HC Deb 15 March 1995 vol 256 cc909-54

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Trade and Industry Committee of Session 1993-94, on Optical Fibre Networks (House of Commons Paper No. 285); the Department of Trade and Industry Paper on Creating the Superhighways of the Future: Developing Broadband Communications in the UK (Cm 2734); and the Department of Trade and Industry Annual Report 1995: The Government's Expenditure Plans 1995-96 to 1997-98 (Cm 2804).]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a further supplementary sum not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1995 for expenditure by the Department of Trade and Industry on support for business, research and development; consumer protection and the regulation of trade, energy related programmes, including research and development, and residual privatisation expenses; departmental administration, central and miscellaneous services; security of oil and gas supplies; the operational costs of departmental executive agencies and associated research laboratory privatisation expenses; the provision of land and building; loans, grants and other payments.—[Mr. Ian Taylor.] 3.47 pm
Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)

I place on record my appreciation of the excellent service given by the Clerks to all Select Committees and their back-up staff, because the amount of work they do on the many good reports presented to the House sometimes goes unnoticed.

This is probably the first time that the House has had the opportunity to debate in depth the importance of the information super-highway, and to question whether Government policy is helping or hindering the development of advanced communication networks and services. Such a debate is long overdue, because the issues are of real significance to this country's future competitiveness, and they will shape the life style and work patterns of millions of people.

The information super-highway has implications for the way that the House conducts its business and hon. Members conduct their working lives. The Committee took the opportunity to undertake the first video conferencing of an official Committee of the House. I was pleased to learn that the House is planning to offer that facility, and that arrangements are under way for the House's own research network to be available on the Internet.

Our report on the super-highway was the first Select Committee report ever placed on the Internet, but not by the House authorities or the Select Committee Clerks—somebody else did us that courtesy. The House does not offer that service, but makes our report available only in hard copy form, through a limited number of outlets.

The problem is that the report is expensive. I have received several inquiries from academic bodies in particular, which want such reports made more accessible on their databases. Government Departments and agencies were recently connected to the Internet. We called for that in our report, and I welcome that development.

A number of local authorities are also on the system, as are most large companies and universities. It is perhaps time that Hansard and Select Committee reports and other parliamentary information was also made available on Internet. The cost is minuscule, and it can only help raise the standard of the House.

The United States Congress has been on Internet for several years. I can access the Congress World Wide Web information service at any time, for the price of a local telephone call. The menu covers the full text of congressional debates and reports and judgments, as well as the e-mail addresses of Congressmen. That system might be popular with hon. Members. There is even a special mail box through which people can request information or contact a particular person.

If that is possible for the US Congress, why should it not be possible here? I have already raised that question with the Liaison Committee, and I hope that, if it comes before the House, it will be supported. I shall now return to the Select Committee report on optical fibre networks and the information super-highway, which was published last July.

The Government's response to our report took the form of a Command Paper, issued in November. Last month, there was a G7 summit on the global super-highway, and, as many hon. Members may know, the Labour party has set up its own information super-highway policy forum. The enormous interest generated by our report has certainly concentrated a few minds in the Department of Trade and Industry. Although we were disappointed by the Government's response, our report has put the issue firmly on the political agenda. There is now a widely held view that we need a nationwide network sooner rather than later. I think that the Minister will agree.

I welcome the enthusiasm that the Minister has brought to his portfolio, and I hope that it will affect Government policy. The potential for industry, jobs and leisure is vast. Our report states that broadband networks and services are likely to be critical to the competitiveness of businesses and a major factor in attracting inward investment. The report also emphasises the enormous potential social benefits for education, skills training, health care and local government services. However, getting the full benefit depends on the speed at which the highway and the new multi-media services can he developed, and on making the network as open and accessible as possible.

Our report highlights the significant benefits to industry and states that the information industry is expanding worldwide faster than anyone expected. The telecommunications industry alone is growing at such a pace that, within a few years, it will overtake Europe's motor industry in its impact on GDP. I say that to make the point that the competitive advantage of the information industry is relative, and that those countries which develop the networks and software first will corner the market.

To get investment in new broadband services requires an integrated and accessible network. The Committee's concern is that we may not get the infrastructure in place in time, and will fail to stimulate growth in new and innovative software applications. The networks and services must develop together, and we must keep the policy of attracting new investment in both. Unlike the Americans and the Japanese, the Government are reluctant to set a target date for the super-highway. They seem preoccupied with encouraging so-called competition for local cable franchises. We should concentrate on encouraging the development of a nationwide broadband network, with maximum usage for broadband services. That is what the French, the Dutch and the Germans are doing.

Just last week, France Telecom announced that it would bring forward new investments for expanding its optical fibre network to meet the French target of a nationwide super-highway by 2015. Meanwhile, Japan and the United States have set firm target dates for connecting up all schools and hospitals by 2000 and 2010. The problem for the Government is that they cannot set any targets, because there is no certainty that the cable companies can meet them. Under current regulations, there is no incentive to push ahead anyway.

Our report argues that our regulatory system hinders the development of broadband networks and services. We could see no logic in keeping the regulatory rules which ban BT and Mercury from providing cable television. Repealing them would provide the income stream that is needed for investment in the new broadband networks and services.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

I think that my hon. Friend is arguing the point that British Telecom principally, and Mercury to some extent, are the only telecom operators that can provide the broadband network nationally and send fibre into every home, and that that provides the sole basis for the integrated national network that can put Britain in the lead in the super-highway. Does he agree that, unless we have that, we will lag behind competitor countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany, when in fact we invented the technology?

Mr. Caborn

That is a good point, and one on which the report concentrates. As I develop the theme, the historical context in which regulation arose will show the weakness in the application of that regulation.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

The hon. Gentleman is aware of my declared interest in the cablecoms industry. Is he confident that BT would have invested the £10 billion in cable networks that the cable companies are proposing to invest this century if it had not been given some regulatory confirmation that it would have a return on its capital?

Mr. Caborn

That is a hypothetical question. The Select Committee report deals with practical matters, and the situation as it is today. We have tried to develop with the cable companies and with both BT and Mercury an information super-highway for the early part of the 21st century. Therefore, no useful point would be served by answering the hon. Gentleman's question. We have tried to look forward and judge how we can best match what we have now with the cables and the PTOs, and develop that for the full information super-highway for the early part of the 21st century.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I am following what my hon. Friend is saying with great interest. If we are to achieve what the Select Committee wants us to achieve, the question of the asymmetry rule must be addressed by the Government. As I understand it, the rule will only be reviewed in the year 2001, with no guarantee that it will be changed. If it is not changed, it is clear that British Telecom will not invest the £15 billion required to put fibre into the domestic network.

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. He will find the Select Committee's answer to it as I develop my speech. I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to answer my hon. Friend's question. After all, it applies more to the Minister than it does to me.

As I was saying, we could see no logic in keeping the rules that ban BT and Mercury. The Committee asked why, when the predominantly US-owned cable companies have a privileged monopoly in our backyard, when BT tries to compete within the US it does not get equal access to the US market. That should be a matter for concern for the Government.

The entertainment ban was built into the regulation when cabling was in its infancy. At the time, there was some sense in giving fledgling British cable companies a helping hand. However, the position has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. The franchise has been sold on, and the big US cable and telecom companies seem more interested in taking on BT in the standard telephony market than in creating a national super-highway.

The Government have made some concessions at the margins to BT and Mercury, and they are welcome; however, the ban remains open-ended. The Committee would have had more sympathy with the Government's position if the cable companies were attracting a higher take-up rate for cable television and promoting new interactive services. The fact is that they are not. The penetration rate for cable take-up is currently 21 per cent.—the same as it was in 1992. In the US, it is more than 70 per cent.

In some areas, cable has not even begun. I received a letter only last week from a couple in Hackney complaining that they could not get cable television. The couple contacted the local franchise holder, Cable London, to ask when they could expect their street to be cabled up. They were told to call back some time in 1997.

Our report also pointed out our concern that the majority of cable companies were not investing in optical fibre networks, or offering new broadband services. The evidence we received—and it was pretty extensive—showed a mosaic of cable networks using mostly traditional copper or coaxial-based technologies. We could find few examples of cable companies experimenting with advanced broadband networks that have the ability to deliver interactive, two-way television.

Even if the cable companies met their build obligations in full, it would still leave more than a third of the country without access to a fixed cable network. The Select Committee felt that the scales had been tipped too far in favour of the cable companies, and that now was the time to start opening up the market by lifting the entertainment ban and by providing for open access to any cable network.

Some cable franchises have been protected for 10 years, and they could run for a minimum of another seven years. It could be even longer than that, unless policy is changed. Despite the Minister's suggestion, the Committee could find no technical or legal problem with phasing out the ban. The way forward must be to get BT, Mercury and the cable companies to build a national network together. That can be achieved by relaxing the regulations franchise by franchise, with the aim of lifting all restrictions on BT and Mercury by end of 2002. As a quid pro qua, we recommended that BT and Mercury should be required to allow open access to their networks, and to be given the task of linking all public facilities to the super-highway as soon as possible.

The benefits of that approach are spelled out in our report. First, it would enable BT and Mercury to begin investing the £15 billion to £20 billion necessary to develop a national broadband network, without denying some protection to existing cable companies. Secondly, it would provide an incentive for cable companies to expand and upgrade their networks, both to private customers and to the public service users. Thirdly, it would create the certainty and purpose that is lacking.

The certainty is not just for telecommunications and cable companies; the problem affects the hundreds of UK firms which are supplying the technology and the software. Their concern is the long lead time they need to develop broadband technology. With the present uncertainty, those firms cannot take the risk that, in five or 10 years' time, BT may be able to start investing in broadband networks and services. We will end up having to buy the technology and equipment from United States, Japan or other countries.

Most of the cable companies said that they could live with our proposals, yet the Minister keeps telling us that the status quo is preferable, because it offers stability. The Committee could not accept that. We argued that keeping things as they are creates uncertainties. We could not accept that regulations could be changed only on competition grounds, set by the Director General of Telecommunications. That is nonsense. The creation of a national information super-highway is a policy issue with wide-ranging public interests and economic implications. It is not for the regulator to dictate the policy or to set the strategic framework. That is the Government's job.

If our proposals would thwart competition, I could understand why the regulator might want to keep things as they are, but our suggestion implies more, not less, competition. We argued that the phased lifting of the entertainment ban and opening up the markets franchise by franchise would provide for more open access under an integrated network.

The idea that ring-fencing local cable monopolies will lead to competing national networks with open access to anyone does not add up. For a start, the competition is not there, and if the entertainment ban stays, it is unlikely to emerge. Even if we end up with competing national networks, which has as much strategic logic as competing rail networks, we should ensure that parity and equality of access exist. Are we not in danger of creating a piecemeal, multi-tiered highway of local networks that deny universal service and customer choice?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)

I shall pick up the points that the hon. Gentleman is making when I speak later, but I must ask him a specific question. If there is so much wrong with the Government's policy, why has the European Union adopted—belatedly—the same principles? Why were we able to establish the principles of liberalisation and competition in relation to, among other things, alternative infrastructures as part of the G7 conference's conclusions?

Mr. Caborn

Trying to liberalise the market and develop third-party access is to be welcomed. The Select Committee challenged the Minister about why we are protecting the cable companies for a now indeterminate length of time, possibly well into the 21st century. Our major PTOs—BT and Mercury—should be allowed to enter the entertainment market. The central question concerns the regulatory regime. The Committee argued for liberalisation of the market and third-party access and, as the Minister knows, the quid pro quo was that BT and Mercury open up to the cable companies.

What confounded some members of the Committee was that, although this is the Government of competition and open markets, we have to ask them to introduce competition by phasing in the lifting of the franchise. Only the Government do not accept the idea but I have no doubt that, with his enthusiasm for his new post, the Minister will change that.

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that what we need above all in interactive broadband communications is innovation, but that the monopoly arrangements introduced by the Government, whereby there is to be one franchise holder for an indefinite period, will not lead to that innovation?

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Select Committee expressed the same concern, and suggested ways out of the present regulatory system, which would lead to the conditions under which such innovation could occur.

Access—public and private—is extremely important. It is essential that we develop a national network that provides open access for public and private service users. If we do not, I fear that we run the risk of an information society for the haves, with no access for the have-nots.

