HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc657-73 'Any information held by the Radio Communications Agency relating to the assignment of the spectrum, shall be made available on request to the Spectrum Management Advisory Group and to users of the spectrum.'—[Mr. Boswell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.15 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 9, in clause 5, page 5, line 4, at end insert 'and shall be listed in the annual report of the Radio Communications Agency.'.

Mr. Boswell

One or two hon. Members may be aware that I have been a long-standing supporter of Aston Villa football club, whose motto is, "Be prepared". It is a principle in this place that one should be prepared for anything, as I am sure the Government are at this hour tonight, after the wise passing of the 10 o'clock motion.

It is with some gratitude, as well as trepidation, that I avail myself of the opportunity for the first time to involve myself in matters concerned with wireless telegraphy. In doing so with all due diffidence, I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), in respect of his technical expertise, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), in respect of his legal and administrative expertise, as well as to their knowledge of the subject and participation in the Standing Committee. To use a story that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire related to the Standing Committee, no doubt any No. 404 web server errors on my part will be duly and immediately corrected by one or the other of them.

I would not wish to cause any undue trepidation by my arrival at the Dispatch Box. Although I have already announced my football allegiance, my cricketing allegiance is to my county of birth, which is Essex. One of the most distinguished cricketers of yesteryear in that county and an Essex man indeed was the late J.W.H.T. Douglas—"Johnny won't hit today". Unless severely provoked, I was not going to set myself up in the role of being typecast as Mr. I.W.G.L.T. of Daventry— I.W.G.L.T. standing for, "It will go late tonight". However, I am deeply encouraged by the support that I am receiving from my hon. Friends in that part.

I have to admit that these matters were clearly exquisitely debated on Second reading and in Committee. The Government had a certain lead provided by their predecessor in this matter and had the benefit of wise advice in those considerations.

The new clause and the amendment seek further elucidation of the Government's position and reinforce our determination to ensure that the changes, which we do not oppose in principle, are genuinely for the assistance of users and consumers of the spectrum.

New clause 1 represents a welcome to the Government's initiative in setting up a spectrum management advisory group. We want the Government to provide as soon as possible further details of their thinking on the operation of the group. We offer them the opportunity to start sharing those details tonight. If the group is to represent users and to function properly, its members must have access to information—that is the purpose of the new clause. In complimenting my hon. Friends who drafted the new clauses, I should say that mostly they are written in plain English, so that even I can understand them.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I hope that I am not pre-empting anything that my hon. Friend is going to say, as I may have been slightly guilty of doing so on a previous occasion. The new clause specifically says that information…shall be made available on request to something called the Spectrum Management Advisory Group and to users of the spectrum". Does that imply that information would be in the public domain, or does he intend that it should be more restricted? It is important that that is cleared up early on.

Mr. Boswell

My right hon. Friend has an amazing capacity for anticipating questions that even I have asked myself and, indeed, of which I was modestly hoping to dispose. Either he has some power of telepathy, which may be useful in relation to spectrum matters, or, conceivably, he has particularly keen eyesight and can read my notes over my shoulder.

As I said, the advisory group must have access to information to function properly. That information will usually be properly releasable to the group and into the public domain. It may be necessary to make provision for cases in which there are aspects of that information that are properly available only in confidence.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Boswell

I readily give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), whom we are pleased to see in the Chamber because of his close involvement with these matters in the previous Administration. His undoubted expertise will assist us in our deliberations.

Mr. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on this issue. Before we experience the full charge of the radio waves between my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and him—which I am sure will lie at a very high part of the spectrum and so should be attractively priced from the point of view of the revenues that could be raised— I remind Conservative Members that they should take credit for the Bill. We drafted it, we nurtured it and, in many cases, we would have removed many of the difficulties, not all of which have been perfectly translated by the Government. The industry has shown by its responses that it takes a keen interest in the Bill. The Government have undoubtedly picked up an interesting piece of legislation, but it requires the scrutiny that my hon. Friend is about to give it.

Mr. Boswell

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for his previous contribution, but also for the contribution that I am sure he will make tonight. The Bill builds on his personal achievement in taking these matters forward, but, as he has very generously, and with characteristic modesty, conceded, everything—even a good idea from a Conservative Government—brooks examination and may be capable of improvement.

In tabling the new clause, we are saying that it may be sensible to provide in the Bill for the release of information either under controlled conditions, or directly into the public domain, so that the spectrum management advisory group can consider how things are going. The new clause certainly gives the Minister an opportunity to say how she believes information should be released.

