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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Wireless Telegraphy (Pre-Consolidation Amendments)Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Amess
Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Burgon, Colin (Elmet) (Lab)
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Gibson, Dr. Ian (Norwich, North) (Lab)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Hendry, Charles (Wealden) (Con)
Hodge, Margaret (Minister for Industry and the Regions)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Joyce, Mr. Eric (Falkirk) (Lab)
McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Ussher, Kitty (Burnley) (Lab)
Rhiannon Hollis, Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 17 May 2006

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Draft Wireless Telegraphy (Pre-Consolidation Amendments)Order 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Wireless Telegraphy (Pre-Consolidation Amendments) Order 2006.
I might have chosen a slightly less technical order as the first task in my new post—
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Foreign Secretary next.
Margaret Hodge: I thank my hon. Friend, and I hope that I can make some sense of the provision.
The purpose of the order is to make changes to existing legislation to support our proposals to consolidate the wireless telegraphy legislation. Hon. Members will be aware of the legislation that we are consolidating in the Wireless Telegraphy Bill: the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949; the Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967; the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1967, except part 1; part 6 of the Telecommunications Act 1984; the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1998; part 2 of chapter 2 of the Communications Act 2003; and other provisions of the 2003 Act that relate to any of the enactments just mentioned. All that legislation is being consolidated in the Wireless Telegraphy Bill, which was introduced to the Houseof Lords on 20 April and had its Second Reading on3 May. It has been referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Bills.
Why are we consolidating? The Law Commission proposed that existing wireless telegraphy legislation be consolidated in a single Act, making the legislation easier for parliamentarians and users of the radio spectrum and others to understand and use.
The Bill is our first attempt to meet the Law Commission’s recommendations. Consolidations such as this, as hon. Members know, are an important part of the Government’s better regulation agenda, mainly because they make legislation easier to understand and use. Our aim is to improve the statute book and to save considerable effort, time and cost for those who have to use and consult it. Ofcom will be one of the prime users of the legislation, and it welcomes the Bill, as does the industry as a whole.
As hon. Members know, radio spectrum is a finite resource and of considerable importance to the economy. Its use in 2002 alone was such that it was estimated to have generated economic benefits estimated at about £24 billion a year. Improving the legislation so that it is consistent and easier to use will help all stakeholders to make more efficient and more effective use of that valuable resource. That is the reason for the order.
What does the order do? It supports the consolidation process. We are making it under a power of the Secretary of State under the 2003 Act to modify existing legislation in this area by order when such modifications would facilitate, or otherwise be desirable in connection with, a consolidation Bill. The changes made by this order relate mainly to ensuring a consistent approach across legislation and are largely technical.
Dr. Gibson: Before I can vote for or against the order, I want the Minister to tell me whether it has anything to do with Radio Caroline and that aspect of wireless telegraphy.
Margaret Hodge: That is a clever question for starters. To the extent that the order is concerned with the issuing of licences, it will cover all who succeed in obtaining a licence. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has particular concerns, but to the extent that the order covers all licences, it will have an effect on Radio Caroline.
Dr. Gibson: I am not quite clear about this. Can we bring Radio Caroline back? Can it be consolidated? Many people would look forward to that and it would be revolutionary.
Margaret Hodge: None of us wants divulge our age, but I assure my hon. Friend that Radio Caroline, like any other station, may apply for a licence and may even find it easier to do so once we have simplified and consolidated the legislation in the way that we intend.
Dr. Gibson: Noel Edmonds will be glad to hear that.
Margaret Hodge: And I might now secure my hon. Friend’s support for the order.
The changes made by the order relate mainly to ensuring a consistent approach across legislation and are largely technical. They will be taken forward in the provisions that we then intend to repeal or re-enact in the consolidation Bill. Other changes in the orderwill ensure a consistent approach on issues such as disclosure of information for all wireless telegraphy covered in the new Bill.
