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Lord Bassam of Brighton: No, my Lords, that is not the point. The point they are making is that the arrangements which they currently operate work perfectly well. The arrangements are perfectly acceptable to them. If noble Lords will bear with me, I shall continue and perhaps offer some further understanding of our position. My officials learned from Vodafone today that it is generally happy, as were the others, with the current arrangements and can see little advantage in instituting a statutory body. That is not to say that a voluntary set of arrangements would not be acceptable to all four of those major players.
It is because of this lack of agreement within the communications service provider industry that, as a sensible compromise, we expressed our willingness to consider involving some kind of existing non-statutory group as an appropriate substitute for what is being proposed. That is in addition to all the procedures we have set out in the Bill to consult with industry and Parliament at each and every step.
I trust that the House will permit me a few moments to remind noble Lords what these steps are. First, we stated on the face of the Bill that any requirements placed upon industry should be properly considered and reasonable. Secondly, we set out in the Bill clear consultative steps that needed to be taken before any notice was served on a communication service provider. The Bill itself is the first step in that consultation exercise. An order-making power to be approved in both Houses by the affirmative resolution
The third step is to be the final notice, where we would discuss with each individual service provider what would be the most appropriate form of intercept capability to maintain. That is a detailed discussion with each service provider. It is a more than adequate consultation process between government and industry on what amounts to a reasonable intercept capability. A statutory board could become, as noble Lords recognise, a further bureaucratic layer and an unnecessary addition to what has already been provided for.
As I have previously suggested, we have always worked with the view that consultations with industry, and resulting subsequent requirements to be placed on Internet service providers, would follow a similar process to that which already exists with the telecommunications industry. We are not asking anything here of Internet service providers that has not previously been asked, and continues to be asked to this day, of telecommunications service providers.
There are genuine reasons for our opposition to the setting up of a statutory body. We think that those reasons still hold considerable weight, particularly when some very important parts of that industry expressed directly to us their opposition to a statutory body. I am not suggesting that there are fundamental disagreements on the way in which the Government should consult with industry. I am happy to say that all sides agree that there should be a standing body made up of industry and government representatives to advise the Secretary of State on these matters. There is little disagreement on what the body should do or on the need to set it up quickly so that it can have a meaningful input to any order made under Clause 12.
The only major remaining question is the one which has been raised by virtue of the amendment: whether the body should be statutory or non-statutory. It is not a matter about which we need to become too exercised, but it is clearly one about which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, feels strongly. Indeed, other noble Lords have expressed their strength of view. It would be remiss of us in government not to recognise that very genuine concern. I can say that the Government will consider further whether an advisory body should be set up along the lines suggested by these amendments. I can give that firm commitment.
However, I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that we shall need to consult further with industry because of the sharp divergence of view that I have explained to the House, and particularly in the light of the fact that there is no universal support for a statutory body. I ask noble Lords to allow the Government to reflect further and to return at Third Reading with our considered position. In the event that the Government were to accept that, on balance, the best option was to have a statutory board, I suspect that lack of time would not allow us to do any more
Perhaps I may set out what I am saying to the House at the conclusion of the debate. We recognise the strength of view; we recognise that there is a clear divergence as to whether a non-statutory or a statutory body is the best way of moving forward. There is a shared view about what should be covered in such a board's considerations. That is where the common ground lies. That is the Government's position as we see it.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, the noble Lord said that he will take the matter away and give it consideration. Will he also speak to those noble Lords who have taken part in the debate? We have heard some immensely powerful speeches from noble Lords who think that they will be affected. Will the noble Lord come back to the House before Third Reading so that those of us who are interested will know what the position is?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am more than happy to continue that process of consultation with all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. It is important that I do so in order that we can better formulate our thinking. We shall need to have further discussions, particularly with those companies that have offered us their view that they do not favour the statutory route. They may well require some persuasion. We shall reflect on their comments as well. But we shall consult in detail with the industry in its entirety because we believe that to be the right way forward. We have always made that plain.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, in response to the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, the Minister said that he does not always understand these matters. From time to time we have all experienced that reaction. The noble Lord went on to discuss costs. We shall return to that subject later in our proceedings when we reach Amendment No. 18. Therefore, I shall not at this stage say much in detail on that matter. I simply reflect on the fact that the Government have not revised their estimate from £20 million even though others have estimated the cost involved in the first few years to be as high as £650 million. The figure of £20 million was the only hard thing about costs that the Minister had to say. He said a good many soothing words but each was covered by saving phrases such as "We will consider without commitment" and so on. Those kinds of saving phrases are insisted on at intervals by Her Majesty's Treasury, as some of us know only too well when we have been in the same position as the Minister trying to explain such matters away.
I turn to the amendment itself, which deals with the question of the advisory board. The Minister rightly said that the matter had been discussed a great deal, not only in our previous debates at Second Reading and in Committee but also at various stages of the Bill's passage through another place. Yet, at the Report stage in this House, the Minister is saying,
The Minister mentioned some large telephone operators which were not in favour of a statutory board. With respect, I mentioned large numbers of ISPs and those directly involved. They are very much in favour and have confirmed that to me in the past few days. The Government's attitude seems to be, "Just hang on. We will fob you off one more time". I do not feel that that is sufficient. I feel that we should ensure that the Minister and the Government consider this issue carefully by pressing the amendment.
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.
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