HC Deb 29 March 1983 vol 40 cc214-6
Mr. Kenneth Baker

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 9, line 1 leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert `grantor'.

This simply corrects an error not spotted earlier. As drafted, subsection (5) of clause 7 requires the publication of all licences issued under clause 7 by either the Secretary of State or the Director General but only the Secretary of State can decide the manner of such publication. The effect of this amendment is to empower the Director General also to decide on the manner of publication of any licences that he may grant.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 9, line 4, leave out 'specification'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 30.

Mr. Baker

Amendment No. 8 simply serves to improve the drafting of clause 7(6) by removing the word "specification". This is redundant, as it is already covered by the word "description", and we are seeking to remove superfluous words.

Amendment No. 30 is a drafting amendment, like amendment No. 8. It seeks to remove the word "specification", which is similarly redundant.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Golding

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 9, leave out lines 8 to 13.

When shall we see the draft licence?

Mr. Kenneth Baker

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) has made both the longest and the shortest speech in the proceedings on the Bill. There is a vast difference between the two, most of which is best forgotten. I assume that the hon. Gentleman had an intention other than just asking that question in tabling the amendment, which, if it were to be passed, would have a crippling effect on the Bill. I do not know whether he realises that. I shall explain why that is so before coming to the direct question.

The amendment would delete subsection (8) of clause 7, which ensures that, when the Secretary of State grants the licence which British Telecommunications will need on the appointed day, he need not consult the Director General under subsection (1)(a) of clause 7 or publish a notice under subsection (3) of clause 8. The amendment is therefore superficially attractive as it would oblige the Secretary of State to consult the Director General, to publish a notice inviting representations and objections to the licence and to consider any representations or objections that he receives. I must therefore explain to the House why the amendment would prevent the Bill being put into effect. I trust that the hon. Member will not press it to a Division.

One of the main purposes of the Bill is to abolish the "exclusive privilege" under which BT operates at present and to ensure that BT, like any other operator, is licensed. The exclusive privilege will, however, end on the appointed day when the Bill—except part IV, the privatisation part—enters into force. On that day BT will start to operate under a licence. Indeed, unless there is a valid licence in force, BT would be committing a criminal offence if it continued to run its system. Consequently the Government must take steps to ensure that the BT licence is validly granted before the appointed day so that it can come into effect on that day. The BT licence cannot come into force a week or a month after the appointed day.

Part II of the Bill lays down procedures that must be followed before licences are granted under the Bill. These procedures require the Secretary of State, before he grants a licence, to consult the Director General of Telecommunications under clause 7(1)(a) and in the case of licences granted to public telecommunication operators to publish a notice under clause 8(3) so that members of the public and interested parties can make objections. Unless the Secretary of State carries out these procedures—this is the point—before granting a licence, the licence itself will be invalid.

As I have explained, the BT licence must be granted so that it comes into effect on the appointed day. This means that it must be drafted beforehand. The Director General will, however, be appointed only on that day and clause 8(3) comes into effect only on that day. Consequently, it will he impossible to consult the Director General before the BT licence is granted. It will also be impossible to carry out the procedures laid down in clause 8(3) before the appointed day. That is why clause 7(8) has been included in the Bill.

Unless clause 7(8), which the amendment seeks to delete, remains in the Bill, a Catch 22 situation would arise. If clause 7(8) is deleted, the Secretary of State would be bound to consult the Director General and to issue a notice inviting public objections and so on. These procedures would take at least eight weeks—28 days for representations to be made and at least that time to consider them. In that period BT would not have a licence and would either operate illegally or not at all. That cannot be allowed. On the other hand, the Secretary of State could attempt to get round the problem by issuing the licence without consulting the Director General or publishing a notice inviting representations but, if he did this, the validity of the BT licence could be challenged. This also cannot be allowed. Clause 7(8) therefore allows the Secretary of State to grant BT's licence without going through these procedures. It is essential that it remains in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw his amendment.

The hon. Gentleman asked me when we will see the BT licence. I know that in Committee the Opposition made great play of this point when they were deliberately trying to obstruct progress on the Bill. They successfully wasted much time talking about the licence but the House will realise that that criticism was unsubstantiated.

Throughout the preparation of the Bill the Government have been at pains to make information available to the House and the Committee. When the Bill was published we circulated a detailed note to describe the regulatory arrangements. We went on to publish on 25 January, during the Committee stage of the Bill, our detailed proposals for the BT licence, and we invited comments on our proposals. We described our views as "preliminary" because we had no wish to publish hard and fast views on what we intended the licence to contain before we heard what interested parties thought. Indeed, I should have been open to considerable criticisms if I had slapped the licence on the Committee table and said, "There it is." Instead, we described our proposals in everyday English, not in legal jargon, and invited comments and criticisms. In practice, our preliminary document, in simple non-legal English, may be more detailed than the final licence issued to BT.

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When we are distanced by time from the Committee stage I think it will be seen that we acted in the best way. We tried to act in a way that was open, and the preliminary proposals that we had for the licence have been subject to much debate in this House. Many hon. Members have commented on them. I am sure that that was the sensible way to proceed.

We explained carefully that our proposals could not be in a final form because the House would want to amend the Bill, which would make it necessary to amend our proposals for the licence. Yesterday the House agreed to a modified clause 3, which will have an impact on the licence. We also explained that we wanted to take account of the views of other interested parties. We are now receiving many helpful comments, some of them including new points, and we intend to consider them carefully. However, we have not yet received cornments from all interested parties. For example, I still await comments from the British Telecommunications Unions committee. I have had comments from the Post Office Engineering Union committee, but I have not yet received comments from the Union of Communication Workers, of which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) is a member and a strong supporter. Moreover, I am sure that Opposition Members would want me to listen to their views before I take a final decision and before the licence is translated into legal terminology. I also want to take particular account of the views of the National Farmers Union and of organisations representing the disabled. I do not intend to draft the final licence until I know their detailed views.

I expect to complete my consideration of representations by about the end of May, and to commence detailed drafting of the legal licence document in June. A draft of the legal licence document will be circulated widely and copies of the draft legal licence document will be placed in the House before the summer recess.

Mr. Golding

Now that I learn that this amendment would scupper the Bill, how could it possibly be withdrawn?

Amendment negatived.

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