The Select Committee set out to deal with two key questions. Are the Government doing enough to develop the super-highway that we shall need by the turn of the century, and are the policies and regulations flexible enough to ensure that we are moving fast enough relative to our major competitors? On both counts, the Committee concluded that the Government must think again. We warned of the cost of delaying and dithering any longer.

The Select Committee recommended a compromise solution with which the telecom side and the cable industry said they could live. They want an end to uncertainty, and they want the Government to stop procrastinating. We emphasised in our report that the situation has changed dramatically since the cable franchises and the entertainment ban were introduced. Government policy, and the regulations, should reflect that.

There is still time to act, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to follow through the main recommendations in the report.

4.8 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly. I have been away in the United States and was not aware that this debate was being held today. I found myself in the embarrassing position of having a commitment to chair a meeting elsewhere in the House at 4 pm, which is why I absented myself during part of the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn). I apologise; my absence was not intended as a discourtesy, and I shall certainly read his speech in Hansard.

It is sad that there does not appear to be as much interest in this subject in the House as there would be if the debate were taking place in a school or college. The young understand the importance of the Internet and the super-highway. I have to ask my 22-year-old son for advice on the use of computers, or, better still, my 18-year-old son—both are experts. The young are well seized of the importance of this subject. They understand its significance and the fact that it will change their way of life and how they work. Those of us who are rather older are finding it more difficult to adjust to the world of computers and the world of the Internet.

I first found myself becoming involved in the general subject when, as a Minister responsible for industry in Northern Ireland, I discovered a European proposal to lay a fibre-optic link around Northern Ireland in 1987. It seemed quite interesting, and that it would provide better communications. I was told that it would provide "more bandwidth, Minister" and I had to find out what bandwidth meant. I discovered that it meant the opportunity to use more and more electronic and electrical devices on the cable system which was to be laid around Northern Ireland.

Later, we were among the first in Northern Ireland to use video conferencing—on a secure network between Whitehall and Belfast. The object of the exercise was, in fact, to save money, because Ministers were running up such enormous bills for transport between London and Belfast.

I rapidly discovered that if one wished to make a point to one's own Secretary of State, one could not make it while sitting alongside him. One needed to make that point from the other end of the video conferencing facility. I rapidly developed the habit of flying to the other end to have a video conference with my Secretary of State, rather than driving up the hill to Stormont. Be that as it may, I still think that the system is worth while and will certainly develop.

In October 1989, I was approached to become chairman of a company which applied for cable communications franchises. I accepted. We were awarded five franchises. Subsequently, after various discussions about our future with different companies, we decided on a very happy marriage with NYNEX Cablecomms, and I declare an interest as a director of companies in the NYNEX group.

What is broadband, what is bandwidth, and what can it do? First, of course, with bandwidth, people can talk to each other—so it is a telephone. One can send people messages—so it is a fax. One can watch programmes—so it is a television. One can talk to people and see them at the same time—so it is video conferencing. One can work from one's own house or building by communicating with others—so it is an office. One can sell things by promoting them across it—so it is a showroom. One can buy things through it—so it is a shop. One can carry out financial transactions through it—so it is a bank.

Those are all single interactions between, as it were, one person and another, but on the Internet, with broadband, one can do so much more. For instance, several people can join together in the same discussion from different parts of the world, so it can create a design laboratory.

In the past few weeks, I have seen two powerful examples of the use of cable and bandwidth. The first, the beautifully named Super-JANET, the super joint academic network, will enable advanced academic groups to link and talk to each other. I certainly have high hopes that the sixth form college in my constituency, of which I am chairman, will be able to link up with local cable communications, and, perhaps, in Gosport in the south of England, be able to listen to lectures given in Manchester or in the centre of England. All such developments will come.

Last week in Washington, at the Walter Reed hospital, we were shown facilities whereby medical signals and photographs may be sent by British forces in Belize to the hospital where, in Washington, American doctors may form a diagnosis and advise local people in Belize of the best treatment for the patient. Advanced communications can do so many things.

I am certainly convinced that the key to success is in the Command Paper, where it says: The spur to all this progress— which it described— was the original decision to liberalise infrastructures and services. BT was privatised in 1984, and very few people now, even the most extreme socialist Members, would say that BT would have made as much progress had it stayed in public ownership.

Then we moved on to the duopoly review, and the 1991 White Paper entitled "Competition and Choice Telecommunications Policy for the 1990s". That allowed cable companies to offer voice telephony in their own right. The key to that is that BT is prevented from conveying entertainment until 2001, with a review in, or not earlier than, 1998, and is prevented from providing entertainment services until 2001.

Those restrictions on BT have enabled cable companies to enter the business.

From my experience, I can tell the House that when my company was in the business of trying to raise funds for cable telecommunications development, we approached a very wide range of British institutions, but I am afraid that the interest was negligible. I regret that. I am happy that American, French and Canadian companies have been prepared to invest here, but it is most unfortunate that British companies are not very well represented—with, of course, the notable exception of Cable and Wireless and its affiliate Mercury. There would not have been a commitment to cable development if the Government had not laid down restrictions on BT. Those restrictions are absolutely critical.

The cable companies will spend £10 billion this decade. Because of the diversity of provision, I am confident that that will provide an ideal fibre-optic network throughout the United Kingdom. It will provide the basis upon which development will take place. It will not be the Government-controlled and dictated fibre-optic network which would be so attractive to some hon. Members. It will not be the Government-planned system which will take fibre optics into every part of the United Kingdom, because it will be based entirely on competition and the opportunities of the companies involved to make profits.

I am convinced that the cable companies are making an enormous contribution. They are providing 30,000 jobs, and I believe that the way ahead now is as set out by the Government. I respect the Command Paper, in which I know the Minister is closely involved. I also respect the Government's point of view, and I am delighted that the Minister has taken such a keen interest in the matter and that he is driving the issue forward.

4.15 pm
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I should like to preface my remarks by declaring an interest. I am proud to say that I am sponsored by the Communication Workers Union, which is the amalgamation of the old National Communications Union and the Union of Communications Workers. This is the first occasion on which a member of our group has been able to declare that interest in the House. I also declare an interest as a director of EURIM. That position is totally unpaid and without any expenses.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), all members of the Trade and Industry Select Committee and the Clerks and specialist advisers on the most important contribution that they have made to the debate. This debate is vital to the economic well-being of this country into the next century, and its impact has been largely ignored by the Government. I notice the paucity of Conservative Members present. I welcome the contribution made by the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), although I did not entirely agree with his comments. As he has known me for an awful lot of years, he will not be surprised about that.

We must consider where we are now, look at the kind of information super-highway we need and see how we can get there from our current position. The Select Committee made a major contribution to that end, but the Government must have a much clearer idea of the nature of competition, the customer, the provider and how the system operates.

It was clear from the Minister's intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central that his understanding of the Bangemann report and what the G7 summit came up with, and my understanding of that, are somewhat different. I do not believe that the G7 summit dreamt up the asymmetry rule to which my hon. Friend referred. Indeed, the Bangemann report recommends against that. I do not believe that the G7 summit recommended that our market should be so dominated by foreign and American companies, although it is.

How have we reached this point? I have been privileged to serve on every telecommunications Bill since 1979. I have been involved in all the debates. We reached the current position because a Secretary of State made a fundamental mistake. He thought that the competition was in the network and not in what could be provided on that network. That is where the real competition always resides.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

My hon. Friend is an expert on these matters. Does he agree that the asymmetric rule has caused havoc in many constituencies, as companies such as CableTel in my constituency tunnel through and churn up pavements without any regard to consultation with our constituents? Such companies are wreaking havoc as they are not properly reinstating the pavements and roads that they have dug up. Could not that have been avoided if the Government had adopted a more sensible policy?

Mr. McWilliam

I agree. One of the problems is that the cable companies are there to sell cable time and not to install cables. They largely employ casual labour to install the cables, and sometimes the skills of the casual labour are not up to the level that they ought to be. Indeed, I have seen instances in my constituency of a subcontractor shoving a mole drainer through the roots of many trees. As a noted horticulturist, my hon. Friend will understand the effects of that.

If the Government had recognised where the competition was in the first place, we would not have had that situation, but because of political dogma at the time, they decided that they knew best and that it was in the network. We know that that is not true.

We have to consider the sort of highway that we want. Unlike most cable company networks, it has to be two way and it has to be broadband. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central said, one of the problems with many local cable company networks is that they are a mixture of twisted pair, coaxial and fibre. What is more, hon. Members must be aware that there is more than one kind of fibre, and that fibres have more than one sort of capacity.

There is also more than one way of switching the network. I want to make certain that I stay within the constraints of intelligibility, so I shall not go into network architecture in any great detail. What most cable companies have adopted as the network architecture, however, delivers the minimum bandwidth to the customer, not the maximum—that is not a national broadband network.

The network has to be national and must offer services in cities and rural areas. Given the present situation, the cable companies are not capable of doing so and there is no intention whatever of cabling the rural areas—one third of the United Kingdom—so the existing network will not lead to a national network.

There are constraints; some are Government-imposed and some are not. There are the technological constraints that I just described, which are due to the network architecture that cable companies have adopted, and there are the technological constraints that are due to the fact that all the cable companies have not adopted the same technology. Some of the fibre could be incorporated in a network, but some could not.

We must not be dogmatic about this, either. The hon. Member for Gosport talked of renationalising British Telecommunications, but it is not a question of that—it would cost far too much, and no one on the Opposition Benches is arguing for it. We have to study our national communications carriers, such as BT and Mercury and the international companies, such as BT and Cable and Wireless, to find out whether we are serving our industrial interests throughout the world.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

I hesitate to intervene, as my hon. Friend is a great expert on this subject, but is it not the case that, if one compares BT and the present cable suppliers—the incomers, as I would call them, as I come from Yorkshire—one sees that BT has a great record of purchasing equipment from British suppliers? Is it not the case that, for all we were told 10 years ago—that, if we waited for fibre optics, which was a British invention, we would make it in Britain—the majority of the equipment purchased by the cable companies is imported from other countries?

Mr. McWilliam

In essence, that is true, in that many of the switches are imported. BT no longer purchases as much British equipment as it did, although it still purchases a great deal.

Mr. Sheerman

What about the cable?

Mr. McWilliam

No, it is not true. Most of the fibre optic cable is manufactured by BICC, which has the rights, and the copper cable also tends to be British, but much of the technology is not British and is not compatible with the existing network.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central was right to refer to the ownership of the cable companies. Ninety per cent. of cable companies are owned by United States telephone multinationals, at least one of which has a larger asset base than BT. Those are the very companies with which BT and Cable and Wireless are competing worldwide for a share of the telecommunications business. At the same time, British firms are not allowed into the markets in those countries.

We could almost describe that as industrial treason. The Government have legislated to allow companies into our market from countries that will not allow us into their market. They are destroying the profitability of our companies and their ability to invest worldwide and compete against those other companies.

Mr. Ian Taylor

I hesitate to intervene, as I shall pick up many of the hon. Gentleman's points later, but I cannot let him get away with that. Because of our action in opening up the United Kingdom market, British companies now have a better chance of getting into the American market than most of our European rivals. Vice-President Gore announced at the G7 conference that, one way or another, America would remove by the end of this year the 20 per cent. embargo that relates to foreign investment in United States telecommunications companies using spectrum radio, as long as the countries from which new investors are to come have liberalised. This country stands in very good stead in that reciprocal agreement. The opportunities in America—as well as in the rest of Europe, once it has liberalised —will be open to British-based companies.

Mr. McWilliam

The Minister is as innocent of American politics as he is of where the telecommunications market is. He knows as well as I do that Vice-President Gore will have to get that liberalisation through both Houses in the States.

Mr. Taylor


Mr. McWilliam

He will, and it will be blocked.

Mr. Taylor

Vice-President Gore said in Brussels that his Administration would bring forward legislation that would need to get through both Houses, but that if there was a problem, he would do it by regulation. Therefore, he could give a guarantee that America would change the rule this year.

Mr. McWilliam

First, the American system is geared to kill legislation, not to facilitate it, like ours. Secondly, if the Vice-President thinks that he will get that measure through, he has got another think coming. He will not do it, because there are too many vested interests in too many states. Those might have been fine words for the G7 and they might have been quite helpful, but all Vice-President Gore is interested in is making sure that the Americans develop their own super-highway. It is not really in America's interests for Britain to develop our own.

