HC Deb 15 December 1983 vol 50 cc1214-20
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I beg to move, in page 74, line 28, at end add— `(2A) Grants made by local authorities under subsections (1) and (2) above shall be exempted for the purposes of calculating local government overspending.'. As the House knows, the Liberals, our colleagues in the Social Democratic party and others in the House have expressed considerable reservations about the general tenor of the Bill because it will not assure the continuation of the public service provision which we believe is necessary.

I do not apologise for mentioning the problem of rural areas again—my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) did so eloquently last night. There are safeguards in the Bill and we recognise that they go some way towards solving some of the problems, but there is general anxiety about the survival of rural telephone boxes. I shall not deal with existing provision but, rather, will concentrate on that which might be provided in the future, especially the operation or laying of a cable system.

I am sure that those who are more expert in this form of technology than I know that, although cable will come in on the back of the entertainment industry, it will make a profound impact on those who enjoy the new facilities. It will enable them to have special advantages in running businesses and creating employment. The same is true for cellular radio. There is a danger that there will be a division in the provision of new technology between those who have it and those who do not. When the provision of cable and cellular radio, for example, is discussed on purely commercial considerations, rural areas might well suffer significantly because the new technology is introduced late or because its provision in rural areas is not economically viable.

I have a map which demonstrates British Telecom's considerations with regard to introducing cellular radio. It is significant that large areas of Britain, especially rural ones such as my constituency, are large holes in a map which otherwise shows adequate coverage. North Cornwall and parts of northern England are also represented as gaps on the map. We should be better off if we were able to question the distribution of such provision.

The Government's proposals under clause 82 allow—and we welcome this—local authorities to intervene to secure that public service provision. To some extent this seems to be a tacit admission that the safeguards the Government have built in and lay so much emphasis on are rather less certain in their minds than they are in ours. That tacit admission of the inadequacy of the safeguards is reflected in the wording of clause 82. The wording says something positive, but under the current provision nothing is likely to be done.

As we all know, with the significant power recently drawn away from local authorities by the operation of the rate-capping provision, and after the statement of the Secretary of State yesterday drawing the net even tighter round local government bodies, the capacity to intervene in a significant manner to ensure that those vital new provisions and existing provisions are safeguarded will be significantly limited, because local authorities will come up against the penalties of going over the top of their spending limits. If the Government mean what they say in clause 82, they would wish to see local authorities intervening to make good deficiencies in service that may occur in future. We wish to give local authorities the freedom which clause 82 claims to give them, but which we know does not exist because of the limitations placed on local government freedom and expenditure.

The amendment seeks only to give real rather than rhetoric meaning to clause 82. I therefore urge the Government, even at this late hour, to recognise that need, as they have come some way towards recognising it, for the social provision of telecommunications and to accept the amendment which would undo a little of the damage which otherwise may be done by the rest of the Bill.

Mr. Butcher

I should like to explain briefly what clause 82 does. It enables local authorities to contribute towards telecommunications facilities in their area. There is nothing new in this. It simply continues the present power of local authorities to contribute towards public call boxes in their areas. I stress that we are not looking to local authorities to make any substantial contribution towards the cost of providing call boxes. The primary responsibility for providing the call box network will rest with BT and it will be obliged to provide the existing network of call boxes, through a condition in its licence. The House has debated this matter on many occasions.

The amendment is based on a slight misunderstanding of the position. I presume that the intention is to ensure that local authorities do not suffer grant withdrawal penalties on account of spending on call boxes. However, of the few contributions that are made, most come from the parish councils, which do not receive rate support grant anyway.

Not only, therefore, is the amendment unnecessary, but in any case there already exist well-established procedures whereby any local authority that thinks that any specific item of expenditure should not count towards its spending total can make representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Ashdown

The Under-Secretary of State said that the majority of contributions will come from parish councils, but, as he well knows, that spending from parish councils is added on to the district council rate targets and will have a significant impact on that area of provision. Indeed, it will have a knock-on effect, because district council spending can be put over the rate limit, with the result that it will come under the rate-capping provisions like everything else.

Mr. Butcher

It is for local authorities to determine their own priorities. It would be unfortunate if we started picking off various services which could be discounted against a rate support grant allocation.

Therefore, the amendment is not acceptable.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The Minister began to say something important. He seemed to say that the situation that arises under the Bill would bring about no more expenditure by local authorities in support of telecommunications facilities. He seemed to be genuinely of the view that there would be no new call on local authorities to support telephone boxes or other forms of telecommunications provision, even under the more commercial competitive atmosphere which he hopes will feature in telecommunications in future. I hope that that matter can be clarified by way of intervention if necessary.

