to the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms).

It is crucial that Ofcom follow the mandate stipulated in the Bill and that we be confident that the House can monitor that effectively. It is also important that we and the Secretary of State examine how Ofcom does its job. The Select Committees on Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and on Trade and Industry have considered the Bill, but we should think about setting up a new Select Committee to deal primarily with Ofcom.

Ofcom is composed of five bodies that cover everything relating to communications and broadcasting and is likely to be one of the most important bodies set up by the Government. It will probably be more important than anything done in this field during the 18 years of the previous Conservative Government.

The existing structure has not resulted in detailed or regular assessment. The current regulatory bodies do not work. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), who said how well Oftel had worked. I remember the problems that we experienced with Atlantic Telecom when, as was pointed out in a previous speech, Oftel was as much good as a chocolate fireguard. I hope that Ofcom will deal much better with problems in broadcasting than Oftel did with problems in telecommunications. Many of my constituents found that their businesses were going down the tube because telephone numbers listed in XYellow Pages" and other publications no longer existed.

The Joint Committee which undertook pre-legislative scrutiny did an excellent job and its members are to be commended for their work. However, they missed one point in relation to clause 24, which deals with training. Training and education for staff in the broadcasting industry will be covered by Ofcom, but the same provision does not seem to apply to the telecommunications side of the business, where no scrutiny is provided for.

In effect, that means that in times of plenty when business is booming, a company such as BT, for which I used to work, could supply all the new companies that spring up. Those companies could cherry-pick all the good workers and experts. But what happens if there are no companies to provide training? What will happen if there is no one to train people in the new technology that is being developed?

A recent study produced some startling figures. According to the European Information Technology Observatory, the number of unfilled vacancies in the ICT and e-business sectors in the European Union is expected to rise from 2.23 million in 2001 to 3.67 million

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in 2003—a 65 per cent. increase in the number of people who will be unable do the job. We have to deal with that problem.

New technology is not something that people can just pick up. We have to train people in it; we have to train them to maintain it. The Bill needs to be better balanced. It seems to suggest that we must provide education and training for broadcasting but that people can do as they please on the telecommunications side. We need to ensure that people in both sectors are trained.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said that we needed to examine the regulation of mobiles and mobile companies. He pointed out that as such companies had experienced great growth, they should be regulated. However, those companies amassed customers and grew so fast precisely because they were not subject to strong regulation.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) pointed out that there was no broadband in his country—nor is there in mine or in many parts of England. Part of the problem is that the regulator prevented companies such as BT from getting out into the marketplace.

These companies were so busy looking over their shoulder to see what the regulator was saying that they missed the boat, and two years down the line they had an excellent product but could not market it because everyone had forgotten what the product was. We have reached the stage now where people in places such as the rural areas of Scotland and Wales, and for that matter England, cannot get broadband because the company cannot afford to put staff out there. If we had started back when there was a boom, we might all have broadband; even if we did not, we would certainly have better companies than we do today.

Mr. Mole: Does my hon. Friend accept, in the context of the argument about the rolling out of broadband to rural areas, that we need to bear in mind the fact that there are fundamental physical limitations to the reach of technologies such as ADSL, based on the competence of existing technology; that it is only with the creation of new technology such as the delivery of broadband by satellite that some of these areas can be reached; and that we shall have these problems again when we have high data rate digital subscriber line and very high data rate digital subscriber line?

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. I am sure that people in Wales and Scotland can identify with that. They will have to pay thousands of pounds for something for which other people will be able to pay hundreds or less. We must lighten the regulator's grip and allow companies to grow.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) mentioned Deutsche Telecom. Earlier in the year, I visited Deutsche Telecom in Munich to look at its ADSL and I was surprised when I discovered how quickly the company was growing. It has been growing because its regulator does not impose strong commitments on it. The company saw a niche in the market. It cut its prices. It went and did it, and only then asked the regulator whether it was okay. The company did not think about what the regulator was going to say,

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put forward a business case, took months to go to the regulator, then suddenly found out that the regulator now agreed to what it was proposing.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Is it not true that one of the reasons why Deutsche Telecom did that was that it knew that it had to divest itself of its cable companies, and to stifle competition it put broadband into the areas when it was going to have to divest itself of those companies?

John Robertson: My hon. Friend is correct, but we are now lagging behind with broadband. We must get broadband out there, and if we are to bring the UK up to the standard of some of our competitors, we need to get out there now.

Another thing was missing from the Bill. One group that was never mentioned as a stakeholder was employees. Employees work at the sharp end. They know about their companies. Yes, they may look after their own interests when negotiating with management, but they know more about the business than the management force do, and they should have been regarded as stakeholders and allowed to participate in the advisory bodies, because they can probably contribute more than most. Not only do they have knowledge of the companies for which they work, but they are customers, so they have a very firm grounding. Those are the people who are missing: the people who do the work, who have the knowledge about how the product works. I know many very good managers who know how to run companies, but they know absolutely nothing about their product. I believe that in the case of BT and the selling of broadband to the country, that has been the main problem: the people who knew most about broadband were not the ones who were marketing it, and we all know what has happened.