If the group is to do that job properly, it is essential that the information is provided. That is the major reason for the new clause, but a second and important one is that, taking the Government's declared philosophy of freedom of information, information should not be withheld by the Government unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.

We sometimes have difficulties in getting information from the Government and in getting answers to our questions, but that is something that we hope to underline by introducing our new clause.

Mr. Forth

Will my hon. Friend give way before he leaves that point?

Mr. Boswell

I readily do so.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend expect that the Government will accept the new clause? It strikes me as somewhat odd, following what he has said, that, if the Government really believed in the oft-repeated philosophy of open government and freedom of information, such a provision would have been built into the Bill from the outset. Does my hon. Friend know why it has to be our new clause that puts into effect the Government's own philosophy? Why was it not in the Bill already?

Mr. Boswell

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. If there are occasions when Opposition Members have been guilty of paranoia in finding it surprising that Ministers have not accepted our entirely reasonable amendments to other legislation, that does not mean that they were not out to get us. I really do not know why the Government did not include such a provision from the start. The Minister has an opportunity of redeeming herself by explaining tonight why it should not be accepted.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Boswell

Yes. We are anxious to make progress on these Benches, but I give way to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Davis

I thank the Opposition spokesman for being so kind. May I bring him back to the point raised earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the extent to which the information given to the spectrum management advisory group should be made public?

Giving information to a narrow group or industry group can create a barrier to entry. That is the sort of thing that the Conservative party always tries to prevent. We want to see the maximum possible competition. Surely we should draft the Bill to ensure competition by making the information available to all, not just to some narrow industry group.

Mr. Boswell

Indeed, Conservative Members are believers in open government for the many, not for the few. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) performs a very reasonable task in making that point. He is essentially saying—this would be my merit order, if I may borrow another analogy—that the ideal is the release of information into the public domain. The second best is release of the information to the spectrum management advisory group, if that is as far as it may properly go. The third best—I fear that that is where the Government are unless they accept our new clause—is simply to keep the information in house.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

One should give acknowledgement to the Government. Between proceedings in the other place and here, the industry was keen to see a spectrum management advisory group set up. The Government, by press release, said that they would set one up. I hope that now, because of the amount of time that has elapsed, the Government have been able to think again. Nowhere in the Bill does it say that the group will be set up. My hon. Friend rightly says that we do not know who will be members of the group. Will it be just a few Labour councillors, as there are on most quangos being setting up now, or will it really be representative?

Mr. Boswell

My hon. Friend and I share the common objective of preventing the group from being merely a press release. We do not want what I might call a metaphorical spectral spectrum management advisory group. We want a real one and we want to hear more details of it than have been given to us so far. But, of course, I defer to the Minister. She is an honourable Lady. I am sure that her intentions are entirely of the best, but her explanations are urgently required.

In that spirit, I shall not detain the House very much longer on this group, but I wish to refer to amendment No. 9, which is bracketed with new clause 1. The amendment provides for some transparency in the issue of grants. If they are to be issued for research and to take forward the use of a limited national resource, the spectrum, they must be seen publicly to be used to best effect. That is an important matter of accountability, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden will be as concerned with it as anyone.

Some years ago, I chaired a grant-making charitable trust. We always gave considerable details of our modest grants in our annual report.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Has my hon. Friend noticed that sitting behind him are no fewer than three former Ministers who were associated with the Radiocommunications Agency and laid the foundations for the Bill? Does that prove that for new Labour, one can read old Conservative—with one difference: we are more committed to open government than are Ministers of the so-called open Government?

10.30 pm
Mr. Boswell

I would not wish my hon. Friend to tempt me too far. The Government are clearly on message tonight.

It is important that there should be the maximum possible transparency. It is somewhat distressing that a Bill that received a Second Reading as long ago as 29 October should have mouldered until now, before its further consideration. There was a Committee stage, but that took place in the middle of November, long before I joined the shadow Department of Trade and Industry Front Bench. Some of us have been preoccupied with one or two other considerations up till now, but we are pleased to be here to discuss the Bill.

We are here not to fight the principle, but to ensure that the details are properly secured. Like any proper attitude to legislation, those details should begin with a commitment to the maximum openness of information. That is the purpose of the new clause.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to support my hon. Friend by speaking to new clause 1. The issue of access to information arising from the Bill was discussed a little in Committee, but the discussion tonight can be more focused, now that it is clear that the Government's intention is to establish a spectrum management advisory group. It is incumbent on the House to consider the purposes for which that is to be used. The adoption of the new clause would improve the Bill and would implement the Government's intentions.

