Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Clinton-Davis: The question of compensation is a very broad area. I believe that we should be opening a can of worms if we were to inject the subject of compensation here. There is no question that others would then seek compensation and there would be real problems, as I believe the noble Lord appreciates. I repeat that we have had intensive discussions. The
8 Jul 1997 : Column 548
noble Lords, Lord Derwent and Lord Mottistone, are very well aware of that. The industry's anxieties were put to rest as a result of those discussions.

Lord Derwent: I am grateful to the Minister for the repetition of his assurances. However, I am very conscious also that, quite correctly, he has chosen his words extremely carefully in answering the amendment. I hope that he will not take it amiss when I say that, of course, I shall withdraw the amendment at this stage but I should like to study carefully in Hansard what he has said in case it seems wise to return to the matter on Report.

Lord Clinton-Davis: Before the noble Lord withdraws the amendment, perhaps I may say that I never take it amiss when someone says that he will consider what I have said.

Lord Derwent: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Lord Mottistone had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 11:

After Clause 3, insert the following new clause—

Geographic and technical information

(" . The Secretary of State may, subject to the interests of national security, make available on enquiry by third parties, and following payment of such charge as may be provided by regulations, geographic and technical details of licensed radio systems.").

The noble Lord said: I am advised from the Table that I am not allowed to move Amendments Nos. 11, 12 and 13 because, as I informed the Committee on Amendment No. 1, I advise the people who provided it to me. I have been trying to help the House for the past 30 years by obtaining proper advice from outside in order to contribute to discussions on legislation. In that area I have had, to a certain extent, success over many years; in particular, when I was advising the CBI. I now find that the rules of the House are such that I cannot move my remaining amendments. I got away with it in moving Amendment No. 1 because, luckily, the Government liked that amendment. I am deeply sorry about this. I was not aware of the situation. The rules have been introduced in a way which does not give proper opportunity for Members of this Chamber to help industry and other spheres of activity outside the House. I believe that it is helpful to the House that Members should be advised properly when speaking to amendments. Therefore, I shall make arrangements for the amendment to be moved on Report. I obviously shall not be able to move the amendment and I shall try to find some splendid chap to do it for me.

Lord Inglewood: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I were to move the amendments instead of the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. I may not be able to describe the amendment with the exactness
8 Jul 1997 : Column 549
and precision of my noble friend but the Minister would have an opportunity to respond and let us know what he would have said in response to the amendment.

Lord Derwent: Does anyone intend to speak to the amendment because I should like to make some comments on it?

Lord Inglewood: I have some understanding of the argument behind the amendment. I understand that there has been concern about the lack of transparency in the current licensing process, in particular as regards major users who self manage spectrum. While fees are known via the published fees order, it is impossible to assess the efficiency of spectrum use without additional technical information. For historical reasons, such information is currently classified as confidential, although if an organisation is prepared to invest the time and money it can be readily gathered using modern scanners and survey equipment.

I understand that for several years it has been the stated intention of the agency to facilitate access to fixed link and base station details by external spectrum management organisations in line with what happens in Australia. If that information is provided, then, along with publication of the fees for systems in different regions, the industry will have full visibility of fees being charged for a spectrum used, and, given the efficiency of spectrum utilisation that is achieved, will be able to identify opportunities for frequency sharing. It is believed that the change as proposed by the amendment would, on balance, be beneficial.

Lord Derwent: I understand the general sentiment behind the amendment with which we are not unsympathetic. However, we feel that the wording of the amendment may be too broad. The mobile telephone operators have some concern, both from a practical point of view and also because of commercial confidentiality. In particular, the companies would not welcome detailed information about each of our mast sites and what frequencies they radiate being made available so readily both to our competitors and, indeed, to possible protestors who may have objections to a mast for environmental or other reasons.

If the Minister is minded to accept something along the lines of the amendment, with which, as I say, we are in broad sympathy, we would welcome the opportunity between now and Report stage further to discuss, both with his officials and also with my noble friend Lord Mottistone, the possibility of a slightly more restrictive wording.

Lord Clinton-Davis: We have had an interesting debate. The last thing in the world that any of us would want is to see the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, in the Tower, or anywhere else quite as draconian, for offending against the rules of this place. I do not know the nature of the relevant sanctions, but I am sure that they would have been extremely draconian. Indeed, for one moment I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, was going to find himself in a similar
8 Jul 1997 : Column 550
position when he singularly identified himself with the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, by suggesting that he should move the amendment for him. As a result, he too would have ended up in the Tower. The debate has been made possible by the ingenuity of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and of the noble Lord, Lord Derwent.