If I may, Mr. Amess, I shall take the Committee through the key technical points in the order. The first proposed change will put conduct that is unlawful under section 7 of the 1967 Act on an equal footing with conduct that is unlawful under the 1949 Act in one particular respect. Currently, the legislation expressly provides that civil proceedings can be brought in relation to conduct that is a criminal offence under certain wireless telegraphy legislation, but not under other such legislation.
On that basis, a civil case could be brought against somebody who had used a wireless telegraphy station without a licence—for example, a pirate radio station—but not against someone who had manufactured wireless telegraphy apparatus, such as a citizens’ band tower, without Ofcom’s authority.
The result of the change is that, in general terms, the right to bring civil proceedings—for example, taking out an injunction—will apply to an offence committed in respect of orders that restrict dealings in and custody of certain wireless telegraphy-related apparatus in the same way that it applies to proceedings in respect of, for example, the offence of using wireless telegraphy stations without a licence. We simply want a consistent approach across all those offences.
The second proposed change will also remove an anomaly. Under the existing legislation, it is doubtful whether section 1D of the 1949 Act, which lays out the procedure for granting wireless telegraphy licences, could be extended to the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, because that bit of that Act was inserted by regulations made under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, and those regulations did not make provision for the islands.
The order modifies the legislation so that all provisions on granting wireless telegraphy licences can be extended to the islands. They will then be treated in the same way as equivalent provisions for making grants of recognised spectrum access.
A grant of RSA is a relatively new spectrum management instrument that fills a significant gap, as some hon. Members will know, in the management of the radio spectrum. The 2003 Act empowers Ofcom to introduce RSA on a selective basis to manage the radio spectrum more effectively. Ofcom believes that RSA has the potential to promote much better use of the radio spectrum for a number of receive-only radio services such as radio astronomy.
A grant of RSA, once paid for, provides the holder with the opportunity and freedom to identify frequency bands and geographic areas within which Ofcom will endeavour to ensure that agreed levels of interference are not exceeded.
The next change, which is in paragraph 4 of the schedule, corrects an oversight. The 1949 Act contains a provision about forfeiture after conviction of an offence. For certain offences, the court may order that items used while committing the offence can be given to Ofcom.
There is also a general provision on forfeiture following conviction, which appears elsewhere in UK legislation. There is duplication in respect of what is called the particular provision for forfeiting items on certain offences in wireless telegraphy legislation and the general provision for forfeiting items in other legislation. For example, for the offence of broadcasting from a ship or an aircraft, both the particular and the general provisions in legislation could apply. The purpose of the amendment is to get rid of the duplication of having both general and particular provisions and to apply only the particular provisions, rather than the two that currently apply.
The next amendment, in paragraph 5, is a technical amendment to ensure consistency in how we modify both wireless telegraphy licences and grants of RSA. Currently, the language used could mean that modifications that we make might interpret the UK’s different international obligations slightly differently. We consider that there is a very small gap between the two interpretations, but this statutory instrument gives us an opportunity to be clear, consistent and unambiguous in our definitions.
Paragraph 6 ensures consistency in definitions in the Act being consolidated. There are definitions of the terms “broadcast”, “frequency”, “information” and
“international obligations of the United Kingdom”.
Broadly speaking, the definitions of those terms, as used in the 2003 Act, will be applied to all other references to those terms in the other specified legislation, where they have not been specifically defined to date. That means, for example, that when somebody refers to “frequency”, we shall have one consistent definition, until and unless we amend it.
Paragraph 7 relates to disclosure of information. There are provisions relating to such disclosure in a number of places in legislation, but not in all. Where such provisions exist, they allow information obtained under one Act to be used by Ministers or other Government bodies for the purpose of carrying out certain functions. Those functions are described under listed Acts and statutory instruments. However, the disclosure provisions are, again, inconsistent across all legislation. Some disclosure provisions provide for disclosure of information in relation to the 1984 Act and the 2003 Act, but not the other legislation that we are consolidating.