The principle of openness in respect of telecommunications activities is well established. As the Minister will know, the Telecommunications Act 1984 began a process of increasing transparency in the issue of licences, which has greatly benefited the telecommunications industry. It has not helped one competitor to obtain an advantage of information over another, but, for reasons that were made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), transparency in the marketplace and availability of information are essential to create a better marketplace.

We are moving through the system of spectrum pricing to a device that is intended to create a market. If it is our intention to create a market, we must provide the mechanisms that help to make markets work more effectively. Pre-eminent among those is the availability of information. A market in which there is differential information among those participating is a distorted market.

It would be remiss of us to agree to a Bill whose later clauses should be based on a high level of transparency for those who are putting in bids for auctions for spectrum allocation, if the information available to them would be inadequate.

One or two issues have arisen, and it might be helpful if the Minister referred to them. First, I wish to refer to the Radiocommunications Agency's database. I do not profess to be sufficiently expert to be able to articulate the concerns in detail, but there is concern in the industry that the amount of information available on the database, the form in which it is available, and the reasons for agency decisions—for example, in relation to the assignment of applications for fixed links and the plotting of fixed links across the country—may not be sufficient. We ought to look through the database for greater understanding of the allocation of spectrum, the reasons why spectrum has been allocated to particular purposes and the reasons why applications for particular spectrum or fixed links have been turned down.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Has not the Radiocommunications Agency always been a technical organisation—looking after worries about signals interfering with one another—but is now having to move to a market-sensitive role? The user group was clearly designed to help the agency come up with the right decisions. The Government must tell us how they will extend the agency to allow it to fulfil these new functions.

Mr. Lansley

My hon. Friend makes a good point which will inform our discussions as we proceed through Report. The agency—with which I have had dealings in the past—has acknowledged expertise and produces a fine service in relation to the technical management of the spectrum. However, we are looking towards a different structure, which includes an assessment of economic and consumer benefits, and so on. This pre-empts slightly discussions on subsequent new clauses and amendments, but it is relevant to this new clause.

Within the responsibility for the assessment of consumer benefits and the allocation of spectrum on the basis of bids—and the more efficient management of spectrum for economic, and not simply technological, purposes—is an understanding of the marketplace within which the operators—those making applications to the agency—are having to work. There is considerable sensitivity in the industry which wants assurances about the degree of information it will receive.

Can the Minister assure the House that, in planning and implementing changes to the agency's database, the amount of information available to operators will be at least as full as is available at present? Secondly, in designing the database and the relationship that operators will have with it, will she work closely with the industry to ensure that that is achieved to the maximum? The spectrum management advisory group will doubtless have a role, but the Minister must look beyond that group to the industry more generally.

My second point is that, after the Committee stage, it was put to me that some transparency in the way in which the agency assigns links would be highly desirable, but there was concern that information being acquired by the agency was not necessarily being put into the public domain where it might have had greater value than it has simply resting with the agency and the Department.

Particular reference was made to a report—commissioned, I am told, by the Radiocommunications Agency—carried out by the university of Bristol. It was designed to look into calculating spectrum congestion as part of research into trying to understand on what basis one can implement excess, not administrative, pricing to try to manage spectrum better. One needs an understanding of how spectrum congestion has occurred.

It was suggested that the report could be published, but, at that time, had not been. Is the Minister aware of the report and the effect that it might have on the calculation of spectrum congestion? Perhaps it is appropriate for the report to be put into the public domain, in the spirit of openness encouraged by new clause 1. I hope that that is the Department's intention.

I shall rest on those two questions and the general proposition that not only is it desirable that the availability of information should be encouraged specifically through the spectrum management advisory group, but information should go beyond that, into the industry to ensure that, when we discuss spectrum allocation, the market is fully informed through an understanding of the ways in which the agency allocates spectrum, and the terms of the licences that it offers.

Licences are confidential documents between the agency and the operator. That is perfectly legitimate, but, in the marketplace, transparency in licensing has become the norm in relation, for example, to telecommunications operators. There is a case for transparency to be carried through into the agency's licences as well.

Mr. Ian Taylor

I wish to add just a few words, particularly on access to information.

Although it does not look like it, the Bill is a dramatic step forward in how we manage a scarce resource—radio spectrum. Radio spectrum is something which people cannot see, so they do not necessarily think that it has any great value, but it has enormous implications for the running of the economy in an age of digital communications, most of which will increasingly use the radio spectrum in some form to effect those communications.

