§ Order for Second Reading read.3.46 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Cecil Parkinson)
I beg to move, That the Bill he now read a Second time.
As the House will be aware, the Government's Telecommunications Bill introduced in the previous Parliament had not completed its passage through Parliament when the general election intervened. I can see several hon. Members in the Chamber who still bear the scars of more than 200 hours of debate in Committee upstairs. A moment ago I was looking round for the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), who inflicted a number of those scars in the course of his spectacular 11-hour speech to the Committee. Hon. Members may or may not be relieved to hear that the Bill that I have the pleasure to introduce today is substantially the same as the Bill that left the House for the other place in the previous Parliament.
§ Mr. Parkinson
Somehow I do not think that it will receive the same treatment this time. I think that will get through its Committee stage and will go on to the Statute Book and that the shares will be sold.
At any time in our history there are bound to be industries that have passed their peak of success, whose products are no longer in great demand—as in the past —or who find that lower cost producers can provide the products at lower prices. As those industries decline, it is our duty to ensure that the newer businesses that are growing to meet the new demands are not inhibited, and can come to play the leading roles in creating wealth in this country.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of telecommunications to a developed economy such as Britain's. New systems can provide better services to society, enhance business efficiency and improve competitiveness. The industry is a huge potential source of skill, highly paid employment and very useful products. Until recently most of us probably thought that telecommunications was synonymous with telephone systems. It is, in fact, a term that embraces a whole range of present and future services that involve the transmission of information. Computer and telephone technology are converging, assisted by digital techniques and broad band cable. As a result, telephone systems will change almost beyond recognition, as will business techniques, office equipment and the information services available to the home.
For a developed country such as Britain, it could be a major disadvantage to lag behind modern developments and the systems available to our competitors. Failure to seize the opportunities now opening up would deprive customers, whether private or commercial, of the benefits and lower costs that new technology brings. The world market for telecommunications products will be worth many billions of pounds each year for as far ahead as we 27 can see. There will be enormous market opportunities for British manufacturers. The competition will be intense. It is for all those reasons that the Government regard it as vital that our telecommunications industry be given the opportunity to develop as freely and as vigorously as possible.
The Bill contributes towards that freedom. It sweeps away most of BT's special privileges and allows the company to take its place in the private sector. It takes it nearer to free competition and defines the obligations of telecommunications operators and the rights of their customers. Most important, it will give customers the choice between different suppliers of apparatus, different suppliers of services and, increasingly, different networks.
The position we inherited in 1979 was a rigid state-owned network that was a monopoly supplier of most services and most apparatus. That system was quite inappropriate and while it survived Britain stood little or no chance of capitalising on the opportunities that I have described. There was little pressure on the old Post Office as the monopoly to provide its services at the lowest possible price to its customers. It had none of the incentive to get on with the development and provision of new services that competition provides. The suppliers of equipment to BT depended upon a monopoly purchaser and could not develop a range of products that could compete in world markets. The telephone equipment was overspecified and often quite unsuitable for export. Our prospects of selling the antique black telephone to the world have not been good for many years, and its successors were only marginally more marketable.
To begin to tackle those problems, Parliament approved the British Telecommunications Act 1981. That broke BT away from the Post Office and created a separate corporation. But important problems arising from BT's status as a state-owned monopoly were not tackled by that Act, which was always intended to be merely a first step. In particular, there was a major difficulty with funding future investment. The demand for investment has been enormous. For a number of years it was impossible to accommodate such needs for finance within reasonable restraint on public spending. Charges had to be increased to fund investment. The effect was to heap burdens on both private and commercial customers and to inhibit the development of telecommunications.
By removing BT from the public sector, as is proposed in the Bill, we shall be freeing the company to seek finance in the market. That will be of great importance when, in the years ahead, it faces the need for large tranches of investment finance. That investment will not be underwritten by the Government. but must be obtained on a commercial basis.
There are other reasons for wishing to remove BT from state ownership. The change in its ownership will maintain and increase the pressure on it to adopt commercial and competitive practices. The need for company management to report to shareholders and bankers on the company's performance produces a spur to achievement that simply cannot be produced in the state sector. Privately owned telephone companies have been successful in other parts of the world, notably in the United States of America, where there has been a huge expansion in telephone 28 networks. Telecommunications is a major growth sector and BT and its employees will be well placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered.
§ Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)
The Minister has made a strong case for commercial viability, in which the greatest criterion will be commercial profit. Can he reassure the House about the future of blind people working in the telephone exchanges? Although the Bill might be the best commercial bet, twice as high a proportion of blind people are unemployed as sighted people. Can he give some assurance that the Bill will not affect the employment of the blind?
§ Mr. Parkinson
I shall be dealing at some length with that matter, which was mentioned during the general election. I shall be reassuring sections of the community who are vulnerable and who have no reason to be concerned. I hope that by the time I end my speech the hon. Gentleman will feel reassured.
For the many employees who take advantage of the opportunity to buy shares in the company, an additional reward will be available. As in all the Government's previous plans for denationalisation, it is one of our central aims that employees should buy shares. In those companies that we have already removed from the state sector, in general more than 90 per cent. of employees have become shareholders. The effect on the motivation of employees has been as remarkable as the take-up. The Government believe strongly that when those who work for BT buy shares, the company will feel the benefit of a better motivated work force. For the employees, there will be a clear and direct link not only between their efforts and the company's performance but between that performance and their personal rewards.
While I am speaking about BT's employees, I wish to digress to put an important matter on the record. Those who are opposed for political reasons to the Bill have put about an extraordinary series of scare stories. The most irresponsible has been to suggest that employees' pension rights will be in danger. That is nonsense. The Bill safeguards pensions, BT's obligations to its pension fund and also its obligations to its employees. Any hon. Members who doubt that should consult clause 56. The matter is made more explicit, for the avoidance of doubt. in paragraph 31 of schedule 5.
§ Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)
Is the Minister saying that those who are re-employed or employed after privatisation will have the same pension rights as existing employees?
§ Mr. Parkinson
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen before he starts shouting. That will make a change. Why does he not set himself a precedent?
The liabilities of BT on the day that it is transformed into a limited company, and on the day that that company's shares are transferred to the public, will be transferred in full. Any existing liabilities and any rights of employees of BT will be transferred. New employees will have to negotiate with the trustees of the pension fund and decide about their rights under the fund. There is nothing remotely improper about that.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)
The Minister is discussing an important point. Is he giving a categorical assurance that any company buying shares in BT will have to give a written guarantee that BT's employees will have their pension rights continued, or will those employees have to renegotiate their contract of employment, which includes renegotiation of pension rights? If the latter is the position, the Minister's assurance to the House is not worth the paper it is written on.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I do not wish to criticise the hon. Gentleman, but he has shown that he does not understand the workings of the joint stock company. If I buy shares in a company I take into account all its obligations. Anyone who buys shares in BT will have to understand that the new company has undertaken responsibility for the liabilities of the old company, including the rights of the employees in the pension fund. There will be no question of a person buying shares expecting that condition to be changed. The lady or gentleman concerned will know that that is a condition of buying the shares.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
Will employees involved in services currently undertaken by British Telecom have those pension Nights if parts of those services are sold to a separate company and they are transferred to it?
§ Mr. Parkinson
The Government intend to sell the shares in a unitary company, and not to hive off parts of British Telecom. Therefore, British Telecom plc will take over the full business and liabilities of the existing British Telecom. Opposition Members seek to cause worry where there need be none, but I assure them that the pension rights of existing employees in British Telecom will be exactly the same the day after the new company is formed as they are today.
§ Mr. Parkinson
We have not changed our policy. The hon. Gentleman did not understand the previous policy.
The sale of British Telecom should proceed as rapidly as possible. It is one of the Government's aims, and it will give me great personal pleasure to see many of the millions of British Telecom subscribers participating fully in the purchase of shares. That will give them a stake in a major wealth-creating company and a greater interest in its performance. It will also have a stimulating effect on British Telecom management. The more customers who hold shares, the better.
There are about 3 million share holders in American Telephones and Telegraph in the U sited States. In Japan over 40 million bonds have been sold to NTT customers. The Government wish to see a high proportion of customer-shareholders in the United Kingdom, together with a high proportion of employee-shareholders.
I am convinced that the change in British Telecom ownership will bring about a major improvement in BT's accountability. Up to the present, British Telecom's chairman has been only loosely responsible to the Secretary of State for Industry. That has been the one inadequate source of pressure on the company to account for its actions. It is little wonder that every set of accounts published by British Telecom has had to be qualified by the auditors. The old arrangements for controlling British Telecom were, to borrow a word from The Times leader today, wholly "corporatist".
30 In future, British Telecom will be accountable to its shareholders—we hope that there will be millions of them—to its customers, to Oftel and to its bankers, and it will be subject to competition. For the first time a regulatory body, Oftel, will be able to question the service that BT provides and to restrict BT's freedom to increase prices. It will ensure that BT will not use its market position to block competition. For the first time, customers will have the right to sue BT in the courts for breach of contract. The Times argues that in the process of privatisation British Telecom will become more corporatist and less accountable. Those assertions are ludicrous, as even a cursory glance at the facts shows.
We should proceed quickly to bring the new accountability to British Telecom by moving it into the private sector. That is one reason why I have decided against breaking up BT before offering it to the public. To do so would require a delay of many years in order to put British Telecom's accounts into a form that would make piecemeal disposals possible. The alleged advantages of that approach are greatly outweighed by the benefit of proceeding at once to improve BT's accountability.
Enormous tactical problems must be faced. BT has developed as a single integrated network. To separate local services from trunk services, as has been proposed, would be immensely complex and costly. It would do more harm than good to the customer who, let us not forget, pays the bill in the end. I have also rejected the idea that British Telecom should be forbidden to sell apparatus and specialist services.
§ Mr. Skinner
Does the Minister mean that nations all over the world could buy those shares. Would that include Argentina and Brazil, to whom we are now shovelling out large sums of British taxpayers' money? Will people in Argentina, Brazil and other countries, whose debts are being rescheduled, be able to pick up BT shares with British people's money, and will we send them more money when they run out so that they can buy more shares?
§ Mr. Parkinson
If that is the hon. Gentleman's only problem, he is a very lucky man. He is talking nonsense and there is no point in answering nonsense.
To separate the local services and the trunk services would do more harm than good to the customer who, in the end, would have to foot the bill.
I have also rejected the idea that British Telecom should be forbidden to sell apparatus and specialist services. If customers had by law to obtain their line from one supplier and their telephone or equipment from another company, it would create a number of practical nonsenses. Business customers would be forced by law to make separate purchases, to pay two separate contractors, and so on. Some firms would undoubtedly think that it was simpler and easier to obtain the line and the equipment from British Telecom. Others might choose to get their apparatus separately. It would be absurd if we denied them the possibility of making that choice, but we are determined that British Telecom should not gain any unfair competitive advantage from its freedom to sell apparatus.
The Bill gives us the power to require British Telecom to follow a liberal policy on interconnecting other systems to the British Telecom network. I intend to explore with BT whether its apparatus supply activities and the services now supplied by BT Enterprises should be in a separate 31 Companies Act company. Those arrangements and the Director General's power to scrutinise BT's detailed accounting arrangements can and will ensure that the competition is fair.
I have explained as carefully as I can why the Government believe in establishing BT as a private sector company for the good of the economy, for the better performance of BT, for the benefit of its employees, and for the advantage of its customers. In a few moments I intend to give the House a detailed account of the Bill's provisions. I shall explain to the House some of the improvements made to the previous Bill and dispel some of the fears which have been generated by the Bill's opponents, but before I do that I will remind the House of the steps that we have already taken and of the results that we have already secured.
The British Telecommunications Act 1981 prepared the way for competition, and BT's customers are already benefiting from the new opportunity to choose equipment from a variety of suppliers. Over 100 new products are now on the open market bearing the green approved label. Businesses know that they now have a wide choice when buying telexes or branch exchanges. The general public is only just waking up to the new range of goods that it can buy.
My predecessor issued a licence for what are called the value added network services. For the first time, and with a minimum of regulation, VANS operators can provide a range of competitive service over the public telecommunications network, from electronic mail boxes to viewdata and automatic ticket reservations. It was the first licence of its kind in the world and gave Britain the most liberal VANS regime in the world. Already 46 service providers have taken advantage of the licence, and it is bound to become a major growth area in the coming years.
The most important change is that we have licensed a private sector telephone company, Mercury, to set up a new all-digital network to compete with BT. It is licensed to provide a full range of telecommunications services and was the first competing network anywhere in the world to be allowed to provide international leased lines. Mercury will be small to start with, but we are confident that it will provide real competition for BT. People who work in BT now realise—
§ Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)
My hon. Friend will appreciate that Mercury Communications Ltd. — in which I have an interest, which I declare—has a very important task in trying to carry out international work. He will recall that his hon. Friend undertook to introduce in February proposals to ease restrictions on those international activities. Can my hon. Friend say something about that today?
§ Mr. Parkinson
Negotiations are almost complete. We expect to make an announcement very soon—certainly before the House rises — about the international interconnections of Mercury.
Mercury will be small to start with, but we are determined that it will provide real competition for BT. People who work in BT now realise that their customers have a choice while those who work in Mercury will try much harder to beat British Telecom. The result will be better services and better telecommunications for all.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Mercury project itself is an example of what many of us fear will be the result of the Bill? So far, Mercury's objectives are aimed at the main cities, where it can expect to make profits. There is no sign that it would even go into Scotland until 1985. Mercury will be confining its operations to the areas that will return the fastest buck.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I shall be dealing with rural services in a moment. The cost of providing those rural services will be spread between the various networks—in other words, Mercury will be making its contribution to providing the emergency and specialist services in the network.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I distinctly heard the Secretary of State say that he believed that Mercury in competition with BT would bring better services to all. What is the right hon. Gentleman's estimate of the time it will take for Mercury to compete with BT nationwide, particularly in the rural and sparsely populated areas?
§ Mr. Parkinson
By that remark I meant that for the first time we have a second network. We will be able to see how it performs. If it outperforms BT, if it has better equipment and if it gives a better service, people will realise that there are ways of doing things other than just the British Telecom way. For the first time we shall have a measuring stick against which to measure the performance of British Telecom.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I do not know how long it will take to develop, but £90 million has been invested and it is aimed to provide a better service for the customer. It is aimed at providing competition. I know that both those things are of no significance to Opposition Members, but they are of significance to the country at large. The country welcomes the fact that there is now a competitor to British Telecom.
§ Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the modest measures of liberalisation that have taken place have already greatly improved the quality of service offered by British Telecom? That is a benefit for everyone, particularly for those living in a rural constituency such as mine. Does he further agree that the possibility of alternative employment for people working in BT is a great advantage to them? BT will not be just a monopoly purchaser of labour.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I believe that the injection of Mercury into the commercial scene has already improved the performance of BT and has made it realise that it has to behave like a business and much more commercially than it did in the past. I believe that that is for the benefit of all of us. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining succinctly to the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) just what benefits there are for the public, even though Mercury at the moment is only a small network.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I shall certainly give way to my hon. Friend in a moment. I accept that Mercury is still 33 something of an experiment. We are doing things that have not been attempted before. We want to give that experiment every chance to succeed, so while Mercury is establishing itself we decided not to licence any further competing networks. This restriction on competition is not, I accept, ideal, but it is more important to build up one effective competitor for British Telecom than to license several competitors to destroy each other and leave the field to the established monopolists.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd
I am concerned about the implications of duopoly on competition policy and the effect it has on our stance in the country at large. Surely the introduction of a duopoly into international services would have a consequential effect on those customers of British Telecom who have no alternative source of services. Will not a consequence of introducing duopoly to international services without extending competition generally be for prices for those captured customers such as myself and some small businesses to increase to make up the differential in lost monopoly profits?
§ Mr. Parkinson
I know of my hon. Friend's keen interest in this matter and I have read a number of his contributions in Committee. While I accept the disadvantages of duopoly, I still think that, compared with a monopoly, it is a major step forward. We now have a measuring stick, or the beginnings of one, against which to compare the performance of British Telecom. British Telecom has shown already that, although there is only one competitor and it is small, it is taking that competitor seriously and it is being forced to improve its own performance.
We shall also license two competing radio telephone networks. The effect of competition has acted like a shot of pure oxygen on BT. Under the guidance of Sir George Jefferson, BT has moved a long way from the traditional attitudes which it formed in the days when it was a Government Department. For example, Sir George Jefferson has undertaken a major reform of British Telecom's accounting and management systems. That was desperately needed. When Sir George arrived in that huge enterprise—I declare my interest here—there was only one qualified accountant among the whole of BT's 61 local areas. Its accounting and management systems were, by modern standards, almost non-existent. The very fact that the company was moving towards privatisation, that it would have to come to the market to account to its shareholders and to its customers has made it start behaving like a business—to the benefit of those who work in it, and above all to the benefit of its customers.
A few years ago some subscribers felt that they could scarcely get a line connection for Love or money. Apart from the irritation that that caused, it was a major problem for new businesses or businesses moving office, as all Members will know from their constituency mail. In 1980–81 the waiting list for connections was 127,000. Last year it had fallen to 4,000. The number of new connections rose by 1.4 million during the period. A few years back, businesses which wanted private circuits to link offices in the same area had to wait three or four months for installation—by last year the waiting period was down to less than a month. There is still a steady flow of applications for new lines but BT can now deal with them much more speedily.
The 1981 Act allowed liberalisation, but it did not take it all the way. The Bill is the next stage in producing 34 further liberalisation and it is, in our view, a practical Bill. We have not been dogmatic. We have been prepared to listen and to consider seriously all the many representations and suggestions that have been made to us since the first Bill was published last year. As a result, the Bill now contains stronger safeguards for the rural and the other socially necessary services about which the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) spoke earlier. It contains new provisions to help the blind and other disabled people and it draws on the suggestions of the Littlechild report on regulating the monoply that British Telecom is likely to enjoy in the provision of some services until competition develops fully.
Under present legislation, BT enjoys a special position. It alone can run its systems without a licence, and it has powers to license other systems. British Telecom has access to Government funds and its borrowings are guaranteed by the Treasury. True competition cannot flourish in such conditions. It is as if one competitor had exclusive use of a motorway and all the others had to drive on the country lanes.
The Bill repeals British Telecom's powers to license other operators and its special privileges, and replaces the Telegraph Acts by a new telecommunications code. The guiding principle in the code is that no person should unreasonably be denied access to the telecommunications system. In the past, it seems, we have never been concerned enough to regulate our monopolies. Customers have had little redress against BT, or the Post Office before that. It has been impossible to judge whether increases in telephone charges could be justified. After all, when people point to the profits, a monopoly can turn in large profits year after year, whether it is efficient or not.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd
My right hon. Friend has mentioned the regulation of monopoly, about which we are all concerned. Can he tell us a little about the Littlechild formula for price restraint? As I understand it, the formula is RPI minus x, but does that apply to the basket of all British Telecom's costs or to a narrow selected range? If it applies to all BT's costs, it means that one can cross-subsidise — by cutting costs to certain selective business users, one can pile additional charges on to the private customer who has no alternative service. Therefore, the RPI minus x solution, if applied to a full basket of charges, would give the customer no protection against extraordinary price increases.
§ Mr. Parkinson
The Minister for Information Technology will answer that matter in detail later. We do not propose to have the limitation which causes my hon. Friend such concern, but I hope that he will feel happier when he hears the reply in full later.
British Telecom's profits have, until recently, owed little to efficiency and everything to monopoly. The Labour party has never been willing to recognise that state-owned monopoly industries are just as likely as private ones to lapse into monopolistic practices to the detriment of their customers. Customers need protection whether the monopolies happen to be private or state-owned.
§ Mr. Parkinson
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to sit there muttering, "Ridiculous", but lie has no way of knowing because until recently the accountancy systems of BT did not show where the money came from. 35 Every set of accounts that the organisation ever produced has been qualified by the auditor, who has said that in his view he cannot audit them; so the basis of the hon. Gentleman's assertion is very flimsy indeed.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gets a presentation from BT of its accounting systems and what it knew about its business. Having done that, he may appreciate that he has no basis for making his assertion, except blind prejudice. The only long-term solution is to end the monopoly and establish free competition.
In the interim, in the aftermath of decades of unchallenged monopoly in telephone services, it is only right that the customer should be given real protection. We recognise that BT will still be in an immensely powerful position after the passing of the Bill, so we need a regulatory system to deal with the problems that might arise.
The licence issued to BT will have special provisions as to pricing. In a number of areas, including domestic rentals, installation costs and local calls, where it will for the time being be a monopoly supplier, the licence will require it to keep prices below the rate of inflation each year for at least the next five years. A draft of the BT licence will be made available to the House at the start of the Standing Committee's consideration of the Bill.
The passing of the Bill will be a great advantage to the ordinary consumer. Clause 3 repeats the present statutory duty for BT to provide a nationwide service, but that duty has been extended from a duty to provide a telephone service to a duty to provide telecommunications services. This reflects our commitment to making modern telecommunications facilities and services available to all.
What is more, we have put in new wording since the Bill was last seen by the House to make it clear that the requirements placed on the Secretary of State and the Director General of Telecommunications are statutory duties and nothing less. For the first time, clause 3 puts into statute what has previously been taken for granted but has never been written down. It lists all the vitally important social services which must be continued: the 999 emergency services, public call boxes, ship-to-shore services and services in rural areas.
Let me make that quite clear: BT's licence will forbid it to discriminate between different categories of customer, so retail services will stay, as will rural kiosks, the 999 service and essential shipping services. It is all there in black and white for Opposition Members to read if they wish to do so.
§ Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
Will my right hon. Friend accept that my area has a larger number of small revenue telephone kiosks than any other part of the country? A number of boxes are threatened with closure or removal, and while the actual revenue of those boxes may be small, it is no criterion of their use because many of them are used for reversed charge calls. Nor is it a measure of their social necessity, particularly in bad weather.
§ Mr. Parkinson
That is precisely the sort of consideration which will be taken into account if there are applications, as there are now, to close or remove boxes. When my hon. Friend has had a chance to look at the arrangements, I am sure that she will come to the conclusion that it will be more, rather than less, difficult in future to remove or close rural telephone kiosks.
§ Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be a defined subsidy paid to BT by the Government to operate uneconomic services? If not, there will be the danger of moving immediately into cross-subsidisation which, will impede competition in the future.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that there will be a system of excess fees which will create a pool, contributed to by all operators, from which the costs of maintaining these services will come. It will be not from a cross-subsidy but from that pool.
Clause 3 also looks to the future and provides for the creation in the United Kingdom of a centre of telecommunications excellence, with both BT and a growing number of new market entrants providing competitive contributions in R and D as well as in new products and services.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I would rather not give way further at this point.
The Bill creates a new Office of Telecommunications, to be known as Oftel, which will monitor, enforce and amend licences. It will be independent of Government and will have considerable powers. Until now, customers have relied on the Post Office Users' National Council and the country councils. They have done well, but we need a much stronger body in future.
Not only will Oftel follow up complaints, as the Post Office Users' National Council does now; it will be able to make orders requiring the licensee to comply with the licence conditions. The Bill also makes it clear that any person who suffers as a result of a licensee failing to comply with such an order will be able to take action in the court. The director will also be able to take court action to secure that the order is obeyed.
Still on the subject of what redress is open to customers, the Bill makes another important change. It obliges BT to supply all services under contract. Until now BT, unlike any other telecommunications operator in the United Kingdom, has not had contracts with its customers. That means that customers have not had a legal means of redress under the normal law of contract.