We have a problem in that we have no access to the United States, despite the fact that the Minister says that Vice-President Gore will give us that access by the end of the year. I shall believe that when I see it. We have problems with access to Japan—one of our major competitors, which is developing its system—and to Germany, which is developing a system on the back of a national system. Britain has a fragmented system, with the asymmetry rule.

I shall give the Minister a statistic. The average telephone line in this country is used for six minutes a day. That is all. Nobody is going to put a fibre-optic link into a house for a line that is used for six minutes a day. The existing cable network is not capable of supporting a super-highway, and the —10 billion of investment that has been referred to will not support the information super-highway. The existing system was not designed for that, and it will not support it.

The only company that has the asset base to support the investment needed is British Telecom, because we are talking about an investment of some —15 billion. That will be the cost of just getting the local fibre-optic network in. In order to get universal coverage in the UK, the Government would have to make some other changes. They would have to drop the asymmetry rule, and they would also have to let British Telecom have radio tails on terminal ends in rural areas, because there is no other way of operating the system economically. That is another bar against BT.

The Government must allow BT and Mercury to carry entertainment services, as that is the only way in which that investment could be justified. Last year, BT's profit was —3 billion, which was reduced by —500 million because of the regulator's formula on pricing. An investment of —15 billion could not be supported on a commercial basis on that profit. The only way to proceed is to open up the market.

If we are to compete against the United States, Japan, Germany and other European Union partners, which we must as we approach the next century, we must have that information super-highway. We cannot have it with the dogmatic approach that the Government have adopted since 1979, so we must have a new approach. Oddly enough, the new approach is to free up the system rather than tell the cable companies that they cannot extend their customer base. The Government must lift the restrictions on BT and Mercury and allow them to sell entertainment services on their main network, too. Those companies could then justify to their shareholders the investment of —15 billion, which needs to be made into the next century to set up that super-highway. That is the only way in which that will happen. I have taken enough of the House's time, as other hon. Members want to speak. This is an extremely important debate and I congratulate the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on its thorough approach to this subject. I respect the Minister's knowledge of and enthusiasm for this subject, but he must convey to his political masters the idea that the competition is not in the network but in what can be put on the network: entertainment, education and health services; business applications; and teleworking. He must also convey to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment the fact that the project entails a view of employment patterns in this society that must be dealt with before it comes in, so that we know where jobs will be lost and gained, and protection for teleworkers is built in.

Unless the Minister does those two things, we shall not have the super-highway that we need to take us into the next century and we shall be unable to support the economic development that we need to provide for people's services, welfare and health.

4.42 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate. I apologise to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) for not being present to hear all his speech. I attended to my duties as a member of the Committee of Selection for 10 minutes in the middle of his speech, but I undertake to remedy that by reading it in tomorrow's Hansard.

I, too, congratulate the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and its Chairman on the work that they have done. I also congratulate the Liaison Select Committee on selecting this extremely important subject for debate, which has implications for our industrial, economic, educational and domestic future.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) said about the services that the House of Commons has supplied through its parliamentary data and video network, and the use or otherwise that Hansard makes of electronic means of communications. It is essential that the House takes a lead in providing the infrastructure necessary not just for Members of Parliament to do their business more efficiently, cost effectively and faster, but to give a lead and show the worlds of commerce, industry and education that we attach importance to that new method of communication and are prepared to lead by example.

The PDVN should be developed faster and Hansard should make the information that it contains more freely and widely available by electronic means. I recognise the Minister's enthusiasm for the subject. He does good work and I know that he must win the arguments within the Department and the Treasury to further this matter. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to examine electronic access to the PDVN and Hansard, as well as some of the other important aspects of the Select Committee's report.

Hon. Members are always a little sceptical when Ministers inform the House that they are about to work miracles and deliver more services at lower cost. In most instances, that proves to be untrue. However, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) referred to the extraordinary British invention of fibre-optic technology, which offers us the chance to improve services and save money at the same time.

I will concentrate on opportunities for education in the first half of my speech because I believe that education in the United Kingdom could become more responsive, flexible and probably cheaper in the long term by deploying the latest technology sensibly and by using the emerging information infrastructure.

Some right hon. and hon. Friends and I were fortunate to spend a few days in Washington about 10 days ago. During that visit, the leader of my party, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), had a long and stimulating conversation with the American Vice-President, Mr. Al Gore. As a result of the meeting, it became crystal clear that America is in the driving seat of information technology. There is a commitment within high levels of Government to ensure that America progresses across the different sectors within that technological area. If we are to keep the advantage that we have in many areas of technology, we must secure that same commitment at the same levels of Government in this country. That would be disastrous for both the United Kingdom and for Europe as a whole.

Interactive learning systems, including access to electronic libraries, will clearly revolutionise the way in which future generations are educated. It will become easier for individuals to explore, in their own time and in their own way, the subjects in which they are interested and perhaps develop that interest into a career.

We hear anecdotes and we read stories in the press about people who have otherwise dropped out of society but who have gone to cafes, surfed the Internet and have become experts in that area. In America we heard about people in Chicago, for example, who have accessed the library connections to Internet. They have become technological experts because they have engaged their interests and used their time to gain experience in retrieving information from the Internet, which—as those of us who have tried it will know—can often prove quite frustrating.

The Department for Education and parents must work together to define what they want to achieve to deliver a new educational philosophy for the future. As a nation, we must have training for life and I think that the optic-fibre network and the information super-highway will form an integral part of that training.

We must compete with technology from the Pacific basin, America and other parts of the world. In order to stay competitive, we must generate wealth, which involves cultivating an educated work force and an educated society. There is a little of the chicken-and-egg syndrome in that situation, but Liberal Democrats are quite clear about how we would break into that cycle. We would concentrate on education and invest in the future of the nation, thereby providing the wealth that we need. We do not believe that we can leave everything to the market.

I agreed wholeheartedly with that part of the speech of the hon. Member for Blaydon which I heard. I concur with what he said about excluding the British players, BT and Mercury, from participating in building communications infrastructure. I think that his argument is sound, and I hope that the Government will pay careful attention to it. We may agree in five or 10 years' time, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was a monumental mistake to exclude the British players, and that banning them from broadcasting entertainment services until the year 2000 or 2001 in order to encourage inward investment from overseas companies was at best unwise, and at worst positively idiotic.

Excluding the British players certainly gave the American companies more than a head start, but it has been much worse than that. The American companies have cherry-picked the most lucrative areas of the country, establishing their own local monopolies, typically in cities and towns and digging up roads and pavements with little regard to the trees that lined avenues. They have left a patchwork effect instead of being required to reinstate the full width of pavements, giving local residents a benefit for the disruption caused. That may seem a small matter when we are contemplating the future of the super-highway, but it is important for the residents who are affected.

The infrastructure is not touching huge areas of Britain. The American companies regard the rural and sparsely populated parts of Britain as economically much less desirable than towns and cities. In the borders, for example, we are stuck between, to the north, Edinburgh, which is being cabled by United Artists, and, to the south, Newcastle, which is being cabled by United Artists. We are piggy in the middle.

Courtesy of Scottish Telecom, a 64 KB pipe goes through St. Boswells and Coldstream. In order to remain competitive and get access to proper broadband services that would suit the needs of commerce, industry and education, we would need at least a 2 MB fibre-optic cable. We are unlikely to have that, so there is no immediate prospect of the population in the borders having access to that level of infrastructure.

Al Gore is absolutely right. If we are not careful, and if the Government do not get their planning right, we shall end up with a society of information haves and have-nots. There is a great deal of concern in my party, which represents rural areas, many of which are disparately populated, that, if it is left to the market, those areas will never have access to a proper system of infrastructure. If the Minister is about to tell me I am wrong, I shall be >delighted.

Mr. Ian Taylor

It is a matter of great concern to many people. In very rural areas, the answer is not necessarily simply to replicate the cabling that is installed in more urban areas. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are now looking very much more at further release of the radio spectrum to provide access to rural areas. I am sure that he will be delighted about that for Scotland, as and when we can announce the next stage.

Mr. Kirkwood

Of course I recognise that a great deal of front-line, leading-edge technological work is being done in radio transmission and communication. I welcome that because it opens up opportunities that rural areas otherwise would not have.

The market will not offer an incentive for companies to move into areas such as south-east Scotland, where there are two or three times as many sheep as there are people and households. The Government are right to say that commercial forces have a part to play, but there must come a time at which the really disparate areas such as the highlands and the south-east and south-west of Scotland and parts of Wales benefit from active positive discrimination by central Government, if it is necessary. If, as a result of this evening's discussion, the Minister could tell me that if all else fails the Government will consider dealing with that problem by plugging that gap, I would be reassured.

BT and Mercury have been crying out for the chance to create a truly national infrastructure and I understand that BT is prepared to put up £15 billion of its own money. As there is no need for taxpayers' money, I do not see what the Government have against that. We are in serious danger of missing an opportunity if we do not allow it to happen.

What should the Government do? First, they should allow BT and Mercury to re-enter the market. Secondly, because of the educational importance of the subject, the Government should commit themselves to a project to link every school, college and library to a national super-highway more widespread than Super-JANET, which has been a brave and relatively successful attempt to link universities. Thirdly, and finally, the Government should provide some guarantee of their commitment to ensuring that rural areas are not left behind.

Some of my hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), would agree with Mr. Newt Gingrich and give everyone on income support a laptop. That is a slightly strange idea in some ways; but at least Newt Gingrich and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham recognise the importance of such infrastructures to our future, and of motivation, commitment and vision. That is probably the only resemblance between them.

Today's children will need technological skills if they are to obtain jobs. Technology is invading the workplace, and it will invade the home as well. My party has produced a policy that we consider coherent, which is contained in a document entitled "As Far as the Eye Can See". I recommend it to the Government.

I hope that the Minister's response will be positive. I congratulate the Select Committee on a very good report, which has given us an opportunity to engage in an important debate.

4.45 pm
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) on his report, and on the interesting debate that has resulted from it. I believe that many people outside will also find the debate interesting.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Back-Bench committee that I chair chose today for a demonstration of the Internet, which is to take place in my office at 6 pm. Hon. Members may wish to go to my office—which is at 3 Dean's yard—at that time, or perhaps at 7 pm, when the debate has ended. The demonstration is to take place there because the House is so technologically backward that it is impossible to find a Committee Room in which to hold a demonstration of the Internet.

One Committee Room—Committee Room 15—has an integrated services digital network line. In the past, I have booked that room with the full co-operation of the Serjeant at Arms and, at the last minute, have been told that I must use Committee Room 14, Committee Room 21 or some other room that has no ISDN line. That makes any demonstration of the Internet impossible. The Minister smiles; I am sure that he understands my frustration. I think that many people would like to see what the Internet can do, so I have decided to go ahead with the demonstration—but, as I have said, it will take place in my office rather than in the main building.

My constituency is fortunate, in that it could be described as "wired up". It contains a very good cable company, Cambridge Cable, which has installed fibre-optics throughout the city and is now beginning work on some of the surrounding area in East Anglia. Of course, we also have an excellent university, which has promoted fibre-optic cable and has been one of the main proponents of the JANET and Super-JANET networks. An on-line media experiment is currently being conducted in some homes in the Cambridge area, allowing people to choose educational and video services.

I am conscious, however, that not all my constituents have access to the new technology. I have therefore tried to convene a small group to work in the city, examining ways of providing access for a much wider range of people than those who can afford the modems and computers that they will need in their own homes to gain access to the technology. We have devised an on-line city project, involving city and county councillors and a number of other agencies.

They will consider the provision of information that is socially useful rather than commercially useful. I refer to housing transfer lists, bus timetables, advice on benefits and other information to which ordinary people would like access. We intend to put in a number of installation points in libraries, community centres, schools, shopping centres and the shopping concourse in Addenbrooke's hospital, because those are the sorts of places where we think it best for people to get access to the Internet and the information on it.

This is a continuing experiment, and an important one. It illustrates the principle of universality, which is one of the most important principles that we have to work on. We must ensure that we do not end up with an elite, intellectual group of people who have access to this information via new technology and an underclass deprived of the educational and employment opportunities and other benefits that new technology can bring.

Mr. McWilliam

Bearing in mind the severe weather of the past few weeks and the geography of large parts of this country, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the advantages of the super-highway—teleworking—means that people who are cut off at home because they live in rural areas and cannot come into the cities can work at home and need no longer be cut off?