The Bill also begins the transformation of the merger of fixed and mobile telephony. It will have a big impact when we move to digital television, which will free up a lot of local spectrum because the same amount of power around a particular transmitter will not be needed. The analogue spectrum needs to be kicked on from transmitter to transmitter, which creates great local disturbance. Digital signals are much clearer and travel further, and therefore will give back a considerable amount of spectrum, which we can use successfully. The way in which we use it, however, should be a function of market pricing.

In each of the areas that we are talking about, the public will need to understand fully what is going on. The Bill does not introduce a hidden tax. It is not some method used by the Government to penalise people. It is, dare I say it, a Conservative measure designed to use the market to enable a scarce resource to be properly managed between willing users.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

On Second Reading, we were slightly surprised that the shadow Secretary of State reversed the pledge in the Conservative manifesto and opposed the measure, saying, in contrast to what we have just heard, that the Bill introduces a disguised tax. Most other Conservative Members who spoke supported that view.

However, it seems that tonight, we shall hear a reversal, and that most Conservatives will take the opposite view. I am curious about whether those mass conversions happen individually, or whether the Conservatives have a sort of session, as the Reverend Moon does in South Korea, and it all happens simultaneously.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, I must point out that we are now going rather wide of the mark. I remind him that both the new clause and the amendment are tightly drawn.

Mr. Taylor

I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Far be it from me to enter into a discussion about the shadow Minister in any case. We do not always agree, but I am sure that on that occasion, he was merely probing to find out what the Government's intentions really were.

Mr. Boswell

Will my hon. Friend take a little advice from me, as I am a former Whip? If he praises the Bill too intensely, the Government may have a deathbed conversion to old Labour and suddenly decide that they favour it less—something which I am sure my hon. Friend would wish to avoid.

10.45 pm
Mr. Taylor

I was allowing ample opportunity for my hon. Friend to probe deeply into the measures, about which he has obviously thought carefully, and the proposed amendments. No Bill, whatever its origin, is perfect, and it is the job of the House to consider closely what its impact will be. The Bill is important, which is why I am anxious that we should have as much public information as possible. However, much as I support my hon. Friend's probing, I remind him that he had already said that he approved of the principle of the Bill. That is the general point on which I rest.

I certainly welcome the measure in terms of the discussion and the spectrum management advisory group, but I urge the Minister to ensure that, as my hon. Friend has said, as much of the information that can be made public will be. I used to have ministerial responsibility for such matters, but sadly, the Minister now has that responsibility and I do not. Both of us, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), have at one time been responsible for the Radiocommunications Agency.

For reasons that we shall not debate in the Chamber, some of the agency's work is not capable of being put into the public domain, but that is not true of areas in which there will be a dramatic move forward and a new system of management, and in which we shall also need an understanding of what will and will not be fair. When we are not auctioning but merely introducing administrative pricing, there will be a need not only for an advisory group, but for public confidence in its work. That is why I endorse the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), which were most pertinent.

Mr. Ian Bruce

First, I declare a financial interest in that I am a paid adviser to the Telecommunications Managers Association. However, I also make it clear that I have had no briefing on the Bill from the association, and that I speak only for myself, from my own knowledge of the issues.

I am grateful for the congratulations that were offered to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and me on our drafting of the amendments and new clauses, but I must admit that much of what I have produced in that line comes directly from Oftel's views on the future of spectrum pricing. The quality of the drafting is, as always, due to the Table Office, which turns one's thoughts into proper parliamentary language, and I hope that the way in which the amendments and new clauses read will be clear enough to enable hon. Members to discuss the issues.

This week, several people have made such comments as, "There's that fellow Bruce again, going in to bat throughout the night," so may I also tell the House that the Opposition have no intention of delaying things, filibustering or anything else. The only reason why we are speaking on the amendments and new clauses at this time of night is that the Leader of the House and the other powers that be have decided to schedule important Department of Trade and Industry Bills after other Bills have been dealt with.

Mr. Boswell

For the record, does my hon. Friend accept that Opposition Front-Bench Members and, in my experience, Back-Bench Members too, never intend to delay the consideration of a Bill? We are anxious to give any Bill merely that consideration which the issues that it raises and its importance properly deserve, and that is exactly what we shall do tonight.