It will be open to consumers after the Bill is passed to take legal action, if they wish to take that route, although we intend to see that the existing non-statutory method of arbitration in cases of dispute also continues. The aggrieved customer will have the choice.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I am coming to the point which I think troubles the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt). The Bill makes important special provision for the disabled, including the blind and deaf. At present, there are a number of pieces of apparatus specially adapted for use by the disabled. We are determined that they should continue to be available; clause 3 spells out our duty to 37 ensure that. In other words, we have built into the statute a duty to ensure that the people about whom the hon. Member is concerned are taken care of.
Since the House last saw the Bill we have inserted a new provision, clause 81, which will enable the Secretary of State to pay grants toward: the research and development of such apparatus. That will apply to telephone exchanges specially adapted for use by the blind. They provide a valuable source of employment for blind persons. We wish to see the number increased and we hope to make that possible by ensuring that the equipment is available. We also have in mind the needs of the deaf in using the telephone, and we shall ensure that their special needs continue to be met. I hope that the House welcomes those assurances.
§ Mr. Pavitt
The right hon. Gentleman has said that under clause 3 there will be no discrimination between one type of subscriber and another. Is he aware that at present only deaf subscribers face extra charges? There is an extra charge for the installation of a transistorised handset and the rental is also more expensive. If someone in a rural area pays the same charge as someone in an urban area, surely the deaf person should not face an increased charge as compared with other users at present?
§ Mr. Parkinson
As I have said, the Government will be making a contribution to research and development that we hope will lead to the production of suitable equipment. I was not aware of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman has referred but I shall take it up and write to him.
§ Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)
I am sure that both sides of the House will be pleased to know that the Government will be making a contribution to research and development that will lead, we hope, to the production of suitable equipment for the disabled. We know also that the Government will still have a large shareholding in the company when the Bill is enacted. If there are problems for constituents following the Bill's enactment, will we be able to question my right hon. Friend and his Department in the expectation of getting answers from them, or will we be told that they cannot answer our questions because these questions relate to the operations of an independent company?
§ Mr. Parkinson
I have known many Ministers who have had an ambition to avoid answering questions of that sort but I have never known one succeed in doing so, especially when Members like my hon. Friend have pursued them. If hon. Members feel that the arrangements are not working, I have no doubt that they will be able to draw attention to the contribution that the Government are making to the costs of research because they have identified what they consider to be an area of social importance. On that foundation, they will be able to ask any question that they wish.
I bring the attention of the House to part IV, which was not in the previous Bill and which concerns cable programme services. The Post Office Act 1969 needs some amendments to bring up to date the provisions which determine which services require a licence. These are technical provisions that draw a distinction between services that are like broadcasting and those that are like conventional two-way telephone services.
I have taken some care this afternoon to set the record straight on a number of issues. There has been much 38 confusion about what the Bill does and does not do. There have been some genuine misunderstandings and others that have not been entirely genuine. It is with pride that I introduce the Bill. In doing so, I am very much aware of the great amount of work that was put into the previous Bill by my predecessor, by my ministerial colleagues and by the House, especially the members of the Standing Committee which considered the previous Bill.
The Bill makes as great a contribution as any Government can make in legislation to stimulating enterprise and consumer choice in a difficult area where a monopoly has reigned for a long time. The House cannot create wealth for the nation, but it has often been guilty of impeding its creation. It is easy to grasp that great opportunities lie ahead—commercial opportunities and opportunities for improving our standards and way of living. The Bill opens doors on such possibilities. We shall establish a competitive environment that can generate highly competitive industries in Britain while being capable of sharing in the world's new sources of wealth. We shall do more than that, for we shall open up a range of new services to our people, both at work and at home. We offer the millions of BT customers a newly enshrined set of rights and the benefits of competition and new technology. We offer BT and its employees a brighter future as a world company in an area of high technology. Many benefits flow from ownership by the public and I commend them to the House.
§ Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)
For the second time Parliament is faced with this major denationalisation proposal. I have no doubt that in Committee we shall examine the Bill with the same amount of detailed consideration that we gave to its predecessor. The proposals set out in the Bill will affect one of our major publicly owned industries which, for the past 70 years, has developed into an outstanding public, commercial and social service.
British Telecom has 235,000 employees and its net assets are well in excess of £16 billion. It is a major purchaser of equipment manufactured in the United Kingdom. In the past 10 years individual telephone subscribers have increased from 9 million to about 18.5 million. All that being so, why are the Government submitting these proposals? For whose benefit have they been proposed and for what purpose?
In Friday's edition of The Guardian Victor Keegan asked the same questions. The article's heading reads:Victor Keegan looks at the case against privatisation of the money-making state giants like British Telecom and British Airways when the mere fact of privatisation will do nothing to break the monopoly but will simply help line private shareholders' pockets.The issue of private and public monopolies is central to the argument and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) raised it forcefully in Committee. His argument, with which the Opposition did not agree, was that the mere transfer of a public monopoly to a private monoply would do nothing for the service and would lead to no basic improvement. That contention has been underlined by Lord Weinstock in the course of a Channel 4 interview a few days ago. Lord Weinstock, who is one of the Government's supporters, said:I am not clear what point there is in privatising a company which is by its nature a monopoly. I don't see how you can have anything other than a monopoly running a national community service.39 British Telecom has clipped one of its wings by allowing Mercury to develop. It will compete with British Telecom on its most profitable business lines. British Telecom will be asked to provide facilities for one of its main competitors and to do so at its own detriment. That is nonsensical.
The argument was taken further by The Times editorial this morning. The Secretary of State referred to it selectively and I shall do likewise. The last paragraph states:All that will occur, therefore, is that BT will gain greater access to private finance while losing what little public accountability it has had. That is not competition; it is corporatism.I maintain that British Telecom had a good deal of accountability and that it was being extended. The public were much aware of the development of BT. The right hon. Gentleman made great play about the lack of accountants within its organisation but no one is saying that it is perfect, that it does not need improvements and that it does not need to be modernised. However, over the past seven years BT has made a profit and has not received any public subsidy.
§ Mr. Orme
Perhaps we shall see the effect of a private monopoly on prices and then be able to compare that with the effects of price reins maintained on BT during the past seven years.
The Government know that there are other ways of developing telecommunication services in the United Kingdom. However, they are hell-bent on privatising, not for the benefit of the community but for the benefit of private shareholders.
§ Mr. Orme
I have just given way. BT has made a profit during the past seven years. It is now faced with an explosion of technology and a need to expand services. It is obvious that investment is required. We are dealing not just with the telephone service but with information technology and with cable — a development that will expand at a tremendous rate during the next few years. That investment could be found by removing the dependence upon the public sector borrowing requirement and extending the external finance limits. The Government know—
§ Mr. Orme
I think that I can anticipate the question. Let me develop this point. I will give way to the Minister later. The Government know that BT needs the right to raise capital for investment, particularly in the new technology that has been developed so rapidly. At present two factors prevent this —the inclusion of BT in the PSBR and the fact that external finance limits act as a barrier. In the past, the Treasury has fought bitterly against taking the publicly owned industries out of the PSBR. This should be done now. There is no legal reason to maintain external finance limits. The Government have the 40 discretion to relax or abandon them. It is, therefore, easy to introduce more capital into BT without recourse to privatisation.
§ Mr. Baker
It cannot be said that during the past few years we have restricted the money given to British Telecom. We have always acceded to its investment programmes. On the right hon. Gentleman's main point, in a nutshell he was saying that we should have BT in the public sector but let it borrow in the market. All borrowing by a public sector authority must ultimately be guaranteed by the Government and the Treasury. It is, in effect, gilt-edged.
The right hon. Gentleman is asking that public sector bodies should, with a Government guarantee, be transferred to the private sector. The Government do not hold the dogmatic view that this is unworkable. However, how do we choose? Do we include all nationalised industries and all Government Departments? The difficulty lies in choosing. If the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of this, why did previous Labour Governments not do it? They found that it was unworkable. If BT is to go to the market it has to be in the private sector.
§ Mr. Orme
The Labour Government did not do it, although many Labour Members thought that they should have done. Four years on, faced with the proposed development of BT and the type of investment that is needed, that mixture is acceptable. The Government could put public money into an industry as important as BT, with its potential. The Government could allow it also to borrow from the market and, if necessary, guarantee that money. We believe that that rather than the way the Government are going is the way forward.
The Government are proceeding with the resale of national assets from BT. The figure was not given by the Secretary of State, but I assume that £4 billion or £5 billion will be floated on the market when the shares are made available. What will the money be used for when it is raised? Where will it go? Will it go into specific areas or will the Treasury have control over it for its own purposes? From the expression on the Minister of State's face, I believe that he knows the answer. I shall not press him further.
What is also worrying—and the Secretary of State did not deal with this point—is the profit level which is to be announced on 20 July. There was a forecast—if we are to believe forecasts—in The Economist on 9 July 1983 that suggested that the profit is likely to be less than the City of London has been expecting. Does that mean that local charges will be increased above the figure that BT was estimating, so that the resale price will be more attractive? That is a question that the House is entitled to ask. Does that mean that charges to domestic consumers will be increased to make the sale more satisfactory? We shall be faced with similar circumstances with British Airways. The Government are trying to get the accounts, as they see them, straight.
It is worth remembering that BT has held the tariff at its present level for nearly two years. That is important. 41 If BT's profit is about £500 million—not as high as the City had forecast—it would be disgraceful if it were allowed to increase prices to make the resale more profitable. Perhaps we could have an answer on that point from the Government.
I wish to deal with the provision of services for the consumer. Despite the Minister's assurances, we remain unconvinced that the level and range of services available will be continued. We maintain that market forces will demand that a privately owned BT cuts those services that incur a loss or make little profit. Rural services, emergency services, call boxes and provision for the blind and the disabled have an uncertain future.
By their interventions this afternoon, some Conservative Members have shown that they and their constituents are also worried about these basic changes. The Bill contains the nice sounding phrases that the Minister of State used time and time again in Committee —"satisfying all reasonable demand" and "reasonably practicable". Those are words that slip easily off his tongue, but they do not give the guarantee for which consumers are asking for those services. The House should take note of that.
The Bill will mean that we shall see an end to the principle of equality established and maintained for 70 years—universal pricing and services.
The public telephone box could be threatened with extinction, not just in rural areas but on housing estates and in other parts of the country. Last year 120 boxes were removed. A few were supported with the help of local councils. The Bill could mean a flood of closures in the future. The call box service loses about £90 million a year. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) raised this point and asked bluntly for a subsidy and an assurance. What will shareholders do when faced with colossal losses as a result of the Government's proposals? The pressure will be on them to say that call boxes are no longer essential and can be removed. The vandalised box on the housing estate and the box at the end of the lane in rural areas will go. I know that all hon. Members would like to see every home with a phone of its own. That is a desirable target, but we know that in the present economic circumstances it is not possible. Many of my constituents in inner city areas depend on phone boxes for emergency and other essential calls.
The Government have said that non-profitable services will be funded by an access charge, but we do not know the level of such a charge.
§ Mr. Parkinson
The right hon. Gentleman is causing much unnecessary alarm and concern. Clause 3 says:The Secretary of State … shall … have a duty to provide … such telecommunication services as satisfy all reasonable demands".That includes emergency services, and the rest. It is there, built into the legislation as a duty, while the right hon. Gentleman is talking about an organisation that has no contract with the person to whom it supplies a phone and the widest range of discretion that one can imagine. We have built in a duty upon the Secretary of State and the director to maintain certain emergency services in the public call boxes.
There are 77,000 telephone kiosks, and last year 23 were closed, following an elaborate procedure approved by the Post Office Users National Council. There is no 42 reason why there should be any increase in that number. The sooner the right hon. Gentleman stops trying to mislead and scare people, the better.
§ Mr. Orme
I am not trying to mislead or scare people. I used the phrases in the Bill "satisfy all reasonable demands" and "reasonably practicable", of which we do not know the interpretation. Many of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends are concerned about this point, so let us be under no illusion.
§ Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Does my right hon. Friend realise that in the BT licence the phrase "all reasonable demands" was defined as that demand that was accompanied with the full cost so that any customer had to pay the full cost of providing services? That is what the phrase "all reasonable demands" means in the eyes of BT and the Department of Industry.
§ Mr. Orme
I take my hon. Friend's point, which he has put firmly on the record. It will be the duty of the Government to clarify this matter in much greater detail and in much clearer language than has been used. When BT is privatised there will be shareholders' pressure, and if it is losing £90 million a year this will have a great influence.
The Government have said that non-profitable services will be funded by an access charge, but we do not know the level of such a charge, how much money it will raise, how much money will be channelled to the non-profitable services or to what extent it will cover the cost of such services. Those questions need a firm answer.
The Bill will lead to the loss of jobs, and nothing has been said about that by the Government this afternoon. Before discussing BT itself, I shall examine the effect of the Bill on equipment suppliers in the United Kingdom. About 70,000 jobs are linked in the manufacturing sector —a decreasing one—to BT equipment. The Secretary of State's speech this afternoon was an open door for imports and offered no protection for British industry. At the moment, BT purchases about 95 per cent. of all equipment from United Kingdom suppliers.
Recently, Sir George Jefferson made a speech to the Telecommunications Equipment Manufacturers Association on the intention of a privatised BT—not BT as it is at the moment—to accelerate the trend towards purchasing foreign products. Where is the Government's "buy British" principle? We have a manufacturing sector that has new technology and the right ideas to develop and it needs the base of purchase from BT.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
The right hon. Gentleman and his party, during the election campaign that we have just been through, were putting around massive scare stories among BT staff saying that the result of the Bill, if it goes through, and it will, would be massive redundancies, and that many people within BT would lose their jobs. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House why people in BT will lose jobs? Is it because it is inefficient at the moment but will become efficient later, or is it because the amount of telecommunications activity will be less in the future than it now is? I should be very interested to know.
§ Mr. Orme
I am coming to that point about jobs within BT, and I shall answer the questions that the hon. Gentleman has fairly raised.
The proposed loss of jobs within BT is increasingly causing concern, and again we have this on record. Sir 43 George Jefferson has already made it clear that 15,000 jobs are to go, and, despite repeated requests, the Government have failed to deny the evidence of the Think Tank report that talked of 45,000 jobs lost after privatisation.
The workers within the industry have every reason to be extremely worried about this. As I said, BT is to remain a monopoly for the domestic subscriber, but a creaming-off operation will take place with the establishment of Mercury, which will also lead to a loss of jobs within BT. Mercury is only interested in operating on the most profitable routes and is therefore taking BT's most profitable traffic, reducing its revenues and hitting its investment. To counteract this, BT has been forced to rebalance its tariffs, which will force up charges for local residential consumers.
Mercury will not provide any services that BT is not already providing. On the whole, Mercury services will be no different, no better and no cheaper. It is a wasteful duplication of resources and the Government then have the nerve to demand that BT assists its main competitor. Is this the operation of market forces? Is there any other major company, for example in the motor industry, that has openly to assist its main competitor and be damaged by that competitor, at the behest of the Government, as BT will in this case?
§ Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)
Does the right hon. Gentleman nevertheless agree that a study of what happened in the United States, where similar arrangments have been permitted, much against the will of American Telephones and Telegraphs, showed that the revenue that AT and T has drawn from those companies that have been allowed to interconnect has been far greater than previously?
§ Mr. Orme
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my next remark. The experience of privatisation measures in other countries is far from reassuring. The Bell system in the United States has already started to lay off workers, even before the planned break-up of AT and T, to which the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) referred. The Japanese press speculated in February this year that moves to privatise NTT are to be accompanied by job cuts of about 90,000—almost one third of the work force. It is interesting to contrast those proposals with what is happening in Sweden and France, where the public sector is developing and expanding.
I wish to put a series of questions to the Government. No doubt the Minister for Information Technology will be able to answer some when he replies to the debate and I hope that the others will be answered as soon as possible. As the Secretary of State said, the Bill incorporates minor changes arising out of the Committee stage and the major debates on the Bill in the previous Parliament—not least over the Littlechild report. Many of the questions that worried us then remain unanswered.
The Secretary of State said that the licence is to be laid before the House. The Minister for Information Technology had great difficulty answering our debates on that subject in the previous Parliament. May I assume that the full, proper licence will be made available to all hon. Members and will be debated in Committee, so that amendments can be proposed to it?
§ Mr. Orme
I am grateful for that clarification.
The Government have not answered the questions raised by the trade unions about the protection of pension rights. The Secretary of State did not answer my question about new employees. It seems to us that there could be two categories of employee within BT, and we shall need to pursue that matter. The fully-funded, index-linked pension scheme of BT, to which employees contribute, is a major factor in their employment and they are anxious about its future.
The Secretary of State also failed to answer effectively the questions raised on the previous Bill about consumer protection. He said that the consumer protection body is to be abolished and replaced by Oftel. We still want to know whether there will be adequate safeguards and whether consumer protection will have an independent role. Oftel will have to take on many other activities and monitor many other areas.
The Post Office Users National Council made three requests in its letter to hon. Members. The first was that the Government shouldgive a clear indication of how the price restraint formula is to be applied and a list of the services to be included within it—rentals, call charges etc".Secondly, the POUNC urged the Government toconfirm whether a broadly universal tariff will be retained or whether, with the splitting up of BT into 61 regional cost/profit centres, substantial local variations will be permitted".Thirdly, the council askedhow 'access charges' (proposed payments from BT and Mercury when connecting trunk calls into local BT networks) will be used to finance loss making but socially desirable services such as kiosks, 999 etc. The scale and method of payments of these charges should be clearly spelt out since these essential services must be preserved.Those are central questions and it is a pity that the POUNC is to be abolished and its work is to be handed over to a much smaller and less effective organisation.
Considerable lobbying has taken place about the future of BT. The Secretary of State must be even more aware of that than I am. The right hon. Gentleman said that he would maintain the entity of BT after its conversion from a public monopoly to a private monopoly. Will that be written into legislation? Will it be possible for BT to decide to break up the monopoly, split it into units and sell them? That is an important matter and we are entitled to answers to those questions. After all, we are dealing with one of Britain's major industries. The Secretary of State said that he would not react to the pressure being applied by many of his hon. Friends and others, but what about the future and what about guarantees?
Faced with a new era of information technology, with British achievements as good as, if not better than, most in the world, it is tragic that an organisation such as BT should be dealt such a devastating blow.
The Opposition remain firmly opposed to the Bill. We shall fight it in Committee and if the Government are successful in getting it on the statute book we shall look forward to the day when we can recreate a publicly owned and democratically run telecommunications system in the United Kingdom.
§ 5.7 pm
§ Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)
I am honoured to be called so early in the debate. This is not 45 the first time that I have spoken immediately after the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme)—I often did so in the Committee on the previous Bill—and I do not suppose that it will be the last. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman noted that a number of my hon. Friends were eager to interrupt him, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) is itching to serve on the Committee that will consider this Bill. Doubtless there will be many volunteers from both sides of the House for that arduous task.
I did not speak on Second Reading of the previous Bill, but I still found myself on the Committee. Perhaps that will serve as a warning to my new hon. Friends. If they speak on Second Reading and ensure that not everything that they say meets with the approval of the Government Front Bench, perhaps they will be less likely to have to sit through another 161.5 hours of Committee. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) in his place. Perhaps as this is the start of a new Session he will reduce his speeches in Committee from 11 hours to six or seven hours. We shall have to wait and see.
I do not intend to make a full-blown Second Reading speech, because we have been over the course before. However, I appreciate why Front Bench spokesmen have to go over the ground again to make their arguments for and against the Bill.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who was thrown in at the deep end on this Bill, because it is one of the more complex measures that will come before the House. He swam very well and I hope that he will continue to do so. Perhaps we may even see him in Committee. My hon. Friends the Under-Secretary of State and the Minister for Information Technology handled the previous Committee well, but perhaps extra moral support will be needed this time.
I should like to make two main points to the new Committee, having served on the old one. First, my beloved rural areas. As the House knows, I represent a rural area. I did my best for such areas. I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench for the way in which they answered the amendments that I tabled. I was also grateful at times for the support of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, which concentrated the mind of the Committee. What emerged benefited the Bill.
Clause 3 as it stands should be protected. However, it can be improved in certain respects. No doubt the Committee will set its mind to that. I dare say that will take up many hours of the Committee's time.
My second point, which I deal with as someone who served on the Committee and is not a telecommunications or privatisation man, is about the philosophy of the Bill, partly because of other measures that might come before the House during this Parliament. I supported the Bill. On occasion in Committee I rebelled, but on all the main votes there and in the House I supported the Bill. I agree with what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said about the improved performance of BT and the fact that the competitive climate helped it. That is why I shall support the Bill today.
However, we have to look at the nature of privatisation in the Bill, and in others like it, and consider when it is legitimate. For various reasons that I shall not go into now, I support privatisation measures for aerospace, airlines, airports, the National Freight Corporation, which is already an outstanding success, ports and so on. Either 46 internationally or nationally, these instances of privatisation add up to greater competition right across the board. However, there is an important dividing line.
Having sat through hours of discussion, and occasionally as the nocturnal reality strikes one as one goes through the enormous detail of a Bill, one wonders whether much of it lives up to our high ideals of the legitimate aspects of privatisation. There is a questionable aspect of privatisation. I say that not in criticism of the Bill, but to put down a marker for the future. When a great national network is privatised, with a vast percentage of which there can be no competiton, such privatisation benefits the performance of the network—which is one of the reasons why I support the Bill—but only in a limited margin at the edges is there true competition, which Conservatives favour.
That leads me to the central point, which has been the dilemma throughout the Bill. We have been engaged for hour after hour—and the new Parliament will be—in creating the most enormous private monopoly and monolith out of what is already a public monopoly. The matter has been dealt with by the Opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and I drew attention to it, either directly or in the form of various signals in Committee, as well as on Report and Third Reading. A basic conflict has to be resolved.
Whatever we do, BT will remain a giant. Whatever we do, competition will be limited to the fringes for many years to come. The percentage, which varies, is frighteningly small. The position abroad is not necessarily any better. Increasingly BT will compete, as it does now, with huge state-run organisations. When one competes abroad in this day and age, one must not encourage a division when it comes to British component parts. BT will compete with large, state-backed organizations, whether it likes it or not.
I shall deal now with rural areas and our beloved clause 3. The special need of the rural areas has been mentioned. Phone boxes and other services are more expensive than in urban areas. The general case for rural deprivation has been recognised. However, when we go beyond that we come to a central point of which much has not been made. I am slightly surprised that it has not, but I am sure that it will recur. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not mind me saying this, but it is important and was acknowledged before the Committee started. We are still playing "Hamlet" without the prince. The House does not have access to the vital licence between Her Majesty's Government and BT.
So far we have "Ringing the Changes", which is immaculately set out. It was a genuine and sincere effort by the Minister of State to give us the best possible idea of what the agreement should contain. I understand that a new draft document is forthcoming, but I issue a wanting. I am not privy to any great secrets of Government, but if I had anything to do with BT I would play this out like mad. I would like hon. Members to scrutinise the agreement. It would be better if it were done by the House. I should like some confirmation, which I am sure will be forthcoming. I hope that the Minister of State will deal with this. Another document is forthcoming. I hope that my hon. Friend will take it as far as possible and that at the end of the day the House will have some control. The 47 influence that clause 3 can have on what emerges in the eventual licence document is considerable. The two could be in conflict.
That brings me to clause 3 itself, in which there is an example of such a conflict. I am thankful for the amendment to clause 3. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the duty in it. The amendment was made in response to what I said on Report. It rationalises the way in which the Bill is laid out, and I am grateful for it. I say this in an in-House capacity to my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am grateful for the wordsimpracticable or not reasonably practicable".They emerged at about 4 am and materialised in the legislation. That strengthened the Bill and was an acknowledgement of the Back Bench from the Front Bench.