If the Minister genuinely believes that the Bill will not lead to a greater call on local authorities for any of the social provisions associated with the telephone industry, I think that he is saying something which nobody on this side of the House has believed from the beginning of the Bill to the end. The recent debates in the House underline the point. The concern expressed for the disabled, and earlier debates on various kinds of social provision, as well as the rural aspects, all presuppose that someone else will have to pay for some of the provisions traditionally provided by British Telecom.

If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that there will be a greater call on local authorities, he must believe that the competitive atmosphere will have no effect on British Telecom, in which case he undermines the case for the Bill. Can he therefore clarify whether he thinks local authorities will not have any new calls made upon them?

Question put, That the amendment be made: —

The House divided: Ayes, 177, Noes, 310.

Division No. 108] [6.55 pm
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Evans, John (St. Helens N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Fatchett, Derek
Ashdown, Paddy Faulds, Andrew
Ashton, Joe Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Fisher, Mark
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Flannery, Martin
Barnett, Guy Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)
Barron, Kevin Foster, Derek
Beggs, Roy Foulkes, George
Bell, Stuart Fraser, J. (Norwood)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Bidwell, Sydney Freud, Clement
Blair, Anthony George, Bruce
Boyes, Roland Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Godman, Dr Norman
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Golding, John
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N) Gould, Bryan
Bruce, Malcolm Hamilton, James (M'well N)
Caborn, Richard Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Hardy, Peter
Campbell, Ian Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Campbell-Savours, Dale Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Canavan, Dennis Haynes, Frank
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Heffer, Eric S.
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Home Robertson, John
Clarke, Thomas Howells, Geraint
Clay, Robert Hoyle, Douglas
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Cohen, Harry Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Coleman, Donald Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Conlan, Bernard Janner, Hon Greville
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) John, Brynmor
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Johnston, Russell
Corbett, Robin Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Cowans, Harry Kennedy, Charles
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Craigen, J. M. Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Crowther, Stan Kirkwood, Archibald
Cunliffe, Lawrence Lambie, David
Cunningham, Dr John Lamond, James
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Deakins, Eric Litherland, Robert
Dewar, Donald Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Dixon, Donald Loyden, Edward
Dobson, Frank McCartney, Hugh
Dormand, Jack McCusker, Harold
Douglas, Dick McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Dubs, Alfred McKelvey, William
Duffy, A. E. P. Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. McNamara, Kevin
Eastham, Ken McTaggart, Robert
Edwards, R. (Whampt'n SE) McWilliam, John
Evans, loan (Cynon Valley) Madden, Max
Maginnis, Ken Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Marek, Dr John Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Martin, Michael Sedgemore, Brian
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Sheerman, Barry
Maxton, John Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Maynard, Miss Joan Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Meacher, Michael Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Meadowcroft, Michael Skinner, Dennis
Michie, William Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Mikardo, Ian Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Soley, Clive
Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Spearing, Nigel
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby) Steel, Rt Hon David
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Stott, Roger
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Straw, Jack
Nellist, David Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Nicholson, J. Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
O'Neill, Martin Tinn, James
Park, George Torney, Tom
Pendry, Tom Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Penhaligon, David Weetch, Ken
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Welsh, Michael
Radice, Giles White, James
Randall, Stuart Wigley, Dafydd
Redmond, M. Williams, Rt Hon A.
Richardson, Ms Jo Winnick, David
Roberts, Allan (Bootle) Woodall, Alec
Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Robertson, George
Robinson, G. (Coventry NW) Tellers for the Ayes:
Rogers, Allan Mr. A. J. Beith and
Rooker, J. W. Mr. James Wallace.
Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Aitken, Jonathan Butterfill, John
Alexander, Richard Carlisle, John (N Luton)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Amess, David Carttiss, Michael
Ancram, Michael Chapman, Sydney
Arnold, Tom Chope, Christopher
Ashby, David Churchill, W. S.
Aspinwall, Jack Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Clarke Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Baker, Kenneth (Mole Valley) Clegg, Sir Walter
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Cockeram, Eric
Baldry, Anthony Colvin, Michael
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Conway, Derek
Batiste, Spencer Coombs, Simon
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Cope, John
Bellingham, Henry Cormack, Patrick
Bendall, Vivian Corrie, John
Benyon, William Couchman, James
Berry, Sir Anthony Crouch, David
Best, Keith Currie, Mrs Edwina
Biffen, Rt Hon John Dorrell, Stephen
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Dover, Denshore
Bottomley, Peter du Cann, Rt Hon Edward
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Dunn, Robert
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Dykes, Hugh