Mr. Bruce

I was certainly not accusing my hon. Friends of filibustering. I do not want to go wide of the narrow amendments in explaining our position. These are important matters. I would much rather be at home with a glass of Scotch in front of the television—would not we all?—than here with a glass of water having to speak at this late hour. However, anyone who was present for the Report stage of the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill yesterday will have heard the best speech in the Chamber this year, and possibly since 1 May, when the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) spoke so eloquently.

I am glad to see still in his place the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). There is only one Whip for the Department of Trade and Industry and he seems to be here all the time. It has been suggested that that may be because the hon. Gentleman is being punished by his party for not running the National Minimum Wage Bill in quite the way that was expected. However, I hope that he has a restful week next week.

I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to make those general remarks. However, I want specifically to talk about the spectrum management advisory group. As I said in an intervention earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), that is the creature of the Government. The industry, and certainly the Federation of Communication Services which, at various times, has briefed me, have made it clear that they felt that it was extremely important that there should be some form of industry group which would advise the Radiocommunications Agency, so that any commercial clashes or problems could be ironed out before they affected the industry.

I am glad that Labour Members are now great enthusiasts for the free market in telecommunications. We shall not remind them what happened during the privatisation of British Telecom; that is much too wide of the mark. However, we genuinely welcome their conversion.

At the beginning of the Bill's passage through the House, the Government said that they were persuaded that there should be an advisory group, but there is still no flesh on the bones of that. The new clause seeks to tease out from the Government what they are thinking, and to put on the record the fact that without some mechanism to ensure that the spectrum management advisory group is privy to information, it will not get anywhere.

Unless an advisory group believes that there is a genuine dialogue between those with power and those who are simply advisers, it will take its bats home. If it is not listened to, and without the information that it needs to do its job, its members will wonder what is the point of giving up their time. I suspect that the members of this advisory group will be volunteers. With your indulgence Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that the Minister will tell us who will be on that body. There is always the worry—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is pushing my indulgence a little too far. Will he now stick tightly, please, to the new clause?

Mr. Bruce

It is important that we know who will be on the group, and that it will be a wide spectrum—[Interruption.] I apologise; that was an unintended pun. Industry may come to the Government and say, "This is wonderful; it is exactly the group that we want", and agree what sort of information will be exchanged—but in all that cuddling of each other, no one will remember to say, "What about the consumer?" What about people who do not have technical knowledge, but who want information about how spectrum is being divvied up—so that it is not just good for the Government and the industry, but in the public interest? I know that the Government are keen to say that they want to do things in the public interest, and that is what we want to hear now.

I appreciate that this is a narrow group of amendments, so, without further ado, I shall sit down and hope to hear the Minister say that she has been persuaded by our arguments on new clause 1, and that she will set us on the right track for this evening's business by accepting it.

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

I welcome the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) not to his responsibilities, but to the issue before us. This has been Department of Trade and Industry week in the House. I understand that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber yesterday evening listening to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and that he had a little difficulty keeping awake during his right hon. Friend's speech. I heartily congratulate the hon. Gentleman on managing to keep awake for his own remarks.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) is here this evening, as I agreed with many of his remarks. He played a large part in the initial development of the Bill. I share his view that, on the surface, this does not appear to be the most exciting of Bills, but I am sure that he and other hon. Members here tonight agree that in terms of economic growth, wealth creation and job creation, it is vital to the country.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Daventry on the principle of the Bill. It was right and proper of him to probe its effects. I also welcome the Opposition's U-turn. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the right hon. Member for Wokingham said on Second Reading: We shall oppose it, but we shall not jeopardise business because I shall shortly reveal to the Minister how to handle the matter much better… The Bill sums up all that is wrong with the Department of Trade and Industry. It is bad for business and will cost us jobs and technical leadership. It is mean-minded".—[Official Report, 29 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 933–41.] How extraordinary it is, but I am always glad when sinners repent.

Mr. Boswell

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for taking such care to read the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) in such detail and then relaying them to the House.

Does the hon. Lady appreciate that one of the major elements of our concern about the Bill is the cost to business of the proposed changes unless there are better safeguards for the possible charging regime—a matter which does not arise on this new clause but which we shall discuss in a moment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Can we therefore, for the time being at least, stick to the new clause that we are discussing?

Mr. Boswell

I think that my intervention is immediately germane to what the Minister said. Will she accept that my right hon. Friend did not seek to divide the House on Second Reading?

Mrs. Roche

Indeed. That is exactly what I said; but the right hon. Gentleman said, "We shall oppose it." I pay tribute to other Conservative Members, who did not take that course. There was a reversal of attitude in Committee, when industry representatives made it known to them how much they disagreed with their original stance.