This is an important point for us to bear in mind. Clause 3(1)(a) concerns the duty to provideemergency services, public call box services, ship-to-shore services and services in rural areas.The Committee should look at clause 3(1)(b) in detail. It states that the Secretary of State and the director have a duty to exercise the functions assigned to themwithout prejudice to the generality of paragraph (a) above, to secure that any person by whom any such services fall to be provided is able to finance the provision of those services.Immediately, there is a qualification, if not a conflict. An action can be brought against the Secretary of State or the director of Oftel, but there is a potential let out in clause 3(1)(b). An enormous case could be made about the ability to finance the provision of those services, whether they are humble telephone boxes or whatever, bearing in mind all the ramifications of BT. That is in direct conflict with "Ringing the Changes". I shall not bore the House with Committee details, but it is intended that a series of obligations should be placed on BT so that the rural areas are protected. However, in the controlling Bill the provision creates an immediate argument against those obligations, whatever the terms of the licence. It means that there is still a need for a great deal of clarification.
That takes me to clause 3(2), (a) to (h), all of which is an example of the mumbo-jumbo and statements of the obvious which result from any attempt to create a controlled private monopoly. We see a long list of obvious duties which any commercial undertaker would perform as a matter of course. The Secretary of State and the director are required to promote efficiency and economy, and so on. Once we get ourselves into the business of trying to create a controlled private monopoly we find ourselves inserting into the legislation all sorts of provisions that we could well do without.
In clause 3(2) (h) we have a provision which, in my view, still deserves amendment. The Secretary of State and the director are required by paragraph (h)to maintain and promote outside the United Kingdom competitive activity on the part of persons providing telecommunications services or producing telecommunication apparatus in the United Kingdom.It is still not clear from that whether all our producers of telecommunications equipment will immediately rush to France, for example, and compete with each other or whether they will get their house in order beforehand, Whoever drafted the Bill appears to have competition on the brain, to the extent that there could be international British competition as well as national competition at 48 home. Anyone who has had anything to do with international trade knows that that is not necessarily the best approach.
For all its faults, I think that the Bill is about right. Whatever may be said about election misconceptions and the rumours which have been spread around — and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North — there is a widespread public misconception about the Bill. Very few people see the need for it. That being so, there is a considerable burden on my right hon. and hon. Friends to convince people. They are dealing rapidly with the fears of British Telecom workers. Those fears exist, whipped up or not, and they have to be assuaged. A prime example is not only what Lord Weinstock has said, but that we have a leading article in The Times today on the subject. The fact that it has been written means that the Government, having indulged in this complex piece of legislation for one year, are still nowhere near winning the public case for it. We are about winning the public case, not only about voting in the House. I hope that the Government can do a good job in this respect.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)
I am pleased to be called immediately after the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) because he is due a good part of the credit for concentrating the Government's mind on the improvements required to what is now clause 3. He also stressed the need to win over the public's mind to the Bill. There has been no great public demand to bring legislation of this kind into being. In my view, it has been done in furtherance of this Government's doctrinaire policies.
The Secretary of State spoke about the accounting systems of British Telecom, which he claimed were archaic or virtually non-existent. But that reflects on the Department responsible for overseeing British Telecom. This lack of supervision pinpoints my fear that once the Bill has passed to the statute book the Department will take as little interest in the day-to-day working of the system as it has in the past. My fear is that public accountability will go.
The right hon. Gentleman drew our attention to what he claimed to be a degree of firming up in clause 3. It will be the duty of the Secretary of State to see that services, particularly emergency services, public call box services, ship-to-shore services and services in rural areas, are maintained. However, we read in subsection (1)(a):save insofar as the provision thereof is impracticable or not reasonably practicable.There is a loophole that will exist for ever and a day.
Whenever I write to a department about the problems of my constituents the usual response is that what I am pressing for is not "reasonably practicable". I forecast, without a crystal ball, that once the Bill is enacted, hon. Members representing rural areas will be told time and again that services to the rural areas will not be maintained because what is asked for is not reasonably practicable. I represent one of the most scattered constituencies of the United Kingdom. It is made up of separate islands. Many communities are miles from the nearest road. There are a number of isolated villages with long distances to go to a doctor, a vet, the local fire service, and so on. In my view, 49 the Government are departing from the civilised principle that the better off parts of the country should carry a share of the burden of the less well off.
In many rural areas maintenance costs will be extremely high, especially where inclement weather occurs and snow, ice and storms bring down telephone lines. Who is to bear these costs? On 28 March the Minister said that the provider of telecommunications would continue to do so. However, with the passage of time I believe that the cost of these repairs will fall on the individuals or communities concerned.
It is no comfort for the people whom I represent to be told that in the past the responsibility for providing services lay with British Telecom and that in future it will be the responsibility of the Secretary of State. I have had too long an experience of ministerial responsibilities being shelved to put any reliance on that assurance— and I mean no disrespect to the present incumbent of that office.
The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be a choice between different networks. The idea of competitors fighting for a franchise in a rural area would be laughable if it were not tragic. It is a concept without reality. They will be in business for profits. Loss-makers will receive short shrift, despite all the apparent safeguards written into the Bill.
I have already mentioned in an intervention the Mercury project. It is interesting that it is confined so far to the large conurbations, and that seems to be the trend. So far as I know, it has not even spread to rural areas south of the border, let alone to Benbecula in my constituency. The companies will also look forward to increasing their charges. Figures produced by British Telecom in 1982 showed that United Kingdom charges for residential users were fairly low by international standards. Taking the United Kingdom as the base line of 100, the United States was 108, France 148 and West Germany 160. How long will that position last after privatisation? A report in The Scotsman today by a researcher from the Institute of Economic Affairs advocated that people in rural areas should pay more for their postal services. He claimed that the village post office is no more a social service than the village pub or shop. The Government support that approach, but I am against it and that is why I am opposed to the Bill.
§ Mr. Gerald Malone (Aberdeen, South)
It is with great pleasure that I rise to make my maiden speech. First, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye. I am well aware that there is a long row of maidens—if I may put it that way—and it is a pleasure and a privilege to be called.
It is a particular privilege because there was a stage when I thought that my passage to the House would become well nigh impossible. Many of my Scottish colleagues who have arrived in the House for the first time wonder at other English colleagues for whom this has been their first election. We are battle-scarred veterans in comparison to them. I have fought five elections, one of them a by-election. In two, I stood against party leaders. One was the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) in a by-election last year; he has now retired from his position. The other was the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), who, 50 while not having retired from his position, I understand to be resting. I trust that my sudden arrival in the House has not upset those right hon. Gentlemen too much.
I represent the constituency of Aberdeen, South. It was made up of parts of three other constituencies and, unlike the venerable curate's egg, I am pleased to report that my constituency is good in all its parts. The constituency took on two town boroughs of St. Nicholas and St. Clements which were previously represented by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), whom I am pleased to see arrive in the Chamber. The old constituency ceded another area — Kincoath — to the constituency now represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). Similarly, I took on parts of his former constituency— Cove Bay, Nigg and Altens. I am pleased to report to both that the parts of their constituencies that I inherited are in extremely good health, with satisfied constituents.
The major part of my constituency was formerly represented by Mr. Iain Sproat, who did not secure reelection to Parliament. I am sure that he will be missed by hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, because latterly his contribution in Government was effective and forceful. I for one look forward to the day when he can be welcomed back to these Benches.
My constituency is diverse. It consists of the southern part of the city of Aberdeen, a city of striking contrasts, both in its industry and geography. I must be almost unique, along with the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, in representing an urban constituency which has such a beautiful and lengthy beach. It is a well-known city because of its internationally renowned university; more recently, it became particularly famous because of its skill in football. The Aberdeen football club holds both the European and Scottish cups. What gave me greater pleasure than anything was the fact that its reputation in football extended beyond its skill in the field because its supporters, when they went to Europe, were renowned for their good behaviour, unlike so many football supporters who obtain a reputation for completely different conduct.
Latterly, Aberdeen has become well known for its oil industry. The rapid expansion of that and related industries has been a great benefit, not only to the city but to surrounding areas. The area owes much of its prosperity and current low jobless total to the fact that oil has come to the north-east of Scotland. The city must be complimented on the way it met the challenge that oil presented. Its people responded with a flexibility that is not to be found in many other parts of the country. It was able to respond to the challenge and provide a suitable basis for the oil industry to flourish. I trust that it will be able to do so into the distant future.
Fishing, while still a dominant element in the local economy, is not as dominant as it used to be. The history of Aberdeen must accept that. The deep sea fleet has gone, but I am greatly encouraged by the shift in the fishing industry from catching to processing. There is much that I hope to be able to do as the Member of Parliament for Aberdeen, South to foster that and to ensure that it is a growth area for industry.
Aberdeen is famous for its granite. I was interested to learn that the Terrace of the House is supported by Aberdeen granite. I can only say, having been there during the past few weeks, that the weight that has been displayed upon the Terrace needs all the support of Aberdeen granite 51 that it can get. That export has reached all parts of the country and it has made the city not only famous, but beautiful.
No city or its description is complete without a description of its inhabitants. I take this opportunity to set the record straight. The citizens of Aberdeen have the ill-deserved reputation among fellow Scots and others in the United Kingdom of being not the first to dip into their pockets when the occasion demands. As the Member for Aberdeen, South I want to issue a testimonial to the warmhearted and generous character of its people. I have been shown a welcome in the city that I shall not forget. I certainly shall not forget the welcome that was recorded in the votes that I received on polling day. They are a warm-hearted, generous, enterprising and hard-working people. That is why Aberdeen is the prosperous place that it is today.
As a new Member I also want to say a few words about the officers of the House, particularly those who deal with security matters—the police officers. No new Member can help but be struck by the courtesy with which we have all been greeted. We have been guided without stint or complaint on many practical matters that would be baffling to anybody entering the House for the first time. It is a compliment to them that so many new Members have found their way around so quickly and can deal with the difficult procedures that we find when we first encounter Westminster. I thank them for that. It must be difficult for them, particularly for the police officers, to have to sit and look at photographs from old election addresses pinned to the backs of doors in their cubicles. I doubt whether any new Members have pinned photographs behind their wardrobe doors at home so that we can repay the compliment.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which is a vote of confidence in the future of an industry which is in its infancy. I sometimes wonder whether Labour Members fully appreciate the expansion that can take place in telecommunications in the foreseeable future. It is an expansion which, if properly handled, will provide jobs. If our telecommunications industry is tethered to the monopoly that we still enjoy, we shall not see that expansion in the services or in the production of telecommunications equipment which must go hand in hand with any expansion of the services.
People are basically dissatisfied with the whole telecommunications service. They have two views. First, they recognise the failure to innovate when technological change presented that possibility. Secondly, they recognise the fall in the standard of service. I am certain that the Bill will cure that.
The more serious is the failure to respond to technological change. Over the years our system has fallen far behind systems in other countries. It is necessary only to recognise the service and innovation in the United States to realise that we are almost in the dark ages in providing facilities to customers.
British Telecom recently has had two answers to innovation—"can't" and "don't". It said it could not supply, and if a customer could supply it said, "No. We do not want to connect it." The Bill is designed to crack that attitude. The industry lacks flexibility. If any industry 52 needs to be flexible it is telecommunications, because it depends on an immediate response to technological innovation.
When the Minister of State is charged with implementing the legislation I want him to take into account his powers under clause 21. Before the Bill's introduction, much dissatisfaction was expressed at the way in which standards of equipment were designated and the way in which equipment which had not been provided by British Telecom could be connected to the system. I hope that the Minister will exercise his powers to allow a rapid approval of apparatus, both in design and in eventual testing of specification.
The old system, under which British Telecom was allowed to overrule and oversee the designing of apparatus and to test its basic acceptability, did not work quickly enough. It cost too much and companies were not designing or manufacturing equipment to be plugged into the network because they did not believe that British Telecom would be a fair judge of the equipment. I hope that a different approach will prevail so that companies are not required to pay too much to have equipment tested and that it can be tested quickly so that no further lengthy delays occur before new equipment is connected to the system. I am sure that a common sense approach will be adopted. I look forward with interest to that approach being outlined.
I believe that the Bill is a landmark on the way to a new industrial revolution. Information technology is one way forward to create jobs. It is one way forward to keep our industries internationally competitive. Without the Bill, we shall be severely disadvantaged. When history is written, I am almost certain, but not quite convinced, that Opposition Members will realise how fundamental a landmark it was and regret their ill-inspired hostility to the Bill.
§ Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) on his maiden speech. He was as generous in his praise of Mr. Sproat as Mr. Sproat was in giving him a winnable seat. I congratulate the hon. Member on being brief and lucid. I am not saying that I always advise hon. Members to be brief and lucid.
It would be against custom to take issue with the hon. Member's remarks about telecommunications, but the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) proved beyond doubt by the way that he pointed to the inconsistencies and mumbo-jumbo of the Bill that he has a duty to serve on the Bill's Standing Committee. It would be a disgrace if the Committee of Selection packed the Committee with Lobby fodder and left out the hon. Member for Leominister.
§ Mr. Golding
This Parliament will begin for me, as it ended, with the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) intervening every time I make a speech.
§ Mr. Marlow
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way yet again in our relationship. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) may or 53 may not be interested in being on the Standing Committee, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like a certain fact at his disposal before he puts any influence on the Committee of Selection: is the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) likely to be on the Committee?
§ Mr. Golding
I shall come to that later.
The Bill underlines the tragedy of the Tory victory. It highlights the difference between the Tory and Labour parties. It illustrates the Tory view that industry is best run on the principles of greed, conflict, and of putting self and private interest first. We in the Labour party oppose that attitude strongly. We believe that industry should be run in the public interest; in Britain's interest. We believe that a dedication to public service, not private profit, should be our guiding principle.
The Tory theory of the virtue of pure competition is as irrelevant as the Marxist — Trotskyist doctrines on the other side. Pure competition has not helped Britain or British industry. Ask those in the pottery, machine tool, general engineering, foundry, shoe and textile industries; ask anywhere in the west midlands.
In Britain, we are not faced with a flourishing private sector on one hand and a weak publicly owned British telecommunications business on the other. The opposite is true. British Telecommunications under public ownership has had a far better productivity record than private industry; it has reduced real prices by 20 per cent. in the past 10 years; it has provided a national service for all, including the rural areas; it has been a model of industrial relations; it has ploughed back all profits in investment; it has bought British; it has supported the British telecommunications equipment manufacturing industry and provided the basis for national planning in telecommunications. The Bill puts all that in jeopardy.
One question is never answered— how on earth can distributing profits to shareholders instead of ploughing them back into the business help telecommunications and its customers? The Bill has nothing to do with improving telecommunications or providing a better service for customers. The Bill is a method of selling valuable public assets to help the Government to pay for the unemployment that they have created. Like North sea oil, British Telecommunications is to be used to finance waste. Very few people will benefit from the Bill. They include a small number of large commercial users of telecommunications, the City brokers who are parasitic on such sales, foreign manufacturers and those who trade in their goods, and those who will be employed in the new quango, the Office of Telecommunications. Those who will suffer include the residential subscriber, British manufacturing industry and the staff of British Telecommunications. I declare my interest as an assistant secretary of the Post Office Engineering Union.
During the Committee stage of the Bill it became clear that the residential subscriber would suffer so that big business might benefit. At present, the residential charges of British Telecommunications are among the cheapest in the world. A national service is provided. Profits made from customers in big business have been used to provide better and cheaper services for residential subscribers. Privatisation and liberalisation as embodied in the Bill will end that traditional cross-subsidisation, and the residential subscriber will pay more for a worse service.
54 For years, because of increased productivity, the increase in telephone charges has fallen far short of the increase in the cost of living. Now the Government have promised that the increases will be no greater than increases in the cost of living. That promise could, and will, cover much greater price increases than are necessary or would have occurred without liberalisation and privatisation. The Government's promise on telephone charges is like a promise that the price of tomatoes will not go up in August. The so-called safeguards for the residential subscriber and the rural user are bogus. However—here I take up the point made by the hon. Member for Northampton, North—I hope to deal with these points at greater length in Committee. I am told that Conservative Members are queuing up to be members of the Committee. I advise them to kiss their wives goodbye now. As they lie in their beds unloved during the autumn, the winter and the spring, those wives should direct their complaints to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and not to me or to my wife.
The threat to the residential subscriber is very great. So, too, is the threat to British manufacturing industry. It matters to me whether BT contracts for wire are placed with Rists in my constituency or whether they go abroad. I care whether ICL gets the bulk of BT software and hardware orders rather than IBM. The Minister responsible for the west midlands is missing from the Front Bench now, as he was so often missing in Committee and as he is so often missing from the west midlands. He does not seem to care at all. Plessey and GEC, to name but two British companies, deserve our support. Jobs, profitability and investment in British companies are all being put at risk.
§ Mr. Golding
I have not heard from Plessey that it is against the Bill. However, I have noted the remarks of leading industrialists and I shall refer to them in detail in Committee. Plessey, STC and GEC do not need to try to persuade me to oppose the Bill. Their efforts should be directed at the Government. What representations have been made to the Government about the method that they have chosen to destroy British Telecommunications?
Jobs, profitability and investment in British industry are all being put at risk. When interrupted by the hon. Member for Northampton, North it is always my custom, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to repeat my last statement.
At present, 95 per cent. of equipment is purchased by BT at home. The head of research at BT has predicted that, after privatisation, over half the orders will go abroad. We shall lose not only orders, but jobs, profit and investment. The Under-Secretary of State should be known as the Minister responsible for the far east, rather than as the Minister responsible for the west midlands. Government policy may make sense in Tokyo or Taiwan, or even in Dorking. However, it seems not only daft but suicidal in Northern Ireland, the north-east, Liverpool and the west midlands — indeed, anywhere in this country where telecommunications equipment is manufactured and where there is a high level of unemployment.
§ Mr. Neale
As always, I am following the hon. Gentleman's arguments with interest. Does not the risk arise from the fact that the equipment that is likely to be imported has been produced and is ready to be imported, 55 whereas in this country the equipment cannot be found? BT, which has dominated production in this country, has not permitted the design and manufacture of such equipment. Now that BT is facing competition, the equipment can only be found abroad.
§ Mr. Golding
BT and the manufacturing companies have a duty to the British people. They have a duty to provide jobs and investment in this country. I have been as critical of BT's purchasing policy as I have been of the failure of private industry to deliver at the right price and on time, which has often been the reason why the waiting list has increased in length. However, my response to that is not to smash British industry but to try to improve its performance. I strongly object to the Government's attempt to smash British industry. For ideological reasons, they are impeding BT rather than helping it.
The Bill also threatens BT's staff. It will lead to more and more industrial unrest. The threat to job security and pensions is turning a peaceful productive industry into a battleground. Ministers constantly tell us that after day one what happens to pensions will depend on negotiations within the private company. There is no lifetime guarantee on pensions. The Government will be sincere only if they give a copper-bottomed lifetime guarantee on the pensions of BT staff. However, when those involved are pushed, they say that they cannot and will not do that. Thus, insecurity remains because the Government refuse to give the guarantee that the staff demand. They could remove that uncertainty by writing a guarantee into the legislation, and we shall press that point hard in Committee.
Ministers try to comfort us by pointing to the United States of America, but we hear warnings every day not only from the American unions but from representatives in Congress. The industry in the United States of America is threatened by rising prices, and job insecurity is growing because of similar structural changes. We are no longer reassured by people pointing to the United States of America. Indeed, we become more frightened.
The Bill is an abomination. We on the Labour Benches must fight it, and fight it hard. If need be, we must fight it by night and by day. The Government say that they have a mandate to introduce it. Let me remind them that we have a duty to oppose it, and we shall do so with all our strength and determination. I hope that just as Ministers are determined to introduce this Bill, so those on our Front Bench will be determined to oppose it.
§ 6.1 pm
§ Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech during the Second Reading of this important Bill.
I am the new Member of Parliament for Rochford, Essex. It is a new constituency made up of the district of Rochford and the five villages of the borough of Chelmsford: Runwell, Ramsden Heath and Downham, South Hanningfield and Rettendon, Woodham Ferrers, and South Woodham Ferrers. The constituency is half rural and has many acres of agricultural land. There is also a lot of green belt that is zealously protected by those who live in the constituency. The other half is urban and includes the adventurous new town of South Woodham Ferrers. That new town is being planned and organised by Essex county council, but is being built with private capital.
56 The constituency stretches from the outskirts of Chelmsford in the west to Foulness in the east. Foulness in now in the hands of the Brent geese once again, having survived the attempts made some years ago to turn it into a major international airport. The northern boundary of the constituency is the river Crouch and to the south are the conurbations of Southend, Basildon and South Benfleet.
Rochford is an ancient hundred, dating back many centuries. The last peer to carry that name, Anne Boleyn's brother, fell into disgrace with Henry VIII and lost his life. The land of Rochford reverted to the Crown and stayed with it for a few years until being given as a pension by the King to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves. So you will see, Mr. Speaker, that that pension was given at not much net cost to the monarch.
As in the 16th century there were many changes in the ownership of the Rochford hundred, so in the 20th century there have been several Members of Parliament to look after the area's political affairs. Those of my hon. Friends who are new Members of Parliament have paid tribute to their predecessors. Generally, they have each had only one predecessor and for a variety of reasons that predecessor has usually left the House. My task is a little more onerous, because I have three predecessors, all of whom are still Members of Parliament.
First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) who looked after the Chelmsford villagers so well from 1964 until the last election. His wit and personality are greatly missed. From 1974 until the election the Rochford area of the constituency—the largest part of my new constituency—was looked after by my right hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Wakeham). He looked after that area diligently and has had a distinguished career in Parliament. He has been very kind to me since my selection early this year, and I thank him very much for all that he has done. Indeed, I would have paid him that tribute even if he had not been appointed Chief Whip of our party.
The person to whom I wish to pay particular tribute is my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). He has represented many parts of Essex in his political career. From 1955 to 1974 he represented almost the whole of the constituency that I now represent and during that time, and until the last election, he represented the town of Rayleigh, which is the population centre of my constituency. Thus, for 28 years he represented Rayleigh and he is greatly loved—there is no other word—in that town. I know how much he is respected in the House and I believe that I can say that he has become the elder statesman of politics in eastern Essex. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point for all that he has done for me. He has shown great kindness and has helped me enormously both in the constituency and in the House.
There is little industry in the Rochford constituency. Many of those in the area travel to Southend or London to work. However, some people work at Fords, at Dagenham and at Dunton. Many people also travel to Chelmsford to work for Marconi. They work in the electronics industry and are part of a giant organisation that has specific interests in telecommunications.
There are three principal forms of communication with the Rochford constituency. First there are the roads. The principal road is the A127 from London to Southend. That road has been greatly improved in recent years but it is still congested and dangerous. During my time as Member of 57 Parliament for Rochford I shall do my best to see that more money is spent on it so that it can be turned into a safer, faster and better road for traffic travelling to and from the Rochford area and Southend.
The second form of communications is the railway. It runs between Southend, Victoria, and Liverpool street and is subject to much criticism. There can be no doubt that those who use it have to suffer an inadequate service that is often disrupted by industrial action. Many people feel that the railway would provide a better service if it were privatised. The third form of communications is telecommunications. Everyone in the constituency uses that form of communication from time to time, and if the railway would be better privatised, so would the telecommunications service.