Mrs. Campbell

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Many people will welcome the prospect of more teleworking, but it has disadvantages too. Many people work for the social contact, so we shall have to wait and see how that aspect resolves itself. There are advantages and disadvantages to working remotely.

I am perhaps one of the few hon. Members to have a large proportion of constituents who are wired up. I reckon that about 20,000 of my 70,000 constituents have access, in one way or another, to the Internet. About 15,000 people are wired up via the university and have access to electronic mail; I estimate that at least another 5,000 who work in high-tech industries and in small consultancies from home have such access too, so it has been easy for me to take advantage of the new technology.

Since I started using electronic mail, I have found that about 10 per cent. of my correspondence comes to me in that form. I must inform the House, however, that that does not give me any more time to read the mail than when it comes the usual way in the form of hard copy.

I have also had the opportunity of taking advantage of some of the news groups. Cambridge is fortunate in having its own news group, where I can post views and receive views publicly from some of my constituents. I am pleased to announce that I now have my own home page. I apologise in advance for the gobbledegook, but my code is: http://www.worldserver.pipex.com/anne.campbell/. I hope that everyone will use it to read up on my career and to peruse my constituency newsletters—not to mention learning about my activities in the House.

I have also taken advantage of electronic mail by becoming the first hon. Member to hold an electronic mail surgery. So far I have held about five of them. They have all been heavily used; there is always a great deal of interest in these events. It is difficult to predict the questions that my constituents will ask by electronic mail at advice surgery times. Some people are puzzled and ask, "Why don't you answer e-mail at any time, instead of only between 5 pm and 6.30 pm on Friday?" I am sure that hon. Members understand that it is not easy to respond quickly to electronic or other mail. At least my constituents know that, at a fixed time every month, I am sitting at my terminal ready to respond to their queries as they arise.

That technology has enormous implications for democracy. Several hon. Members spoke about making Hansard available on the Internet, which would be of enormous advantage. Why not make hon. Members' voting records available on the Internet? Why not give constituents the chance to respond to the way in which hon. Members vote or to the remarks that they make? Why not make us more accountable and open to questioning from our constituents?

A few months ago, I asked questions of every Government Department to ascertain the extent to which they were using the Internet and whether or not I could send them e-mail. I know that the Minister has an e-mail address and although I have not taken advantage of that facility yet I am sure that I shall do so.

It would be a great advantage to send to Ministers the sort of e-mail that I receive. I know that I am not allowed to use visual aids in the Chamber, but in waving this piece of paper about, the Minister will appreciate that this is one of seven e-mail messages that I received today, and it is quite lengthy. The only way in which I can provide a copy to a Minister is to produce a printout and a photocopy, attach that to another letter, place them in an envelope and post them.

That is rather tedious and I would rather simply press a button, to pass on e-mail to whichever Minister is destined to receive it—and obtain an answer in the same way that I can post on. My constituents might then ask whether there is any point having a Member of Parliament who just acts as a Minister's post box, and they might start sending their electronic mail to the Minister direct. It is impossible for us to predict future developments and the way in which they will change our work in the House. However, I am sure that those changes will be far-reaching and profound.

There is a healthy debate in my party at present about the use of encryption on the Internet, which has in turn generated discussion among some news groups. We well understand that some users want their privacy respected, and that others need unforgeable signatures. I am seriously considering that myself because it would be potentially dangerous for someone to be able to forge a Member of Parliament's signature on the Internet. We are beginning to come to terms with such issues and to devise policies, but we need time to form a considered view. I am sure that the debate about encryption will continue.

I want to talk also about the importance of the Internet and the super-highway in education. I was interested to read on the front page of The Times Educational Supplement last week about a Department of Trade and Industry project called "Schools on Line". It is expected to cost about £7.5 million and a pilot is to be launched in June in about 60 schools. I gather that the project will link some schools to the Internet through ISDN lines provided by British Telecom.

The project was not entirely news to me because I had heard about it from various contacts in education before I read about it. I understand that when the Secretary of State for Education heard of the DTI's grandiose plans, in the words of my informant she went ballistic because she did not think that this was a good time to put extra money into schools when the Government had been unable to find money to fund the teachers' pay award. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

It is obviously desirable, if not essential, to put schools on line as soon as possible. There should not just be one line inside the front door. We must think about how to provide infrastructure in each school so that every classroom can have access to the Internet. Such a project will not be inexpensive: it will require a great deal of resources. I realise, as do all my hon. Friends, that it cannot be done quickly but must be planned and that there must be a strategic framework for seeing how it will develop.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Obviously, I cannot comment on newspaper headlines; the hon. Lady will have to wait for formal announcements. It is important to understand that in working with industry the DTI is obviously keen to encourage industry to produce projects for schools. In that sense, we are reinforcing the Department for Education announcement in January of a £3 million scheme to encourage industry to present ideas. I especially welcome the pledge by the Cable Communications Association to wire up every school in franchise areas with optical fibres.

Mrs. Campbell

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. It is encouraging to know that Ministers are thinking along those lines. However, I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will say later in the debate that the universality principle is just as important in schools as it is in homes. The way forward must be planned, to ensure that people will not be disadvantaged because a cable company does not have a franchise in their area.

The use of the information super-highway in education is a most exciting and forward-looking idea, and it could do a great deal to raise standards in education. It is important for us to get there first, because that will give our children enormous advantages over students in other parts of the world.

I should like to put in a word for two organisations that have been particularly helpful and useful in promoting that kind of education. One is the National Council for Educational Technology. It has pioneered some miraculous and imaginative schemes, which have done a great deal to point the way to raising standards. The other organisation is the BBC, which over the years has set an excellent example in educational broadcasting without which our schools would have been much poorer.

The real challenge for the future is to determine how the BBC can be financed so that it can go on providing that core of educational work, which is vital to schools. In future, the licence fee may not be an appropriate way to do so, because at the moment it covers a television set, and those who do not have sets do not pay the fee. In future those with computers may have to pay the licence fee because two or even three technologies—the computer, the television set and the telephone—may be combined in a single piece of equipment. How to ensure that the BBC continues to be an excellent provider of vital information for our schools and citizens is an exciting challenge.

5.4 pm

Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), for reasons that I shall shortly explain. I apologise for not being present for the start of the debate. However, hon. Members may be pleased to know that, thanks to the improvement of communications in the House, I have heard every speech in the debate from the comfort of 1 Parliament street. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) on his speech, which dealt with his Committee's report. I am willing to be quizzed by any hon. Member as to whether I heard his speech. The only part of the debate I missed was during the minute that it took me to go from 1 Parliament street to the Chamber.

For reasons that I shall explain, I had not intended to speak in the debate. I decided to do so after hearing hon. Members' speeches, because they prove that this debate is most useful. It has touched off two themes in my mind, which I am keen to put to the House. I welcome what the hon. Member for Cambridge said, because, as chairman of the parliamentary and scientific committee, I can tell her that much of what she said bears on the convergence of technology, which is causing us to look at structures in the Commons and the Lords as we consider how to address our minds to the real technological changes that we face on a personal level.

As chairman of the parliamentary information technology committee and the parliamentary space committee, I can tell the House that we had to address our minds to that. There is also the cable and satellite group. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope that he will address some of those changes because some aspects of technology and the opportunities for British industry are the themes that I should like to address.

Much of the debate has touched upon the consumer, the user of technology. As I said, the new technologies present opportunities for British industry. In the context of the user, I was pleased to hear so many references to Internet. Those of us who had opportunities at college, university or elsewhere to see Internet in action appreciate that it has made considerable headway. The hon. Member for Cambridge made that her major theme, and she was right to suggest that it could present opportunities, but also a major challenge.

Over the past 20 years in this place, the growth of contact with Members and the weight of paper upon us have become major problems. Would electronic mail help to solve them, or would it add to them? Will instant access mean that we shall reflect the views of lobbies that are geared to high tech in a way that might lead to staffing implications? That is an open question, but we shall have to address it as more and more hon. Members come to terms with modern technology.

I said that I shall concentrate on the opportunities for British industry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the way in which he has sought to raise the public profile of information technology in this field. He gave a press conference on earth observations, which touched on aspects of agriculture and on the opportunity for more effective monitoring of the common agricultural policy, an issue that is near to all our hearts. I believe that he has in mind similar sessions with the media in respect of communications and putting the case for our space industry, for which there are major opportunities in Europe and further afield.

I encourage the Minister to say a word or two about raising the profile of what is happening in communications across the broadband network and through satellites. With convergence, Britain's expertise in the field and the prospect of liberalisation within Europe, to which he referred, we should be able in Europe and further afield to take the opportunity to promote British companies that have expertise not only in cable but in satellites. Behind that, it is true that we have a world lead in software. With the coming together of the Government and hon. Members with an interest in the area, there are many opportunities that could be to our national benefit.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to say a few words on the issue. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will feel able to respond to the points that I have raised—if not now, perhaps in more detail later or in writing if he wants to give the matter further consideration.

The Select Committee report has given us a welcome opportunity to bend our minds to the real challenge of the future, the opportunities for industry and the way in which each and every hon. Member will be working over the next several years.

5.10 pm
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the debate. He is a new Minister, who has been widely spoken of as someone who will take a new and dynamic view.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) on the Select Committee report that was published in July 1994. It is certainly one of the most interesting and informative reports on a technical subject that I have read for some time.

We heard some detail about the Internet from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). It made me realise that there was more to the discussion that I heard recently on the radio between Pat Kane, who is a pop star but also a graduate looking into the American way of life, and someone at the forefront in the United States who claimed that the Internet is now biological and should have rights written into the constitution.

I realise that it is no substitute for the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, but on that programme I heard about a marriage that had grown out of contact on the Internet. Perhaps it has more human attributes than one would think. I hope that it is working on a divorce package as well. The marriage may have been made not in heaven, but on the Internet—yet it may still end in the divorce courts.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that one of the advantages of the Internet is that we can be whoever we choose—male or female, old or young, black or white? That has some interesting implications for our democracy.

Mr. Connarty

I know that people reinvent themselves every day in this place, but I had not realised that they also did so on the Internet. My hon. Friend is the chair of the Back-Bench parliamentary Labour party committee on science and technology. I have tried to take an interest in those matters, but she is far ahead of me.

Indeed, I took the trouble to go to Martlesham to see the British Telecommunications experiments. It is clear that there is a future that we have not envisaged if only we allow it to come to us. In my constituency, within a few hundred yards of my home, there is a teleworking cottage in the converted stables of an old house. The great thing about a teleworking cottage, especially in an environment such as Scotland, is that not only can it train people to use computers, but because many jobs can he done across the Internet in various locations close to the company that requires work to be done, it can supply work to people in rural areas.

I am sure that we should be worried about some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, such as the change in social relationships if we begin to use teleworking, but there are great advantages in teleworking for, for example, a lady in a rural area. If she has no work, her choice is either to leave her rural environment or to find a new medium with which to contact the workplace—and obviously teleworking is one.

I was impressed by the Select Committee report, but I was disappointed by the Government's response, which was published in November, because it appears that, in the main, the Select Committee's recommendations have been rejected. The Government state in paragraph 7: the existing regulatory framework based on the 1991 Telecommunications White Paper continues to provide the best framework for development. They refer to an evolutionary environment. I do not propose that we go into a revolutionary mode, especially as the Labour party has changed clause IV, but I think that there are many reasons to be worried about keeping to the path that the Government are on.

Paragraph 7(b) states: the new local delivery franchises for broadcasting services should continue to be awarded on an exclusive basis". There is a danger that we shall end up with what was warned of in the Select Committee report, which is local monopolies becoming entrenched, rather than the sort of development that we need to face the potential challenge of the super-highway.

It is clear that the liberalisation of 1984 has had benefits. There are 125 cable franchises covering two thirds of the population—or rather, they pass two thirds of the population. As we have heard, although 3 million households are passed, only 650,000 are connected—only 21.5 per cent. I was surprised to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central say that that is the same percentage as for 1992, so progress seems to have been frozen.

Another interesting point is the 15 per cent. increase in telephones in households. No doubt that is aided by the cable companies offering telephony as well as entertainment services. I have read enough to know a little of what my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) said about local networks being only copper in many cases, not optical fibre. The aspiration—indeed, the prerequisite—for the sort of super-highway that we are supposed to be discussing tonight is that there should be optical fibre and, possibly, radio at the end of it to give us the broadband, two-way communication required.