I feel passionately about this subject, and if I am fortunate enough to be asked to serve on the Committee, I shall take great pleasure in doing so. There are lots of other aspects of the Bill that I should like to discuss with the relevant Ministers, which probably ensures that I shall not be asked to be a Committee member. I believe that communication is the No. 1 thing in this country; we all need to communicate. One of the best things that we can do to make that possible is to give it to the people and ensure that they know how to use it and can get access to it.

8.22 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I have listened with great interest to the debate. On the broad principles there is a fairly strong welcome for the Bill on both sides of the House, with considerable reservations, which have been expressed. Having served on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport when we held an inquiry before the draft legislation was produced, I found that, as I learned more, my understanding actually lessened. The communications industry has definitely proved to be a challenge to me. However, I commend the Government for the way in which they have taken this process forward. It has proved beyond doubt that taking the time to produce draft legislation and providing the opportunity for scrutiny produces far better Bills. This Bill is immeasurably better than the one that we started with some time ago.

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It also became clear from what we saw in our Committee that prescriptive legislation of the type that we have had in the past is out of date almost the moment it arrives on the statute book, so the Bill had to try to set down principles and a mechanism that would last for some time into the future. I believe that broadly, with one or two reservations, the Bill achieves that.

I should like to address three specific concerns. They are all relatively Scottish, but they could just as easily be expressed for Wales or, indeed, many of the rural regions of England. My first point relates to the way in which the Bill sets out to represent the nations and regions. I wish to say at the outset that, when our Select Committee considered the issue, I was predisposed, although with an open mind, to think that, in all probability, Ofcom's main board should include representation from Scotland and Wales.

Having heard the evidence, however, especially that given to the Select Committee by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, I reached the view that it was far more sensible for Ofcom's main board to do the job of regulating the industry and not to set out at that point to deal with the more complex issues of sectional, national or regional representation. Having reached that view, however, my concern is that the consumer and content panels will not necessarily fulfil the role that I would expect them to play.

Scotland—this goes for Wales, too—has a very diverse and different architecture from that of England. For example, one of my constituents, Miss Hutt, who lives in a croft near the village of Dunbeath, recently applied to BT for a telephone. Having initially been quoted about £74, she was quoted just under £12,000 when the survey was done. Bearing in mind that the nearest telephone line was 400 m away and that she lives 500 m from the main A9, that was somewhat expensive. The price was reduced to £3,000, when she agreed to dig the trench and lay the cable herself, but £3,000 for a telephone is still rather worrying. Therefore, it is particularly important that the consumer panel should have sufficient teeth and that the provisions that relate to it should be strengthened.

The Bill simply states that Scotland and Wales should have one representative on the consumer panel and one representative each on the content panel. If that is all there is, it is a pretty weak force to look after the contents and the consumers. I must say that, having accepted totally the fact that the Ofcom's main board should not include such representation, I should like to see much stronger representation on the consumer panel by including in the Bill an advisory council for Scotland and one for Wales. Ofcom has the power to ask for that, but it does not have a duty to provide it at the moment, and that is one change that I should like to see.

The second point, to which other hon. Members have referred, is the analogue switch-off. My constituency—all 3,000 and several hundred square miles of it—contains areas throughout much of Sutherland's north-west coast that barely receive analogue broadcasts. One gets used to watching television through a figurative or literal snow. When the switch-off takes place, those people will be deprived of any signal. It is highly unlikely that they will receive a digital signal, so Ofcom should be given a strong steer towards ensuring that, when the analogue switch-off occurs and we go to digital only,

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constituents such as mine who live in remote rural areas will not find themselves entirely deprived of terrestrial television and forced to rely on satellite services. I hope that we will consider that issue in Committee.

The third issue that I should like to address is the broadband roll-out. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have stressed the importance of broadband services. I should like to refer particularly to the highlands.

We were fortunate to have considerable Government investment, through the Highlands and Islands development board and its successor body, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, in integrated services digital network, which was the great technology of a decade ago. As a result, we have a considerable number of high-tech companies, which rely on communications to be able to make money. By not enabling broadband, those companies, which require high-quality communications, are not merely denied a competitive advantage but put at a huge competitive disadvantage. There is a company in Wick that is going to relocate to India if broadband is not introduced within two years. That is the scale of the competition. Once companies decide to move, they do not just move out of the north of Scotland or Scotland as a whole; they move out of the United Kingdom altogether.

I therefore make the same point to the Minister as I made to the Secretary of State in the Select Committee. Given the amount of public money that has been invested in fibre optic cable running up near to the A9 and in the implementation of ISDN, and given the companies that depend on that, the Government must take the lead in the broadband roll-out. If they do not, we will end up losing out on the investment that has already been made. With those principal reservations, I warmly welcome the Bill and look forward to its passage through the House.


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