Standing Committee A
Tuesday 11 November 1997
[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before I call the Minister to move the sittings motion, I wish to make a brief announcement about the two-minute silence at 11 o`clock. Members and others present in the Room may wish to know that I intend to suspend the Committee sitting as near as possible to 11 o'clock to enable those wishing to do so to observe the two-minute silence. If necessary, I shall interrupt the member who is speaking at the time for that purpose.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): On a point of order, Mr. Maxton. We welcome you to the Chair this morning. When the Committee was originally appointed, we wondered which member of the Chairmen's Panel had the detailed knowledge of spectrum tariff units and threshold mobile counts to guide us through our deliberations. Little did we know that that was part of your repertoire, Mr. Maxton. Whether or not you are a radio ham, you are not a ham at chairing Committees and we look forward to your keeping us--if not on message--then certainly on frequency in the weeks that stretch ahead.
I say to the Minister that we look forward to constructive Committee proceedings. All our amendments will enable the honourable Lady to deliver her Bill. Her colleagues in another place were unusually positive in taking on board criticisms of the Bill and if she repeats that practice here, some of her hon. Friends may still have time to do some Christmas shopping.
My point or order relates to the compliance cost assessment. It is dated May 1997 and is six months old. I said on Second Reading that the assessment was out of date, to which the Minister responded immediately and said:
``We shall publish an up-to-date one''--[Official Report, 29 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 994.]
Obviously, we must have the up-to-date compliance cost assessment before our proceedings can continue. The whole point of such assessments is that they are published with the Bill. They are usually provided in summary form as part of the explanatory memorandum when the Bill has its First Reading, not when it is almost half-way through its proceedings in both Houses. Furthermore, compliance cost assessments for a private Member's Bill must be provided in good time for its Second Reading. It is essential that the Minister tells us whether that undertaking will be fulfilled, so that the Committee has the assessment that it was promised.
The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Further to that point of order. May I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Maxton. We are delighted that your are here because, with your usual courtesy and experience, you will preside very well over our proceedings. I note from ``Dod's Parliamentary Companion'', that your hobbies include jazz and running and I hope that they will stand you in good stead for our deliberations.
I remember well the point raised on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). I am surprised that he has raised it again because a compliance cost assessment was published with the Bill in May. Reference to that is made in the consultation document entitled ``Implementing Spectrum Pricing'', which was also published in May. The financial effects were outlined in the explanatory financial memorandum to the Bill, from which the hon. Gentleman quoted in our debate on Second Reading.
The responses to the consultation document were published on 29 October and, as I said on Second Reading, we are now discussing the proposals and responses with users and the industry. Later this year, we hope to publish a further consultative document that will take account of their views. The CCA that was published in May is based on the current proposals, so it is still valid. I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman and the Committee that it will be updated as necessary to take account of the further consultation document, which, as I said, we hope to publish before the end of the year.
The Chairman: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, but I have heard nothing to suggest that we cannot now proceed with the Bill.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That during the proceedings on the Wireless Telegraphy Bill [Lords] the Committee do meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock.--[Mrs. Roche.]
Mr. Fallon: It will come as no surprise that the Opposition are amazed at the sittings motion. What is the rush? I do not want to re-open the point of order that you have already dispatched, Mr. Maxton, but it is unusual in a Bill of this size to go straight for morning and afternoon sittings. With your experience of Scottish legislation, you will know better than anyone that Conservative Members are perfectly prepared to work in the afternoons--and, indeed, in the evenings. You may recall, in another incarnation, sitting on the Committee considering the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1985. I think that I once kept that Committee up until 4.15 am.
We are quite happy to work such hours.
However, we are concerned at the speed with which proceedings on the Bill are being taken, as much of the essential work that needs to be done in consultation with outside groups has clearly not been done. The Minister has already conceded that she is not yet ready to publish the up-to-date compliance cost assessment that she offered on Second Reading.
Several outside groups have expressed concern that the Bill is not yet in its proper form. For example, the Federation of Communication Services said:
``What is not clear however is the full extent of application of administrative pricing.''
Cellnet, one of the major companies involved, said that
``a considerable amount of uncertainty still prevails over how the Secretary of State will use the powers entrusted to her by this legislation.''
The industries most affected by the Bill do not have a clue how the Government will operate it. The reason for that is that the Government were taking submissions until only two months ago. We have not heard a summary of the conclusions of that consultation process, yet the Bill is now more than half way through its passage through Parliament. Will the Minister assure us that that summary is now available and that the companies to be affected by administrative pricing have been reassured as to how it will work? If not, the Minister would be well advised to sort out the Government's conclusions and to publish the Radiocommunications Agency's summary of the representations made in response to the consultative document. The easiest way to do that would be for the Committee to sit in the mornings only and to make good progress this month on clause 1, by which time the Government may have a slightly better idea of how the legislation is meant to operate.
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Other points arise from what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. We are already receiving letters--I received one this morning with the latest information from the FCS--telling us what industry thinks of the Bill. The Opposition's job is to question the Government closely. Our amendments are tabled in that spirit, so that we can probe the Government's intentions. To move forward too quickly is a bad idea.
If I may be allowed a little latitude, Mr. Maxton, I wish to express my concern that the compliance cost assessment, to be found under the heading ``Explanatory and Financial Memorandum'', cannot be debated. I am not sure how one can debate such matters, but the Government should provide some time for the Committee to discuss them.
I am sure that the Minister knows that the European Informatics Market Group, of which I am vice-chairman--there are other officers among Labour Members of the Committee--has suggested that no further legislation should be proposed that would have an impact on the information technology work load. In considering the implications of European monetary union and the year 2000 on the industry's work load, the group has found that the House will legislate on many matters that will have an impact on information technology.
I am not suggesting that the Bill's impact on the amount of reprogramming, for example, will necessarily be great, but I ask Ministers to consider what impact each piece of legislation will have on information technology, given that all those employed in the industry will be working flat out towards EMU compliance and--more importantly, as it cannot be postponed--to ensure that computers work in the year 2000. I am not trying to delay the Committee, but I hope that the Minister and her officials are receiving those important messages loud and clear and that, during our proceedings, we shall have some answers.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Thank you, Mr. Maxton. It is a privilege to serve on this Committee. Indeed, this is the first time that I have served on a Standing Committee considering a Bill and, as a new Member of Parliament, I may have to crave your indulgence from time to time and ask for your guidance.
I support the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. As a new Member of Parliament, I wonder about the time allowed between Second Reading and the first sitting of the Committee. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), I am aware of the volume of correspondence about the Bill from all sectors of the industry and I am conscious of the burden on Committee members in ensuring that the issues are properly addressed.
I do not want to prolong the discussion on the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, but I am surprised at the haste with which the Government seem to want to proceed. Although the responses to the consultation document have been published, there has been no summary. Moreover, the implications of the responses have not been translated into the compliance cost assessement, so we cannot determine wholly how industry will be affected by the costs and burdens imposed by the Bill.
Some of the responses raised questions on which the industry does not feel that it has received assurances from the Government. I am thinking of the assurances that it seeks about the extent and purposes of the revenue that the Government will raise and the implications for spectrum management and beyond. In addition, a number of operators have asked whether the Government are proposing to apply spectrum pricing to fixed radio access.
We may be able to discuss such matters, but it would be more expeditious if the Committee proceeded on a timetable that allowed operators to seek assurances and if we debate more fully the terms in which the Government reply. As matters stand, however, I suspect that Ministers will not be able to provide comprehensive answers to many of our questions.