I support the Bill. With private telecommunications we shall better be able to have innovation and improved technology within our telecommunications service. If politics is the art of the possible, technology is surely a science of change. Change is usually brought about in a competitive environment. Throughout history, scientists have responded to national emergency, commercial challenge and technological competition. A private telecommunications system will mean an improvement in BT's service. Much of its service has been indifferent. For example, those who try to make telephone calls on bank holidays, such as Christmas, are told that the service is run down and that we should not expect a good service at such times. Many people have wished for a choice of equipment, but have been told to take or leave the black standard "Henry Ford" type telephone. Choice has improved since liberalisation, and will improve a great deal more with privatisation. The charge to restore our telephones to working order outside normal working hours is excessive. A service, in the true sense of the word, has not been provided in that area. There will be an expansion of the telecommunications service when the industry is privatised. That will bring about more jobs in an age that is ever more technological. The more technological we become, the more jobs will be created.
We must be careful that we do not move from a public monopoly to a private monopoly. Under the Bill, competition for BT is limited. It consists of the Mercury trunk lines and not much else—certainly nothing in the network. If we are to fight the excesses of public monopolies with a private company, we must ensure that the licence agreed between Oftel and the Secretary of State contains those things that are necessary to make certain that the public get a fair deal from something that is close to a private monopoly.
BT must not be allowed to exercise commercial control over its competitors through licensing, or over its suppliers through monopoly purchasing powers. It must not be allowed to exploit its privileged position by charging exorbitant fees to the general public who use its services. It must not he allowed to neglect the needs and wishes of its customers and must be encouraged constantly to take into account the services provided by similar organisations in other countries. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) that it is important that BT continues to provide a service to rural areas—to those 77,000 kiosks from which the majority of 999 calls are made.
Without details of the licence, we have to take the Bill a little on trust. We know that the draft licence will be available in October and that there will be negotiations 58 between BT and the Government. I am sure that we all know that constant changes to the licence will be needed once it has been laid before the House. Until competition for BT is well established, it will be necessary to review the licence from time to time. I was, therefore, delighted when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the licence would be laid before the House and that Parliament would have the opportunity to debate it.
The Bill will be of great advantage to Britain, to industry and to technology. I hope that we protect the measure by ensuring that the licence comes regularly before the House for debate, thereby ensuring that the advantages of the Bill are permanently maintained.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)
It is a great pleasure for two reasons to congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) on his maiden speech. First, I have close personal connections with his constituency. I was married at Hadleigh, which is just outside his constituency. My wife's family come from his area and I know it well. He spoke eloquently about both the area and his predecessors. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal more from him, especially about the railway line from Southend, Victoria to Fenchurch street and Liverpool street. I am sure that that matter will exercise him to some considerable extent, as I know from personal experience that it exercises his constituents.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman showed a clear grasp of the subject before the House. He displayed an understanding of the distinction between the privatisation aspect of the legislation and the question of competition. As the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) interestingly made clear, the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. We believe that they should not go hand in hand. We are in favour of the liberalisation that the Government have introduced, but can see no reason for the privatisation of BT. As the hon. Gentleman said, it does not live up to the high ideals of the Conservative party on privatisation. He represents a little bit of competition to the Bill on the fringes of the Government, in the same way as Mercury is a little bit of competition on the fringes of telecommunications.
One of the fundamental issues is how much competition BT will face because of the Bill. The Secretary of State made it clear that the Government would not be prepared to give licences to other people to pursue effective competition to BT. He was pressed on that point by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). Conservative Members wanting competition for BT should press Ministers on that point. There will not be the competition in telecommunications that some thought would result from liberalisation.
My colleagues and I are in favour of liberalisation and I agree with the Secretary of State about its impact on BT. For example, I well know about the lack of accountants in BT. I worked for some time in another part of the Post Office, the banking sector in the City, not far away from BT headquarters. The whole ethos of BT was the old Civil Service ethos of the days when BT was part of the Post Office. From the customers' point of view there has been more change in BT in the year since liberalisation was introduced than took place in the previous 10 years, from the time when the Post Office ceased to be a Civil Service department and became a public corporation. Liberalisation has been an enormous stimulus and we 59 welcome that. There is little in the Bill and its proposals for denationalisation to further that process and improve the effectiveness of BT and its service to its customers.
There are four reasons why I and my colleagues will oppose the Bill. First, as was reinforced by the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer a couple of weeks ago on the problems of public sector borrowing, I believe that one of the major reasons why the Government are selling assets is to raise funds to overcome their public sector borrowing requirement problems.
In his recent statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:immediate action must be taken to bring about savings that will bring total spending closer to the planned path … Accordingly, the cash limits for the current year will be reduced … In addition, the programme of asset sales during the current year will be increased by a further £500 million." — [Official Report, 7 July 1983; Vol. 45, c. 418.]That is a stark misuse of public capital. The Secretary of State should send some of his accountant friends to the Treasury to teach it the difference between revenue and capital spending. The Government seek to sell major public assets for a massive sum that they will put into the general pot of Government revenue to bail them out of their public sector borrowing problems. That is a gross misuse of public assets, and one reason why my colleagues and I shall vote against the Bill.
Conservative Ministers argued against British Telecommunications investing further substantial sums in new capital spending, being provided with the opportunity to raise Buzby bonds, and increasing public sector investment, because that crowds out funds on the market. If the Government sell BT shares that will crowd out the market. If 50 per cent. of BT shares are to be sold, £2.5 billion of capital will be raised on the market for the Government's coffers. That is as much as financial institutions invest in equities in a whole year. It is four times as much as the largest ever equity sale on which the Government embarked—British Petroleum shares. That amounted to about £624 million, which is a minor sum by comparison. A sale of assets on the proposed scale will inevitably crowd out the market. If the argument for crowding out is valid—now is not the time to debate whether it is—it holds in this case, and the market, the Stock Exchange and City institutions are worried about that effect. Anxiety is expressed in the financial columns of newspapers about the impact of the sale and how it will affect the price of BT shares.
Another reason why I am opposed to the Bill is that if the price of the shares is to be maintained, after the initial sale and fund raising, the market must buy desirable stock. Inevitably, people will suspect that it is in the Government's interests to ensure that BT will continue as a monopoly to sustain high profits and to get a good price when it sells the shares. Therefore, it is in the Government's, not the consumer's, interests that the restrictions on BT and the powers of the director of Oftel are limited, and that the pricing policy, to which the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred, is maintained. BT's profits must remain substantial, at the consumer's expense, so that the price of the shares, when they are sold, is sustained at a high level.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is following that line of argument. Is it a 60 reversal of the posture adopted by his party in the previous stages of the original Bill? Today he argues about the restriction of competition, or the Government's failure to limit or inhibit it. Yet in the previous Parliament his party moved few measures to increase or fortify the powers, duties and obligations of the Office of Telecommunications to ensure that competitive forces would act in a more benign way in the interests of the consumer.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
When more hon. Members reflect on the votes cast in the ballot box and the representation in this House, we shall be able to take such action in Committee and in the Chamber. I deployed those arguments as SDP spokesman in the previous Parliament and I shall continue to deploy them in opposition to the measure. As I have said, we made it clear that we are in favour of liberalisation and want to see increased competition. I am worried that at this stage the Government will not be under the necessary pressure to ensure that that competition is as great as it could and should be in the interests of the consumer.
The measure is an irrelevant switching of control from the Department of Trade and Industry to the new Office of Telecommunications. At present, the Department of Trade and Industry, through British Telecom, is able to control the operation of the industry to a considerable extent and to sustain the public interest, as it has done for some time on issues such as rural services and telephone kiosks, and, indeed, on the whole policy of BT.
The Government have long been opposed to quangos, yet here they are establishing a new quango to carry out very much the same controls as have been and could be carried out by the Department of Trade and Industry. Public funds and resources will be deployed unnecessarily in that way. During the passage of the Bill, Ministers have said that they are removing BT from the hands of the Government, yet it is clear that BT will be just as restricted and hemmed in by the director general as it has been and could be under the Department of Trade and Industry.
§ Mr. Marlow
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is better to have those organisations controlled by the Government, with all the political pressures that are placed on them from day to day, or by an independent third party, which can regulate itself?
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
The hon. Gentleman raises a substantial issue which concerns all the public sector corporations. I do not want to go into it in detail, but many of his hon. Friends have asked whether the Minister would still be able to answer questions in the House about BT. This afternoon the Secretary of State gave an assurance that he will still answer questions about BT. There will not be much freedom from restriction or control if the Secretary of State is still to be answering questions.
§ Mr. Golding
Is not the hon. Gentleman being unfair to the Secretary of State? The Secretary of State said that he could be questioned on matters relating to grants given for the development of facilities for the disabled. There are many questions—I hope that the Minister of State will answer them tonight—about provision for the deaf and the blind. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has not listened carefully to the debate.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
I understood the Secretary of State to put the matter in rather broader terms than the hon. 61 Gentleman is suggesting. But, irrespective of that point, many Labour and Conservative Members, by the very nature of their questioning and the points that they have raised, have made it clear that they wish to raise issues of great public importance in this House — such as the provision of rural services—and to have an influence on how BT operates. If BT were not being denationalised, that control and influence could still be exercised. I see no reason why the change that the Government are proposing should take place.
§ Mr. Kenneth Baker
May I clarify the position? Since 1969, when the Post Office ceased to be a Government Department, under successive Governments it has not been customary for Ministers to reply to questions in the House on the detailed day-to-day running of either British Telecom or the Post Office. That position will not be changed. In future, the Secretary of State will, of course, be answerable to the House in respect of the duties with which he is charged under the Bill, particularly under clause 3. To the extent that he fulfils those duties, or hon. Members feel that he is not fulfilling them, he will be answerable in the House.
The hon. Gentleman was arguing earlier that when one introduces competition into the great state monopolies, the exercise of control is better done in a Government Department than in a regulatory agency. I beg him, on behalf of his party, on behalf of the research department of his party if it has one, to consider that again. My experience — I dare say that the same is true for Opposition Members who have held ministerial office—is that Government Departments are nut best suited for this regulation of competition. One needs a regulatory agency to do it properly. That is why we are setting up Oftel.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
As the Minister knows, if that is the path that his party wishes to pursue, the Director General of Fair Trading, who is in charge of another quango set up by Government, could quite easily have taken upon himself these responsibilities. Why does one need an extra agency in the way that the Government propose in the Bill? What I find remarkable about the argument on the Post Office is that, despite the fact that it is now a public corporation and not a Government Department, hon. Members still ask questions about the closure of sub-post offices in their constituencies, as the Minister will be only too well aware. There are regular debates on issues affecting the Post Office. While there is not a regular Question Time, there is still accountability and pressure can be applied through Ministers on the corporation.
We do not wish to see this privatisation come about because we believe that telecommunications, above all other industries, deserves and must have stability and some certainty over its future. It is a £10.5 billion industry, which will be investing billions of pounds in future. It is a highly complex organisation on which vast areas of industry and commerce rely. It is vital that there should be certainty about the future of the organisation, not only for the industry and other industries that depend directly on it, but for all the other industries that rely on its services. As I said on Second Reading of the previous Telecommunications Bill, nothing could be worse than getting into the same battle over BT as we got into over the British Steel Corporation. The BSC was a key industry, but it became a political shuttlecock. If we are 62 not careful, the same will happen with BT. It is far too fundamental a part of our industry and economy to allow that to happen. To hear the Opposition saying that they will renationalise BT is a clear sign that the same battle will take place again. Because we want to see more stability and because we do not want to see that uncertainty created, we are opposed to changing the ownership of BT.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
The Minister says that, but he had better put that point to the Labour Opposition. The Labour Opposition are making that threat. Those who make the investments and do the planning fear such a change. It is inevitable that if BT becomes a political shuttlecock, great damage will be caused to the industry. There is no doubt about our position. If BT is denationalised, it will stay denationalised. It will remain in the private sector so that there is certainty about its future. We do not believe that changing the ownership of such industries regularly over succeeding Parliaments is the way to succeed.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
For all those reasons, we wish to see the Bill defeated. We hope that the Government will think again on issues such as the role of the Director General of Telecommunications, on the way in which BT shares will be sold and their impact on the market. We hope, therefore, that the Government will ensure that if there is to be competition, it will be true competition that serves not only those involved in the industry, but those whom BT and the telecommunications industry are there to serve.
§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the next hon. Member, it is right and fair that I should tell the House that there are still 12 hon. Members who have already told me that they wish to catch my eye. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind.
§ Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)
I should like first to declare an interest in the telecommunications industry and secondly to say to the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) that, while I listened with great interest to his speech, I became a little confused when he appeared to extol the virtues of liberalisation and the fact that greater competition can improve the response of British Telecom to the customer but seemed to be against carrying it further through the various methods that the Government seek to employ. I might agree with him on some of the shortcomings of the Bill to which I shall come in a moment, but I should like first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology on reassuming his responsibility for this important subject. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.
As one who has been fairly heavily involved in telecommunications, I am not unaware of the enormous amount of effort and enthusiasm that the Minister has put into the subject and his determination to ensure that the market is opened up. I hope that he will take my remarks as a sincere contribution to the debate and not as a personal criticism of him. I wish unashamedly to be a little critical of the direction in which the Bill will take us.
63 I believe that the next three or four months will be a crucial period in the industry in terms of how it affects the management and the men who work in it, particularly in the private sector. From all the discussions that I have had, I believe that it will bring to an end the transition period that began with the statement by my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Education and Science back in July 1980. Along with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Science, my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for the Environment and the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Minister for Information Technology has done a great deal to encourage the private sector of British industry to see a real future in greater competition in telecommunications.
However, all my investigations have produced evidence of disturbing fatalism among private sector companies, large and small, because they are now beginning to realise that there could be a great deal more in the old adage, "If you can't beat them, join them."
Those companies do not see competition developing as they had hoped, as they felt sure the Government hoped, and still hope; and they are therefore worried that they could lose by seeking to fight for greater competition when the one and only customer of any real meat that will remain in the telecommunications market is British Telecom. They have found, particularly over the past two years, tremendous problems resulting from the 1981 Act which gave British Telecom the power to prohibit any connection of equipment to its system until it had BT's approval. They have suffered inordinate delays and I know that the Minister for Information Technology has received representations from various quarters on the subject. For example, for the small core routing systems the way in which dates have been put back time and again has been an absolute tragedy, resulting in a lack of effective competition from the private sector.
With that in mind, I shall direct my remarks solely to competition, linking it to choice, which is the prime reason for Conservative Members feeling strongly about the subject. I ask the Minister to note carefully the various comments that have been made by my hon. Friends. As I pointed out in an intervention, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) and other Opposition spokesmen have consistently challenged the Government's privatisation policy, pointing out that one should not convert a state monopoly into a private monopoly. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, as usual, made a well-thought-out speech in which he dealt with competition. I agree that simply converting BT into a private sector company will do nothing to improve competition.
Having thought through the issue carefully and discussed it with a range of people, I am left with the conclusion that, as long as BT has the right under its licence to supply terminal equipment or value added network services to the consumer in competition with others who need access to BT's network for their terminal equipment and value added network services, prevarication by BT will always be likely.
With the timespan involved, I do not think we will get the investment decisions from the private sector to go for the full-blooded competition which the Government want. Instead, I fear that we shall find in the coming months 64 greater evidence of commitment by the private sector companies towards throwing in their hats and working with BT as the sole monopoly supplier.
Hon. Members have quoted examples from the United States; we can argue in due course whether they are strictly appropriate to this country, but I cannot see how, within a few years, we shall not have exactly the same pressures on the Government as were evident in the United States over AT and T. We shall then face the problem of how to break up BT just as a similar problem was handled in the United States.
Without seeming to be radical or revolutionary, but wishing to be totally constructive, I have a suggestion which I hope the Minister will examine carefully—and I am aware that only a few months remain before the passing of the Bill. We are doing more than setting a precedent; we must consider industries such as gas and electricity. We are today dealing with a multi-million pound organisation, so we must be extremely careful how we play it.
I ask the Minister to examine whether it is possible, in the sale of BT, to restrict the assets of the organisation solely to the network—the entire British network but excluding all provision of sales, service and maintenance — of terminal equipment and value added network services. We should thus sell BT as the entire network with all the manning involved, but retaining, for the time being, BT Enterprises and the 61 area sales companies with all their appropriate procurement, sales and maintenance staff with a view to making early arrangements for the sale of those parts that form the remainder — the terminal equipment and the value added network services.
I am convinced that in that way it would be easier for those advising the Government to arrive at the asset value of the BT network. It disturbs me that various Opposition Members have given widely differing figures for the asset value of BT. We have heard £16 billion and £12 billion suggested, and one hon. Gentleman talked about selling half the shares for £2.5 billion, which would be a remarkable discount on the share value of BT.
If my suggestion were adopted, we should also have greater consumer choice, because all the suppliers of terminal equipment and value added network services would be in competition. The individual sales companies could be offered to the employees of the separate companies, as happened with the National Freight Corporation. The result would be that every supplier of terminal equipment and value added network services would find BT only too pleased to connect them to its system; BT would have a vested interest in making sure that each person approaching it was connected to its system.
We could include in that arrangement all the safeguards for rural areas and emergency services. The private borrowing point could still be covered, but we should have the guarantee that other conflicting interests, such as cellular radio within BT Enterprises, could be floated as a separate company.
I realise that it is late in the day to make such a suggestion, but I urge the Minister to consider it nevertheless. Otherwise, I feel strongly that we shall be creating more problems than we are curing— for the reasons given by hon. Members in all parts of the House —in view of the increasing hold that BT will have on the market.
It is vital, if the Minister cannot accept my suggestion, that the licence—which, we are informed, will shortly 65 be in draft—contains terms which strictly control BT. In particular, I ask the Minister to clarify whether the licence will be in a form which can be amended. Will it, so to speak, form part of the Bill?
In Committee on the previous Bill, the Minister produced a number of reports which attracted criticism, even derision, from Opposition Members. I must tell him that there remains in the private sector the feeling that there will be a strong lack of competition in what will be left. Therefore, will the Minister consider appointing a committee to consider competition in the private sector and to report back to him by 1 November? We could suggest people, if he will consider such a committee, who could consult those to whom the Minister is looking to create more competition and consumer choice, and thus fully to comply with the honourable intentions and policies which we have pursued in recent years, which we expounded in the election campaign and which the Minister has championed in every way possible.
§ Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston)
It is possible for some of us to be brief in this debate, because we have been down this road before. This morning, in common with many others, I received a copy of a document that was sent out by the corporate relations department of British Telecom. It is said to be a brief on the Bill. The third and fourth paragraphs of the introduction state:A commitment to reintroduce the Bill was made in the Conservative manifesto and repeated during the election campaign by Ministers.In accordance with the decision of the electorate".That implies that during the election campaign the electorate had the opportunity to consider all the issues involved in privatising British Telecom. It is clear that the issue was referred to in the Conservative party's manifesto, but I am not aware that the issue was debated on television or on the radio at any great length so that the public could be aware of what was involved.
The Government cannot claim to have a mandate because the Conservative party received about 15 million votes in the general election compared with nearly 19 million votes against it. The Government may claim that they represent the party with the largest number of seats, but they are talking about a party that was rejected by the greater part of the electorate. I think that the Conservative party can claim about 38 per cent. of the electorate, and that has been the position for the best part of this century. Only two Governments have had a majority of the votes cast, and only those two Governments were able to claim some sort of mandate.
I have dealt with the beginning of the mis-statements in the so-called brief, which was sent to hon. Members by British Telecom, which cause me concern. However, there are omissions that worry me considerably. The Government have become aware of the virtue of democratic ballots. Trade unions are to be forced to hold ballots for their leaders and for other purposes. If the Government are so convinced of the value of democratic ballots, why has British Telecom not arranged for a ballot of all its employees on the issue of privatisation? What is wrong with that? In a democratic society—I accept that that is largely a myth in Britain now—it is surely right to ask employees to express a view on issues that will affect their future. That seems to be an elementary aspect of democracy. That is probably why it has not been done and why it is unlikely to be done in future.
66 In the so-called brief, reference is made toconsumer interests to be protected in a new competitive market.I recognise that Conservative Members have a fond belief in the market providing consumers with what they want. That is an absurd belief. The consumers of the services that British Telecom provides want an efficient telephone service that is available at any time and anywhere. The Minister of State—I am glad that he was finally adopted for a safe seat— said that the wording in one of the clauses has been changed since the Bill's predecessor fell and that "reasonably practicable" is a more credible phrase than that which went before.
If the Minister is determined to give the Bill credibility, why does he not incorporate the pledges that were made by him and others in Committee when the previous Telecommunications Bill was being considered? Pledges were made that kiosks would be protected and that the needs of the aged would be safeguarded. Pledges were also made on behalf of the infirm, the poor, those in rural areas and others who rely on Br s services to provide them with a lifeline. Why are those pledges not spelt out specifically in the Bill so that everyone might be aware of the Government's intentions? Of course, that would mean a real commitment, and the Government are not highly respected for their adherence to commitments. The phrases "satisfy reasonable demand" and "reasonably practicable" represent for many no real undertaking by the Government that the services provided by BT will not suffer under private enterprise. It must be said that the Government can make very few criticisms of those services.
Several hon. Members have said that the raison d'etre of privatisation is the seeking of profit. Most Conservative Members are supposed to be experts on making profits, but I sometimes wonder about that when they come here for £14,509 per annum. If they are really concerned about making profits, it seems that service to the consumer will not be the first priority in the drive for profits. That has been my experience over many years.
Competition will be provided by Mercury. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) hopes to serve on the Committee, but, if he does, I think that he will have a job to swallow some of the Government's ideas. Providing the means by which Mercury can compete with BT is not the sort of competition that the hon. Gentleman would like to see. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman because, even 10 companies in competition with BT, would not lead to the provision of a better system for consumers. If the hon. Gentleman and I serve as members of the Committee, I have no doubt that we shall exchange some views on that issue.
We are talking about an asset that has been publicly financed over many years. It is now a lucrative asset. We know that it is making good profits. The Government consider that now is the right time to sell it off to their friends in the City so that they can enjoy the profits that will accrue in future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) said, the sale of this asset will probably enable the Government to plug a small hole in their financial policies. It will probably enable them to fulfil their commitments in the employment exchanges throughout the country, but in real terms it 67 would be far more sensible to use the profits of British Telecom to avoid what the Chancellor of the Exchequer is seeking to do—to cut other essential services.
Some of those employed by BT would be glad to know that their profits were being ploughed into the National Health Service. They would be able to say, "We are making a real contribution to a much-needed service." The truth is that the service that they created is to be sold off to fill the pockets of a few financiers. When the next general election comes, no doubt they will then make even larger contributions to the funds of the Conservative party. I am sure that some people connected with this industry —I went through the list only a few days ago—made reasonable contributions. One contribution was £25,000; another was £30,000. I expect that if there is an election in 1987–88 there will be even bigger contributions to the Conservative party for the services that it has rendered to capitalist Britain. During the past four years, the Government have rendered no services to the British people, and they will make no contribution during the next five years.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)
In addressing the House this evening for the first time, I must say that it is a great honour to represent the people of Swindon on behalf of the Conservative party. It will help hon. Members if they understand that, although the numbers behind the name have changed, the name has not—much to the satisfaction of all my constituents. There have been two additions to the constituency—parts of the constituencies of Chippenham and Devizes. I thank the hon. Members who represented those constituencies for their custodianship of the electors who were transferred to me. I welcome them to the new and enlarged constituency of Swindon. They are already becoming used to being a part of it.
My principal task is to pay a warm tribute to the work of my main predecessor, Mr. David Stoddart, who is no longer a Member of the House. He was well respected. I was under no illusions about the task of trying to oust him. During his 13 years as a Member he became highly respected within his constituency. He was also well respected in the House, and will be much missed by the Opposition.