I am not in a position to accept the new clause or the amendment, but I hope that by offering some explanation and assurance I can persuade Conservative Members not to press them to a vote. I believe that both are unnecessary and would add nothing to the rights of spectrum users, and that the new clause would give rise to difficulties for the industry.

11 pm

The Radiocommunications Agency is fully committed to transparency in its management of the radio spectrum and makes available a great deal of information to users. I am sure that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton agrees, as he has had responsibility for it in the past. The agency's commitment is demonstrated by the extensive consultation that it already undertakes through a network of standing consultative committees and through ad hoc consultation exercises such as that currently under way on implementing spectrum pricing. That will be further reinforced by clause 6. The agency also publishes and consults on a comprehensive survey of the use of the radio spectrum.

The new clause would do nothing to help users. The Radiocommunications Agency already makes information available in accordance with the requirements of the code of practice on access to Government information and data protection. That means that it already provides information on request, subject to overriding considerations such as national security, law enforcement or commercial confidentiality: matters which are not recognised in the amendment.

Mr. Boswell

In no sense do I want to entrap the Minister in my question, but will she confirm that, at least broadly, the categories that she has outlined represent the limits under which the agency operates in restricting information and that, by implication, all other information is already released?

Mrs. Roche

In the main, yes. I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I appreciate the spirit in which he says it. The agency is committed to transparency.

Greater access to the agency's database of assignments was raised in a wide-ranging public consultation in 1994. The responses showed significant concern about national security and commercial confidentiality, as one would expect. It would be possible for a competitor to gain information from the database about frequencies used and the disposition of transmitters, and hence the extent and nature of licensees' businesses, which could be very damaging commercially.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I want to explore the other side of the argument that most of the information is already available to the public generally. Might not there be a problem about information that is quite properly given in confidence to an advisory group but would not normally be given out generally? The agency might not have the power to do that.

Mrs. Roche

I do not think that there is a problem. There are many examples of circumstances in which, within the restrictions of the code, one tries to give as much information as possible. When a special advisory group is charged by Government with a special function, it is perfectly proper, and indeed not unusual, for confidential information to be released to that group. When the Bill was discussed in the other place, similar concern was expressed by Lord Derwent—who takes the Conservative Whip there—on behalf of mobile telephone operators. He explained that operators would not wish detailed information about matters of this kind to be released. He made that point very strongly.

The new clause does not provide safeguards for licensees, such as law enforcement agencies and security companies, that have a legitimate reason not to disclose details of their assignments in case the information assists criminals. I am sure that all hon. Members want the status quo to be protected. The agency is continuing to develop plans for greater access to its databases, but it must have regard to the sensitivities of licensees who have legitimate reasons for wishing information about their assignments not to be made available.

Mr. Lansley

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche

Just one more time.

Mr. Lansley

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous in giving way. Does she acknowledge that while both sides of the House understand the commercially confidential issues that the industry—quite properly—wants to be protected, that must be balanced against the interests of those who want to enter a market? Does she agree that we must not go too far and allow the protection of information in the marketplace to become a barrier?

Mrs. Roche

I could not agree more. In all such matters, a balance must be struck. We must ensure that there is a market for new entrants: that is how competition is promoted. On the other hand—quite legitimately—commercial confidentiality must be protected. As the hon. Gentleman will know, such issues crop up all the time, not only in relation to management of the spectrum and the Radiocommunications Agency but in relation to other matters.

The new clause requires information to be made available to the spectrum management advisory group. I am glad that the group was mentioned, because it was an initiative of the present Government. Indeed, the idea was raised in another place. I see that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) agrees. Quite properly, the Government went away and considered the matter. I am delighted with the approval that has been given to the establishment of the group. I intend it to have a significant input in matters relating to the management of the of the radio spectrum.

We have continued the work of setting up the group since my earlier announcement. I am pleased to say that Dr. John Forrest has agreed to become its first chairman. Dr. Forrest will bring to his position wide experience of radio use in the defence, broadcasting and telecommunications industries, and I am confident that he is ideally qualified to lead the group in its task of providing Ministers with independent strategic advice on the management of the radio spectrum. Tomorrow, I will place in the Libraries of both Houses a list of members of the group. Between them, they represent a wide range of experience and expertise covering all the major categories of spectrum user. I think it important for the group to have direct access to Ministers, and I look forward to working with it in the coming months.

