Report (1st Day)
Digital Economy Bill [HL]
Lord Young of Norwood Green (Government Whip (technically a Lord in Waiting, HM Household); Labour)
My Lords, this amendment is in two parts, and the first part concerns the duties of Ofcom in relation to competition and the desirability of encouraging competition. I did not quite recognise the world that was being described. I see a world where there is a lot of competition in relation to broadband services and telecoms and mobile services. Should we be complacent? No, we should not, for some of the more complicated reasons addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
However, I stress that with respect to every decision it takes, Ofcom must, where it is the appropriate means of furthering the interests of consumers, promote competition in the markets that it regulates. Furthermore, Ofcom must, in any event, consider the desirability of promoting competition in those markets. Therefore, it has an emphatic duty in that regard. Again, if one looks at the range of service providers in internet services and telecoms, both fixed network and mobile, one sees-without suggesting that we should be complacent-a wealth of evidence of real competition. In addition, Ofcom addresses anti-competitive practices and agreements. Indeed, this underpins the majority of its work. Therefore, if we have the kind of scenarios that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, described, they clearly need to be referred to Ofcom.
It is therefore not clear just what the proposed amendment would add, and, on that basis, the Government cannot agree with it. I tend to agree-I do not always-with the noble Lord, Lord Howard, that we would not want to extend Ofcom's powers if there were not the need for it. I absolutely agree that it is about driving demand for broadband services, and that is what it has been doing pretty well.
On the second part of the amendment, my understanding is that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is concerned to ensure that Ofcom considers the spectrum needs of the emergency services and providers of critical national infrastructure. I stress that Ofcom already has a duty under Section 3(4)(f) of the Communications Act to consider,
"the different needs and interests ... of all persons",
when considering spectrum use. Importantly, this includes the needs and interests of the emergency services and providers of critical national infrastructure. I understand and take the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, about the way in which our infrastructures control their own networks, so that there will be more requirement for spectrum. However, Ofcom already has a duty to consider that. As I think we made clear in a previous debate, consultation is already taking place.
The Secretary of State will, where he considers it appropriate, use the power given to him by the Wireless Telegraphy Act to require Ofcom to make spectrum available for certain uses or users. Therefore, we consider that no amendment is needed to give effect to the intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. We do not see a scenario in which Ofcom blithely goes ahead and disposes of all the spectrum in a grand sale or auction. I do not think that we will ever see quite what we saw on third generation-but who knows? However, it certainly does not have the power to do that without considering the requirements of the emergency services and critical national infrastructure.
I can offer the noble Lord an assurance that if the emergency services have a robust case for additional spectrum which they are unable to source from the market, a process exists to address that need. Ensuring public safety-to address the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe-would be a paramount consideration in that process.
The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 contains emergency powers to allow the making of special temporary legislation to deal with the most serious of emergencies. Such legislation could cover the temporary allocation of spectrum to the emergency services and critical national infrastructure in the event of a national emergency. However, the emergency would have to be of sufficient magnitude that serious damage to human welfare, the environment or security were threatened, existing powers are insufficient and the measures being taken are proportionate.
I therefore feel that Ofcom's existing powers can deal with the requirements of the emergency services. It has a duty to do so. I hope that in the light of the assurances that I have placed on the record, the noble Lord will feel capable of withdrawing his amendment.