Swindon is the largest part of the borough of Thamesdown. Swindonians still think of themselves as living and working in Swindon and find it difficult, even after nine years, to regard themselves as Thamesdownians. I doubt that they ever will. Swindon is reputed to be the fastest growing area in western Europe—I do not know whether that story is true, but it is widely circulated in Swindon. Every year new houses are built in staggering numbers, and new jobs are being created. However, some problems accompany the rapid growth of an area such as this.
In the past, industrial and heavy engineering activity has predominated in the constituency. This has shrunk in importance but it remains a dominant feature. One thinks of British Leyland's factory and especially of the British Rail engineering works. Ever since Brunel on his journey west stopped in Swindon and saw it as an appropriate place, half way between London and south Wales, to build an engineering works, Swindon has been a railway town, 68 and it remains so to this day. This is clear from the atmosphere of the town, which breathes railways, and the museum, which records the fine traditions of the past. There is a railway village of cottages built in the middle of the last century for railway workers. As the representative of Swindon, I shall be keen to ensure that the town maintains its pride in the railway industry. I shall look for support from Members on both sides of the House to ensure that that remains the case.
However, there is change in Swindon, as in so many parts of the country. There is a growth in the number of company head offices, new small businesses, warehousing and high technology industries all of which bring new employment to the town. Plessey has been in the town for a number of years and recently Intel—an important and, I am sure permanent, visitor — has arrived from America. One of the earliest of the local cable TV services has served the town for the past decade and Swindon Viewpoint is the oldest community access television service in the United Kingdom.
Swindon is an exciting town to represent. The importance to Swindon of good communications must be plain to anyone, which is why the constituency shows great interest in the Second Reading of the Telecommunication Bill and why I have chosen to speak tonight. It is not, however, the only reason, because, although there have already been 200 hours of debate on the subject, there must be more to be said.
I must declare an interest, because until recently I was employed by British Telecom. I should not like to suggest that the reason for the recent general election was to enable me to take my place on these Benches to contribute to the discussions on this legislation—I have no doubt that there were other reasons—but that happy coincidence has enabled me to contribute to the debate tonight and perhaps in the future.
A number of briefs have been used by right hon. and hon. Members to support their arguments. Their views depend upon which brief is used. I have the briefs that some Opposition Members have used, from which it is clear that the end of the world is nigh. It is clear from the briefs held by some of my right hon. and hon. Friends that the Bill is an exciting new beginning. The truth will fall somewhere between the two extremes. While there will be support for the Bill's principles, hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed anxiety about some of the Bill's detail, which has still to be discussed and decided.
It is important to remind ourselves that the Bill is about telecommunications and the telecommunications industry and not solely about British Telecom. The mere mention of the words "competition" and "privatisation" have had a galvanising effect upon those who work in BT. I have watched the dedication and enthusiasm shown by the staff of the organisation over the past year or two to bring BT to the point where it can compete in the freer atmosphere that is to come. I have no doubt that that freer atmosphere will stimulate the entire industry to success. BT's success will depend largely upon the licence which we have still to see in its full draft form. The House should insist that there must be not just a fair opportunity for those new firms to be successful, but fairness for BT plc also. Those who have the duty of piloting this legislation through the House will want to be certain that that fairness extends to all who are concerned in the future.
69 The social services element in telecommunications is vital. I see no reason why an effective balance should not be achieved through the use of access charges, but we must wait to see what is in the mind of the Government. The right balance can be obtained between the interests of the consumer, the customer, the staff and the shareholders in the future of a privatised BT. One thing must be clear—if we are not successful in achieving that right and fair balance, the job of flotation of the new company will be severely imperilled. It is our duty to ensure that that message is got across.
There is understandable anxiety, among both residential customers and the staff of BT, and their interests should be considered. The customers will want to know what pricing policy is to be pursued, what control is to be exercised and whether the changes in the Government's mind will lead to higher prices. There is no reason for their worst fears. As for the staff of BT, the expansion of the industry that should naturally follow this Bill must lead to more jobs in telecommunications and not fewer. The political scaremongering has fed upon itself and many people in the industry now genuinely fear for their jobs. As some of my hon. Friends have said, the Government's case must be put across firmly to ensure that that fear is unjustified.
The structure for the regulation and approval of equipment must be staffed quickly and adequately to ensure that there is no wasteful or extensive delay in the approval of equipment and the setting up of the new organisation. Otherwise, an opportunity will be lost, and the flotation of the company will be damaged.
With those few concerns, I have pleasure in supporting the principle of the Bill.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs). I was glad to hear his tribute to his predecessor, Mr. David Stoddart, who, as he rightly said, was held in the highest regard in the House. One of the features of British politics is that we can disagree profoundly with each other while recognising the worth of an hon. Member to his constituency, even when he has been replaced by another Member. For that reason, I congratulate the hon. Member for Swindon on his maiden speech. However, without breaking the convention of the House, I take issue with him. I have a terrible feeling that the part of his speech devoted to the Bill reflected the fact that his five years leave of absence will not have expired before the date of the next election.
As the Register of Members' Interests shows, I have to declare an interest in the Bill because I am a Member sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers. My union has, as one of its largest sections, a fair representation of the workpeople in BT. Despite what has been said by Conservative Members, there is a real fear about future employment prospects for the BT workers represented by my union. It is a fear that has been fed not by scaremongering, but by practical experience of seeing cutbacks and all the things that have happened in the industry through the years. I propose to deal with the real fear of job loss in the industry.
I found the remarks of the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) astonishing. He made it clear that the SDP—I am not sure whether he was speaking for the Liberal party as well—is opposed to the Bill, but 70 that once BT has been privatised it will then ensure that it remains privatised. It must be a great comfort to the Government to know that all privatisation, measures carried out during this Parliament will remain for ever in the eyes of the SDP. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stockton, South is not here to defend himself against my attack.
There is a real fear that once BT is privatised it will take its business abroad, because there is nothing in the licence or in the conditions laid on BT plc to prevent it from doing so. Once a company begins to take its business abroad and to import its equipment, as night follows day, we shall lose jobs. The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) how he came to the conclusion that jobs would be lost. It is obvious that as the operator services are slaughtered—there is no doubt in my mind that they will be—or at least substantially cut back, many telephone operators will lose their jobs.
As the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) said, few people see any need for this legislation. Nevertheless, it is important legislation, and it does the House a great disservice to pretend that we can implement such legislation without it having a profound effect on job prospects in BT plc. There will be a profound effect, and it is the duty of the House to say so in clear terms.
The decision to license Mercury is interesting. As the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) made clear, Mercury is not interested in going to the Western Isles or any other rural area. It is interested only in getting into the international network. It is already part of the national network with its inter-city lines. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that he would make an announcement before the House rose for the summer recess whether the Government would authorise Mercury to enter the international network. I am sure that that decision is known now. It would have assisted the debate if the Secretary of State had made that announcement today.
There seems to be an astonishing misconception, particularly on the Government Benches, that if one privatises an industry, and licenses other companies such as Mercury, somehow or other one will introduce competition. There is anything but competition in many private industries in which there is no public involvement and no Government stake. Have hon. Members not heard of the cartels that operate in some industries? What is to stop Mercury and BT plc getting together and raking decisions about charges and many other aspects of the telecommunications network that would seriously disadvantage consumers, whose interests Conservative Members are claiming to protect?
It is an astonishing misconception to believe that if a service is privatised and one or two private companies are licensed, that will result in competition. I am sure that we shall live to see the day when that myth is blown sky high.
If evidence for my belief is required, hon. Members need look no further than the manufacturing companies that have been supplying telecommunications equipment over the years. It is not long since they were operating a cartel. Indeed, one of the best known of those companies, whose chairman, a well-known peer, was highly placed in the Conservative party, had to repay the Post Office £3 million because it had overcharged for equipment between 1974 and 1979. Let no one say that, because the 71 Government are privatising telecommunications and licensing one or two other companies, they are introducing competition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
§ Mr. Marlow
I intervene to help the hon. Gentleman. If he reads the Bill, he will discover that there is to be a regulatory authority, known as the Office of Telecommunications, which will be charged with the policies that he wishes to see introduced to ensure that competition works effectively.
§ Mr. Ewing
We have seen regulatory authorities before. I agree with the many others who feel that it would have been better to retain the POUNC than to set up a new quango. We should have retained the independent POUNC and given it more teeth to deal with the problems to which I have referred.
The so-called concessions on rural services, services for the blind and the social aspects of telecommunications are not worth the paper they are written on. They are so heavily qualified that civil servants will already have drafted the replies to hon. Members who will be sending in their complaints when the Bill becomes an Act. Anyone could draft such a reply based on clause 3.
The hon. Member for Northampton, North may complain that a telephone kiosk in his constituency is to be withdrawn from service. He will be told that it is not reasonably practicable to keep the kiosk in service or that the demand that it should stay in service is unreasonable. The hon. Gentleman will be told that the decision was taken under the legislation for which he will vote tonight.
Of course, the Minister for Information Technology will add some helpful advice before signing the letter "Yours ever". He will refer hon. Members to clause 82, which empowers local authorities to make contributions to rural services that they believe are necessary in their areas.
I could save the civil servants time and draft their replies for them tonight. They can take them away and run them off in their thousands. The responsibility for maintaining telephone kiosks and many of the other services threatened by the Bill will pass from BT and the Government to the local authorities that the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Scotland are clobbering. That is the dishonesty in the Bill.
We can refer to examples of privatisation in other parts of the world. It is interesting that the Secretary for Trade and Industry should have introduced the Bill, because when I went to Chile in 1981, as part of an international mission from the Postal, Telegraph and Telecommunications International, I discovered that three weeks earlier a junior Minister from the Department of Trade—the present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry —had had been in that country. He was the first Minister to visit Chile after Pinochet came to power. The Labour Government closed our embassy in Santiago after Pinochet took control in Chile, but the Tory Government reopened it in 1980, although, as far as I know, the Secretary of State is still the only Minister to have visited that country.
At that time, the Chilean regime was privatising the telecommunications industry, as a result of which 50 per cent. of the jobs in that industry were lost. Not only that, but, as a way of raising investment capital to develop the system, the private companies involved, many of which came from Japan, started charging subscribers for giving 72 them telephone numbers and that did not even guarantee a link with the system. Another charge was made for that. I sometimes wonder whether some of the ideas in the Bill were brought back from Chile by the Secretary of State.
There is no doubt that the Bill is not wanted. As the hon. Member for Leominster said, very few people want it, and it is a bit much for Tory Members to attack the performance of our telecommunications industry. Of course, that is the classic approach to privatisation. If the Government want to privatise a service, they start by running down its performance and complaining about alleged inefficiency.
The hon. Member for Stockton, South, who has returned to the Chamber, said that in the years since liberalisation there had been a tenfold increase in efficiency. The hon. Gentleman and some of his friends on the Tory Benches produce no evidence to substantiate such sweeping statements. They try to suggest that the industry was not efficient before liberalisation. However, through the co-operation of the Union of Communication Workers and the Post Office Engineering Union, it is one of the most efficient industries in the country. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Swindon, who was on the sales side of the industry, is nodding his agreement. Efficiency came not just with liberalisation. The industry was always efficient. To listen to Conservative Members run the industry down to build a platform for themselves on which to privatise it is an insult to a great industry.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd
Not only Conservative Members and the public but BT have identified enormous inefficiencies or inadequacies in BT. In the business plan for 1980 to 1990, it identifies extraordinarily unsatisfactory arrangements and inefficiencies. That is why we are now seeing the present gains as BT gears itself up and responds to the challenges set out in Peter Benton's report.
§ Mr. Ewing
There are inefficiencies in every industry. I am not suggesting that the industry was hyper-efficient. I am suggesting that, in fairness to the industry—surely hon. Members want to be fair to it—it is not on to make the sweeping criticisms of it that have been made in the debate, as if the industry had been inefficient through the years. In fact, the industry contributed more to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reduce the PSBR than any other public sector industry. It was required by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to help to reduce the PSBR. No inefficient industry could have contributed the sums that were contributed by both the posts and telecommunications sides of the business.
Let no one say that we are dealing with an inefficient industry. We are dealing with a highly efficient industry that can be made more efficient. No one is arguing about that. The Bill will only damage the efficiency of the industry. It will do nothing for the consumer or for the country. Second Reading of the Bill should be opposed.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this important debate on the fundamental reform of British Telecom.
Bolton, North-East is one of the three new constituencies that make up the metropolitan borough of Bolton. I am proud to have become one of the 41 Members who have represented Bolton over the past 150 years. The 73 House is already familar with the speaking skills of my hon. Friend the new Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville). No introduction is needed for the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Mr. Young), whose former constituency now forms a large part of Bolton, North-East, and to whom I am indebted for his conscientious work in the past.
I pay tribute to Mrs. Ann Taylor, the well-known former hon. Member for Bolton, West, a small part of which the Boundary Commission put into my new constituency, so providing a slippery toehold from which the former Member sought to oppose me at the general election. I learned that she had the fighting qualities of a lioness, which she had previously displayed on the Opposition Front Bench and which she used to become a popular and conscientious Member for nine years.
I pay the greatest tribute to Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke, the former Member for Darwen, a large part of which also makes up my new constituency. Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke had a long and distinguished career in the House, covering 32 years, during which time he became highly respected by hon. Members on both sides of the House and known for his dedicated attention to all north-west matters. He was a junior Minister at the Home Office for a period, was knighted in 1981 and in his capacity as a leading silk has acted as legal adviser to the Sultan of Brunei. Opposition Members may be interested to know that he first stood for Parliament as the Labour candidate for Dorset, East, narrowly failing to be elected in 1945. His conversion to the Conservative cause was followed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), the Minister for Social Security, who knows the Eagley Bank area of my constituency well, having made a classic study of one of the most famous historic enterprises in Bolton, the Ashworth copper mills.
Bolton, the original growth of which was founded on the genius of Samuel Crompton, now has a diversified industry built up by the skills of its people. I am confident that the Government's economic policies will provide the framework for the continued growth of new jobs. We were particularly pleased and grateful to see my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during her recent visit to Warburton's bakery, a leading private employer and founder member of Bolton Business Ventures Ltd., the enterprise agency formed to foster the growth of small businesses.
The revived spirit of free enterprise is exemplified by the Telecommunications Bill, which provides the opportunity for that public sector service to become a commercially oriented world leader. I hope that its work force of nearly 250,000 people, ably led by Sir George Jefferson, will seize this new opportunity with imagination and vigour.
I press my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to begin by controlling the new business with what I would call a light regulatory rein, both to maximise the price at which the shares can be sold and to avoid stifling the constructive initiatives that will be needed to transform a public body into a profitable growth business. Perhaps we can tighten the reins later when we see how the spur of competition develops. In saying that, I should not want the new Director General of Telecommunications in any way to overlook the interests of both residential users and small businesses. It is proposed that prices should be controlled through a local tariff index based on a basket of prices to rise by no more than RPI minus x. 74 What my constituents would like to know is that their phone bills will not rise. Indeed, they will look in the basket for an extremely small unleavened loaf marked "static standing charges".
As a small business man, vitally dependent on the telephone, I should declare a personal interest because, in addition to the Bill before the House, I have my own annual bill with BT, which is now well into six figures. I am sure that I speak for all small businesses when I say that I look forward keenly to the time when I can shop around for the various items in the basket. I add a plea that, for many new businesses in their formative years—it is small businesses to which we must look for most of the new jobs for Bolton's 16,500 unemployed— it is not only price that matters but terms of payment, as I am sure Mr. Speaker himself is well aware. The Director General of Telecommunications should ensure that the basket contains a loaf marked "fair payment terms", even if BT cannot see its way to supplying long thin loaves marked "extended credit for new businesses".
I welcome the new Bill. Trusting that an injection of Mercury can cure most communicable ills, I believe that the new competitive freedom for BT will be to the advantage of the whole community.
§ Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) on his maiden speech. Having made my own only a short week ago, I am well aware of how he felt. However, he acquitted himself well, and I look forward to hearing him again.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was a small business man. Speaking as a former small business man who was always in close contact with all the members of his staff, I am well aware that any firm will gain the best results only if it achieves the proper combination of workers and management.
As a result of my experience I am also aware that some incentive—financial or in the form of good conditions or a combination of both—is necessary for the efficient running of any enterprise. But even bearing that in mind, I have considerable reservations about this Bill. I have a practical turn of mind and I am interested in the mechanics of running the proposed new system because, whereas part of the operation will be licensed to private enterprise, British Telecom will provide the network. I feel that this will give rise to certain practical difficulties for those using the system.
If a telephone handset has been fitted by the private section and a fault develops in it, who is responsible for repairing it, bearing in mind that we as telephone users never really know whether the line, the handset or the connection at the exchange is defective? Will each section of the system have its own maintenance staff or shall we have a central organisation responsible for faults and repairs? Are we to be charged a call-out fee by the private section but not by the BT section? Can we expect as good an emergency service for faults and repairs as we have at present? If a fault is suspected to have been caused by the subscriber and a charge has to be made, who makes this decision?
The present service given by BT can at least be said to be much simpler. I contend that the Bill, by its very nature, 75 creates a clash between BT providing a service to the public and the private side seeking some return on its investment.
If in my plumbing and heating business I was asked to fit two service pipes to two different dwellings, one 10 m long and the other 50 m long, I should have had to charge more for the 50 m job than for the 10 m job, or I should soon have been out of business.
I am puzzled to be told that proposals introducing the profit element are good for all subscribers. How can it be true? Eventually any business man will have to cut his losses and get rid of uneconomic parts of his business if he wishes to make a profit.
It has been said that the BT side will handle emergency calls, call boxes and the rest, but if the private side of the system is making a profit, BT will come under great pressure from the Government to improve its financial position. If that part of the system is pressed too hard it may lead to a cut in services to outlying parts of the network.
My worry is that the provision of call boxes or private dwelling lines at a reasonable cost in such areas as Devon, Cornwall, parts of Scotland and, of course, parts of Northern Ireland will be affected. The present BT policy of providing a universal service with uniform prices is of great benefit to all parts of the United Kingdom. If the cross-subsidy principle is changed, we may find that a fine public service is lost in the pursuit of profit.
In this context, does dividing the system into regional areas mean that there will be local variations in price? Some will say that an efficient and profitable system is all that matters, but most reasonable Members and the general public will concede that in certain circumstances and for certain people the telephone is an essential service, regardless of cost effectiveness.
In Northern Ireland, for instance, there are farmers living in remote and dangerous areas who remain there only because they have the telephone link with their friends and the security forces. At night they shutter their windows and bolt their doors, comforted by the thought that help is only as far away as the telephone. If financial considerations come into providing or repairing these services many of those brave people will be forced to leave their farms—which up to the present the terrorists have not managed to make them do.
The public service ideal of BT must be preserved. Great care must be taken that profit is used only to increase efficiency and not to destroy the service. I make it clear that my party is not against privatisation. It is willing to look at each case on its merits, although the evidence on the side of privatisation in this instance seems to be very weak.
The repair of telephone wires damaged by farm animals, storms or heavy snow is again a matter of great importance. Will the subscribers be responsible for the cost of repairing or replacing these lines? If they are, will they have to spend more money taking out insurance policies against this eventuality? The situation which could arise in Northern Ireland is illustrated by the tragic events of 13 July. Four UDR soldiers were brutally murdered when a land mine exploded beneath their land Rover. It left a crater 15 ft deep by 40 ft wide. Telephone cables were destroyed, putting 1,700 telephones out of order in that rural area.
76 The present BT service, like all other public services, started to restore the lines almost immediately to try to get matters back to normal. We in Northern Ireland are very thankful for the dedication to duty of BT workers, like all other public service workers. Shall the service be restored as swiftly under privatisation, or will the telephone service be treated as all other private business firms in Northern Ireland are treated when bomb damage occurs? That procedure is one of assessing the damage and lodging a claim for consideration by the Northern Ireland Office. Will the damage caused to an individual subscriber's installation in similar circumstances be looked after by the private sector, which fitted it, by the subscriber or by BT?
Hon. Members should also be concerned about the fact that at present 95 per cent. of the equipment required by BT is made in the United Kingdom. Will there not be a temptation for the private section to import cheaper equipment, thus risking damage to home-based firms? We in Northern Ireland are proud of the excellent work produced by Standard Telephones and Cables and we shall strenuously oppose any trend which weakens the viability of such firms.
I have looked at the Bill purely on its merits, having no ideological view for or against privatisation. I have enough business experience to be able to appreciate the attractions of running a business to obtain the best return for the money and effort expended. I am also aware that as a public representative I must take into account the view of many people who consider BT to be a public service which is necessary for the well-being of all our citizens. If, as seems possible, the cross-subsidy principle is altered, the lower standard of living and the higher prices charged in Northern Ireland could mean that the extra financial burden will be more keenly felt there than in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I have listened to the debate with great interest so far but I have heard nothing to change my view that I should oppose the Bill. I shall recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they vote against it.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
This is the third time that we have looked at a printed version of the Telecommunications Bill. Each time there have been nuances of change and one has a feeling that the Government are firing at a moving target. Clause 3, which reappeared at the last Report stage as new clause 1, and has been slightly altered again, is also the third version. I do not quibble inasmuch as I am grateful that the Government have acceded to some of my hon. Friends' arguments and have moved to implement some of them.
The essential issue in the Bill is the privatisation of what is recognised to be a monopoly and the extent to which one should devise methods and means through an Office of Telecommunications to control and regulate that private monopoly. There is a great difficulty here: clearly the more the private monopoly is regulated and controlled the more its prospective sale price is inhibited. That is a central issue.
As the debate has moved from last November through to July this year, I have been conscious that the Government have resisted the opportunity of introducing strong regulatory measures which would enable an independent Office of Telecommunications to regulate and control the way in which the monopoly operates. I ask myself why, because it is a fundamental Conservative 77 principle that we should regulate privately owned monopolies. I can only wonder whether there is a battle going on between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. I had assumed that the Department was more vigorously converted to free enterprise and competition, yet there is an extraordinary hesitance in introducing adequate controls over BT's existing monopoly? Why? I should like some clarification on the extent to which the Minister sees this as a question of trade-off —the maximisation of the price that we can secure for BT in the market set against the extent of regulation and the protection of new competitors coming into the market and present users of services. That is an important issue. If we fudge the regulation of monopoly power we are effectively replacing a publicly owned monopoly with a privately owned monopoly. That is contrary to the assurances that we gave the electorate in our last election manifesto. I see in the Conservative party a hardening of views on this issue. The Government are losing the argument about the extent to which Oftel is a regulatory body.
As a general philosophical stance, I subscribe to most of the benefits that Ministers see in privatisation, but I am conscious that those benefits are not achieved solely because of privatisation; they will be achieved largely through competition. That is the weakness in the Government's argument that was identified earlier. The Government have said that the creative thrust of telecommunications policy is dependent upon a light regulatory rein that will encourage market entry and will therefore create a viable, independent, responsive and competitive industry. I see no evidence to support that view. I would rather see a strongly regulated BT, until such time as effective competition has become a reality in the market. Privatisation alone does not achieve the critical objectives that were set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, nor does it provide any assurance that our residential constituents will enjoy an improved and more economic telephone service in their homes.
BT's monopoly power must be controlled, whether BT is public or private. The essential underlying intellectual argument for that is that monopoly breeds inefficiency and arbitrary discrimination and leads to the misallocation of resources. The introduction of limited competition in selected sub-markets only increases the incentives to take advantage of those who have no adequate alternatives and that is the danger that faces small businesses and personal home subscribers. As BT reduces prices in certain markets to meet competition where it exists, it will seek to increase its revenues from markets such as the domestic consumer who has no alternative provider of the service. That is a very considerable fear. It applies not just to the domestic subscriber but to the small business man and, because the Government have not yet stated their position on cross-subsidisation, it can apply to discrimination between major business customers.