Mr. Ian Taylor

This is only a mild criticism, but in a way it would have been helpful to have the list this evening. However, I welcome Dr. John Forrest to the chair of the spectrum management advisory group. I also recognise that this proposal has emerged since the general election.

When, as a Minister, I consulted representatives of industry—not an advisory group as such, but a group of people who were advising—it was clear that information could also be publicly disseminated through improved ways of managing the spectrum and securing the efficiency that is, after all, the objective of the Bill. Dr. Forrest ran NTL, formerly the ITV uplinking and networking station, and he is very experienced in the field. Perhaps he will encourage such developments.

Mrs. Roche

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given such a warm welcome to Dr. Forrest's appointment. I think that it was a very good appointment. Although, as I said, I shall put the list in the Libraries of both Houses tomorrow, I should be delighted to help the hon. Gentleman by reading out a list of the other group members.

I have appointed also Dr. Mark Armstrong, who is the official fellow in economics at Nuffield college, Oxford; Professor Sue Birley, director of research and professor of entrepreneurship at the management school of Imperial college; Dr. Kevin Bond of Yorkshire Water; David Brown, chairman of Motorola; Keith Harlow, director of technology, BBC resources; Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim, chairman and founder of Mobile Systems International; Stephen Lowe, product development director of Eurobell Holding plc; Michael Short, director of international affairs for Cellnet; and Andrew Sleigh, director general of information and communication services in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Ian Bruce

They are Labour councillors.

Mrs. Roche

The chief executive of the Radiocommunications Agency will also be a member of the group.

I hope that that list will assist the House. I am sure that hon. Member for Esher and Walton will think so, as I am sure the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) will rethink his remark. It is an extremely distinguished group, and I am absolutely delighted to announce their appointment.

Mr. Bruce

I assure the hon. Lady that it was a playful remark. Although some of the members may also be Labour councillors, I am sure that their expertise makes them better Labour councillors.

Mrs. Roche

I take the hon. Gentleman's remarks in the spirit in which they were intended.

In the light of my comments, I hope that the House will accept that new clause 1 is unnecessary and not press it to a Division.

Amendment No. 9 would require details of grants made under the powers in clause 5 to be listed in the annual report of the Radiocommunications Agency. I emphasise that we are committed to the principle of transparency in the operation of those powers, as we are in the operation of the Bill's other provisions.

The annual report of the Radiocommunications Agency accompanies the agency's annual accounts, which cover all the agency's income and expenditure. The accounts will in future refer to expenditure under the powers in clause 5, but not in more detail than is required by the various directives that govern the form of agency accounts.

I fully agree that additional information about grants paid or offered should be published in the agency's annual report, but I am concerned that the amendment would require an unhelpfully detailed level of information to be published, with the risk of detracting from the annual report's main messages. I do not want to give an undertaking that we will publish details of all grants, because some may be very small. It is possible, for example, that grants may be given to individuals, to assist towards training costs, and not only to businesses.

I certainly agree that it would be right for significant grants to businesses to be listed in the annual report, subject—as I am sure Opposition Members will agree—to considerations of commercial confidentiality. In the light of that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member for Daventry will not press the amendment.

Mr. Lansley

Will the hon. Lady assure the House that, whereas licences granted by the Radiocommunications Agency to operators under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 have been essentially confidential documents, licences granted under the Bill will be essentially public documents, from which material that is commercially confidential, for example, will be withheld? Does she expect that licences granted under the Bill will become public documents from which such information is withheld?

Mrs. Roche

The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I shall stick strictly to discussion of the new clause and the amendment.

I hope that I have given assurances that Conservative Members can accept, but, if they are unable to do so, I ask my hon. Friends to reject new clause 1 and amendment No. 9.

Mr. Boswell

I am a little disappointed with the Minister's response, although I welcome the fact that, from time to time, she was complimentary to Opposition Members and to some of our ideas and concepts.

It is reassuring that, at this hour, early as it is, hon. Members are flooding into the Chamber. I am especially pleased to see that I have the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has joined our deliberations, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) who, if he knows about this subject 10 per cent. of what he knows about the national minimum wage, will again enliven and embellish our consideration.

I do not wish to prolong debate on this group of amendments.

Mr. Ian Bruce

It was remiss of my hon. Friend not to say that three members of the Liberal party are present and that we look forward to their contribution.

11.15 pm
Mr. Boswell

I am grateful, but, in the interests of accuracy, I remind my hon. Friend that he means the Liberal Democrat party, not the Liberal party. I am sure that he did not wish to make an unfriendly remark. Those hon. Members are extremely welcome and I very much look forward to their contribution, if not to the debate on the current group of amendments—on which I now conclude my remarks—to the next.