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Braine, Sir Bernard Emery, Sir Peter
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Evennett, David
Bright, Graham Eyre, Reginald
Brinton, Tim Fallon, Michael
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Farr, John
Brooke, Hon Peter Favell, Anthony
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Fookes, Miss Janet
Browne, John Forman, Nigel
Bryan, Sir Paul Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Buck, Sir Antony Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Bulmer, Esmond Freeman, Roger
Burt, Alistair Fry, Peter
Butcher, John Gale, Roger
Butler, Hon Adam Galley, Roy
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde) McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Garel-Jones, Tristan McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian McQuarrie, Albert
Glyn, Dr Alan Madel, David
Goodhart, Sir Philip Major, John
Goodlad, Alastair Malins, Humfrey
Gorst, John Malone, Gerald
Gow, Ian Maples, John
Gower, Sir Raymond Marland, Paul
Greenway, Harry Marlow, Antony
Gregory, Conal Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds) Mates, Michael
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Maude, Francis
Grist, Ian Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Ground, Patrick Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Grylls, Michael Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Gummer, John Selwyn Mellor, David
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Merchant, Piers
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Hampson, Dr Keith Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Hanley, Jeremy Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Hannam, John Miscampbell, Norman
Hargreaves, Kenneth Mitchell, David (NW Hants)
Harvey, Robert Moate, Roger
Haselhurst, Alan Monro, Sir Hector
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Moore, John
Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk) Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)
Hawksley, Warren Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Hayhoe, Barney Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Hayward, Robert Moynihan, Hon C.
Heathcoat-Amory, David Mudd, David
Heddle, John Neale, Gerrard
Henderson, Barry Nelson, Anthony
Hickmet, Richard Neubert, Michael
Hicks, Robert Newton, Tony
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Nicholls, Patrick
Hind, Kenneth Norris, Steven
Hirst, Michael Onslow, Cranley
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Oppenheim, Philip
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Hooson, Tom Osborn, Sir John
Hordern, Peter Page, John (Harrow W)
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Parris, Matthew
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Hunt, David (Wirral) Patten, John (Oxford)
Hunter, Andrew Pawsey, James
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Irving, Charles Pollock, Alexander
Jessel, Toby Porter, Barry
Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey Powell, William (Corby)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Powley, John
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Price, Sir David
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Proctor, K. Harvey
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston) Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Knowles, Michael Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Knox, David Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Lang, Ian Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Latham, Michael Rifkind, Malcolm
Lawler, Geoffrey Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Lawrence, Ivan Roe, Mrs Marion
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Rossi, Sir Hugh
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Rost, Peter
Lester, Jim Rowe, Andrew
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Lightbown, David Ryder, Richard
Lilley, Peter Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Sayeed, Jonathan
Lord, Michael Scott, Nicholas
Lyell, Nicholas Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
McCrindle, Robert Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
McCurley, Mrs Anna Shelton, William (Streatham)
MacGregor, John Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Shersby, Michael
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Silvester, Fred
Maclean, David John. Sims, Roger
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. Skeet, T. H. H.
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Trippier, David
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Twinn, Dr Ian
Soames, Hon Nicholas van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Speed, Keith Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Speller, Tony Viggers, Peter
Spence, John Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Spencer, D. Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Squire, Robin Wall, Sir Patrick
Stanbrook, Ivor Waller, Gary
Steen, Anthony Walters, Dennis
Stern, Michael Ward, John
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Stevens, Martin (Fulham) Warren, Kenneth
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Watson, John
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Watts, John
Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Stokes, John Wells, John (Maidstone)
Sumberg, David Wheeler, John
Tapsell, Peter Whitfield, John
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E) Whitney, Raymond
Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman Wilkinson, John
Terlezki, Stefan Winterton, Nicholas
Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M. Wolfson, Mark
Thomas, Rt Hon Peter Wood, Timothy
Thompson, Donald (Calder V) Woodcock, Michael
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N) Yeo, Tim
Thorne, Neil (Ilford S) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Thornton, Malcolm Younger, Rt Hon George
Thurnham, Peter
Townend, John (Bridlington) Tellers for the Noes:
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath) Mr. Carol Mather and
Tracey, Richard Mr. Robert Boscawen.

Question accordingly negatived.

7.7 pm

It being after Seven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to Order [21 November] and the Resolution yesterday, to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

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