Let me give an example. British Telecom has a subsidiary company called BT Enterprises, which now goes round and offers special deals. One special deal to one special customer can be to the grave disadvantage of the competitor of that special customer. I have always argued, and I ask my hon. Friends to accede, that such discrimination should be clearly outlawed in the Bill. I want to ensure that BT is more responsive to the needs of its users. I have tried to argue that that is the common interest of large corporate users, small business men and 78 residential subscribers. It is also of vital national interest as the new service industries of the information age, which the Government promote vigorously, will create new opportunities for investment and employment only if economically priced transmission is available.
I have also argued in Committee, as have many of my hon. Friends, that we must balance particular vested interests against the national interest in a competitive market for telecommunications. We cannot promote the interests of particular unions associated with BT if that means creating special privileges that will destroy opportunities for the employees of potential competitors of users. Nor can we focus, as I have tried to say, on the proceeds of the flotation to the exclusion of our long-term objective in reforming the industry's structure.
My conclusion on what I call the subscriber issue is that the common interest of large and small users and of the national economy can best be met by allowing more competition with BT and by providing stricter protection against anti-competitive practices while competition develops. I fear that this is a great gap in the Government's policy and strategy.
I am mindful too of the gap in the Social Democratic party's industrial policy on BT. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) spoke against the creation of Oftel. An interesting feature of the Committee stage of the previous Bill was my right hon. Friend's inability to honour pledges that he gave to the Committee to produce a licence. Fundamental to an evaluation of the Government's stance on BT is the need to see what they mean in practical terms. What is in the licence? I do not wish to embarass my right hon. Friend because we know that he is sincere but he gave us the assurance that he would produce for the Committee's inspection a licence that would set out the relationship between BT and the Government and how it would operate. He was unable to do that although, in fairness, a draft licence was introduced a few days after he had promised it. Notwithstanding his position as a 100 per cent. owner of BT, the earliest that we shall have sight of that vital document for the regulation of the telecommunications monopoly company will be October—10 months after the date on which the Minister who is solely responsible for, and who is 100 per cent. owner of, the business said that he would make it available to hon. Members. It shows the difficulty that the Government have in dealing with sponsored industries. I have always argued that we need an independent, above-board transparent organisation whose mandate can identify and protect the interests which it has been statutorily established to secure.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but surely it can be argued that if the Minister cannot produce the document, with all the authority and power that he has, a director general of an independent department will not be in any stronger a position.
§ Mr. Shepherd
The director general's purpose is not to construct the licence. I want him to be responsible for implementing strict regulatory controls over the monopoly industry.
I cited the incident of the licence because what it contains or omits will be the proof of the Government's competitive stance. The British Telecom licence is only one-half of the story. In that, we would see the Government's intention. It is not evident in clause 3, 79 which contains a series of general assertions through which most competent corporate lawyers would probably find a way when arguing why someone could not perform duties because they were not, for example, practicable or for some other reason.
Why has the Mercury licence not been made available? I am curious about that document because we are talking about moving from monopoly, through duopoly, to a competitive environment, and the arrangement with a third party such as Mercury are of crucial importance in ascertaining where the Government stand. We are not talking about a commercially confidential document in the sense that it involves outside parties operating in a free and open market. We are discussing the Government as the sole issuer of licences. The private arrangements that they have entered into, covertly, with a private consortium is therefore important. We are not aware of the terms and conditions.
For all that I know, the document might give rise to the gravest anxieties. Perhaps it gives such rights and powers and possibilities to a company that we would judge it to be against the spirit of competition. I say that because I am extremely concerned about the Minister's undertaking to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) that he does not intend to license any further companies in the foreseeable future. That is an anticompetitive stance.
Whatever the Government say, the Minister responsible for competition in telecommunications has told the House that he does not propose to extend competition for the foreseeable future. We are left with the most dangerous of situations. There is to be virtually a private monopoly with a shadow duopoly company, the powers, duties and obligations of which are set out in the only licence in existence, which we have not seen.
I want to examine the Government's competitive stance because they always allude to Mercury as if it were a real addition to competitiveness in telecommunications. Because it is the only competition allowed, it limits the Minister's argument. Mercury has no customers at present and therefore cannot provide effective competition for BT. For some fortunate large businesses in certain urban areas Mercury may provide a service, and hence a threat to BT, and so urge it to improve its service. For most of our constituents, however, Mercury is not an alternative.
My consequential argument is that the Bill should be amended to include a clause under which a qualified applicant will receive a licence unless there is a valid reason why it should not. Of course, all entrants should bear a fair share of the burden of supporting loss-making services. We hear arguments about excessive competition and duplication of facilities. I argue, as a reasonable Conservative party stance, that we should let the market place decide how many facilities are necessary and how many competitors it should support. When we fail to do that we always invite trouble. When the Civil Aviation Authority regulates fares across the Atlantic, or the airlines that operate those routes, a mess of a policy is created. The best way to determine what will succeed, if one believes in competition—the Minister says that he does—is to let the market work itself out. The Bill should enable qualified applicants to enter the market.
If we limit competition to a single alternative firm, which is able to service only a selected group of 80 customers, we shall deprive most of our constituents of the benefit of competition. Indeed, as BT lowers its prices to compete for the contested customers it will probably increase the charges to those who have no alternative. That is the flow of water in economic life. BT will make up for what it has lost elsewhere.
I will be alarmed if the Government's conclusion is that they must allow Mercury alone to enter the profitable overseas field. All that that will do is divide what amounts to the high monopoly profits of British Telecom in the international market. They will be divided and there will be a consequential loss to British Telecom revenues elsewhere. That involves favouring one company at the expense of all consumers and possible entrants to the market. It is dangerous to try to prop up Mercury—if that is what the Government intend—by giving it access to international telecommunications. The consequences of such a duopolistic approach is that we shall suffer the worst of all worlds. British Telecom will experience loss of profit—that does not worry me particularly—but to make up its revenues elsewhere it will raise prices for those who have no alternative source of telephone services.
The Bill should put an end to British Telecom's anticompetitive practice of refusing to serve customers who attempt to sell or share their excess capacity. That should be in the Bill, not the licence. That issue was not discussed much in Committee. I should like to hear the Government's view on resale. Why has the issue not formed a more central part of the Government's competitive policy and figured in their arguments about why competition is of benefit?
Resellers who buy in bulk from BT and then sell to smaller users make available the benefits of competition to small business men and residential users. That is of benefit to us all. Resellers make discrimination against the small user impracticable. That is vital and it is why we should argue in favour of necessary resale. It also provides a market for the transmission facilities of BT and Mercury. They are retailers.
I was a retailer in my previous profession. I was a small grocer. I liken the proposition here to Covent Garden insisting that every purchaser of fruit or vegetables deals directly with those who have the monopoly control over Covent Garden. That is clearly insane. I should like to hear the Government's view on resale, because American experience and my judgment lead me to believe that resellers make an important contribution to competition.
It is important to secure stricter protection from anticompetitive practices. It is a substantial charge against the Government, because the Bill does not do that adequately. Selective competition will increase, not decrease, the incentives of the dominant carrier to raise charges paid by those consumers who have no alternatives. I tried to give an instance of that in letters to Ministers. British Telecom is unable to identify its area of profit or loss—or so I was advised by the Minister in Committee. Nevertheless, when competition was introduced on its long-line system it was able to reduce prices there, not knowing whether rural services were loss-making or profitable. It reduced charges to the long-line users at the expense, possibly, of the domestic or captured user.
The statute must contain a firm mandate for the regulatory body, Oftel. That will promote competition. I have reread the Committee proceedings and the submission from the Department of Industry and I believe 81 that it is important not to repeat the American mistake by enacting a vague statute that allows the incumbent carrier —British Telecom—to argue against new entry.
The statute must also include firm prohibitions against discrimination. British Telecom should be forced to bear the burden of proving that any apparent discrepancies in the terms offered to different customers are justified by differentials in cost. There is no such provision in the Bill or in the licence, but it is essential. Already the threat of limited competition is driving British Telecom to anticompetitive discriminatory pricing. Last year, BT announced that rural long-distance services would be charged at a higher rate than the service between major cities, including most of the areas to be served by Mercury, and this despite the Minister advising us that British Telecom has presented no evidence that rural costs are higher.
We also need to separate British Telecom's monopoly operations from its competitive operations, ensuring that they deal on an arm's length basis. Most important, we must not allow British Telecom to sell its circuits to a marketing affiliate on terms not available to the public. That would make a mockery of any claim to protection against discrimination.
We should also allow users and competitors who suffer from unlawful anti-competitive practices to sue for relief in the courts. There was a somewhat acrimonious exchange on that subject on Report when the Minister would not yield on the question of allowing companies in competition with British Telecom to sue BT for injuries or losses suffered as a consequence of BT's offending against the terms of its licence. The argument has always been that Oftel can put matters right. However, in the two, three or four weeks that it may take Oftel to move—even accepting that British Telecom apologises for the discrimination or activity that has inhibited the commercial viability of the firm that wants to come in, and claims that it was unintentional—the damage could have been done at the earliest stages. It would give a great impetus towards competition if we were to allow the injured party to sue in the courts for damages consequential on the actions taken by British Telecom that had injured it.
This House cannot stop the powerful economic forces that will inevitably reform what is, in my view, a sluggish telephone monopoly. The sluggishness of the monopoly has impeded the growth of new high technology. That has been evident in other countries too. Many years ago, when the then right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, Mr. Benn, was attempting to defend the position of the GPO, he claimed that it was better than the Spanish industry. Those who had knowledge of Spain's telephone system in the 1960s would have considered that to be a poor level of comparison. We should be capable of being compared with the best.
This country is moving faster than most, but we must not embark on a series of half steps that will leave us without either direct control by the Government or more efficient regulation by a true competitive market place. Partial steps, taken in the name of caution and gradualism, threaten to create a powerful private monopoly over which we will be unable effectively to regain control. We must look beyond the prospective revenues for BT and the proceeds of its sale and consider the potential for real growth throughout the telecommunications industry. That potential will be thwarted if we privatise a monopoly. The 82 system of having one overwhelmingly dominant carrier and one pace-keeping competitor has not worked. It would be even more wrong to extend the duopoly regime in the important international sector. We cannot stop the transition to a competitive market, but we can delay and impede it.
We risk being overtaken by other strategically located countries such as Belgium and Ireland that would gladly establish themselves as centres for competitive communications but which, at the moment, lack the resources to do so. Our opportunity is to make the transition to a truly competitive market place as smooth and rapid as possible. That requires a policy of open entry, encouraging all forms of competition. We also need stronger safeguards against anti-competitive practices while competitive conditions develop.
I want to press the Minister on the question of the price control mechanism as set out in Littlechild. Is it to be based on the basket of all the charges of BT, or a selected narrow range of charges? With a wide basket of charges, one could move the price mechanism within that basket and domestic prices could be doubled, trebled or quadrupled in order to enable British Telecom across the board to try to subsidise areas in which it needs to maintain competition but is unable to do so because of the limitations of its own competitive resources.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)
Order. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman wishes to give way.
I again appeal for the co-operation of the House. The Front Bench spokesmen are expected to reply at about 9 o'clock. A number of hon. Members wish to speak, including some who have not yet made their maiden speeches.
§ Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)
We have heard a number of maiden speeches today and they have been quite enjoyable. All the new Members appear to be able to speak well. No doubt they will speak again and express the views of their constituents.
The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is clearly capable of looking after himself in the House. The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) endeared himself to me by mentioning Isambard Kingdom Brunel, even if his success in the election reduced—from the south, the south-west and the western counties to the edge of the GLC — the number of Opposition Members to five out of 120, despite the fact that the Opposition got 47 per cent. of the poll. That is why the Government are pressing the Bill through, even though they have no national mandate for it.
Even those of us who did not serve on the Committee on the Bill feel that we have been here before. The one significant change in the Bill since it was first presented to the House is in clause 3. Those hon. Members who have worked hard to strengthen clause 3 have improved the Bill, although some of the words in the clause are vague and one wonders exactly what they mean. For example, the clause states thatall reasonable demands for them"—the services — must be maintained. It is difficult to understand what that means.
It is true that, despite the desire of British Telecom to close telephone kiosks, public opinion and pressure from 83 Parliament and from the local councils have stopped it doing so. One suspects, however, that BT would still wish to close them. With regard to kiosks, what is reasonable? In urban areas, I suspect that to have a kiosk half a mile away would be considered extremely unreasonable and that people would press successfully to have a kiosk closer to their homes. However, in parts of my constituency, people live more than half a mile away from the nearest kiosk, and there is still pressure to close the kiosks. The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) raised the same point in connection with his constituency.
The Minister should tell us what he understands by "reasonable demands". Is he thinking of a kiosk 100 yards, half a mile, a mile or—in some of the more remote parts of Britain—five miles or more away? I would feel happier on that score if clause 82 did not exist. It seems reasonable that the Bill should contain a clause permitting local authorities to subsidise such a service if they so desire, but I am afraid that their legal right to do so may provide the new BT company with an excuse to suggest that that is the way in which such a service should be provided in future. That would be an appalling outcome, and I do not for one moment believe that the mood of the House would support it. I suppose that our one slight hope lies in the fact that those words are in the Bill, and presumably that means that we can return to the subject, even after the Bill has been enacted, and can raise it time and again. I can certainly give the Minister an assurance that some of us are determined to do that, should that situation arise.
Several Conservative Members have told us why they want the Bill. It might have done the Minister some good if he had found some Conservative Members who really supported the Bill. Few Conservative Back Benchers have given it total support today. They have all mentioned that lovely word "competition". I believe in competition probably more than most Opposition Members, and I like to see the efficient companies survive and prosper. However, there is very little faith among Conservative Members that the Bill will achieve that. We have a nationalised company that is a monopoly. We are told that this great Bill, with its numerous pages, means that that company will continue to be a monopoly after it has been enacted, with the single exception of the Mercury project. The Minister may hope that the Mercury project will eventually break down BT's monopoly. But why could not that breakdown have been achieved by introducing a series of further small projects like Mercury?
Conservative Members seem to be rather worried. Because the Bill involves privatisation, they know that they have to support it. It is like the reaction sometimes found among Labour Members who think they must support anything that is taken over by the state. However, the whole attitude of Conservative Members today seems to be based more on hope than substance. I have not heard one Conservative Back Bencher say with any confidence that the Bill, as it stands, will introduce competition into BT and will, as a result, provide the British people with a more efficient system.
During the election there was a debate on television on this issue. The Minister involved is not here. I do not complain about that, because Ministers change their jobs. However, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is here. The three of us were on the 84 programme. I am sure that the hon. Member for Copeland will admit that much of the debate was extremely predictable until we got towards the end. Suddenly, the Minister started waxing lyrical about the advantages of the Bill in terms of competition and of companies undercutting each other. Then, as a sort of coup de grace, because he knew he had us beaten, he said that what we needed most of all was the discipline of the bankruptcy court.
"The bankruptcy court?", I asked him. Does the Minister expect to tell the House one fine day that he is very sorry, there is bad news, the company has gone bankrupt and there are no more telephones in Britain? Is that what the Minister was saying? I do not know whether that is what he meant, but that is what he implied, and it is a ludicrous argument. In reality, we know that if the company lost billions of pounds, come the crunch all of us would troop through the Lobby to bail it out. The idea of a civilised, industrial state without a telephone system is too ludicrous even to contemplate. Yet the hon. Member for Copeland can remember that that was the Minister's main argument.
At this stage I suppose that it would save a little time if I were to play a record of the speech that I made on the previous Second Reading, because I wish to ask the same question again. It has also been asked by the hon. Member for Antrim, South and by other hon. Members who have applied their minds to the subject. What happens if a remote subscriber wakes up one morning, after the sort of storm with which I am familiar in my part of the country, and finds not merely that his telephone is out of order, but that three or four miles of poles and wires have been obliterated? The Bill is clear that there is a duty on BT to reconnect. However, the question that I asked on Second Reading, on Report, and on Third Reading, and which I ask again today, is: who will pay the bill? I assure the Minister that my dear farming friends in the south-west are interested in little else when it comes to the crunch.
§ Mr. Golding
Will the hon. Gentleman also ask: who will fix the costs and who will decide how big the bill is to be? Night after night we asked Ministers that question, but we never got an answer. However, I wish the hon. Gentleman well.
§ Mr. Penhaligon
I sincerely hope to avoid asking the Minister that question night after night, but I should like to know today who pays the bill. I have tried to find out the answer, and been told that it is to be found in the licence. That great document has not yet been presented to the House or to the Committee, but it is to be shown to us soon. We look forward to reading it. I have some fundamental questions to ask about it. Will it be debatable line by line in Committee? Will it be amendable in Committee? Once it becomes part of the Act, how will the licence be amended from that day onwards? I can think of many ideas that the new private enterprise BT and the Minister might support, but which I and my constituents in the far south-west would not be very enthusiastic about. My questions are quite straight forward. I repeat, will the licence be debatable and amendable line by line? If it becomes the law of the land, how will it be amended after that? If I or the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) do not like the idea of an amendment after that date, how can we prevent it from being enacted? I would appreciate an explanation from the Minister.
Many hon. Members have said that the introduction of competition into BT may well work against rural areas. 85 Many of us who live a long way from London believe that BT already discriminates against us very severely. I cannot ring some of my constituents on a local charge call. Indeed, I cannot contact more than 20,000 or 30,000 homes on a local charge call. My area has to try to compete with urban areas such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool. People living in those urban centres can call millions of subscribers on local call charges. I know that some hon. Members are trying to be helpful, but the situation cannot get much worse for the remoter areas than it is at present.
If the Government had continued on a path of liberalisation, instead of introducing this Bill, they might well have given the first real hope to some of the remoter areas of the country, which have to compete against those urban centres.
I wish that my area had a telephone charge structure similar to that available in London so that it could contact businesses in the United Kingdom on the same basis as companies in other areas with which it is competing. I am sure that more companies would then come to my area. Office space is available, and it is cheaper than in many areas. There are many skilled people available. If my area could operate on the same basis as other areas with which it is competing, new opportunities would arise.
I am disappointed with the Bill. I would have supported the Government on further liberalisation. I would have been, perhaps, one of the few hon. Members on the Opposition Benches to have done so, although I am sure that my colleagues in the Liberal party would have joined me. The Bill is a massive piece of legislation, probably the largest Bill of this Parliament. This act of privatisation must be one of the largest that the Western world has ever seen from a democratically elected Government. If any hon. Member knows of a larger act, it would be interesting to hear about it.
The Minister can put forward no argument for the Bill, other than that it will increase competition. Yet Conservative Member after Conservative Member has said that the Bill will not introduce one iota of additional competition for BT. The House knows that that is right.
§ Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this debate. It is some five and three quarter hours since I entered the Chamber and, as hon. Members will realise, to double that time gives eleven and a half hours. That time is significant for the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding). I now have some practice in listening to other hon. Members, which I may need at a later stage of the Bill.
I am the fifth Member to make a maiden speech in today's debate. I am tempted to relate some of my thoughts, but as they relate to my experience as a rugby referee they might be deleted from the record. I am the fifth Tory candidate for my constituency of Kingswood, which is situated half in and half out of Bristol. It is often assumed to be a Midlands constituency, but it actually lies alongside Bristol. All the five Tory candidates are now serving Members of Parliament.
The constituency includes a substantial part of the old constituency of Bristol, South-East, whose previous representative, Mr. Benn, was defeated in one of the most commented-on upsets of the last election. I have no doubt 86 that we shall see him return to the Labour Benches in the near future. I hope that he will serve his new constituency as well as he served Bristol, South-East.
Another part of my constituency is part of the firmer constituency of Bristol, North-East, which was ably represented for many years by Arthur Palmer. He was probably the best servant of the city of Bristol for very many years. Throughout his parliamentary career he sought not only to serve his constituency but to represent the city as a whole. Another hon. Member who gave me some of his territory is my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Mr. Aspinwall). While I will do many things for my constituency, I will not parachute from an aeroplane.
My constituency has the rare distinction in the south and centre of England of not having a railway line. When the Serpell report is eventually debated I shall be able to take a neutral stance because my constituency does not have a railway line to be put at risk. However, it is situated close to the M4 and the M32. It is in the valley of high technology, and for that reason my constituents do not fear the Bill as do some in other parts of Britain.
My constituency, together with others surrounding Bristol and on the other side of the river Severn, has shown that substantial investment in high technology can produce the benefit of investment from both within and without. An example of new business that has been attracted to an area just outside my constituency, but from which my constituency will benefit, is Hewlett Packard. My constituency also provides a large proportion of the work forces at British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce. It knows well what high technology is all about and how the nation can benefit from the development of the telecommunications industry.
Although the constituency is based on the new high-technology industries, it is also a constituency of tradition and convention. It is made up of a series of small villages which have been merged. My constituents hold traditional values in relation to the family and the Church and I shall defend those values for as long as I represent my constituency, which I hope will be for a long time.
The Boundary Commission formed my constituency from parts of three former constituencies. Some of my constituents never know which constituency they will be in next. Every Boundary Commission report since the last war has moved part of the constituency into another constituency. One area has not had the opportunity of returning the same Member of Parliament at two successive general elections since 1959.
My constituents are not afraid of new developments in high technology and are positively willing to participate in them—for example, in British Aerospace and Hewlett Packard. It depresses me to hear discussions based on fear of the changes associated with the liberalisation and ultimately the denationalisation of British. Telecommunications in the Bill. Those changes provide opportunities in the telecommunications industry, and in the industries associated with supplying BT, for changing and updating.
The three major suppliers of BT have operated for too long as part of the monopoly and have lagged further and further behind in the development of technology, which is why Opposition Members today say that they are afraid of foreign competition. Businesses have failed to invest in new technology. Some businesses have taken the opportunity to invest in and improve their products over 87 the last few years. It is sad that Opposition Members are worried about protecting jobs created by industry and are not seizing the opportunity that the development associated with the telecommunications industry might provide to export to other parts of the world. That is where opportunities lie. If we develop our industry through competition, we shall have the opportunity of exporting. Over the last five or 10 years our record in competing with Ericsons in Sweden, with Siemens and with the French and the Americans, has been lamentable. I hope that the development achieved through the Bill will generate opportunities to export to other parts of the world.
I dislike the wording in clause 3, but shall not go into detail about it because it has been referred to at length on previous occasions, and I favour the strengthening of the wording in clause 17. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) commented at length on the dangers associated with cross-financing. Those dangers are not, as the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) pointed out, associated only with services for rural areas, but also with undermining competition. Oftel must consider that carefully and ensure that cross-financing does not put at risk services in rural areas or endanger competition.
I conclude on a personal note. I was very pleased when the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry spoke about the research and development financing intended to provide funds for the deaf and the blind. I have been blind and, therefore, take special interest in such research and development and the financing of it. I shall not allow the Minister, as I am sure other hon. Members will not, to reduce the level of financing and thereby denude the potential for research and development.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
This is a very large and important Bill, not just because of the huge sums involved—£15 billion of fixed public assets—but because, judging by the Conservative manifesto at the last election and by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's demands last week that the Government should sell off huge amounts of public assets in order to finance revenue expenditure, it is obviously to be the first of a series of Bills in this Parliament devoted to selling off public assets for that purpose. Therefore, it is perhaps worth scrutinising carefully how the Secretary of State set out and argued his case in his opening speech.