I am not unfamiliar with the arguments involved with this amendment because they have been postulated to my officials and, therefore, so far as concerns any further discussions which may take place, I think it would be better if I were to read into the record the position that the Government take on such matters. We can then forget the slight embarrassment suffered by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. I must say that I sympathise with the noble Lord because the rules of this Chamber can sometimes be very arcane and he is obviously completely unfamiliar with them.

It is helpful that the amendment has been tabled, although I am not sure whether the noble Lord is even permitted to table it in the circumstances. However, it has at least been spoken to and that is good enough. It enables me to set out how the Radiocommunications Agency manages the radio spectrum in a transparent way. Transparency in the spectrum management process is a desirable objective. On Second Reading, I stressed our commitment to consultation on spectrum management matters. That would include the use to be made of the new charging powers that the Bill would confer. So far as concerns consultation, that is a matter which we can address later in our discussions in relation to other amendments. However, it is relevant to the question of transparency, which goes to the heart of the amendment.

The agency already undertakes extensive consultation via a network of standing consultative committees and ad hoc consultation exercises; and, indeed, such an exercise is currently under way in relation to the implementation of spectrum pricing. Each year the agency publishes and consults on a comprehensive survey of the use of the radio spectrum combined with its strategic plans for managing that spectrum. It has invested heavily in advanced mobile equipment to monitor the use being made of the airwaves and also makes available detailed reports of the results of its monitoring, which has concentrated in particular on congested areas in major cities—a point that I made during the previous debate. All those documents are available free of charge, whereas the amendment contemplates charging as the cost is covered by licence fees.

However, the agency is already able under common law to recover the costs it incurs in providing information if it is appropriate so to do. All that consultation necessarily involves making available a considerable amount of information about the current use of the spectrum and the agency's future plans. I reaffirm the commitment to consultation, openness and transparency. I believe that that is what the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, was seeking.

In future, the agency aims to make even more information available about the use of frequencies at specific sites. However, there are practical constraints
8 Jul 1997 : Column 551
on the speed with which this can be accomplished. It would be necessary to hold the data in a format that is useful and easily accessible. The agency could not easily do that at present. It is in the process of implementing major developments in its information technology systems, but there is some way to go before the work will be completed.

I turn now to the amendment. The first specific comment that I should like to make is that, as drafted, it would do absolutely nothing to enhance transparency as it states only that the Secretary of State "may" make information available. The agency already has the power to disclose information from its databases, subject to overriding considerations of national security, law enforcement, commercial confidentiality—a point rightly made by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent—competition and the provisions of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information and the Data Protection Act. Therefore, it already makes copious amounts of material available and it intends to do even more in the future in that direction.

Secondly, the amendment does not allow for the legitimate expectations of licensees regarding commercial confidentiality and security. That is a most important point and one which has been underlined to us many times in our discussions. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, made the same point here this afternoon.

The question of greater access to the agency's database of assignments was one of the issues which arose in a wide-ranging consultation carried out under our predecessors back in 1994. The responses showed significant concern, not just about national security—and provision is made in the amendment for that—but also commercial confidentiality. 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. I believe that that could lead to very damaging commercial revelations. Regrettably, the amendment makes no allowance for it.

I do not wish to be unduly critical of drafting because I suffered from the same fate when speaking from the other side of the Chamber. However, I hope that the noble Lords who have addressed the matter will realise that this is a significant point; indeed, it could be very damaging if we were to ignore it. Moreover, the amendment does not provide for those licensees, such as security companies, which have a very good reason not to disclose details of their assignments in case the information could assist criminals. Many other users could have legitimate concerns if the agency made more information freely available, and it would not be right to proceed without full consultation to ensure that necessary safeguards can be provided. I am sure that the industry would wish me to make that point, and I do so readily. There are difficulties and complexities in legislating on this topic. However, I believe that what we have here is a careful balance between what can be achieved and the difficulties and the concerns that the industry has expressed about revealing too much.
8 Jul 1997 : Column 552

I do not want my department—or, indeed, myself—to be unduly secretive when requests for information about spectrum assignments or use are made; quite the contrary. However, all requests for information about licensed radio systems, as for any government information, must be dealt with in accordance with the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. Under the code of practice, information must be provided unless withholding it can be justified in terms of the exemptions in the code.

I have one further point to mention; namely, that we shall be considering a freedom of information Act in the relatively near future. The arrangements in the code in terms of openness are to be strengthened and placed on a statutory footing when that legislation is enacted. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that the agency does operate within the spirit of the amendment. I also hope that no one, although I am not sure who, will decide to press the amendment further today.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page