The effect of paragraph 7 is to treat all the provisions of the Wireless Telegraphy Bill, which we are considering, in the same way as regards the disclosure of information provisions. To give an example of what could occur if that were not done, disclosure provisions could cover provisions on making grants of RSA, but not provisions on making wireless telegraphy licences. We think that consistency of approach is again desirable, hence the modification we are proposing today.
Paragraph 8 also ensures consistent treatment in how the legislation will be consolidated. The way that the Secretary of State can exercise powers varies. In some instances, different provision can be made for different cases. For example, when making an order for the charging of fees for approval of wireless telegraphy apparatus, there may be different fees for different types of apparatus.
In other cases, such as when the Secretary of State makes an order giving Ofcom directions relating to its radio spectrum functions, the provisions of the order could also be subject to exceptions. For instance, the Secretary of State could direct Ofcom to keep certain frequencies available for particular use, such as by GCHQ, in very special circumstances such as an emergency.
We are attempting in this paragraph to tidy up the legislation, so that the same variety of provision can apply in all cases. We do not think that that will significantly widen the powers affected; it is simply a tidying-up exercise. However, it will lead to a situation that better reflects Ofcom’s order and regulation-making powers and also ensure consistency where a power can be exercised either by Ofcom or by the Secretary of State.
Paragraph 9 has a similar aim. It enables the same variety of provision to be made by Her Majesty by Order in Council when extending provisions to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. I hope that, with that explanation, hon. Members are content to approve the order.
2.45 pm
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): May I say at the outset, Mr. Amess, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? May I add to that a message of welcome to the Minister in her new role? We spent a lot of time together when she was at the Department for Education and Skills.
Dr. Gibson: A scandal.
Charles Hendry: A scandal in the offing. The Minister brought tremendous dedication to that role, and I hope that she enjoys her time at the Department of Trade and Industry every bit as much as she enjoyed her former role. In business terms, I am not yet sure whether we should call what we have seen at the DTI over the last week or so a takeover by a new management team or the receivers being called in to sort things out. However, we have certainly seen a complete transformation, and I hope that she and her colleagues enjoy their brief.
May I also add a word of respect for the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), and the work that he did in the sector? He brought to the role tremendous personal dedication, commitment and understanding of the issues. Such understanding was always extremely useful to us in debate. I understand that he left the Government of his own volition. We discover day by day people whom we thought had done the same, as well as others who left not quite so voluntarily, but we wish him a happy life on the Back Benches, if that is where he has chosen to be.
I also congratulate the Minister on how she introduced the subject. There have always been Ministers who specialise in taking an extremely controversial and lively subject and delivering it in such a deadpan way that everybody drops off and loses interest. This Minister is exactly the opposite: she took a subject that is a bit dry and technical, and delivered it with such enthusiasm and liveliness that she gripped our attention throughout. However, the debate came to life only when we got on to the subject of Radio Caroline—suddenly, we thought that this technical matter had wider implications.
We are well aware that the Prime Minister is looking for his legacy moment. We thought that it might be sorting out Iraq, or nuclear power and nuclear waste, but we now realise that he will be remembered for sorting out the problems of pirate radio stations. It will be a great triumph for him to have achieved that.
The Minister talks about the importance of better regulation. We want less, rather than just better, regulation. It should be the objective to regulate not more, but better, and to reduce overall the burdens of legislation and regulation on business. I hope that she can clarify the extent to which the order does that. Does it just bring things together, or does it reduce the overall burden of regulation on business?
The Minister said that people, including Ofcom, are generally in favour of that, but can she also reassure us that there have been no negative reactions whatever to the proposals? We have not been made aware of any, but it would be useful for the Committee to know, before any vote, whether any have been expressed and the nature of any such views.
Although this is a complex statutory instrument, it is not particularly controversial, and I am happy to endorse the direction in which the Minister has led us.
2.49 pm
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess, for the debate on this important, if technical, subject. I also add my welcome to the Minister in her new role. It is a delight to find somebody who is newer in her role than I am, as I have been on the DTI team for three or four weeks.