The Secretary of State started somewhat unhappily, in order to prove the new circumstances which demanded and led to his Bill, by rewriting history and saying that British Telecom, before 1981, was an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, inefficient organisation, and that suddenly, post-1981 and post-liberalisation, it became full of flair, profitability and efficiency. That was gratuitously insulting to BT staff and to the innovative work in telecommunications and technology that took place in the industry throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It was a very sad and unhappy start to the right hon. Gentleman's speech.
The Secretary of State went on to make a half-hearted case for increased accountability, saying that, by having shareholders, pension funds, British banks and foreign banks involved, BT would suddenly be made much more accountable. I do not believe that many hon. Members 88 would agree with him on that, because it will not be accountable to the public and certainly not to the employees in the industry.
In making his case about share owning, the Secretary of State tried to say that, because some shares would be offered to small shareholders and employees, that was a move in the right direction. As he knows only too well, that is complete nonsense. We have only to recall the industries that the previous Conservative Government sold off to recognise that the number of individual small shareholders who hold shares in the companies is infinitesimal. In a corporation of this size, the number of BT employees would probably not reach even 1 per cent. of the share capital, so it is specious and misleading for the Secretary of State to say that it is an attractive proposition.
The Secretary of State, unlike other hon. Members, did not explain how the flotation will take place. As the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said, it is probably the largest floating of public stock in our history. How is it to take place? Will it be on the London stock exchange? Will it happen all at once? Surely that is not possible. Will it happen over three or four years? Will it be sold off on the New York stock exchange or the Hong Kong stock exchange, so beloved of Conservative Members? How are the shares to be floated? We need to have the answers to those questions.
The Secretary of State accused Labour Members of scaremongering. He said that we were misleading the public on the pension rights of BT employees, but he admitted that new employees will not have the same rights as existing employees. It is surely a recipe for a demoralised work force when there are two separate and coexisting pension schemes. I asked the Secretary of State to explain how he could give an undertaking for the first day after BT was sold, and what would happen after that. His answer was naive. He said, in effect, "Everything will be all right. We do not mind what happens after that." But it is a crucial matter, because many of the subsidiaries of BT will be sold off in the ensuing months, and there is no guarantee whatever as to the pension rights of those people, whatever the Secretary of State says. He must come clean and explain what will happen about pension rights, because his answers on those points in his first statement were extremely unsatisfactory.
I suspect that it was a slip of the tongue when the Secretary of State said that Mercury would provide a service for all. When questioned, he quickly backpedalled and said that he meant to say that it would be a measuring stick and an experiment. Mercury will not be a national network. The Secretary of State knows that it will not and never will be. Is not the truth about the duopoly of Mercury and BT that the only people who will benefit will be shareholders in Mercury and some of the customers in metropolitan areas?
The Secretary of State then did a quick gallop through some of the problem social areas — to which I shall return—and ended his peroration by saying that the Bill will give new rights to customers and a bright future for employees. I doubt both of those forecasts. The Bill, in seeking to privatise British Telecom, will give the worst of all possible worlds. It will not end the monopoly, because that was to some extent ended by the British Telecommunications Act 1981. It will not release British Telecom from the influence or control of the Secretary of State, but it will take away real public accountability and 89 responsibility from the Secretary of State and, most crucially, from the House. In short, after the Bill is enacted, British Telecom will not be a proper private company and it will no longer provide a proper public service. The loser in this vicious circle will be the consumer — once more sacrificed to the thoughtless dogma of Conservative Members.
The Bill is not only wrong in denying and limiting public access to an accountable public telephone communications system but seriously less than competent in pursuing and enacting even its own very dubious ends. This incompetence, as hon. Members have said, stems from two omissions, only one of which has been mentioned during the debate—the lack of a licence—but most crucially the lack of a published memorandum and articles of association for the new company.
I welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that the licence will be published before the Committee stage, but will the articles of association be published? Although I am new to the House, I understand that the Government did much the same on Second Reading last time and, indeed, said the same thing four times in Committee. Why is the licence not published today? Like the hon. Member for Truro, I assume that the licence will be amendable and debatable, but, even so, our debate today is rendered almost meaningless without it. Whenever hon. Members have sought to scrutinise the clause to determine its exact meaning, to probe for a likely effect of what it will mean, the Bill falls apart in their hands. They find nothing. It is strange, to say the least, that the one chance the House has to debate the Bill in principle has to be taken in such inadequate and unsatisfactory circumstances.
In the absence of the licence, I join other hon. Members in asking the Secretary of State some crucial questions which I hope will be transferred to him when the Minister replies. How will the consumer's interest be protected by Oftel and the new Director General of Telecommunications under clauses 45 and 49? Why is the Post Office Users National Council being abolished rather than strengthened? How will the director general represent consumers and the company, police licences and advise the Minister? Clause 45 says that he will do thisso far as it appears to him practicable from time to time".With those split loyalties, I doubt whether it will be practicable for him very often. Where shall we find this paragon of virtue, this Solomon who will deal with these different, conflicting interests? Surely the Government do not intend Mr. MacGregor to take on this task as well.
In clause 3, how will British Telecom ensure equality of service and equality of costs to rural areas? Many Members have asked this question but have not received a reasonable answer because clause 3 is so open to interpretation. Such services do cost more. Will rural subscribers have to pay more? To what extent will British Telecom cross-subsidise to protect minority rural interests? If not at all, it will be grossly unfair. If considerably, what is the purpose of privatisation? How will the director general regulate profits?
The Secretary of State says that it is all in the Bill. I can find nothing in the Bill that adequately reflects the concern of the Littlechild report and its recommendation for the RPI minus x formula. Presumably, this will be covered by the licence, but we shall have to wait until October to see that.
Apart from those questions, I should like briefly to consider two specific areas — telephone boxes and 90 trainee technician apprentices. There are 77,000 telephone boxes in the United Kingdom, which lose £75 million a year. Each one has to take £2,000 a year to break even. A privatised British Telecom seeking profit for shareholders will not want to lose money in that way, much less invest in telephone boxes that have been vandalised. How many will go, and which? Presumably not those in main-line stations and airports. Those on council estates and in deprived inner city areas, just the areas which need them most, will go. Will the Minister explain exactly what the policy on that will be?
Will he also say what the effect of privatisation will be on trainee technician apprentices? Each TTA costs BT £20,000 to train. Since 1981 — since the threat of privatisation and a squeeze on staff — the number of TTAs has been run down and, when qualified, they have not been used properly. In my area of Stoke-on-Trent, TO work can be found for only two of the 24 TTAs who have qualified this year. Those trainees represent £480,000 of training investment, yet at present four of them are working in the stores, two are cleaning up and nine are unplaced. What a waste of investment and skill. Presumably that is a foretaste of what a privatised BT will be like. The conclusion will be drawn that technician apprentices need not be trained and the organisation need have no responsibility for the future skills of the industry.
The Bill is wrong because BT is a basic public utility, an organisation which involves the freedom of speech and communication. It cannot just be sold off without constraint. That is the weakness at the heart of the Bill and its fundamental paradox. The Government know it, and many Conservative Members know it.
Before proceeding, I must apologise to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward). Being new to the House, I was not expecting so soon to have to congratulate another new hon. Member on making his maiden speech. I congratulate him on his lucid and interesting speech. In his concern for the disabled, bearing in mind his medical history, he recognises that there are problems of social responsibility in what we are debating. His speech did him great credit and showed that he will bring a genuine feeling of social concern to his future contributions, to which I look forward.
The hon. Member for Kingswood illustrated the fundamental weakness and paradox at the heart of the Bill. The Government have been reluctant to publish the licence, which is crucial to our consideration of the measure, because without it we can only say what is likely to happen. It is likely that the public will pay larger telephone bills for a worse service, that rural areas will suffer, that the number of telephone boxes will decline, that directory inquiries will cost more, that jobs will go abroad, that BT employees' pensions will suffer, that investment in training and new technology will decline and that we will buy technical innovation from abroad because, for a privatised company, it is cheaper like that in the short run.
In 1911, when a public nationalised telephone system was introduced in the House—almost 72 years to the day — on Second Reading, Herbert Samuel, the then Postmaster-General, said:The Post Office telephone service is a public service for the use of the community … there are many conditions which apply to a public service which could not apply to a service worked by a company for private profit. I certainly should not be prepared to ask the House to depart by legislation … from 91 the policy which has been adopted … with the approval, I may add, of both sides of the House."—[Official Report, 14 July 1911; Vol. XXVIII, c. 643.]Where are those fine aspirations on the Conservative Benches today? Where is the concern that was shown for the people?
The Opposition will oppose the Bill in every way possible in every clause. The Government may force the vote and impose the guillotine, but they will lose the argument. Indeed, it is clear from today's debate that they have already lost it. Certain aspects we can and will amend in Committee. Those arguments we will prosecute vigorously then, so that Ministers will have to be better prepared than they appear to be today.
We will not be able to change the principle of the Bill. That principle is that, for short-term financial expediency, the Government are prepared to sell off the huge public assets of a public utility that is fundamental to free speech and communication. We in the Labour party do not believe that is right, and we shall expose both the folly and incompetence of that in every way open to us.
§ Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)
It has been obvious that for many hon. Members tonight's discussion is a rerun of an almost familiar classic, albiet with some of the leading cast in new roles. For me it is rather different. I was not in this place on 29 November 1982 for the Second Reading of the previous Telecommunications Bill and I was not here for the detailed debates which took place in Committee.
My experience of the telecommunications industry, as a business man and a private individual, seems to be very different from that of many Opposition Members. It is from that experience that I derive my commitment to replace the monopoly that British Telecom has endured with competitive private enterprise. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) spoke about charges being made for telephone numbers to be supplied in Chile. That seems to be the reality of the black market experience of far too many of my business colleagues.
The new constituency of Stirling, which I have the honour to represent, is not entirely unknown to the House. Its district council affairs have had to be debated in this place in the past, and I regret that they will have to be discussed once again on Thursday. It is a constituency of great contrasts — and I do not refer to the obvious contrast of a Conservative Member representing an area which has one of Scotland's most Left-wing and extravagant councils.
The constituency stretches from the north at Collin and Tyndrum and Strathblane in the south, and from the tidal reaches of the Forth to the bonny banks of Loch Lomond, an area of about 800 square miles. It includes the university town and commercial centre of historic Stirling and the old boroughs of Callendar, Dunblane, and Bridge of Allan. From the great rural areas drawn from the former counties of Stirling and Perth, I have a constituency of outstanding natural beauty in which tourism, agriculture, commerce and new high technology-based industries are playing an increasing role. In short, it is a constituency which provides exactly that range of demands which the new private enterprise British Telecom will have to meet. It is a constituency in which industry and commerce 92 require effective speech and telex communications with Europe and the rest of the world and within the United Kingdom, as well as data handling and processing.
A rural area needs effective communications to minimise its isolation, and services that are needed especially in emergencies. Despite the smears and innuendos of the Bill's opponents, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will ensure that in bringing private enterprise into the communications network he will make provision for meeting social costs within the licensing requirements and the fears that have been expressed about call boxes and the cost of connection in rural areas.
It is because I believe that private enterprise will more effectively meet those demands in my constituency that I speak enthusiastically in favour of the Bill. The arguments do not need to be repeated and I suspect that if they were I should be called out of order. Private enterprise brings a force to bear on companies through competition that makes them more efficient and keeps prices down. Competition, not private enterprise, is at the heart of the debate. I hope that the many speeches which have been made will alert the Minister to the grave dangers of substituting a public monopoly with a private one.
The Government's decision during the last Parliament to license Mercury showed their commitment to competition, as do the provisions of part II of the Bill for further licensing, provided those powers are used imaginatively to create the maximum possible innovative competition and not to restrict it, as has been so often the case. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the commitment not to issue licences that was made on Second Reading of the previous Telecommunications Bill during the last Parliament. I hope that more licences will be issued and that that commitment will be withdrawn.
As part V of the Bill now stands, British Telecom will be transformed lock, stock and barrel into one company with a dominant position. If it had arisen in any other way, it would almost certainly have attracted the unfavourable attention of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I wonder whether, even if we proceed along the lines that have been suggested, it might not create a difficulty with our obligations under the treaty of Rome. The City editor of the Daily Mail asked on 23 June:Would it be any less of a monopoly because half the shares had been sold? Do we have to keep British Telecom in its present shape and size?He is not alone in asking such questions.
Some people have suggested the organisation of local services into separate locally owned companies working within the national network. An example that is often quoted is the municipal service in Hull. Others have suggested hiving off the specialist services which make up British Telecom enterprises. I ask the Government —clearly this is not the place to discuss detailed provisions —to consider part V carefully before British Telecom is brought to the market. The experience in the United States, with the break-up of the AT and T empire and the reorganisation of the Bell telephone network, might provide useful evidence.
So far we have considered only the benefits of competition as they affect the consumer, but British Telecom is also virtually a monopoly buyer of telecommunications equipment. In the past, this has led, to put it mildly, to unhappy relations with suppliers, or at least would-be suppliers. This could easily recur if the enterprise and innovation which is important to these 93 support services were stifled in favour of company-inspired regulation and conformity. Only with a wider range of purchasers for products will telecommunications manufacturers be encouraged to recapture their share of overseas markets.
I add only a few words, lest it be thought that I have forgotten my traditional duty as a new Member to pay tribute to my predecessors. My constituency is carved out of three long-standing ones, all of which have disappeared. All the previous Members, such is their quality — the hon. Members for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn)— have returned to the House to play a full and prominent part. Therefore, it would be redundant of me to sing their praises.
§ Mr. Forsyth
Their performance is a testimony to that. I look forward to matching their records in dealing with constituency matters in the years to come.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
We could all be forgiven if, during the debate, we thought that we were experiencing a problem suffered by the BBC and ITV at this time of the year—too many old movies. The debate has had many of the speakers on the previous Bill, both on the Opposition and Government side, but it has been leavened by a significant number of maiden speakers on the Conservative Benches. When I realised there were so many, I became worried because I thought that I would not have sufficient opportunity to attack and criticise what had been said by Conservative Members. I reflected upon the Secretary of State's speech and felt then that I was safe, for the duration of my comments at least.
The hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone), Rochford (Dr. Clark), Swindon (Mr. Coombs), Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) and Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) addressed the House with fluency, strength and confidence. I am s ire that I did not reflect such qualities when I made my maiden speech in 1970. They all made an impressive first contribution to the proceedings of the House. I look forward to hearing them again throughout their parliamentary careers, although I cannot wish them long parliamentary careers.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South comes from the granite city and showed a touch of internal granite, a certain strength, which can come only from fighting five constituencies. I compliment him on what he said.
The points made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen fit what the Opposition regard as the broad arguments about the privatisation of British Telecom. Those arguments have not been particularly well advanced or sustained by Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said that almost everyone had entered some qualification or caveat to their welcome to the Bill. The hon. Member for Stirling is perhaps an exception to that, but I believe that he is the only one.
Arguments have been advanced that, by definition, the private sector will be more effective, and more profitable; it will give consumers a better choice; it will prove more effective in introducing new technology; and by returning shares to individuals, the spread of ownership will be wide. Throughout all those arguments, the Government 94 did not put forward the vestige of an argument showing that there was a need for an industrial strategy for information technology and telecommunications. There have been no arguments about the massive opportunities presented to us as a nation, which we have the duty and responsibility to grasp, push forward, develop and benefit from in the national interest.
On the contrary, it was argued that all these matters, important as they might be, are best left to the private sector to determine and in the end it will all come out right. In general, those arguments are simply the empty rhetoric that each age-old Tory has produced in his attack on the public sector. They have no relevance to BT, its record and the future of this important industry. The Thatcher Government have mounted a vicious attack on public sector industries and services throughout their time in office and intend, apparently, to continue to do so.
I and my right hon. and hon. Friends say that the criticisms that we have heard from Government supporters this evening do not stand up to the test. Far from crowding out the private sector, the public sector has been one of its major customers. The public sector has bought about £13 billion worth of manufactured goods each year from the private sector and has made massive investments in the private sector manufacturing industry. The cuts in Government expenditure and changes in Government policy that have produced a fall in manufacturing output of 20 per cent. since the Government came into office have done far more damage to the private sector than anything that the nationalised industries have done.
The nationalised industries are and have been subject to regular programmes of investigation and scrutiny by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and every big nationalised industry has its consumer watchdog, which in the case of BT is the Post Office Users National Council. By definition, private companies are not accountable, and are not subject to checks and balances or to the scrutiny of Select Committees as our public sector industries have always been.
The Secretary of State argued that privatisation would spread share ownership, and I believe that he quoted Amersham International. Some 50 million shares at £1.42 each were sold and, as the price of each share soared to £1.90, many shareholders immediately made a quick killing, selling their shares to the big institutions. Now, over 70 per cent. of those shares are owned by big institutions and individuals, and the story is the same in British Aerospace.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I shall not give way, especially as the hon. Gentleman has not been here for the debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) pointed out, the argument that privatisation returns control of the industry to the public is not borne out by what has happened over the past few years.
§ Mr. Parkinson
I did not mention Amersham International. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to talk about the National Freight Corporation and what has happened in it, and how many people there have held on to their shares. I did not mention the company about which he spoke, so perhaps he could comment on the one that I talked about, where over 10,000 employees now have shares in the business.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I do not deny that employees have bought and hold shares, and it is the same in British Aerospace. However, the Secretary of State's follow-up argument, that that gives these people control or say in these industries, is a fallacy. They own only a tiny percentage of the shares, and that is what is false about his argument. What is more, in almost all cases, they own a declining percentage of the shares.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I shall not give way.
Far from helping the key industries, privatisation has disrupted development plans in many key industrial sectors and now threatens the major development plans under way in BT.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I am not giving way. The hon. Gentleman has been absent throughout the debate. He has not been here most of the time that I have been here.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I regard the behaviour of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) as an abuse of the House.
§ Dr. Cunningham
On the contrary, whatever I may get rattled about, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not about him.
The Bill was hammered in a leader in The Times today, which said:This bill gives a totally inadequate idea of how competition can be genuinely encouraged in the field of telecommunications and how such a vast company as the privatised British Telecom could be controlled.That sums up in a nutshell what the hon. Member for Aldridge —Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said today and throughout the deliberations on the previous Bill. A similar argument was made by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), and it is in an argument with which we agree.
The effect of the Bill is to create a private monopoly out of a public monopoly. That may not be the Government's intention, but that is what will happen. We do not have to look far for other distinguished critics. Lord Weinstock said:I am not clear what point there is in privatising a company which is by its nature a monopoly. I don't see how you can have anything other than a monopoly running a national communication service.The criticisms are not isolated. They have been made from both sides of the House and are widespread in the private sector.
The comments of Conservative Members about the performance of public industry have hinged around their argument that, however good that performance, the private sector, by definition, is better. Such comments are usually based on invalid comparisons. The public sector has different goals, duties and responsibilities from the private sector.
Let us take the example of productivity. Recently, it has been much higher in many public sector industries than in the private manufacturing sector. The Blue Book shows that output per worker was 20 to 50 per cent. higher in 96 public corporations than in private sector companies during the 1970s and was 30 per cent. higher in 1981. That is another argument that refutes some of the assertions of Conservative Members.
I shall take up some of the questions that have been asked in the debate and I hope that the Minister for Information Technology will answer them. A number of hon. Members asked about provision for disabled people. In Committee on the previous Bill, the Minister for Information Technology assured us that consideration would be given to the provision of inductive coupling for the hard of hearing. We were told that meetings would be arranged. What is happening about that? What is the Government's present view and what decisions have been taken? The hon. Member for Kingswood and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) mentioned that subject, which is of pressing importance to the disabled.
The Secretary of State talked about Mercury offering choice for all. That was a fundamental error. He may have been displaying a misunderstanding of what is happening, but his claim was wrong. Mercury does not aim to provide a national network. It is an exercise in creaming off the traffic from the profitable routes and leaving the less profitable areas, the rural areas—the services that lose money—to the tender mercies of BT. The major quango that the Government are creating—Oftel—will have as one of its functions the responsibility to force companies to act commercially. To see that they act commercially, there will be unenviable pressure on the loss-making services, as many hon. Members said. The likelihood is that there will be threats to existing services and increasing costs to consumers who enjoy—if that is the right word —those services. There is likely to be a dual standard in the level and provision of services in different parts of the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) said that it was a good target to have a telephone in every house. I have sometimes thought that it would be nice to have a house without a telephone. No doubt Conservative Members will share my view on that. The Government are about to make that more of a possibility, because people will not be able to afford telephones, as has already happened in a celebrated case in my constituency, which was discussed on the previous Bill. No doubt that example will be duplicated in rural areas, where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and the hon. Member for Truro said, not only for the cost of provision of telephones — my constituent was quoted £5,000 for the provision of a telephone—but for the maintenance and repair — the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) made the same point—we have no guarantees or assurances. There is nothing about who will pay for the repairs of damaged lines as a result of storms and bad weather. We do not know what will be the formula for calculating the cost of such bills regardless of who has to pay them.
It has been argued widely on the Government Benches that BT as a corporation has a bad record. The reverse is the truth. BT has a good record. As a public corporation, it has not only improved services, operated profitably and increased available services, but it has done so with little increase in the number of people employed. The profitability record of BT compares favourably with that of any private sector organisation. As a publicly owned 97 corporation, it has been fully accountable to the community for its activities. The public have statutory rights to consumer watchdogs.
I am not convinced that the Director General of Telecommunications and Oftel, which is almost certain to be based in London and is unlikely to have regional arms, as POUNC did, will be anything like an effective substitute. The reality is that Oftel and the director general will have to act as gamekeeper and poacher. The director general will have to oversee competition and the introduction of more competition. At the same time, he will have the remit to protect the interests of the consumer. Those two things are in direct and fundamental conflict.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I must tell the Secretary of State that many consumers and small business men will not see those two things as the same.
One of the myths that things are better and different elsewhere is barely substantiated. In the Federal Republic of Germany, telecommunications are organised as a monopoly with no private element. Proposals for privatisation are not expected to be introduced there. The service will remain as a major monopoly covering the whole country. The same is true of France. Telecommunications is organised as a public corporation with a director general responsible to the Government and Parliament.
France's telecommunications industry is a success. From being last among the developed nations seven years ago, it is now in the same league as the world's other major industrial economies. That is no accident, because successive Administrations in France have pursued a strategy for investment in the industry which has led directly to that success. Even now in Japan NTT is a public corporation monopoly. Although there are discussions about privatisation, the Government intend to maintain in 100 per cent. Government control the key core element of the telecommunications system in Japan.
It is only in the United States of America, purely on the basis of anti-trust law operation against AT and T, that anything remotely like what is proposed here is taking place, and, far from it bringing benefits to rural consumers, the reverse is true.
The reality is that BT's record compares at least as favourably as AT and T's. But the irony of the argument of Government supporters about private industry in America is that it is the biggest monopoly telecommunications operation in the world. It has succeeded on the basis of the policies being pursued by BT and it has succeeded as a total and absolute monopoly.
People in the Congress concerned about the potential breakdown in the national telecommunications network and about the possibility of rising prices in rural areas are asking whether they are going along the right road. The 43rd report by the committee on Government operations in 1982 raises some of the difficulties resulting from the break-up of the monopoly of the telecommunications industry in the United States of America.
As recently as last week, the New York Times was pointing out that arguments in the court were still going on and that a federal judge said that he would give final approval to the break-up proceedings only if there were guarantees that protected services to rural communities in the United States of America. It is taking the courts in 98 America to ensure that rural consumers are given the same level of service as elsewhere, and we are likely to see similar battles here if these proposals go ahead.
Hon. Members who have participated in this debate have, with varying degrees of support for the Bill, addressed themselves to all these issues. I would have been most unhappy to be in the position of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or his hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology, first announcing what was their most important and likely to be their major industrial measure in this Parliament—they made a similar claim in the last Parliament — and then hearing a long succession of my hon. Friends criticising in depth and at length major aspects of their proposals. That is what has been happening throughout the afternoon, and it is not surprising.