I note that the national grid is to have another national network of optics across the grid. Fibreway, a company mainly owned by GPT Ltd., plans a national network along canalways. There will be a number of fibre optic national networks, but they will not necessarily reach what should be the final user. As the Select Committee said in its report, the railways will probably be another alternative for running an optical fibre network. The problem is that that would then link with a series of local networks of a much lower quality, which basically would have been put in simply to get a quick return from selling broadcasting services.

British Telecom and Mercury are locked out of entertainment provision. One of the major concerns of the Select Committee was that without their being allowed access, they cannot get into the broadcast income stream, so they cannot justify the sort of investment required to go from national to local.

Mr. Ian Taylor

On one specific point, it must be clear that BT and Mercury are allowed to do anything they wish, in an interactive sense, with any household in the country. In other words, that is a national possibility. Equally, they are allowed to bid for the new local delivery operators, using their existing infrastructure—again for taking entertainment, and in this case simultaneous entertainment, if they wish to bid. In both those circumstances, the policies that I set out in our response are an advance and show that, although the interactive aspect of BT has been there from the beginning, there are signs that there is competition, and therefore great potential for BT in that market.

Mr. Connarty

I had intended to deal with the point that the Minister made. I do not think that he is telling us that, at this moment, BT could put entertainment down the line nationally to sell to people in their homes. The 20 million telephone customers cannot suddenly be accessed for interactive or broadcast purposes nationally. I picked up that matter in what the Government said.

In fact, BT had six franchises, but it gave up five of them and retained an interest only in Westminster. The reason was that BT did not feel that that was compatible with its aspiration to develop a national two-way broadband network. The present regulations—or restrictions—have created local, not national, and narrow, not broadband, networks.

I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said about the quality of the Cambridge network. I am sure that it will fit in nicely with a national network, but it is probably one of the few that will. The point is that they will not be able to be stapled together.

That is my problem, coming at the issue very much from a lay person's viewpoint, and looking at what has been created—a series of local network loops that need to be stapled together to make a national network. But there is no main player willing to put the quality all the way down the line and to ensure that the network is put together. I do not know how the network loops can be stapled together to make a national network. Therefore, we may make a super-highway, but there will not be many turning-on points for the community and for users.

The Government's comment about public telecommunications operators was interesting. Paragraph 44 of the Command Paper states, as the Minister argued earlier: there is no asymmetry in the regulatory framework". He argued that BT had chosen to dispose of its cable franchises, but that BT and Mercury were able to act as agents for franchisees or to bid for franchises in local areas. It is worth noting that Mercury has 28 local cable franchises. As has been said before, it is owned by Cable and Wireless. That means that it is 80 per cent. owned by an American company.

No PTO can transmit entertainment nationally. On page 33 of the Select Committee's July report, BT said that, if it could transmit entertainment, broadcast services could eventually have such a significant impact on the economics [of broadcast networks] that their provision would allow voice telephony to be offered at marginal cost. That is an attractive prospect. It reminds me of the vision of "atoms for peace" that was discussed when I was a young boy. It did not come off in that industry.

BT seems to be saying that the main driving force behind its early development will become marginal compared with the fantastic and fascinating services that can be offered. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon made that point. The most important thing is not the infrastructure, but the services that it will carry, yet the Government seem to be locked into regulations. They are worried about the development of the infrastructure when they should look to the future and focus on the services.

People keep talking about the United States' involvement in cable companies. I was interested to note that United States companies have 67 per cent. of the cable market, that Canadian companies have 19 per cent., and that French companies have 5 per cent., leaving United Kingdom companies with only 5 per cent. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that the UK is the only country that allows telephony to be put down cable at the same time as broadcasts. All the advantages seem to be with the companies that will undermine the strength of our bigger companies, especially BT, which should be a lead company, with all advantages given. The policy is not sensible.

As a lay person, I find it freakish that the Government should forbid the 20 million plus customers of the PTOs to get on to the highest technology, the super-highway and the Internet. The Minister said that the intention is to consider the use of wavebands and radio in sparsely populated regions. The map on page 19 of the Select Committee report shows a small, fragmented area of black, which denotes the cable franchises in Scotland, plus only a little line around Aberdeen.

That is where the economic argument will come in. We might get the radio bands, but unless the project is supported by the Government or taken up by a company such as BT, which is big enough to take on extra infrastructure costs—as part of the public service return for the cash that it will receive from investment—I do not know how it can be done. No small, local cherry-picking cable companies could undertake such a project.

We have talked about the regulations, but a strong argument is advanced on page 46 of the report that there might be a single regulator. In the future, we shall have not cable, wireless or telephone companies, but a single stream of digital information, which will be in many forms as it is translated and transposed for use by the consumer and by companies. There is a strong argument for bringing together the Office of Telecommunications and the Independent Television Commission, to consider whether there should be one regulator. I note that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of National Heritage have regulatory roles as well. We need to get ourselves into the right mode and deal with who will regulate, rather than just with what the regulations will be.

My final thoughts are simple and possibly naive. They deal with what people at the other end of broadcasts may be thinking. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge explained the Internet. When television was first invented, it probably frightened off anyone who wished to buy a television, but it is now so commonplace in our homes that people do not see it; it is only a decoding machine, picking up signals practically from the ether. It has become simple to operate, but that does not mean that it is a simple device.

I hope that, in making our decisions on the super-highway, we realise that we should have something that the end user will use. It should not be used just to put down pulp films. It must be a simple device that allows people to extract and receive all the aspects of the information revolution that are coming. It is clear that, if all people participate, the country, the economy and our ability to survive in the world will grow. Many people will be left out if an all-access interchange on the super-highway is not achieved.

I must admit that, although I am fascinated by Internet explanations and I have a modem that allows me to get on to it, I am put off by the complexity of getting in and by other matters that were explained by the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall). I am put off by the fact that what comes out of it might engulf me, and I would not be able to cope with it. That is the worry of people in the home and in business. We must consider the interfaces and the end points as well as the highway as we develop it.

5.26 pm
Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe)

I apologise for being unable to attend the beginning of the debate. I declare an interest in the cable industry. I have the privilege of claiming to be the oldest living inhabitant of the British cable industry. I was persuaded by the visions of my then right hon. Friends in 1981-82. I believed that, as the phrase was then, the cabling of Britain was the future. I was co-founder of a company that subsequently became the Cable Corporation, of which I have the honour to be chairman.

Our vision in 1981-82 was flawed, because, as it turned out, it was not possible to create a cable television industry in this country until the telecommunications structure was liberalised. That transformed the panorama in such a way that this country has made unparalleled progress and is, incomparably, the leader in the field. Although some leaders in the rest of the world have discovered the communications super-highway—the Vice-President of the United States, the Japanese and the Germans talk about it—we have been plodding along heavily and with great financial difficulty, and doing it.

The statistics have already been given to the House about the number of kilometres we have, the number of homes passed, and the billions of pounds that have already been spent. We are a long way down the road, and far further towards a super-highway than any other country.

The Government have not been given enough credit for that foresight, with the honourable exception of my hon. Friend the Minister. Ministers do not take enough credit for what they have achieved. I pay credit to my hon. Friend, who has been a shot in the arm to this exciting industry.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Government and this country are so far ahead, why, in chapter 2 of their Command Paper in November of last year, did the Government say: The full scope of the opportunities offered by the convergence of telecommunications, broadcasting and information technology is only now becoming clear"? The Government have only just woken up.

Mr. Whitney

No. These questions are entirely relative, and have to do with the development of modern technology. A great deal is only now becoming clear. I mentioned Vice-President Al Gore a moment ago—it has become clear to his scriptwriters but, meanwhile, we have on the ground miles and miles of fibre-optic interactive network.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should cavil. This should not be a cross-party battle. We should for once all recognise that Britain happens to be ahead. It is sad that the hon. Gentleman feels it necessary to take such a carping approach.

Mr. Caborn

The hon. Gentleman is being a little economical with the truth, and giving a rather narrow reading of history. I am not making a party political point, but will he accept that the vast investment that went into British Telecom and the British communications industry occurred when it was in the public sector?

I do not wish to detract from British Telecom—it is a first-class company, a global player. It wants to invest £15 billion to £20 billion—that is the offer that Iain Valiance made the Government, but it has been turned down because the regulatory system, which was correct in its infancy, is no longer correct, because circumstances have changed. We are not moving with the times: that was the fundamental argument in the Select Committee's report.

Mr. Whitney

I know it was; I had the privilege of reading the report. Although he did not recognise the point in his intervention, I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that British Telecom had the opportunity afforded by the cable revolution. It had six franchises of its own, but opted out and walked away from them. I feel no ill will towards British Telecom. If it wishes to spend £15 billion in the future, let it do so. Although it is behind the eight ball, it is being slow. Billions of pounds have already been spent.

I am the first to wish that more of the investment in the industry was British. When we formed our company, the great majority of investors were British, but—I am sure hon. Members are acquainted with this sad phenomenon—the relative short-termism of British finance meant that it was a long haul. Many people invested as, let us say, venture capitalists, and thought that they would be involved for three years and then get out. That, however, is not the nature of this industry.

My company has been spending money for 12 years, and only last year became cash-positive. There cannot be many big industries where that sort of time scale is acceptable, so we have to give credit to the investors, whether they be American, Canadian, French or British, and recognise what they have done and are doing. They are creating a fibre-optic network for this country, at no cost to the taxpayer. That was the vision of the Government and the Department of Trade and Industry way back in 1981-82. It has been realised.

I hope that British capital will come back as the industry matures. The financial institutions have been pretty slow on the uptake, and slow to understand the potential. It is now being understood, and I am optimistic that British capital will come back to an exciting and important national industry.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) is no longer in his place but I wish to pick up a point that he made. He referred to the national network and the unsatisfactory stapling together of local networks. I hope that I can bring him good cheer, because that is happening very effectively.

There is in place something called the London Interconnect, which essentially joins the M25 area and beyond—from Berkshire to Essex—by means of fibre-optic connections. The quality is excellent, as good as anyone could wish for in this advanced stage of the technology. Plans are already well advanced to link region to region so that we have a fibre-optic national grid—again, at no cost to the taxpayer.

The Minister has already explained the opportunities available to British Telecom. From my experience with my cable company, I can testify to the fact that British Telecom's service improved out of all recognition virtually overnight, and the winner is the consumer.

Mr. Timms

The hon. Gentleman referred to the deployment of optical fibre by the cable companies. I acknowledge his point, but will he confirm that there is almost no deployment of optical fibre by those companies in customers' homes? Does he share my concern that that is where we are falling behind?

Mr. Whitney

It is true that there is a technical problem with the last drop, but I am confident that, in the next year or two, the last drop connection and a great many other interactive services will appear. The hon. Gentleman's intervention brings me to my next point.

Progress has, of course, been much slower than many of us would have wished, and certainly slower than the cable companies would have wished. They have a strong interest in getting the network in place quickly, so that they can earn revenue. There have been a range of tax changes, with which I shall not bore the House and with which many hon. Members are probably familiar, but that caravan is now rolling fast. Over the next year or two, I believe—in fact, I know—that there will be a range of new interactive services that will develop much more rapidly than they have so far, and more rapidly than seems likely in any other country.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall), there are great opportunities for British industry. I hope that large and small technical industries are fully alerted to those opportunities and to the challenge.

There are two further opportunities for Britain. The first concerns investment, and the second involves the provision of all the technology that the industry will need. Fundamentally, there is a terrific opportunity for British consumers and British business. Businesses in my area are happy to have BT and our local cable company supplying telephony services. Everyone benefits—as, for example, with the schools initiative.

I emphasise that this has been a success story. British Telecom has been given opportunities in the past and has great opportunities for the future. The structure created 10 or 12 years ago has not only stood the test of time but shown that it is capable of developing to the very great benefit of this country. We should rejoice in that fact.

Mr. Connarty

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I must apologise to the House. When I spoke earlier, I did not declare an interest. I was previously sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers, representing postal workers, which has amalgamated with the National Communication Union, which works in the telecom industry and is now called the Communication Workers Union. Had I not been sponsored by a union, however, I would not have changed what I said.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

I thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in rectifying the omission.

