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5.22 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): "Good news," says the Minister, "A tax increase." "Good news," says the Minister, "The 18th tax increase from new Labour, and the money will not go back to the successful industry that pays it--it will go somewhere else." He says, "This will be the first £1,500 million tax raid in history that has created jobs rather than destroyed them in the industry that will have to pay the bill."

I pay tribute to the Minister for accepting my interventions and those of my hon. Friends and for his patience. However, it would have been better if he had been able to answer our powerful interventions. We asked how the details of the legislation would work, but he was unable to tell us. We asked for reassurances on sensitive services and important businesses in various constituencies, but again there were no satisfactory reassurances.

Mr. Battle: I am absolutely clear that we gave assurances on essential services, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman missed them. He supported the measure when he was in government. Does he now intend to oppose it and jeopardise business as a result?

Mr. Redwood: 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. In his two-part intervention he mentioned emergency services, but they are not in the Bill. Will he put them in the Bill?

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

Mr. Redwood: I will finish the point and perhaps the Minister who raised the issue will clarify it. Will he reassure the House that there will be no adverse cost consequences for the health service, for instance, as a result of the increased charges under the legislation? The Minister does not respond, so the point is made and my right hon. and hon. Friends will draw their own conclusions.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Is it correct that the right hon. Gentleman supported these proposals or similar ones when he was in government? If so, does he propose to explain what led to his change of heart?

Mr. Redwood: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has walked straight into an elephant trap. As he knows, the legislation has a chequered history. Officials in the Department tried to persuade me of its merits some years ago when I was Minister with responsibility for telecommunications. I am sure that Labour Members will

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be disappointed to hear that I turned it down. I refused to recommend it and continued my opposition to it from then until the present day.

Mrs. Roche rose--

Mr. Redwood: I give way to the impatient Minister.

Mrs. Roche: I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I am not impatient but courteous and always willing to put the right hon. Gentleman out of his misery. Plainly, the attitude of Conservative Members is not just a turnaround from when they were in government. Let us look at what they said in opposition. When the Bill was introduced in the other place, their shadow Minister, Lord Inglewood, said:


    "I conclude by reiterating our support for the approach that the Government are adopting. Although we shall obviously be looking at the Bill with a critical eye, we shall be doing so with a view to being constructive, not destructive."--[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 June 1997; Vol. 580 , c.727-30.]

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to take a lesson from his noble Friend.

Mr. Redwood: That was also a poor point. Of course we support the principle of better spectrum management, but we are unhappy about many of the powers and details in the legislation. My hon. Friends and I will demonstrate that in the debate and in Committee.

Officials tried the legislation on my successors after I ceased to have responsibility for telecommunications, but most of them also turned it down. Towards the end of the Conservative period in office the then Secretary of State came round to the Bill's principle, but even he did not think it sufficiently important to put it in his legislative programme nor did he ever put a figure as big as £1,500 million on the amount to be taken from the pockets of a successful industry. How wise he was.

We strongly object to the wide-ranging powers in this draft of the legislation to tax-raid people without proper recourse to Parliament for primary legislation. At least the Chancellor's 17 tax rises were in the Finance Bill and were debated, up to a point, in the House and in Committee. The idea behind this Bill is to give to Ministers, through statutory instruments and secondary legislation, enormously wide-ranging powers to tax-raid the honeypot of a successful industry that was created by the policies that Conservatives put into practice in the 1980s and 1990s by breaking the monopolies and opening up to innovation a most important industrial sector.

Mrs. Roche: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me for a second time. I am perplexed by what he says. He clearly states that he supports the principle of spectrum management and efficiency but not the Bill. Can he explain why in a debate in July on the Information Society initiative the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) said:

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That comment was about the Bill that is currently before the House. Is that not yet another example of the Opposition being split down the middle?

Mr. Redwood: No, I am sure that the quotation has been taken out of context and that my hon. Friend fully supports what I am saying today as this is the agreed shadow Cabinet and shadow team policy of Her Majesty's loyal but effective Opposition. This is a policy based on principle, which I have always held. I note that Ministers do not suggest that I was in favour of the legislation when I was in the Department. If they care to check with their officials privately later, when the rules with regard to what went on in the previous Administration can be bent a little, I am sure that they will be put right on that point.

What is curious--I put it no more strongly than that--is that this Opposition-turned-Government, still behaving on most occasions as an Opposition with a majority rather than as a Government, should have forgotten how strongly they objected to the statement of principle by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State when he announced it, how they opposed it vigorously in those early days and how they have now turned right round and have come up with this as their first piece of legislation, presumably their most important piece of legislation, the thing which the DTI, under this new team, brings to the House of Commons as its priority for this new Session of Parliament and this new Government.

How odd that that should be the Government's conclusion out of all the things they could have done, should have done, might have done, out of all the things that they could have done to satisfy their colleagues on the Benches behind them and all those things that they promised to do in their manifesto.

The DTI under this Government has come to stand for the Department of total incompetence. Here is the Department dedicated to greater openness in government in which one is not even allowed to know which Minister is handling the issue. This is the Department so keen on greater transparency that one is not even allowed to know which Ministers have gone on holiday and which have stayed in the office to man the fort. This is the Department of greater honesty where one is not even allowed to know which Ministers are shareholders in which companies. Will the Government today tell us if any Ministers are missing because they have shareholdings in relevant companies and therefore cannot support or comment on the Bill? Will the Minister answer that point?

Mr. Battle: All DTI Ministers behave entirely properly, in accordance with the ministerial code, to ensure that there is no conflict of interest between their private interests and their ministerial responsibilities. It is about time that the right hon. Gentleman stopped raising that smear and canard across the Floor.

Mr. Redwood: The matter can easily be cleared up. If the Minister and his colleagues will now publish a full list of the things that they cannot do because they have ruled themselves out for fear of conflict, I will end my campaign and I shall be grateful for the information. That is information that the public deserve to know. If the public wish to write to a Minister at the DTI, it is a

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courtesy to write to the one who is handling the issue. I have had to find out by persistent questioning what the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs is or is not allowed to do. Why do they not clear the matter up here and now by telling the House today which Ministers do what and which things they cannot do?

Meanwhile, the Department of tragic inconsequence is busily giving away its powers to Brussels, to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the Prime Minister, to the Treasury, to anyone else who will take away its work and responsibilities. The Bill was shunted around the Department and the President, having approved it, has now washed her hands of it. She does that for practically everything going on in the Department. I am amazed that she bothered to pop into the House this afternoon, although I note that she did not hear most of her Minister's speech and has now disappeared again. She has no speaking part in launching the most important Bill that she has chosen for this Session of Parliament. [Interruption.] Well, where is the President of the Board of Trade?

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