The problem with the Minister's reply, in which she sought to twit us—which nettled me, because I explained in an intervention why I thought it inappropriate—was that it revealed that she did not understand the nature of opposition. It is the duty of an Opposition to oppose, not thoughtlessly—I am sure that, as she is a generous lady, she has never opposed us thoughtlessly—or in a knee-jerk way, but to find selected points of concern, to probe the Government and to seek a response from them.

To some extent, a response has been supplied. If nothing else, the debate has smoked out—or brought over the ether—an important announcement by the Minister on the membership of her new spectrum management advisory group. Although I do not know the gentleman personally, I have no reason to cavil at the appointment of Dr. John Forrest, and I have the endorsement of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) for that remark.

That announcement is extremely welcome and it seemed to me—although I have no precise knowledge of the individual members of the advisory group—that the Minister had assembled a group of big hitters with plenty of experience. I would simply say one thing about the appointments.

I am not clear in my mind about the group's status. It will advise the Radiocommunications Agency. I hope that it will be open to others with a public interest in this matter—such as Opposition Members of Parliament—to approach the advisory group to obtain briefings. In other words, I hope that the group is not regarded simply as advising Government or the agencies of Government.

I do not want to embarrass the Minister into a commitment that she may feel uneasy about making, but I hope that she will reflect on the fact that it is concomitant with the spirit in which the new clause was moved, of openness, transparency and proper exchange of information, that the advisory group should at least be able to talk to us. That would be helpful. Today, I had a very useful briefing from a non-departmental public body—the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. It is extremely useful to have that type of relationship.

As my hon. Friends, with their technical expertise, have said, now that the group has been constituted, there is a real need for it to get to work as soon as possible, because some of these issues need early consideration. If the Bill is to make progress, we need to start taking some fairly early and strategic decisions about the allocation of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The Minister did her best to give reasonable assurances on the specific issues raised by the new clause and the amendment. My points about the duty of an Opposition to probe and tease out the Government's intentions are relevant here. As I understood her comments, the Government have no intention of withholding information that is in the public domain, and information will not generally be withheld unless there is an operational reason for withholding it.

Mr. Lansley

My hon. Friend will know the phrase, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Does he agree that it might help if the study by the university of Bristol on calculating spectrum congestion, to which I referred earlier, was put in the public domain if it is regarded as being of value in the agency? If it is not put in the public domain, perhaps we should be told why.

Mr. Boswell

Perhaps that could be resolved by the Minister or the chief executive of the Radiocommunications Agency writing to my hon. Friend with such information about the study as they are able to give.

The broad principle, which I hope is endorsed on both sides of the House, is that information should be in the public domain unless there is a compelling reason for it not to be. If there is a reason—such as national security or the commercial sensitivity of information given in confidence—we will understand that constraints are necessary, as I acknowledged in my opening remarks.

The Minister's assurance was helpful, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) rightly said—miraculously anticipating my comments—the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We shall use the Minister's remarks as a template to test any withholding of information. We shall return them to her with interest if there is any dereliction from that duty. I am sure that the chief executive and the agency will read the report of the debate and take the comments to heart.

On amendment No. 9 and the release of information about grants, I have a slight feeling that Sir Humphrey may have been at work. I understand that the matter is difficult. We do not want a tedious list of ha'penny items, which, while important to the individuals involved, are less important in the national picture. The Minister gave a welcome assurance that, in broad terms—again with the term of art subject to considerations of commercial confidence—big items would be released. It might be helpful for her to consider inviting the agency to provide some details by generic type as an alternative to specifying each at tedious length.

Mr. Lansley

I am prompted by our discussions in Committee to suggest that responses to the agency's consultation document might be made available on the agency's web site. That would provide a vehicle through which information could be listed in sufficient detail for those who want it.

Mr. Boswell

Provided there is not a server error—as my hon. Friend said in Committee. My hon. Friend is right, although I respond jocularly. Putting material on the internet is cost free once the site has been set up. It would be available to technically sophisticated persons with inexpensive equipment. I notice my hon. Friend wrinkling his nose. He seems to be modestly implying that he is not technically sophisticated, but ever more of us are learning to use the internet.

We can call the debate a no-score draw—or perhaps a score draw. We have not achieved our objective of having the new clause and amendment adopted, but we have had some useful assurances which we shall use to test the future actions and intentions of the Government and the agency. With some reluctance because of my natural combativeness, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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