Sir Michael Marshall

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am prompted to say that I should have declared an interest in my speech since I am an adviser to Cable and Wireless.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Thank you very much.

5.39 pm
Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Many people like myself do not fully understand the complexities of the new technology, especially broadband. It was, however, explained to me that optical fibres were like a man or a woman flashing down a dark hole a torch carrying millions of Morse messages per second, and that each flash had multiple purposes. I am grateful for that explanation. I now understand. [Laughter.]

Mr. Caborn

What was the message?

Ms Coffey

What is the message? That is the question. Although I may not understand the exact technicalities, I understand that we are facing an enormous revolution in our working, leisure and even shopping practices, with all the involved possibilities for social change, and all the unpredictable consequences of it.

As the hon. Member who represents Stockport, which is in the heart of the north-west, I am all too aware that Stockport was at the heart of the original industrial revolution. One can still see the remains of that revolution in Stockport; the great cotton and engineering mills which are now empty. I shall refrain, however, from making any party political point. It is clear that that industrial revolution is over, but it has left a legacy of bitterness and anger. In its wake, the first industrial revolution brought wealth to some, and poverty, misery and oppression to others. As a society, we are still suffering the consequences.

Looking to the future, and to the second industrial revolution that will occur through this new technology, like many hon. Members, I think that we would be very foolish to let history repeat itself. The new technology gives us all a chance to give genuine equal opportunity to all members of our society. That is why I think that universal access to the services which have yet to be developed must be at the heart of the debate.

Nobody can second-guess what those services may or may not be and which of them will be successful. Will tele-shopping take off? Will tele-working take off? How many people will take advantage of videophones? Nobody knows about future services, but we know about the availability of the present infrastructure. Ensuring universal access to that infrastructure would lay the basis for ensuring universal access to the services which have yet to be delivered.

NYNEX Cablecomms is cabling Stockport, and l have had the usual complaints about sub-contractors digging up things that they should not and tree roots being threatened. I must say, however, that NYNEX has always been very helpful in my communications with it, and it has also contributed to the community by providing grants to local groups and to the local football team, Stockport County, which is in need of some help. I have not managed, however, to get from NYNEX—this is absolutely crucial—a commitment to cable every school in my constituency.

I welcomed the announcement last week by the Cable Communications Association to give a standard free link up for every school passed by, but it has not given a commitment to pass by every school. That commitment to a free link, therefore, is meaningless to ensuring universal access unless every school is linked. Any school outside that network, should broadband be needed in future to deliver services, would be seriously disadvantaged.

I strongly and passionately believe that the technology which is being developed is a means of ensuring that every child in every education authority is offered the same opportunity. For example, because of the way in which schools are funded, more pupils means more money for the school. The more money schools get, the more teachers they can employ, and the more specialist teachers they can employ.

If there were a link between schools, it would be possible for every school in a borough to take advantage of a specialist music lesson and to give all children equal access, irrespective of the school that they attended. I passionately believe that in this technology there is enormous potential to ensure equal educational access for all children.

A difficulty arises because there is already a telecommunications network. Although I welcome BT's offer to come to Stockport to discuss the projects that it is already implementing in rural areas, which sound very exciting, I cannot second-guess whether the existing telecommunications system will be able to take the available services in future, or whether a broadband infrastructure will be needed.

The Minister will be aware of my concern, because, when he came to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and showed what I thought was an admirable commitment to universal access in principle, I raised the matter with him. I ask him, therefore, to make it quite clear that it is not good enough for the Cable Communications Association to offer a free standard link. It must commit itself to link up every school if universal access is to mean anything. If the association makes that commitment, it would make a really positive contribution to the community, which would be greatly welcomed.

On a slightly different issue, the Minister is probably aware that there is much concern about the kind of films and other material which goes out on television—although it is, of course, subject to control. I believe that what consenting adults do, or what consenting adults watch other consenting adults do, is a matter for adults. The difficulty is that children may sometimes have access to such material or may be involved in the making of it, which is not acceptable to many of us. This is a difficult issue, because it is not easy to control material on the Internet. The issue needs to be not only addressed by the Government but raised at a G7 summit.

It would be helpful if, in responding to the debate, the Minister could say what progress has been made, or indicate how he thinks we could ensure that, given that individuals have the right to watch what they like, we can protect young children from being exposed to such material and being used in it. We must ensure that there is not a market for the use of children in making pornographic material for adults to view. I would be grateful for his response.

5.47 pm
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I shall undertake not to speak for quite as long as I did last night, because I know that at least one other hon. Member wants to speak. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Information. Like the Minister, I feel that I am occasionally attacked by hon. Members. I plead not guilty, as I cannot be responsible for the sins of my forefathers.

Several important things are happening in the House. Hon. Members will have noticed a response to a parliamentary question that I tabled a couple of days ago, notifying the House of the merger of some of the departmental responsibilities as a result of new technology. We are now experimenting seriously with getting Hansard on line. A new tool called Cello is now available to provide a very detailed and rapid search of Members' speeches within minutes of them making those speeches. Thanks to the co-operation between the staff of Hansard, the Library and the Computer Office, and the merging of technologies between Departments, important developments are being made. The latest is a hypertext search facility, which will be an extremely powerful tool for all hon. Members.

Mention has been made of the importance of getting House documents on to the Internet. If the Government and the House really believe in open government, they must, by definition, place documents on the Internet.

I understand—this somewhat pre-empts the first sentence of the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn)—that the Finance and Services Committee discussed a proposal last night from the Information Committee to start linking the House on the Internet. That is a wonderful step in the right direction.

The only thing that worries me is that, given some of the points that have been made, and the admission by the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) that he was watching this debate outside this place, we will end up with a virtual Parliament. Some hon. Members may think that that is a good idea, as we can run businesses in this virtual economy. However, some of our constituents might think that we should spend more time in the Chamber dealing with the important things in life.

Sir Michael Marshall

The hon. Gentleman has identified a genuine problem. He must appreciate that, in certain situations, it is very easy to sign one's mail while listening to a debate. It becomes even more tempting to turn the volume down for some colleagues and to turn it up for others.

Mr. Miller

Indeed—and I have listened to some of the hon. Gentleman's speeches before.

I want to take a brief trip around the world. A couple of weeks ago, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) and the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), in his capacity as chairman of the British-American parliamentary group, and I were involved in a video link with Tom Foley, the former Speaker of Congress. Such links are steps in the right direction, and they are steps which the House should be taking.

A couple of weekends ago, while I was at home, I introduced a friend of mine to the Internet. At the time, I was logged on to a database in the university of Iowa, in respect of a project with which the Science and Technology Select Committee is involved. My friend did not really believe that I was actually logged into a place so far away. I asked him what he would like to see, and he asked for something about South Africa.

Within minutes, I was able to show him, in real time, information from the African National Congress about the resolution of an industrial dispute. That matter would never have made it into the British media. That is a incredibly powerful demonstration of the direction in which the technology will take us. It will provide information that people would otherwise not be able to access.

There have been exciting developments in my home area of the north-west of England. A project has been approved in collaboration with five other European regions, funded by the European Union, to link the regions on an experimental basis for a five-year pilot study. That kind of development will radically impact on distance learning, and in particular on language learning, and on the exchange of technical and cultural information.

The north-west has industrial strengths which we can exploit. Reference has already been made to GPT. A great deal of original ISDN—integrated services data network—technology was researched in GPT in Liverpool when it was the old Plessey company. We must exploit that technology to its fullest potential.

Other major manufacturers in the north-west, particularly companies which have historically been involved in defence communications equipment, can provide an enormously powerful base for the future of those technologies, particularly when we consider the need to develop cryptographic techniques on the Internet to deal with some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell).

I would not deny that the cable companies are performing a particularly useful job. I will refer to the asymmetry implications in a moment. However, the companies should look around them, and see what other companies are doing in terms of providing infrastructure support to households, industries, schools and colleges.

The cable companies could do very simple things. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who declared an interest, is not here now, because I am referring to the company he mentioned. If the cable companies simply required their contractors to operate under the rules of BS 5750, we would not hear complaints like those we have heard from Stockport and Salford about the activities of that operation.

Perhaps the Minister will address that point when he replies to the debate. Perhaps he will send a very strong message to the cable companies to the effect that the House expects contractors who are opening the doors to huge sums of money for their own benefit to restore our streets and grass verges properly when they undertake that work.

On 28 February, I presented a paper to an industrial conference organised by Brunel university. A Conservative party representative was invited, but one was not sent. Several important issues were discussed at that conference. I commend to the House the paper entitled "Internet Futures", which was written by Jeremy Barnes, Jon Chalmers and Ian Pearson of the BT laboratories in Martlesham. I am aware that the Minister has a high regard for the work of the scientists at Martlesham.

That paper contains an interesting sentence, which I believe encapsulates the issues that we are dealing with: It can be argued that the development of optical fibre is commoditising bandwidth and hence driving the Information Revolution just as the steam engine drove the Industrial Revolution. That simple sentence, despite the very convoluted word in the middle, typifies the power of the technology at our disposal. The House should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central and the Trade and Industry Select Committee on their report. Their recommendations represent a powerful way forward. They have come up with a novel solution to the issue of asymmetry which will assist the cable companies and BT. It would be extremely helpful if the Government could say when they are going to adopt the recommendations.

The Select Committee report will provide us with a way towards universal access—a point raised by several hon. Members today. It will provide us with the basis for proper competition. It will also help our country to redevelop its industrial base.

In an early intervention, the Minister referred to radio wavelengths. When he replies, I hope that he will clarify what he means. I believe that he and I are—if I can use the awful pun—on the same wavelength in terms of the need to consider the technologies in their entirety. Radio, cable and twisted pair are necessary. Some of the technologies around twisted pair, like ISDN, will help solve some of the problems. However, radio will also be important.

In an earlier response, the Minister said that discussions were taking place about radio wavelengths. The cable companies tell us that they have a particular problem in this country about the area of the spectrum between zero to 4 GHz.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Everybody does.

Mr. Miller

Yes, and that is a problem, but it is one that other countries have tackled positively.

The Ministry of Defence largely dominates the distribution of that part of the spectrum. We must consider whether we need to keep that part in its hands, given the collaboration that is taking place across European frontiers and among NATO countries on other forms of communication inside the defence world. With some lateral thinking, it might be possible to release a part of that spectrum.

This debate can get very technical, but it is about one basic thing—people. It is a debate about how we best provide a proper basis for information exchange for the people of this nation. Yes, it is about entertainment, as some hon. Members said, and that is an important part. Yes, it is about improving education provision within schools, colleges and our workplaces. It is also about a new definition of work, with all the implications that that has. It is an exciting technology, and we should not miss out on exploiting it to the full.

While there is bound to be the odd, overtly political exchange, the simple fact is that, if the House is serious about providing the best for our citizens, we must take on board all the potential of this technology, as well as recognising that, on occasions, there are some dangers with confidentiality, pornography and so forth. The technology is there for everyone, and it should be made available to every citizen in our nation.

6.3 pm

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) for allowing me some time. I hope that the House will understand that I was unable to attend the earlier part of the debate due to a meeting of the Select Committee on Social Security and the investigation that it is carrying on.

I must declare a non-pecuniary interest, as I am involved in a charity in my constituency, which I was instrumental in setting up, designed to enable schools there to set up connections to the Internet and to develop electronic mail connections. To that effect, we have developed an exchange between schools in my constituency and in the district of Congressman Tim Petri in Wisconsin, in the United States of America. To date, more than 200 electronic mail letters have been exchanged between the schools. I hope that that will develop in an exciting way, although it will probably be slightly unpredictable. Pace Modems has supported that project and I probably ought to include it in the declaration of interest. It is a British company, and it has given at least one free modem to a school in my constituency.

Interestingly, the main point about the debate is that there is excitement on both sides of the House about the technology. It is enormously exciting. Clearly, as was said on the "Today" programme this morning—in a slightly different context, although it is none the less relevant to this debate—a new industrial revolution is taking place. The information technology revolution will transform the way in which we approach work, leisure, politics, government and virtually every other aspect of our lives. It is inconceivable that many of the things we do today will be done in the same way in 50 years, but it is also likely that they will not be done in the same way in as little as five or even 10 years. An enormous transformation in almost every human activity and the way in which we go about it will be provided by the information age.