I said just now that BT's record compared well with anyone's anywhere. Its prices have been falling in real terms over the past 10 years, and recent price increases have reflected this Government's pricing policy. We believe that the end of cross-subsidisation means that residential consumers will again be badly hit. By international standards BT's prices are also very reasonable. Privatisation will put up prices to the residential consumer and will probably end standard pricing throughout the United Kingdom. Local low users of telephones will be threatened. In America, and, to give a further international comparison, in Australia, resistance is growing rapidly to the ending of cross-subsidisation to help domestic consumers in particular.
Of all the arguments that have been adduced in support of the Bill perhaps the one which shows the greatest hypocrisy is that in relation to the financing of BT. Labour Members have heard lectures ad nauseam from the Prime Minister about the evils of borrowing, about living within one's means and about running a business like a family budget. Now we are told that one of the most important arguments for privatising one of our key industrial corporations is to set it free so that it can borrow more. There can be no greater hypocrisy by the Government than to advance that argument in favour of the Bill.
In an intervention, the Minister said that it was impossible to allow BT to borrow more simply by taking it out of the PSBR. He must have forgotten the previous Government's experience with the British National Oil Corporation and the Central Electricity Generating Board, both of which were able to borrow money on the open market. BNOC was given a triple-A rating on the New York money market. BT has assets three times as large as those of BNOC. There is no evidence to suggest that BT would be unable to borrow adequate finances for its development outside the PSBR.
I said at the opening of my remarks that there was no vestige of a national strategy in anything that the Secretary of State had to say to the House today. Conservative Members have tried but failed to justify their dogma with bogus claims about the superiority of the private sector At best that is a self-deception and at worst it is a feeble attempt to justify the unjustifiable.
On Second Reading in the previous Parliament on 29 November 1982 the Minister, who is now the Secretary of State for the Environment, questioned the strength of Labour feelings on, and the opposition to, the Bill. He and his hon. Friends lived to regret those remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme said that he 99 hoped that the Opposition Front Bench would show the same determination, ingenuity and energy in opposing the Bill as we did then. I assure him that we shall.
Conservative Members who smile now about the prospect of the Bill going into Committee may live, like their right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, to regret it. We shall apply every Opposition tactic in our power to prevent it reaching the statute book.
§ The Minister for Information Technology (Mr. Kenneth Baker)
There were several occasions during the debate when I had the feeling that I had been here before. On hearing the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) I felt that we could have opened our speeches tonight with the words, "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted."
The Bill's journey has been long and we are setting out on the journey again. On this occasion we heard many new voices. I congratulate all the hon. Members who spoke for the first time today. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) reminded us that he had fought five elections before getting here. During those elections, two opponents were leaders of other parties. One has resigned his leadership and the other is now in limbo. Some Opposition Members must therefore be pleased that my hon. Friend has found a safe berth.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South, succeeds our old colleague Iain Sproat, who is much missed in the House. [Interruption.] He is missed more by some than by others, but the House is the poorer for the lack of his vivid and lively personality. I know that I speak for all my right hon. and hon. Friends when I say that I hope that he comes back to the House soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), who paid a generous tribute to David Stoddart, told the House that he worked for British Telecom as a sales executive. I welcome his presence on our Benches. Several Opposition Members spent their working lives in telecommunications before coming to the House, and I welcome the appearance of one of BT's managers. The last time that Swindon was represented by a Conservative, we did not hold the seat for long. Having heard my hon. Friend's speech, I know that he will be with us for a long time.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) who spoke about his constituency and of the previous Members who represented the new constituency. As one is our Chief Whip, to whom my hon. Friend paid generous tribute, I think that his political future is assured. My hon. Friend wanted further assurances about the emergency services, with which I shall deal later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), who paid a generous tribute to Ann Taylor, spoke with practical experience of small business men. He was keen to ensure that, whatever arrangements are made for telecommunications, the services for the small business man are looked after. I suspect that his business is not too small since he said that his telephone bill was in six figures. None the less, my hon. Friend said strongly that choice was the key. He stressed the importance of choice in equipment and service which competition, liberalisation and privatisation will provide.
100 My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) paid tribute to the two former Members who formerly represented his new constituency — Mr. Wedgwood Benn and Mr. Arthur Palmer. He said that his seat is in part of the United Kingdom's silicon valley, the electronics industry's belt, which stretches from the west of London along the M4, over the Bristol channel and into south Wales. He recognised the opportunity not only in telecommunications but in the whole area of information technology. Collectively it is the fastest growing area of economic activity in Britain. If those industries do not grow, the prospects are bleak. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood also said that he had been blind. I shall say something later about the assistance that the Bill will give to disabled people.
I am particularly glad to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) because he has been the councillor for the ward in Pimlico in which I live. He has brought great blessings to Pimlico and I am sure that he will bring great blessings to Stirling. He spoke as a business man. He said that he wanted an assurance that the social costs of telecommunications will be met, not sacrificed, by our proposals.
Reference to the disabled was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood and by the hon. Member for Copeland. I believe that they were satisfied by my right hon. Friend's replies about the assistance for the blind given in clause 81. Grants will be provided—paid for by the Government—to modify the new equipment to enable blind operators to use it. This is necessary because the new digital and electronic equipment will not incorporate the gadgets that at present enable blind operators to use telephone equipment.
The organisations representing the deaf want what are called acoustic couplers to be fitted compulsorily to the new telephones. Because of technical advances, modern telephones do not generate stray magnetism, and it would be cumbersome to fit special apparatus to generate such magnetism. There are alternatives to acoustic couplers, one of them being a lightweight attachment which a hearing-impaired person could carry in his pocket and which would clip on to the earpiece of any telephone.
Frankly, we do not know the correct way forward, but we are determined to look after the interests of those who have a hearing impairment. Officials in my Department will shortly meet the Royal National Institute for the Deaf to explore the issues. My officials will suggest a research project to be funded by the Department to identify the options and the best way forward. We want the best expert advice on this question, including, of course, the advice of the RNID, just as we need the advice of the manufacturers. We want to find a satisfactory solution.
The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) asked whether the rural and emergency services would be damaged or impaired when BT became private. For the first time in any statute we have placed an obligation on the Secretary of State and the director general of Oftel to take account of the needs of specific interests — the disabled, rural and remote areas, the provision of telephone kiosks and emergency services. That appears in clause 3. In existing legislation, how and where services were provided was for BT's judgment alone. We have now 101 placed obligations and duties upon the Secretary of State and the director general which they will be obliged to fulfil.
We have also said that people who have a telephone service now will continue to have one — provided, of course, that they pay for it. We have extended that to cover a range of telecommunications services. We have given clear assurances that the network of telephone kiosks will be retained.
The right hon. Member for Western Isles made the legitimate point that the existence of a telephone kiosk is important for many remote communities. If the House rises on the day that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has suggested, I hope to be on holiday with my family in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency in a fortnight's time. There are some very remote areas in that constituency, and the traveller — as well as the local community — is comforted to know that a telephone kiosk is there in case he breaks down or gets lost.—[Interruption.] I can think of no constituency in which I would prefer to get lost than the right hon. Gentleman's. I am not persuaded by the argument that in assessing whether a telephone kiosk should remain open, one should just consider its takings. Many people use the kiosks to make reverse charge calls therefore, I hope that I have reassured those hon. Members who expressed anxiety about that.
I should remind the House that the Bill makes substantial improvements in the protection of consumer interests.
§ Mr. Baker
The hon. Member for Copeland had a constituent who wanted a telephone in a remote area, for which the charge was £5,000. At present that disgruntled consumer can only go to his Member of Parliament or to POUNC. In that particular case, neither the Member of Parliament nor POUNC could do anything. I think that the hon. Gentleman's constituent moved before the telephone was put in, but in future anyone who is so disgruntled will be able to appeal to the director general of Oftel who can consider the complaint and assess whether the charge is reasonable. He could take alternative quotes and if he found a cheaper quote he could instruct that the service should be provided at the lower cost.
This Bill generally increases substantially the interests of the consumer—[Interruption.] The director general will have powers of direction, so when consumers complain he will be able to issue directions to either BT or one of the other telecommunications operators to put right the error. No other consumer body in the country has that power and authority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) asked me a technical question that greatly concerned him during the previous Committee stage, concerning the enforceability of licences of prejudiced competitors by action in damages. The Bill, as reintroduced, now explicitly provides in clause 17(4) that a breach of a licence enforcement order is actionable by any person who may be affected by the contravention or by an action for breach of statutory duty.
One question that has been raised several times tonight concerns the difference between liberalisation and 102 competition on the one hand and privatisation on the other. It has been asked why we should convert a public monopoly into a private monopoly. Over the past two years we have, of course, considered the matter carefully. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the reasons that led us to reject the arguments for a break-up. BT has been developed over 70 years as a single integrated telecommunications network, which cannot be divided up in any meaningful way. To insist on a break-up would certainly set back the Government's policy for the flotation. It may not necessarily affect the amount that we would expect for flotation, but it would certainly seriously affect the timetable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) suggested that it would be sensible to retain BT Enterprises — the apparatus company — in the public sector under state control, but to sell off the network. Others have suggested the reverse. They have suggested that we should float BT Enterprises, but keep the network under state monopoly.
§ Mr. Baker
I appreciate that point. However, many suggestions have been made as to how BT could be carved up if it were to be carved up—[Interruption.] However, I have already said that it is the Government's policy not to do that. BT has been developed as an integrated operation for the past 70 years. The argument about dividing BT rests upon the extent of competition that it already faces. Those who argue for a splitting up of BT underestimate that competition.
It is not only Mercury that is being given a licence. There has been some comment and criticsm about that company during the debate, yet it has already undertaken £50 million of investment—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may sneer, but it announced further orders today for £8 million of fibre optic cable. All the orders will go to British companies. GEC will have the order for 190 km from London to Bristol, which means jobs in Leyton and Coventry; BICC will have the order for 510 km from London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, which means jobs on Deeside and Merseyside; and Plessey will have the opto-electronic equipment subcontract, which means jobs in Beeston in Nottinghamshire. Those jobs would not have been created without Mercury.
I am glad to calm some of the anxieties of Opposition Members that the new liberalised-privatised era will mean jobs in America or Japan. That is not the case, and I have proved with solid evidence that jobs will be created in Britain.
§ Mr. Baker
I shall not give way to an hon. Member who has not attended the debate.
Many others beside Mercury have been given opportunities. We have given two licences for the radio cellular network and it is estimated that that will create 10,000 jobs by 1990. We shall be granting 12 cable licences later this year and many hundreds during the next two or three years. Those licences will be for alternative telecommunications networks. That is additional competition.
103 Several hon. Members have shown impatience at the speed at which competition is being generated. They are no more impatient that I am. Since 1980 we have been pushing for more and more competition in, for example, apparatus. Some 150 items of apparatus have been approved and are offered for sale. They can be made by individual manufacturers and sold direct to the public. Whole areas of activity have been taken out of monopoly supply—for example, telex printers. My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North asked me about apparatus. He is involved with a company that will be a direct beneficiary of the programme. Since we have liberalised telex machines, prices have come down by 30 per cent. to 40 per cent., and there is a greater choice.
The Bill will fulfil our main objective, which is the provision of up-to-date, efficient and cheap telecommunications. That can be achieved only in a competitive market — not one dominated by state monopoly. The Bill will help to create such a market. It will allow us to end the prime instrument monopoly of BT. It is in the long-term interest of BT, its employees, it customers and all who work in the telecommunications industry.
There has been talk tonight to the effect that we are selling a public asset for private profit. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] I have a good gallery tonight. Such a concept is absurd. BT will remain a national asset. It will not be any less a national asset because it is widely owned rather than being narrowly owned. Instead of one shareholder—the state—there will be tens of thousands of shareholder—members of the public. Its effective ownership will become broader, not narrower. Control is better exercised by people holding shares in BT than by politicians or bureaucrats.
The Bill completes the revolution in telecommunications which was started in July 1980. The revolution aimed to liberalise the British telecommunications market and to free the monopoly control. Opposition Members who continue to argue for monopoly control argue for exclusive privilege, and they must justify that. If there has to be monopoly control and exclusive privilege — public control—why has the BT market done so badly over the past 25 years? Twenty five years ago, British companies provided 25 per cent. of the world's telecommunications equipment; now we provide about 5 per cent. One reason is that the arrangements between BT and its suppliers were too cosy, and the monopoly stifled competition and originality. The Government have decided to end that.
I turn now to the unions that work in BT. It is unfair to exclude market entry from other workers, unions and enterprises, all of whom are capable of exploiting the new technology to serve the community better. Those who wish to retain BT's monopoly must persuade the House and the country that it is better to retain BT's exclusive privilege, and the exclusive privilege of the Post Office Engineering Union, and, to a lesser extent, the Union of Communication Workers, to be the only workers privileged to work in BT. The Government find that concept unacceptable. We want to create opportunities for more workers to work in BT and telecommunications generally. As several of my hon. Friends said, the job opportunities that will flow from our proposals will be greater than those under the present arrangement.
104 I have dealt with the benefits to domestic industry. Already British companies are coming forward with new equipment which would not have been designed, made or developed, were it not for the Bill.
Although the spokesman for the Liberal-SDP alliance, the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth), contributed to the debate, we are no clearer about his party's policy. Its manifesto had exactly 49 words about innovation and technology, and, search as I might, I could find nothing else about it. Forty-nine words do not add up to a policy. They form a mere whisper and today we have had only a repeat of that whisper.
The spokesman for the Liberal party, the hon. Member for Truro, set out the party's policy, which, apart from defending the rural areas, was against the Bill. In the past, the Liberal party has been in favour of wider share ownership. Tonight, Liberal Members have an opportunity to vote for a Bill that will widen share ownership considerably. As is so often the case, the Liberal party is in favour of things in theory, but when it comes to reality it baulks, and tonight it appears that it will once again reject a great opportunity.
The Labour party's view is clear. The BT monopoly must be retained, cable must be thrown in for good measure and Mercury must be nationalised. The one small snag about that policy is that the country dislikes it, does not want it and has rejected it. The Labour party has not noticed that. It has stumbled upon the truth and picked itself up as if nothing has happened. The Labour party is regrouping on the battlefield where it has just been decisively defeated. Its weapons are the same and the issues are the same. The banners under which it marches, state monopoly and nationalisation, will be the same and the defeat will be the same.
The market and the opportunity are so great that we must seize them. The market can develop to the benefit of Britain as a whole only if it is driven forward by the forces of competition, and not dominated, destroyed and stultified by monopoly.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 356, Noes 219.108
|Division No. 25]||[10.00 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Body, Richard|
|Alexander, Richard||Bonsor, Sir Nicholas|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Bottomley, Peter|
|Ancram, Michael||Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)|
|Arnold, Tom||Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)|
|Ashby, David||Boyson, Dr Rhodes|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Braine, Sir Bernard|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (S'thorne)||Brandon-Bravo, Martin|
|Atkins Robert (South Ribble)||Bright, Graham|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Brinton, Tim|
|Baker, Kenneth (Mole Valley)||Brittan, Rt Hon Leon|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Brooke, Hon Peter|
|Baldry, Anthony||Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Browne, John|
|Batiste, Spencer||Bruinvels, Peter|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Bryan, Sir Paul|
|Bellingham, Henry||Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.|
|Bendall, Vivian||Buck, Sir Antony|
|Benyon, William||Budgen, Nick|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Bulmer, Esmond|
|Best, Keith||Burt, Alistair|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Butcher, John|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Butterfill, John|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Carlisle, John (N Luton)|
|Blackburn, John||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Peter||Carttiss, Michael|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)|
|Chope, Christopher||Hawksley, Warren|
|Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)||Hayes, J.|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Hayhoe, Barney|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hayward, Robert|
|Clarke Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Heath, Rt Hon Edward|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Cockeram, Eric||Heddle, John|
|Colvin, Michael||Henderson, Barry|
|Conway, Derek||Heseltine, Ht Hon Michael|
|Coombs, Simon||Hickmet, Richard|
|Cope, John||Hicks, Robert|
|Cormack, Patrick||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Corrie, John||Hill, James|
|Couchman, James||Hirst, Michael|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Critchley, Julian||Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)|
|Crouch, David||Holt, Richard|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Hooson, Tom|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Hordern, Peter|
|Dicks, T.||Howard, Michael|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Dover, Denshore||Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)|
|Dunn, Robert||Hubbard-Miles, Peter|
|Durant, Tony||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Dykes, Hugh||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||Hunter, Andrew|
|Eggar, Tim||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Irving, Charles|
|Evennett, David||Jackson, Robert|
|Eyre, Reginald||Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Jessel, Toby|
|Fallon, Michael||Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Farr, John||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Favell, Anthony||Jones, Robert (W Herts)|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine|
|Fletcher, Alexander||Kershaw, Sir Anthony|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Key, Robert|
|Forman, Nigel||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Forth, Eric||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Fox, Marcus||Knowles, Michael|
|Franks, Cecil||Knox, David|
|Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh||Lang, Ian|
|Freeman, Roger||Latham, Michael|
|Fry, Peter||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Gale, Roger||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Galley, Roy||Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Lee, John (pendle)|
|Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Lester, Jim|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Lightbown, David|
|Gorst, John||Lilley, Peter|
|Gow, Ian||Lloyd, Ian (Havant)|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)|
|Grant, Sir Anthony||Lord, Michael|
|Greenway, Harry||Luce, Richard|
|Gregory, Conal||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)||McCrindle, Robert|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Grist, Ian||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Ground, Patrick||MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)|
|Grylls, Michael||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Gummer, John Selwyn||Macmillan, Rt Hon M.|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||McQuarrie, Albert|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Major, John|
|Hannam, John||Malins, Humfrey|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Malone, Gerald|
|Harris, David||Maples, John|
|Harvey, Robert||Marland, Paul|
|Marlow, Antony||Shersby, Michael|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Silvester, Fred|
|Mates, Michael||Sims, Roger|
|Maude, Francis||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Mayhew, Sir Patrick||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Mellor, David||Speed, Keith|
|Merchant, Piers||Speller, Tony|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Spence, John|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Spencer, D.|
|Mills, Iain (Meriden)||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)|
|Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Miscampbell, Norman||Squire, Robin|
|Mitchell, David (NW Hants)||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Moate, Roger||Stanley, John|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Steen, Anthony|
|Montgomery, Fergus||Stern, Michael|
|Moore, John||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)||Stevens, Martin (Fulham)|
|Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)||Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)|
|Moynihan, Hon C.||Stokes, John|
|Mudd, David||Sumberg, David|
|Murphy, Christopher||Tapsell, Peter|
|Neale, Gerrard||Taylor, John (Solihull)|
|Needham, Richard||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Nelson, Anthony||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Neubert, Michael||Terlezki, Stefan|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Norris, Steven||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Onslow, Cranley||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)A|
|Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.||Thorne, Neil (llford S)|
|Osborn, Sir John||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Ottaway, Richard||Thurnham, Peter|
|Page, John (Harrow W)||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil||Tracey, Richard|
|Parris, Matthew||Trippier, David|
|Patten, John (Oxford)||Trotter, Neville|
|Pattie, Geoffrey||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Pawsey, James||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Vaughan, Dr Gerard|
|Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Viggers, Peter|
|Pink, R. Bonner||Waddington, David|
|Pollock, Alexander||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Porter, Barry||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Walden, George|
|Powley, John||Walker, Bill (T'side N)|
|Prentice, Rt Hon Reg||Wall, Sir Patrick|
|Price, Sir David||Waller, Gary|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Walters, Dennis|
|Raffan, Keith||Ward, John|
|Rathbone, Tim||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)||Warren, Kenneth|
|Renton, Tim||Watts, John|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Ridsdale, Sir Julian||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Wheeler, John|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Whitfield, John|
|Robinson, Mark (N'port W)||Whitney, Raymond|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Rossi, Hugh||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Rost, Peter||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Rowe, Andrew||Wolfson, Mark|
|Rumbold, Mrs Angela||Wood, Timothy|
|Ryder, Richard||Woodcock, Michael|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas||Yeo, Tim|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Mr. Robert Boscawen and|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Mr. Alistair Goodlad.|
|Abse, Leo||Ashdown, Paddy|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Ashley, Rt Hon Jack|
|Anderson, Donald||Ashton, Joe|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Godman, Dr Norman|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Golding, John|
|Barnett, Guy||Gould, Bryan|
|Barron, Kevin||Gourlay, Harry|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Hamilton, James (M'well N)|
|Beggs, Roy||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)|
|Beith, A. J.||Hardy, Peter|
|Bell, Stuart||Harman, Ms Harriet|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Blair, Anthony||Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Home Robertson, John|
|Boyes, Roland||Hoyle, Douglas|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Hughes, Mark (Durham)|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Hughes, Roy (Newport East)|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Hume, John|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Janner, Hon Greville|
|Buchan, Norman||Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||John, Brynmor|
|Campbell, Ian||Johnston, Russell|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Canavan, Dennis||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)||Kennedy, Charles|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Kilfedder, James A.|
|Cartwright, John||Kilroy-Silk, Robert|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Lambie, David|
|Clarke, Thomas||Lamond, James|
|Clay, Robert||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Cohen, Harry||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Coleman, Donald||Litherland, Robert|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Conlan, Bernard||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton North)||Loyden, Edward|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||McCartney, Hugh|
|Corbett, Robin||McCusker, Harold|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Cowans, Harry||McGuire, Michael|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||McKelvey, William|
|Craigen, J. M.||Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor|
|Crowther, Stan||Maclennan, Robert|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||McNamara, Kevin|
|Cunningham, Dr John||McTaggart, Robert|
|Dalyell, Tam||McWilliam, John|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)||Madden, Max|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Maginnis, Ken|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Marek, Dr John|
|Deakins, Eric||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Dewar, Donald||Martin, Michael|
|Dixon, Donald||Mason, Rt Hon Roy|
|Dobson, Frank||Maxton, John|
|Dormand, Jack||Maynard, Miss Joan|
|Dubs, Alfred||Meacher, Michael|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Meadowcroft, Michael|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.||Michie, William|
|Eadie, Alex||Mikardo, Ian|
|Eastham, Ken||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n SE)||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)|
|Evans, loan (Cynon Valley)||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)|
|Evans, John (St. Helens N)||Molyneaux, James|
|Ewing, Harry||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Fatchett, Derek||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Nellist, David|
|Fisher, Mark||Nicholson, J.|
|Flannery, Martin||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||O'Brien, William|
|Forrester, John||O'Neill, Martin|
|Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Foster, Derek||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Foulkes, George||Park, George|
|Fraser, J. (Norwood)||Parry Robert|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Patchett, Terry|
|Freud, Clement||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Garrett, W. E.||Pendry, Tom|
|George, Bruce||Penhaligon, David|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Pike, Peter|
|Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)||Soley, Clive|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Prescott, John||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Radice, Giles||Stott, Roger|
|Randall, Stuart||Strang, Gavin|
|Redmond, M.||Straw, Jack|
|Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Richardson, Ms Jo||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Roberts, Allan (Bootle)||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)||Tinn, James|
|Robertson, George||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Rogers, Allan||Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)|
|Rooker, J. W.||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)||Wareing, Robert|
|Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)||Weetch, Ken|
|Rowlands, Ted||Welsh, Michael|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Sheerman, Barry||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon R.||Wilson, Gordon|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Winnick, David|
|Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)||Woodall, Alec|
|Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Silkin, Rt Hon J.||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)||Mr. Norman Hogg and|
|Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)||Mr. Frank Haynes.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).