I welcome this necessary order and echo the points made by the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). We all want better regulation and, despite some comments that were made this week in the Chamber, the Liberal Democrats are extremely keen to see as much reduction in regulation as we can. However, I want to raise one matter about the order, which is potentially a missed opportunity to address certain technological developments in the area of short-range FM transmitter devices.
One of the more commonly known products that uses such technology is the iTrip. The Government and Ofcom seem to be burying their heads in the sand over the use of those devices, which broadcast over a very limited area. Not only has that failure encouraged their continued illegal use, but the Government must be missing out on considerable tax revenue from them, even though they have been deemed acceptable in a number of countries, including the United States. That is all the more disappointing considering we will have to return to the issue following the European Union’s recommendation that member states reconsider their legislation.
Can the Minister see her way to amending the legislation, perhaps to force Ofcom to deal with illegal iPods— I am so sorry, I mean iTtrips. There was a trip there. Will she perhaps ask Ofcom to review the spectrum use of iTrips? By that, I mean that Ofcom should take iTrips into account in its spectrum framework review to make them legal in future. That could exempt them from the wireless telegraphy legislation, which is what the company selling iTrips hopes we can do.
I ask the Minister to do something about this, because we seem to have missed an opportunity.
2.52 pm
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): May I first declare an interest as a shareholder in the local radio company that operates Yorkshire Coast Radio, broadcasting to the Yorkshire coast between Whitby and Bridlington?
I hope that the Minister will reassure me that this is indeed a tidying-up exercise, not an excuse to slide lots of things in under the door. She also mentioned that some legislative anomalies might have been a problem in bringing forward civil prosecutions, but has she any information about how many prosecutions have been prevented because of those anomalies and whether the legislation will increase the number of prosecutions?
2.53 pm
Margaret Hodge: I would like to apologise for my gross error in failing to welcome you to the Chair at the beginning of the sitting, Mr. Amess. I hope that you will accept my welcome at this late stage.
May I also add a comment that I was going to make in the Chamber? I recognise the hard and effective work undertaken by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, who has left me with a clear agenda of extremely thorough work to take over. I am extremely grateful to him. All my hon. Friends recognise that the various roles he has played in government have been difficult, but that he has been effective in them all. I am sure that we shall have other opportunities to recognise that.
I do not think that this is a takeover bid—the Conservative party is better at those than us—but it is a seamless transition. As we conduct our business, I am sure that Conservative Members will recognise that, and I hope that we can work in the way that my predecessor worked: trying to share as much information as we can with all Opposition parties on areas of common concern, so that we can make real progress in the interests of business and enterprise in the way that we all want.
Hon. Members asked whether the order will lead to less regulation and whether it will reduce existing burdens. The purpose of the order is to simplify how we use legislation, and I hope that the consolidation Bill, which is under consideration, will take forward that simplification. Yes, it should lead to better regulation in the way that we all want. I can assure the Committee that there were no objections when we consulted on the order.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) asked me about iTrips, which I understand are devices for playing music using wireless telegraphy. I am told by my officials that this is a matter not for us, but for the independent regulator, Ofcom. I suggest that she take it up directly with Ofcom. If that does not achieve her objective, she is welcome to write to me and I will see what we can do to advance the issues that she raised.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby(Mr. Goodwill) asked whether we are adding to regulation. This is a tidying-up exercise. A consolidation Bill has to re-enact existing legislation, which is precisely what we are doing. This statutory instrument will help us to do it.
I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how many civil prosecutions might arise from the consistency that we are introducing as I do not have the answer here with me, but, if I may, I shall write to him with information on what proceedings have been taken under other existing provisions and whether we have any idea as to where we will go with the tidying-up that we are proposing today.
This has been a useful initiation in the technicalities of telegraphy legislation. I had not realised that there were quite so many Acts as I have discovered in my first week in the job. I hope that this statutory instrument receives the support of all members of the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Wireless Telegraphy (Pre-Consolidation Amendments) Order 2006.
Committee rose at two minutes to Three o’clock.

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