In many areas, we do not have information at our finger tips, but the information age will literally put information there. It will be available at underground stations, in people's homes and places of work and in public buildings. There will be public access all over the country in all sorts of buildings, as well as in our schools and educational institutions.

It is not a technology solely for young people. Indeed, one of the constituents who sends me electronic mail is a pensioner. In one of his e-mail letters he said, "Mr. Shaw, I just wish this technology had existed in my day." As far as I know, he is still alive and he was certainly alive at the other end of the computer, but he is enjoying being on the Internet and sending e-mail to such an extent that he has signed up with not just one service provider but two. Clearly, that is the way in which many people of all ages will approach it—they will find it fascinating and it offers a tremendous opportunity to expand their knowledge and interest.

The Government's policy is right. We are deregulating where regulations exist and we are avoiding further regulation. That will encourage developments considerably. British software and hardware companies will come into the market, where they are not already there, although in many areas Britain is doing well and taking the lead.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to a visit around the world, and I would go along with that. On my experiences on the Internet, I enjoy looking at the UK Government's World Wide Web server, which is constantly being developed. I am pleased to be able to say that my hon. Friend the Minister recently posted his speech and his Group of Seven conference attendance. I am also delighted that one can monitor other Governments on line. I find it interesting to look on line. I can pop into the Japanese Prime Minister's office from my constituency home and have a look at what he has been saying recently. I can pop into the House of Representatives about half a minute later and have a look at what is going on in the United States Parliament while at the same time keeping tabs on some aspects of Washington life in terms of what Government decisions are being taken there.

The ability to do all this for the price of a local telephone call—

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Who is paying for all this?

Mr. Shaw

Clearly, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Private Secretary needs to understand a little more about how this operates. I pay for it—for the price of a local call on a Sunday. The service provider is in London, and one has access from there to anywhere. On a Sunday afternoon, one can dial up the headquarters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States and download a photograph of a US satellite or a shuttle programme. I have looked at the Central Intelligence Agency, which has a home page on the World Wide Web. One can find out all about spy craft and how American spies operated. One can also go for a quick tour of newspapers from St. Petersburg in Russia, Der Spiegel, and Italian newspapers, to the Palo Alto newspaper in San Francisco.

Knowledge is available now on the Internet. The World Wide Web, which was developed with British money in Geneva—we should never forget that British Government support helped that—has helped our developments. I should also pay tribute to the Government for their support for Super-JANET—not you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Super-JANET that has helped the United Kingdom's academic network to get under way.

There are many exciting developments in the United Kingdom and many opportunities for people all over the world to gain information, and for us to gain information that is relevant to our work in the House. What the Government are doing should be supported and encouraged. I hope that there will be further developments soon.

In conclusion, what is happening is enormously exciting and will transform our lives. I have been lobbied on political issues from New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and the United States. I expect that we shall all become true citizens of the world, and not merely of the United Kingdom. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments about further developments.

6.8 pm

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy)

I have a confession to make. I am not on the Internet, and I have no intention of going on the Internet. None of my constituents appears to be on the Internet, because none of them seeks to send me any electronic mail. As the political speeches made in this place are so boring, the idea of reading speeches from other parts of the world frankly fills me with horror.

First, I welcome the report and also the chance to debate it in the Chamber. I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Trade and Technology's personal enthusiasm for the information super-highway, in marked contrast with most of his senior colleagues in the Government. We need action, rather than warm words.

I wish to refer briefly to the speeches of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), and my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), for Falkirk, West (Mr. Connarty), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and for Stockton.

Ms Coffey


Dr. Moonie

My apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey)—the "Stocks" are difficult to distinguish.

All Members would agree that this has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's summing up. As regards the content of the report, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn)—whom I missed out of my list—that I agree with its general thrust, although I may well disagree with some points of detail.

My personal experiences of electronic communication are relatively limited. I had a box on a thing called Telecom Gold a few years ago, but unfortunately I lost the bit of paper on which my identifying number was pasted. I was never able to find it again, and eventually it fell into disuse. My only other direct connection with electronic information came when my annunciator went on fire two weeks ago. Clearly, I am an ill-fated player in the game of communications.

I wish to read to the House two passages from a recent report by SRI International called "Digital Video in Advanced Multimedia". The first states: The information superhighway is a myth created by media hyperbole. It is too vague and ill-defined a concept on which to set investment plans and national policy. It suggests that a single all-encompassing network will provide users with broadband access when in reality the 'highway' will consist of many networks with varying capabilities and services that link together". The second states: The notion that the computer, television, video-game and telecommunications industries are likely to merge into one gigantic full-service entity has no support and much evidence to suggest that the industries will continue to remain separate". That report was produced in the past couple of years at a cost of several million dollars, and it behoves us to take a close interest in it. It provides a down-to-earth view of where we are at present, and where we are likely to be going in the immediate future.

Mr. Whitney

Is the report based solely on American experience?

Dr. Moonie

The report costs about £900 and, I regret to say, I cannot yet afford to buy it. I have only seen the summary, although I am hoping to wangle it out of somebody in the near future. I may then be able to give the hon. Gentleman a more informed answer.

The basic analysis of the report is correct in that we as policy-makers are inclined to develop too rosy a view of what future technology may bring. However, the development of the super-highway and the important industries which surround it should not be left to market forces alone. This is one area where the Government can do many things to foster industry. Politicians must also consider social issues such as access to the system, and social effects which any major changes in working and consumer patterns may bring. These matters are important, but they remain largely under-developed at present.

What is meant by the information super-highway? While SRI International is right in stating that it is a vague and ill-defined concept, it is possible to have a stab at it. For example, the Internet is not an information super-highway, as anyone who has used it will agree. While it is becoming popular commercially, the majority would perhaps see it as a network of country lanes. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) referred to the cost of a telephone call on a Sunday afternoon, and that was apposite. That is an exact parallel with the Internet, along which one can amble while admiring the view every so often. The Internet is important because it demonstrates that there is a demand for the services on any super-highway that is ultimately developed.

The information super-highway is also not the delivery of 32 channel television services to all homes. Nor is it simply putting television and telephone services down the same pieces of wire or fibre. It may be a mixture of services, and include others for education, work, leisure, health, shopping or whatever people want. It is a system with relatively easy access to the great majority of individuals in society, and it mixes public service with private enterprise to allow us to gain the maximum economic and social returns.

In technological terms, it is the delivery of services on demand and interactively through a mixture of optical fibre, copper wire—twisted pair or coaxial—and digital radio transmission. The last of those is very important, and I trust that the Minister will spend some time on that during his speech. It is becoming an acute problem, as operators look to develop an end loop for users in remote areas.

The Labour party has stated that we will review the asymmetry regulations with a view to allowing BT to enter the broadcast entertainment market, and we will do that at a specified time—assuming, as I confidently predict, that there will be a Labour Government shortly. That date has yet to be decided because of certain technical and financial complexities. Our action will unleash the ability of British Telecom to raise the necessary capital to install its new infrastructure.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the Select Committee's advice in that respect, but perhaps it has been too restrictive. Cable companies have been slow to achieve a cash return for their investment, and many are not yet in that position. It would be most unfair to expect companies to face competition at a time when they are carrying a heavy burden of servicing debt with no cash stream to support it. Any system must take that into account.

Mr. Caborn

If hon. Members read the report carefully, they will see that we also put a series of safety valves into the recommendation. There would be a right to appeal where difficulties such as revenue flow could be taken into account. There could be other problems as the franchise licence unfolds during the seven years. We were clear about giving a target date for the firms, and if they were making unreasonable demands they could face a penalty, which would be competition. I thought that the object of the exercise was to make sure that firms were opened up to competition; that is why we said that the over-franchising on a rolling programme is the answer.

Dr. Moonie

I accept that the emphasis is on removing the asymmetry, rather than on the safeguards. I am just restating for the record that we are conscious of the need for safeguards and that companies will be allowed to make a decent return on their investments before facing competition from a national network. We must not forget that the national provider has a considerable advantage over local companies.

Any future regulatory regime must preserve competition in long distance and local services, and must also ensure that there is a real choice for the consumer over as wide an area as possible without unnecessary duplication. The key to any effective long-term strategy for information super-highways is that we are talking about consumer choice and that we are empowering individuals. We are not empowering News International, NYNEX, the BBC, British Telecom or any other provider to tell people what they can watch in their own homes. They can put a box on their television or computer and they can choose, without restriction, from everything that is available to watch. There is wide agreement on both sides of the House that we must ensure that consumers and individuals are empowered, and not the providers of services.

Another important area for the Government to consider is the present state of anti-competition law in this country. There are grounds for saying that we should perhaps be considering strengthening the laws on competition, not to provide another stick to beat companies' backs but in the hope of being able to proceed with lighter regulations in the future. If the legal framework is stronger, the framework for regulation can in turn be lighter. That is the view of the Director General of Oftel and I support it.

Cable companies pay for the use of long-distance and local networks of other operators, including BT, through interconnection agreements. If BT is allowed to compete for the delivery of entertainment services locally, why should it then be entitled to dig up our streets again? I live in a small, relatively quiet constituency in Scotland—Kirkcaldy—which has the good fortune to have been completely cabled.

I say to my hon. Friends who have complained about their experiences that mine has been relatively benign. The cable companies broke a few water mains every now and then, including one outside my door, and managed to dig up one of the telephone lines in my area, but I had remarkably few complaints and the exercise in now complete. I would receive an awful lot of complaints from my constituents if BT dug up all the streets again to lay another network in the local loop.

Just as we pay for interconnection agreements on the long-distance loop and have common carrier obligations, that may be necessary in areas where BT cannot readily install an alternative network. Where it can do so, I have no objection, although it may be a waste of money and cheaper to impose a common carrier obligation on the provider of the local loop. Once broadband services are available, however, it becomes immaterial, because the loop can carry any volume of traffic that one wishes to send down it. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wycombe pulls a face about that, but it seems to be the logical choice. Companies have a common carrier obligation, so I see no reason on grounds of competition why a common carrier obligation could not be employed in the local loop.

Mr. Whitney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Moonie

I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.

If I pick up a telephone here in the House of Commons, the exchange decides whether to connect my call through BT, Mercury or the Government telecommunications network. It is invisible to me as a user. If, at home, I wish to view a television channel or buy from a home shopping service, why should I care whose infrastructure I use? However, I do not want two separate lines coming into my house, and I certainly do not want my streets dug up again. That general view has been expressed to me by constituents who have asked about that point.

We often talk about broadband services and the possibilities that they can open up, but those services must be demand-led rather than technology-pushed. Experience of users of new multi-media services shows that at present there is little demand. The Rochester, USA, trial reported in The Economist a couple of weeks ago is a good example of that. So there is no guarantee that the services being developed will be taken up until people really want to use them. People will not pay for them unless the demand is created.

Cable companies have been relatively successful in acquiring subscribers, but they have certainly not developed an overwhelming desire among the population for their services. The search is still on for the killer applications—those that will make the difference—and who can say what they will be? I certainly cannot. Cable companies have also had the luxury of bidding for franchises in areas where they see the most market potential. That has by no means given us a broadband national network, nor will it when the next strand of licences is produced. At best, 80 per cent. of homes in the country will have access, and there is no guarantee that BT would go further than that.

I put that question directly to Sir lain Vallance, who made the point clearly. BT will not cable up every home in the country, whether it is given immediate access to broadband services or not, so we must look at other ways of doing that. It will not be done entirely by fibre-optic cable. Radio is important for remote areas. Like it or not, we shall end up with a patchwork quilt of services that are interconnected. There is nothing wrong with that, provided that the right standards are employed to begin with.

That is another role for regulation in the market because cabling must be at the right level to promote competition but also ensure that the widest area is covered. We must ensure that there is proper inter-connectability of all parts of the service. The Government have a duty to set standards in that respect. I am still not certain whether that is currently the case. I think that it would bear close scrutiny from the Department for Trade and Industry to see what more should be done to strengthen it.

The Government also have a role as a procurer of services. The state still plays a major role in the provision of postal services, has its own telecommunications system and is the biggest single procurer of information technology systems in the country. If one wants to see what a broadband communications system looks like, one can look at Super-JANET. I shall not repeat the joke at the expense of Madam Deputy Speaker, to her great relief, I am sure. Scottish Telecom is busy developing a similar system to connect all the universities in central Scotland, as not every university has access to Super-JANET.

