This is one of many amendments that were tabled in the other place. I want to press the Minister on several points arising from what he has just said and from what he said during the passage of the Bill. We are told in the explanatory notes on clause 7:
This order-making power will be used so that OFCOM can be operational by the time that the Communications Bill is brought into force.
We are also told about the financial effects of the Bill:
The Government envisages that the initial planning costs of establishing OFCOM so that it can prepare to receive its functions will be in the order of £5 million spread over the period of transition.
The notes continue:
By adding to the existing regulators' statutory functions—
Order. Before we proceed down that road, the amendment, not unusually in procedural terms, is very clearly and narrowly defined. As with my standard practice as Chairman, I am perfectly happy to allow a stand part debate now to broaden the issue slightly, on the clear understanding that we have only one stand part debate and that this is it. The hon. Lady may, alternatively, wish to draw her remarks to a conclusion, allow the amendment to proceed and then have a stand part debate. I am very relaxed about which way she plays it, but she cannot have it both ways.
I am happy to accept your invitation to have only one debate, Mr. Gale, and have a clause stand part debate now. I wish to refer only to this paragraph.
The explanatory notes state:
By adding to the existing regulators' statutory functions, the Bill will allow existing regulators to recover a proportion of the establishment cost from the communications sector. These powers will mean that the net cost to public expenditure—
I presume that that means the taxpayer—
will be significantly less than the overall gross cost of the practical transition.
I wish to allude to the remarks that the Minister made when concluding the last debate. Being a lawyer, financial matters do not come easily to me. He clearly stated, as I think the Committee was happy to accept, that there will be a cost to the taxpayer.
I must advise the hon. Lady that the House of Lords has inserted a privilege disclaimer in the last subsection of clause 7. The scope of the debate on the amendment to remove it is confined to the question of whether the House of Commons should maintain its claim of financial privilege. That is all that is under discussion, and that is not what the hon. Lady is discussing.
Perhaps I can assist the hon. Lady. Subsection (5) is, in a sense, fictional; a fiction by convention. Having seen such
things before, I can assure her that there is really no need to go over it. The fiction is inserted so that the Lords can debate the Bill. It will obviously cost the public money. I do not think that any of us are under the illusion that it will not cost the public money at some point.
I am sorry, but I think that we must have this commitment on the record. We wish to retain it, whether it is a fiction or a privilege. We can bandy the words about and discuss fiction and privilege and convention. The whole of the British constitution is a convention at the moment. This House operates by convention. We are all familiar with that concept. Having obtained clause 7(5) as an amendment to the Bill, I think it important that we retain it here. I would resist any attempt by the Government to remove it.
I am referring to the financial effects of the Bill as explained to me in what are meant to be simple, layman's terms in the explanatory notes, which say:
These powers will mean that the net cost to public expenditure will be significantly less than the overall gross cost of the practical transition.
We are still trying to establish what the transitional costs will be. I am simply trying to retain clause 7.
As I understand it, the hon. Lady is arguing against removing the subsection; I will accept that that may be fiction for the moment. Can she explain how that stands beside her previous amendments, which sought for Ofcom to be economically efficient? This clause would refuse to allow any variance in the public charge. Surely one must set a sprat to catch a mackerel, so how will Ofcom achieve what she wants if its hands are so tied?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield put on record, there is the question of loans, their repayment and what their net effect will be. There is no point beating around the bush, or having the same debate over again. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is absolutely right that I have forcibly argued throughout our discussions that we should know precisely what cost savings the Government seek to make. That request has fallen on deaf ears. We still do not know what the transitional arrangements will be and, should the Bill's provisions fail by 2003—or very shortly thereafter—we do not know what assets will have been transferred, and what assets will be transferred back to the Secretary of State. I would resist amendment No. 33 and argue in favour of keeping clause 7(5).
Michael Fabricant rose—
Amendment agreed to.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order. The clause debates the short title, the commencement and the extent of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman is not speaking to the content of the clause, and is now trying to speak to the content of a subsection that has just been deleted. He either remains in order or returns to his seat.