Other public agencies, such as the national health service, buy into broadband services for the transmission of medical records. As a major procurer, the Government have an opportunity to support those developments. A little foresight now could pay large dividends in future. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the NHS. We must never forget that it wasted some £100 million in the past 10 years on information technology systems which did not work. We certainly do not want to go down that road again and it may be worth our while to pay a little more attention to the development of proper software services which can make use of the available capacity to carry them.

Another role of Government is the promotion of common standards throughout the European Community. I expect that the Minister will refer to that in his wind-up speech, so I do not propose to dwell on it now. It is also important to recognise that the super-highways must not be dominated by one supplier of software, as has largely happened in the computer industry. We must insist on open standards and an open system so that any package can communicate with any other that is available. Although the information super-highway is not an economic panacea, it may be an economic necessity if we are to compete with the rest of the world. If we get the policy framework right soon, we can play a major part in its world-wide development.

The last role of Government that I wish to mention is in promoting social and educational services. I welcome the commitment by the cable companies to cable all schools in their franchised areas. I hope that they will extend that public service offer to public offices, libraries and other elements of the public service infrastructure so that we can start to develop genuinely local information channels which will provide enormous benefit to their areas. Although local government faces tight restrictions on spending, I hope that Ministers will extend the funds available for items such as information technology to allow the development of services which will rapidly become essential. Will the Minister comment on that?

Few people have spent much time considering the potential for social disintegration if information super-highways ultimately make major changes in our patterns of work and leisure. I do not like the idea of parents and children no longer interacting other than remotely. The implications of super-highway development for social cohesion must be studied now—not once it is already in place, when it will be too late.

The information super-highway may be ill-defined, so let us all start to develop a vision of what we want from it so that our demands, in turn, lead to the technological development we need. We may not get a single national network, so let us be clear about how we shall regulate for fair competition and equal access to networks. Let us ensure that those many networks can be properly linked through common standards. SRI doubted whether various industries would converge in the super-highway. In the long run, that may be in the best interests of everyone involved: consumers, hardware manufacturers, software developers, programme makers, and anyone else who travels along the super-highway, but particularly the consumer.

6.28 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)

This has been a remarkable debate. It has covered a vast area, and in the remaining time I shall find it almost impossible to do justice to the points that have been made. I therefore promise to e-mail everyone who has spoken on points that I do not cover, with the exception of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), with whom I shall use more traditional measures—a glass of whisky and a chat, in person rather than on the video link.

Mr. Kirkwood

May we all have that?

Mr. Taylor

As a Minister, I make a special offer, but I make only one per speech.

The report of the Trade and Industry Select Committee is a remarkable document and I add my praise to the kind comments about the Committee's work and about its Chairman. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) has done an extremely good job in co-ordinating the work of the Committee. I am extremely grateful to him because, as I said when I appeared before the Committee recently, the report arrived on my desk at virtually the same time as I was appointed Minister for Trade and Technology.

I read it avidly as part of my learning process. The questions that arose as I read the report were ultimately included in the Command Paper, which was published last November. I hope that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central appreciates that it is a measure of the seriousness with which I viewed the report that the Department of Trade and Industry released a Command Paper rather than a simple reply. The hon. Gentleman enjoys detail. If he reads the Command Paper regularly—I know that he would not just glance at it once—he will notice the policy evolutions that it contains. I hope that he will grasp those evolutions because Governments do not often make such progress. He knows exactly to what I refer.

As many hon. Members have said, we face the problem of how to deliver benefits to everyone. It is very easy for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that everyone in the country must be on the information super-highway. That statement is a good soundbite that will capture the headlines, but what does it mean? For a start, it is misleading, because there is not, and cannot be, any such thing as a "super-highway". If the word is to be used at all, it should be used in the plural. I was delighted that several hon. Members noticed that fact.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and I agree that the super-highway is an interconnection of many different networks, the evolution of which will often be unpredictable and will stem from both the development of technology and surprising changes in demand patterns. It is not a criticism to say at this juncture that Britain does not have an optical fibre super-highway to every household in the country. Most people would not know what to do with a bit of optical fibre cable if it were stuck into their houses.

One hon. Member—I apologise for not recalling who it was—said that we use the telephone for only a few minutes each day. Americans use the telephone for about five times as long, so they are much more likely to want to use any information system which requires a connection. For example, personal computers in America are much more likely to be connected to the cable network by a modem than computers in this country.

A staggering number of personal computers and a large number of CD-ROMs were purchased in this country last Christmas. That is a very good sign. It is excellent news that more British households are accessing the new multimedia discipline of CD-ROMs, but that has nothing to do with the information super-highway. Multimedia becomes a part of the information super-highway when it is connected to the network and—to give a simple illustration—when a CD-ROM can be updated with statistics from a databank via the telephone line. We are likely to move in that direction more slowly than the Americans, but I would argue that we shall move more rapidly than other countries in the European Union.

The information networks—to use a broader definition—require a series of different stages of technology that will be adapted to meet the likely needs of consumers, such as business men and institutions, but which will be capable of being upgraded as demand changes. That is a very important point that did not quite come out of the otherwise excellent speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central.

It is not a criticism to say that twisted pair is connecting into households, because, with new technology and the increasing roll-out of integrated services data network lines, an enormous amount of information can be sent to any house through more traditional methods. It is certainly true that BT has very little optical fibre close to the household. BT's networks are fibre-reach, but at a certain point in any locality they switch to more traditional systems. Therefore, one cannot criticise the cable companies for following a similar pattern of operation.

The point is: can the networks be upgraded when demand requires it? The Cable Communications Association and BT have satisfied me that that is precisely what can and will happen. For example, BT has made it quite clear that any business with more than five telephone lines can be transferred to optical fibre. That is excellent news.

One of the difficulties that I see as a Minister sponsoring the information society question is that we must encourage individuals to know what to ask for from the networks. What applications will people have for the networks? How will families adapt from their present low level of interactivity—using the television remote control—to using a similar mechanism in order to access home shopping, home banking, long-distance learning and the wonderful array of technological projects which we know exist already? They do not have to be invented; they are there now. One can see them at Martlesham or at the BBC.

The hon Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) rightly paid tribute to the interactive experiments that are going on in Cambridge. They are equally as impressive as the experiments that BT is running in the Ipswich-Colchester area. I do not think that it serves anyone's interest to say that one is good and one is bad. Both experiments are interesting and they will lead to a growth in knowledge of not only what is technically possible, but what individuals are likely to demand.

Mr. McWilliam

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Taylor

I will give way so long as the hon. Gentleman understands that I am under great time pressure.

Mr. McWilliam

The Minister is in grave danger of misleading the House unintentionally because he does not seem to understand the restrictions on compression technology, which enable certain signals to be sent down twisted pair copper, and the lack of that restriction on fibre technology.

Mr. Taylor

I understand some of the technological issues—remarkable as that may seem for a Minister. However, I do not think that we should blind the House with science at the moment. We all want to move ultimately to a fully switched asynchronous transfer mode system; but that is not the point that I am making. We should not denigrate the current system in this country, because it has enormous applications of which we are still not taking full advantage.

Videotron in south London provides interactivity services. It is interesting that, when interactivity is offered to Videotron's customers, the penetration rate grows and the churn rate reduces—to use terms with which the industry is familiar. In other words, Videotron loses fewer customers who subscribed to its services initially.

We already have a very high-grade network. We have more leased lines of more than 2 MB in this country than any other country in Europe. Because of the competition which has flowed from the policies of liberalisation, our telecommunications costs could be cheaper than those of many other countries. Cheaper costs, combined with massively increased computer power, will form the backbone of the super-highways, which one can then try to use for varying levels of application.

Britain is making considerable advances in this area. Our policy of liberalisation has been successful, which is precisely why the European Union is now following that policy. We have already agreed to the liberalisation of alternative structures which are otherwise known as cable. That is why Commissioner Van Miert is becoming extremely agitated that companies are not opening up to the competition that already exists in Britain.

One of the complications for the recommendations of the Select Committee report is that Commissioner Van Miert is making it clear that within the European Union alternative infrastructures such as the cable industry will not be allowed to fall into the hands of the existing dominant telephone companies, which is precisely why he intervened recently in Germany.

The policy in Britain has not only brought considerable investment—as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) has said, the cable industry alone has produced £10 million of investment in Britain—but has enabled many parts of the country to access alternative infrastructures which are messy to install.

I agree with the point about BS5750. It was an extremely constructive comment that I shall take up with the Cable Communications Association, although since kicking it in the autumn, it has considerably improved its standards and has taken on tree experts to ensure that cable companies do not alienate the very communities which they are hoping subsequently to serve.

Mr. Caborn

May I apologise for my colleagues on the Select Committee, as many of them are in Brussels this evening and therefore cannot be here? One thing may be extremely helpful. The Minister may well agree with it but have some difficulty in responding to the question. Does he consider it right to have an end date for the exclusions of public telecommunications operators of 2001 and 2002? That would be quite an advance for the industry—not just for BT and Mercury, but also for the supplier industries.

Mr. Taylor

I have no wish as Minister to cause unnecessary damage to BT or the other public telecommunications operators caught by the restriction. We must be quite clear that the only restriction on BT is the ability it has to pass simultaneous entertainment programmes down its existing infrastructure. It is now allowed to supply all the interactive services it wishes, and it is allowed to supply entertainment and interactive services to business and industries.

The review dates set were 1998 and 2001 for conveyance and provision. In my view, as I said in evidence to the Select Committee, the precondition for the review is competition. At the moment, the elements of competition are well under way. Those elements were seen and commented on by the Director General of Oftel in his consultative document in December, and I would be quite surprised if reviews did not take place on the dates mentioned. Although there will, of course, be a Conservative Government, it is unlikely that I will be the Minister at the time; nevertheless, that is my impression, and I am repeating what I said in evidence to the Select Committee.

The important point is for us to examine how we can make best use of the varying stages of infrastructure in the United Kingdom. We have heard many interesting comments from hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) mentioned several important issues—in particular, rural areas. I am supremely concerned about rural areas. Clearly, it will not be commercially obvious that every isolated cottage will get the full optical fibre broadband technology, but, as I have already stated, some 92 per cent. of the British population are effectively connected to the telephone network. That is why I have continued with the arrangements in the Command Paper to say that BT should consider itself open to bid on its existing infrastructures for the new local delivery licences that we have announced. That will enable it to reach outlying places.

Secondly, I have had extensive talks with BSkyB. Although one cannot be interactive with BSkyB because satellite receivers do not work in the reverse direction, BSkyB linked to a telephone line can provide what is pretty close to interactivity, as the smart card can then pick up the requested programme, whether it be educational or video on demand.

Thirdly, I am looking closely at releasing more radio spectrum, which is not easy. The point made earlier about radio spectrum is that it is complicated. The area that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) mentioned is not all MOD; some of it is already in use. I understand the technical problems and I shall not bore the House with them. I am also looking at above 10 GH. There is considerable interest in both those areas and, as they say, watch this space.

The difficulty is not just the MOD. We will get more efficient use of radio spectrum when we move to digital television. The problem with analogue broadcasts is that they need to be kick started at each transmitter, which obscure a great deal of radio spectrum in and around the particular transmitter area. I am considering various possibilities, and I am keen to make progress as fast as possible.

Speeches this evening have shown a great deal of interest. I was impressed by the knowledge of the hon. Member for Blaydon about everything technical, but not about the Bangemann report or the G7 conclusions. I do not want to get into a tangle with the hon. Gentleman, but if he takes the time to read the Green Papers that the Commission has produced, he will find that they follow closely the direction that we have taken in Britain, largely because we had a massive input on the whole process. Therefore the European Union is moving in our direction.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) made some interesting comments. I agree with her about the BBC, but I do not have time to get into that. I am also worried about encryption. The opportunities for open democracy are intriguing, but I will have to urge hon. Members to call for another debate if they wish me to raise that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) made some interesting points about convergence of technology and raising the profile of communications. I shall willingly do that soon.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) was worried about interconnection, which, commercially, is in everybody's interests and is happening. Some interesting points were made about monitoring of the Internet, and I am happy to answer them in writing because I am concerned about them too and I think it is important that we examine video on demand, which concerns the ITC.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is hard at work in his constituency on the Internet and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) has considerable experience in the subject. He was right to say that British capital is now coming in—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the debate was concluded, pursuant to the resolution (6 March).

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates).