New Clause 4 — OFCOM offices in Wales and Scotland

Orders of the Day — Office of Communications Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 6th March 2002.

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Votes in this debate

'OFCOM shall establish an office in Wales and an office in Scotland in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish needs are considered.'.—[Mr. Simon Thomas.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 15, in clause 1, page 1, line 11, at end insert—

'(3A) The Secretary of State shall—

(a) ensure that the membership of OFCOM includes a member to represent Welsh and Scottish matters, and

(b) in appointing this member, shall consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.'.

No. 16, in page 1, line 15, at end insert—

'(4A) In appointing members of OFCOM, the Secretary of State shall consult with the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish needs are considered.'.

No. 17, in schedule, page 11, line 34, at end insert—

'(4) As soon as possible after the end of each financial year, OFCOM shall also prepare and send to the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament a report of how OFCOM is ensuring that Welsh and Scottish interests are being adequately met.'.

No. 18, in page 12, line 9, at end insert—

'(1A) OFCOM shall establish—

(a) a Welsh Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Wales, and

(b) a Scottish Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Scotland; and in appointing these committees, OFCOM shall consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.'.

No. 19, in page 12, line 25, at end insert—

'(5) The membership of every committee established by OFCOM must contain at least one representative for Wales and one representative for Scotland; and in appointing these representatives, OFCOM shall consult with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.'.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

We debated the Office of Communications in Wales and Scotland in Committee and the new clause gives hon. Members an opportunity to revisit the issue, no doubt to the great joy of Ministers. Hon. Members have had the chance to think about the import of the new clause and the amendments and how they would assist the work of Ofcom. I hope that the Minister has also thought about the wonderful job that he can do for Welsh and Scottish broadcasting and communications, which no doubt he does every day, by accepting them.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I know that the hon. Gentleman will make some powerful points and I will be interested to discover how the Minister will counter them. Does not the Independent Television Commission have representatives for Wales and Scotland, as it did when it was the Independent Broadcasting Authority? Given that it is Ofcom's role to embrace the powers of existing bodies, the lack of such representation is an omission and marks a deterioration of their function to exercise control.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I concur with that powerful point, although it takes me away from my argument. In light of the earlier point of order, I add that amendments tabled by Conservative Members seek to extend to the BBC board of governors some of Ofcom's powers. Of course, the BBC itself has representation for Wales and Scotland. There is a national governor for Wales on the board, and there is a broadcasting council for Wales. Much of the industry that we seek to regulate through Ofcom has a distinct representation for Wales and Scotland. That will be lost under the Bill, unless my amendments are carried and the Bill says more about how the content of communications will be regulated in Wales and Scotland.

It may help the House if I explain how my proposals would achieve that aim.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Yes, again.

The new clause seeks to ensure that Ofcom will

"establish an office in Wales and an office in Scotland in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish needs are considered."

That proposal was debated in Committee, and, to be fair, the Minister pointed out that in December 2000 the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport stated clearly that Ofcom would have offices in Scotland and Wales. I was pleased to hear that in Committee, but on reflection I think that it would be worth stating it in the Bill.

If it is intended that Ofcom should have offices in Wales and Scotland—of course, this may also be an issue for Northern Ireland—I do not see why that should not be firmly stated in the Bill so that people in Wales and Scotland who are interested in these matters know that it will happen. We have a promise from the previous Secretary of State, but not from the present one, so it would be useful if she repeated that promise in today's debate. The new clause would ensure not only that the offices were established but that they were not ersatz or virtual offices that open only every other Wednesday when there is an R in the month. We need a real office dedicated to the needs of communications in Wales.

Amendment No. 15 seeks to ensure that the membership of Ofcom includes a member to represent Welsh and Scottish matters and that in appointing that member the Secretary of State consults the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. We debated in Committee whether that member should be a representative directly elected or selected by the Assembly and the Parliament. I have not tabled such an amendment on Report. The Government were very dismissive of the proposal in Committee, which is unfortunate because it is the request of the Assembly.

It is worth repeating that the Assembly Cabinet report of 24 January 2001 said:

"We recommend that the Board of Ofcom should likewise include a member representing the interests of Wales. We suggest that that Member for Wales should be appointed by the National Assembly."

It is true that those are only recommendations and suggestions, but the Government have not sought to implement them. The Minister nods to confirm that; I suspect that he takes a different view from the Assembly because after all he, not the Assembly, is responsible for broadcasting and communications in Wales.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

The Bill is about more than broadcasting, which is what the hon. Gentleman has referred to. He argues that the board should be representative. Will he explain why? What vested interests should it represent? Should only Scotland and Wales be represented or should every other vested interest, legitimate or otherwise, also be represented?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I have a sense of deja vu from the Committee proceedings. I have been very careful in referring to communications throughout the debate, and although broadcasting is an important part of the Welsh fabric, communications are very important, as I hope I shall shortly demonstrate. The hon. Gentleman asked a serious question about why there should be representation. I promise to answer it, although he might not be happy with my answer. First, let me finish exploring why there is no representation in any shape or form for Wales and Scotland on the proposed Ofcom.

The amendment differs slightly from that which I tabled in Committee. It would simply ensure that, whoever the five or six members of Ofcom to be appointed by the Secretary of State are, and whatever the interests, such as broadband, that they bring with them—they are unlikely to be geographical interests, as the Government have made clear; I do not accept that, but I do accept reality—a member of Ofcom should have the specific additional interest of ensuring that Welsh and Scottish interests are looked after.

That is the minimum that we can expect within a devolution settlement. Anything less begs the questions how on earth devolution is to work, and how the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament are supposed to relate to Ofcom given that progress and evolution are occurring within devolution.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider my fairly new suggestion. I am encouraged by some of the responses received after our debate in Committee from commercial companies such as Vodafone. They see no problem in my suggestion. They want a small, concentrated—non-dilute, if one likes—Ofcom comprising a small but powerful body of people who know exactly what they are about, but those companies foresee no problems arising if, in addition, some of the individual members of Ofcom have a responsibility to look after Welsh broadcasting interests, or Scottish communications interests, or the disability interests covered by a later amendment.

It is important that the Government explain how, if there is to be no dedicated person, those aims are to be achieved within Ofcom—or are Welsh and Scottish interests merely to be subsumed in the overriding UK-wide interests? Any such subsumption—if that is the right word—of Welsh and Scottish needs in a UK-wide body would be damaging to Wales and Scotland.

Amendment No. 19 would ensure that every committee established by Ofcom contains at least one representative for Wales and one for Scotland, and that in appointing those representatives, Ofcom should consult with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. If we are to have a small concentrated Ofcom, I see no reason why the various interests should not be represented on the consultative committees that it sets up.

I remain to be convinced, but if the Government are right that Ofcom can work with a role that is not representative but relates to the communications sector as a whole, they have to accept that Ofcom will need roots—it will need information and some means of consulting surrounding bodies and the wider public. Six people cannot do that. They may be experts in their field and the ideal people to advise and inform the Government and to regulate the industry, but they cannot undertake the wider accountability role.

Let us think about what we are doing. We heard in the point of order about the role of Parliament. We are abdicating our regulatory role—it is right that we do so, because we in Parliament cannot control everything, but it is rightly our role—to a quango, a non-departmental public body, a new body called Ofcom. There is nothing new in that because we have already ceded that role to the bodies that Michael Fabricant mentioned. However, in doing that, we should have one eye on wider accountability.

We know how much say we as individual Members of Parliament will have in the workings of Ofcom and how few opportunities we will have to debate the matter. Perhaps there will be an annual debate, or a debate in Westminster Hall, or the occasional parliamentary question, but our day-to-day ability to hold Ofcom to account for its actions in the name of our constituents and our nations will be extremely limited. It is therefore incumbent on us to say now that Ofcom should have a good working relationship with the industries, with the people of the UK as a whole, and with the people of Wales and Scotland. It is valuable to think of the advisory bodies for Ofcom playing that important role. I have no doubt that the Minister will say, as he said in Committee, that this is only a paving Bill and that we should not bother the Government with details as they are about to set up this lovely little body. However, the devil is in the detail and the details show whether Ofcom can deliver communications needs in Wales and Scotland.

I hope that the Minister will accept that whatever else the advisory committees might do for Ofcom and whatever other subject they might cover, there should be geographical representation for Wales and Scotland. I hope that he will put that on the record tonight, even if he is not prepared to accept the amendment.

What is different about Wales and Scotland? What sort of matters need to be addressed by Ofcom? Why do we need, if not representation, at least an avenue—the triangle of office, individual and advisory body—so that the average person in Wales, or anybody involved in any of these industries in Wales, knows where to go and who is accountable for decisions that will impact on the communications industry in Wales?

Let us first consider the analogue switch-off and the move to digital. The Government have said that that will happen when we have achieved 95 per cent. digital television coverage. There is a danger that Wales and Scotland will lose out because that is a UK figure. If one thinks about the natural geography of Wales and Scotland, it becomes clear why a UK figure of 95 per cent. coverage could easily mean a figure of 80 per cent. in Wales and 85 per cent. in Scotland. That would be hugely disadvantageous.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 5:30 pm, 6th March 2002

The hon. Gentleman is kind to give way. As the Member for Pontypridd, unable to receive anything beyond four channels, let me tell him that over my dead body will my constituents and I not be able to receive everything through terrestrial, digital or some other platform.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I accept that. Unfortunately, I am not concerned about the hon. Gentleman's constituents but about mine. My constituents, who live in a rather more remote area, may be the last on the line. I am pleased that the Minister makes that promise, but I would like Wales and Scotland to reach that target of 95 per cent. coverage as well before switch-off. That would be Ofcom's job. At present, the Government promise only a UK figure. Ofcom could change that and ensure that the figure was 95 per cent. in the constituent parts of the UK. Would it do that, however, if it did not contain sufficient Welsh or Scottish representatives?

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

The hon. Gentleman triggered my intervention by talking about being "on the line". Of course, his constituents could receive satellite distribution of digital television. Admittedly, that is a subscription service, but it carries the free-to-air broadcast. In my judgment, the rural areas will have to depend on satellite distribution if we are ever to have switch-off.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of these matters informed the Committee. I do not quite agree with him, however, although I agree that it is de facto. For anyone living in Aberystwyth or anywhere along the west Wales coast, the choice if they want digital, de facto, is satellite. [Interruption.] Indeed, perhaps even in Pontypridd.

The 28 gigahertz broadband fixed wireless access did not get sold off in Wales. I shall return to that shortly, as there is an opportunity to make more of it.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

There will not necessarily be universal access by satellite. On the north side of a steep incline, the satellite angle of elevation is quite low. If a geostationary satellite over the equator cannot be looked at, it will not be possible to pick up satellite television. The topology of Wales—even that of Pontypridd—is known for its north faces, so I suspect that satellite distribution will not be universally available.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been for a walk up the Graig recently, but he might have seen the topography of Pontypridd if he had. My notes refer to a mountainous area with intense interference, which I think is what he was referring to in a more technical and understandable way.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. These are matters that must be ironed out. Whether we can get to 100 per cent. take-up is a moot point, but the 95 per cent. target should apply to Wales as well as to the UK as a whole. In fact, take-up in Wales has been a little faster than in the rest of the UK, which might seem to underline my argument. The take-up has been faster, up to a point. That point is reached when the choice is not available and take-up is not possible.

My contention is that full potential take-up of digital services and the digital communication revolution will not be possible in Wales until we have an adequate broadband network in Wales. The issues of technical interference, satellite, and take-up from analogue are all related to the overriding need for the economy of Wales to create a broadband network. One answer would be to create a range of local transmitters. Such an experiment is taking place in my area with the Maran broadband network, which Ceredigion county council, Powys and, I think, Carmarthenshire have worked together to achieve.

That points the way, but there are drawbacks to local transmitters. There is much local opposition to radio transmitters. People worry that they are dangerous, the Stewart report has raised concerns about them, and of course the transmitters are visually intrusive. Nevertheless, in the short term that is one of the best ways of delivering broadband to rural areas.

The National Assembly for Wales recently invested in ensuring digital take-up for every school throughout Wales. That will bring a broadband link, in theory at least, into virtually every village and community in many parts of rural Wales. The question is whether we can get the short hop from those transmitters to businesses to bring about the potential economic growth that can follow from broadband communication.

I do not want any area of Wales to miss out on the revolution in digital communications that broadband promises—for example, the ability to sell directly and to interact over broadband. That is available in only a limited way through satellite. Selling through satellite has largely been a failure. I understand that several companies are pulling back from direct marketing in that way, as it simply does not work. Scrolling through an Argos catalogue by satellite takes far too long and no one is interested, now that the internet is available. The challenge is to link the two, and broadband is that link.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the subject of the amendments? As a fellow Celt of Irish extraction, I had lunch yesterday with S4C. It was made clear to me that S4C considers itself not just a Welsh broadcaster, but a British broadcaster and was keen to be regulated from London. Coming back to the subject of the amendments, has the hon. Gentleman any comments on that stance?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I am not the Member for S4C, I can assure the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased that S4C gave him lunch because that obviously underpins its UK-wide remit. It is good to hear that. As he has accused me in a roundabout way of straying from the subject, I remind him that the amendments are about how Wales will benefit from the digital revolution which is to be regulated by Ofcom. I am trying to set out for the benefit of the House—

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Labour Members say that Mr. Thomas has been wandering off the subject of the amendments. If that were the case, surely you would have called him to order?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

With that vote of confidence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall conclude the argument about broadband and its relationship to the regulatory system which Ofcom is set up to implement. At present we do not have a very good story to tell about broadband communication in the UK. According to the figures that I have for the UK's broadband connectivity, we are in 22nd place in the world league. That is a poor result for the Government. We are behind Portugal and Spain, for example. I regret to say that if the figures for Wales were disaggregated, we would be bottom in the UK in broadband access. Broadband infrastructure is essential for the development of the Welsh communications industry.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

The hon. Gentleman has obviously not taken account of BT's announcement last week. That will be the platform under which broadband will develop extensively in Britain because it is exactly what everyone has been asking for at a low wholesale price. He should bear that in mind when he is making his comments.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I have been reasonably tolerant with Mr. Thomas so far, but he must address his remarks to the new clause.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I simply say briefly that the BT announcement does not take into account the cost of bringing broadband to rural areas. I do not believe that broadband access for rural areas will come through BT; it will come by other means.

I come now to why Wales needs to be represented on Ofcom. The public service role of broadcasting is particularly relevant. Programming in Wales is different from that elsewhere in the UK. The situation is unique. Paul Farrelly met S4C—SpedwarC—and knows that it is a public service broadcaster, established after many years of campaigning in Wales, which provides a hugely valuable service to television viewers in Wales in the Welsh language. That is a unique feature not found elsewhere in the United Kingdom that needs to be looked after and protected within a regulatory environment. If that regulatory environment is to be Ofcom, there surely needs to be someone within Ofcom, whether an advisory committee, a member of Ofcom itself or someone on the office side, who understands what S4C and Welsh language broadcasting is about, and what English language broadcasting in Wales is about. That is why some form of representation for Wales and Scotland within the proposed Ofcom body is so important.

If Scotland and Wales, as peripheral countries in terms of economic development—[Interruption.] In terms of economic growth we lag behind. I do not know the Scottish figure but my hon. Friend Pete Wishart backs me up. Wales has 80 per cent. of the UK's GDP, so we cannot be described as anything other than lagging behind. We are told that broadband can bring us together, that it cuts the distance between markets and that it will be part of the answer to bringing rural areas of Wales and Scotland into the mainstream of economic development. If that is to happen, Ofcom must regulate it. It must set up the structures and the fabric that will allow it to happen. It will not do so if it does not pay proper attention to Welsh and Scottish needs, and it will not do that if there is no way of them being effected in the constitution of Ofcom. That is why we need to decide the matter now in a debate on the membership of Ofcom, not afterwards in a debate on the communications Bill.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

For those of us who are used to the hon. Gentleman's friends in the Scottish National party in their usual sectarian mode of address in the House or in Grand Committee, it was a pleasure to hear the more constructive tone with which Mr. Thomas addressed the House today. I do not wish to pursue that line much further because I would no doubt be ruled out of order and I in no way wish to cause a division between the hon. Gentleman and his SNP colleague, Pete Wishart, who has joined him belatedly.

Although his manner may have been constructive, I suspect that beneath the fine words of the hon. Gentleman and his SNP friends there is still the same nationalist agenda, which is to undermine the devolution settlement and reopen the question of responsibility for broadcasting between the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Not undermine the devolution settlement, build on it.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

It is a matter of opinion how that is best to be done. Had the hon. Gentleman not intervened at that point he would have heard me move on to say that beneath the nationalist agenda pursued by him and his SNP friends on occasion after occasion, sometimes there are points which have some merit. Although the agenda that he is promoting today undoubtedly pursues his nationalist objectives, there are also those within Scotland, and no doubt within Wales, who are concerned about the way in which Scottish and Welsh interests will be represented within Ofcom, so it would be helpful if the Minister would restate the Government's commitment to ensuring that Scottish and Welsh interests are taken on board in the eventual structure of the new regulatory arrangements.

Concerns about Scottish and Welsh representation have come from bodies such as the Scottish Consumer Council. I urge the Government to make clear, either at this stage or some future one, how such interests will be taken into account. In its report on the issue, the Scottish Consumer Council made the vital point that in the interests of Scottish consumers it is essential for Ofcom and its consumer panel to have a physical presence in Scotland and for both bodies to have clear effective policy relationships with the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament and with a range of stakeholders within Scotland. I endorse those comments.

I welcome the commitment that has already been made to having an office in Scotland and I urge the Government further to expand upon the ways in which they envisage such links with the Scottish Parliament, the Executive and stakeholders in Scotland being set up. During the past few weeks, as a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, I have heard evidence from several organisations concerned with current affairs broadcasting in Scotland, and the relationship between Ofcom and Scottish interests after the new regulatory arrangements have been set up has been raised in passing by several bodies. I therefore hope that the Government will today be able to give some indication of the ways in which they hope to address these concerns.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

I was about to complete my remarks, but I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

I regret that I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. The way in which the new clause has been drafted is not helpful or practical. Given the size of the organisation involved, the arrangements set out are not the right way forward. However, I accept that there is a need to make clear how these concerns will be dealt with and I hope that in that respect at least the Government will be able to say how they will take such interests into account in future.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I rise in general support of the new clause. I do so as an Englishman and a Conservative Back Bencher, but also as someone with strong Welsh connections. [Interruption.] Mr. Bryant is being as unclear as ever from a sedentary position. The hon. Gentleman could not be bothered to listen to the arguments advanced by Mr. Thomas about broadband—something that he himself constantly prattles on about—and arrived late. It ill behoves the hon. Gentleman to appear late and start shouting from a sedentary position.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I am happy to talk at some length if there are to be sedentary interventions from the Minister. The hon. Gentleman made many such interventions in Committee, as a direct result of which our proceedings were elongated.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We ought to settle down, and Mr. Fabricant should address the new clause.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I shall not pursue what I heard the hon. Member for Rhondda say, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. It is not a question of what the hon. Gentleman hears or does not hear. The occupant of the Chair decides these matters. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now address the new clause.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I shall ignore the fact that the hon. Member for Rhondda just said that I was being a hypocrite.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The hon. Gentleman should now address the new clause. Those were not the words that were used. He should get on with his speech.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I hear what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is absolutely right that Wales and Scotland should have an Ofcom office to provide symmetry with existing provision. The Minister will know that the Independent Television Commission, and, previously, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, had regional offices and offices in Scotland and Wales as well as in England. Of course, they also had offices in Northern Ireland, and I am not quite clear as to why Northern Ireland was not included in the new clause. As devolution has taken place in Wales and Scotland, it seems absolutely right that Ofcom should represent the interests of Wales and Scotland.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion has already raised the question of analogue switch-off, which is a moot point at the moment. The Government say that analogue switch-off should take place, but no date has been set. As I understand it, analogue switch-off will occur when 95 per cent. of the population have access to digital television. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, because of topography, 99 per cent. of the population in England might have such access, while much less than 95 per cent. of the population in Wales and Scotland might have such access. There must be a voice in Ofcom, first, to ensure that analogue switch-off does not happen before adequate coverage has been achieved in Scotland, Wales and—I shall add—Northern Ireland. Secondly, there must be a voice in Ofcom to promote the provision of digital services in Wales and Scotland.

As I said in an intervention, we cannot necessarily rely on satellite transmission for the provision of digital television. I am sure that Brian White will rightly say that this an issue not just about television but about interactivity. Interactivity is not available from geostationary satellites over the equator, although it may be available from low earth-orbit satellite constellations. I do not think that such satellites are currently up and running, although I stand to be corrected by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North–East. Microwave facilities could be made available, but as the hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly pointed out, health concerns exist about microwave provision, although they may not be justified. Concerns also exist about the looks of such antennae, with which I have every sympathy.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

This is the second time that such concerns have been raised. Will my hon. Friend note that, this week, scientists have again made it emphatically clear that emissions from masts are at a fraction of the safety levels that have been set? The scare tactics perpetrated by some newspapers and some of the so-called environmental groups in this country are nothing short of a scandal. We must lay this ghost quickly.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I am happy to acknowledge that point. I am—dare I say it—a fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, which produced a similar report five or six months ago. It is surprising that the main media in this country are not doing much to put this lie to bed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. Nevertheless, my point was that there is a perceived danger, albeit that that perception is wrong, as I tell my constituents.

The third reason why we need to have a representative on the main board of Ofcom from Wales and Scotland is the provision of broadband. In all fairness to the hon. Member for Rhondda, he has consistently argued for that. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, Britain does not have a great deal to boast about when it comes to the distribution of broadband in the United Kingdom. Although we have one of the highest levels of internet penetration in the world, we are 22nd in terms of the provision of broadband, and the level of provision in Scotland and Wales is far lower. It is particularly vital to make broadband available in Scotland and Wales if satellite communication is not available for the reasons that I gave earlier.

I support the points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. Wales and Scotland will suffer a technical deficit if someone does not fight their corner. The best way to have someone fighting their corner is to have representatives from Wales, Scotland and—yes—Northern Ireland on the board of Ofcom.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I remind the House at the outset of my pecuniary interest in BT. I congratulate Mr. Thomas on securing this debate. I am sure that those hon. Members present who were members of the Committee will recall that we discussed this matter at length.

As we said in Committee, new clause 4 calls for an Ofcom office to be set up in Wales and Scotland. The amendments grouped with it suggest that the membership of Ofcom should include a representative of Welsh and Scottish interests and that, in appointing those representatives, the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament shall be consulted. Amendment No. 19 suggests that the membership of every committee established by Ofcom—which seems excessive, if the hon. Member for Ceredigion does not mind my saying so—will include a representative for Wales and a representative for Scotland, and that Ofcom shall consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament in making those appointments.

The House will recall that the White Paper dealt at length with the relationship between Ofcom and the devolved Assemblies, and the need for the regulators to

"develop good links with the relevant committees of the devolved assemblies".

The hon. Member for Ceredigion will recall that when we discussed this matter in Committee I favoured the approach whereby the amendments could have reflected some kind of formal consultation with the Committees of the devolved Assemblies, which was closest to that envisaged by the White Paper. I am therefore disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not follow my suggestion, which would perhaps have enabled us to support his amendments more vigorously. Members got to know each other a little better in Committee, and the Minister may want to take this opportunity to reply to my question. Why is the Bill silent on this and many other aspects that were set out in detail in the White Paper, particularly in relation to the development of good links with Committees of the devolved Assemblies? Does the Minister agree that such an approach would be far preferable?

The hon. Member for Ceredigion, with his usual eloquence, also talked about the impact in his homeland of analogue switch-off and the switchover to digital. It is regrettable that we cannot discuss that in the context of the United Kingdom, but perhaps we can return to that on Third Reading.

I enjoyed the contribution from Mr. Lazarowicz. Perhaps the Committee was the poorer for the lack of such contributions.

As ever, my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant demonstrated his knowledge of Wales, which is greater than mine. My hon. Friend Mr. Taylor intervened briefly to speak about the vexed question of telephone masts and scaremongering. All hon. Members receive constituency mail on the subject. I have had cause to raise the matter with BT, which assumed that I was talking about a mast for mobile telephones. Most of the problems in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom relate to such masts. I know that that is a matter of great consequence in your part of East Anglia, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and in the Dedham vale. One of my constituents has been fitted with a pacemaker, and real concerns have been raised about what could happen.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 6:00 pm, 6th March 2002

The average strength of signal at a mobile telephone mast is 80 watts, compared with 40 million watts at an ultra-high frequency television mast, yet people near Sutton Coldfield or Crystal Palace have not dropped dead because their pacemakers have stopped.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

That has not happened that we know of. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point.

The official Opposition understand the strength of feeling of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the other hon. Members who support the amendments, but we do not share their enthusiasm for them. I do, however, support the White Paper proposal that formal consultation with Committees of the devolved Assemblies could be possible. I wait with anticipation to hear the Minister explain why, as so often, the Government have not followed up a White Paper commitment.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

New clause 4 would require the establishment of Ofcom offices in Wales and Scotland. I am happy to confirm what I and my right hon. Friend Mr. Smith, when he was Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, have said on the matter. I reassure Mr. Thomas that Ofcom will have a presence of the sort that he wants, and I confirmed as much when the Bill was discussed in the Standing Committee. Indeed, some of the existing regulators already have offices in the nations and regions. No doubt, Ofcom will want to consider how that resource might best be utilised.

New clause 4 is, of course, limited to Wales and Scotland, and I suspect Ofcom will also wish to consider what presence will be necessary elsewhere—in Northern Ireland and, I imagine, in the English regions, given the importance of broadcasting and of other telecommunications industries in other parts of the country. The precise size and nature of any presence in the nations will be a matter for Ofcom to decide, as there will be direct cost and manpower implications for the new organisation.

Amendment No. 15 would ensure that Ofcom has a single member to represent the interests of Wales and Scotland. As I said previously, the Bill provides Ofcom with one function—to prepare itself for taking on other functions once Parliament has considered the main communications Bill. During this initial phase, Ofcom will deal only with practical issues relating to the transfer of the staff, property and other assets and liabilities of the existing regulators.

At this stage, therefore, I cannot envisage any matters of a specifically Welsh or Scottish nature that would warrant ensuring that the interests of Wales and Scotland should be represented on the Ofcom board. That applies equally, of course, to the interests of Northern Ireland and the English regions, as well as to the interests of the many other groups who may have a stake in Ofcom's activities.

It will be important to ensure that legitimate interests should be properly reflected in the structure of Ofcom. The communications Bill will set out how we propose to ensure that the interests of the nations and regions are to be represented in Ofcom.

I turn to amendment No. 16. Honourable Members must bear it in mind that, in the main, telecommunications, broadcasting and spectrum issues are reserved matters. It is not therefore appropriate for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to have to consult the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament on every appointment to Ofcom that she proposes. Those appointments will reflect the need for the Ofcom board to have particular skills and expertise. Indeed, an appointment may result from the need to have a board member who reflects the exact nature of broadcasting and telecommunications in Wales. However, my right hon. Friend will decide such matters on merit.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

No. We have spent many minutes discussing the matter, and I am going to move on.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to ensure that those general requirements are properly met.

With regard to amendment No. 17, the Bill provides that Ofcom should prepare an annual report of its proceedings and submit it to the Secretary of State, who must then lay a copy before each House. There is no reason why the report should not include matters relevant to the interests of the devolved nations. I am sure that there will be areas of Ofcom's activities in which the National Assembly for Wales and Scottish Parliament will have legitimate interests. I believe that it would therefore be appropriate for Ofcom's annual report to be made available to the Assembly and to the Scottish Parliament in order to facilitate debate; but that should be a subject for concordats rather than a matter to appear in the Bill.

Amendment No. 18 proposes establishing specific Welsh and Scottish advisory committees. The Bill contains provisions that allow Ofcom to set up committees as it sees fit. There is nothing to stop it establishing advisory committees on national or regional issues if it considers that there is a specific need. I see no need for Ofcom to be required to set up specific Welsh and Scottish committees during the initial phase, when it will only be undertaking preparations for its future role.

I also believe that requiring a Welsh and Scottish member to be appointed to every committee established by Ofcom, as amendment No. 19 suggests, goes much too far. Where devolved nations have legitimate interests in the work of the committees that it may establish, Ofcom will, of course, want to ensure suitable arrangements for those interests to be properly heard. However, there may well be cases where Ofcom sets up committees on matters in relation to which there are no discernable Welsh or Scottish interests. It would be entirely wrong in such cases for Ofcom to be placed under an obligation to appoint Welsh and Scottish representatives to them.

For all those reasons, I oppose the amendments.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I want to reply briefly to the Minister's remarks. I am grateful for the support that I have received for some of the amendments from the hon. Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). I was interested in the Scottish perspective provided by Mr. Lazarowicz, and especially in the comments from the Scottish Consumer Council. I was not aware of those comments, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving the House that information.

Two central principles are at stake. As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, the White Paper made it clear that there should be some form of consultation between the devolved bodies and Ofcom. In addition, the National Assembly for Wales made it clear that it wanted more than consultation. It said that it wanted representation, and that it wanted to choose its representative on Ofcom. I point out that the Assembly in controlled by Labour.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked why I had not changed my proposals. The reason is that, as I said, the National Assembly for Wales wanted representation as well as consultation. I hope that she accepts that explanation of why I was not able to accede to her arguments in Committee.

The Minister has not promised representation, or that the National Assembly will be able to select or appoint Ofcom members. He has not even offered consultation, and he has not promised any connection between Ofcom and the devolved bodies in Wales and Scotland. He has said clearly that, because the matters involved are retained and not devolved, there should be no formal arrangements such as those proposed in the amendments.

I point out that the Strategic Rail Authority has formal arrangements with the Scottish Parliament and with National Assembly for Wales. [Interruption.] I must tell Mr. Bryant, who has been making sedentary comments throughout the debate but does not see fit to take part, as always, that railways are not devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, so the new clause explores a very important principle—a principle more important than the question whether Ofcom has X members or whether a member represents Wales or bits of Scotland and so on. The important principle is this: when we now set up UK-wide bodies, post devolution, how do they relate to the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament? The Minister's response to that question was totally inadequate, so I shall seek to press the new clause to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 62, Noes 301.

Division number 184 Orders of the Day — Office of Communications Bill [Lords] — New Clause 4 — OFCOM offices in Wales and Scotland

Aye: 62 MPs

No: 301 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am most grateful to you for allowing me to interrupt the proceedings. I would like to ask you whether the Secretary of State for Health has asked your permission to make a statement to the House about the decision by Greenwich hospital to take out an injunction preventing my local paper from publicising a health risk to patients. Could you also tell me whether the hospital would require the permission of the Secretary of State to issue such an injunction?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for intimating to me that she wished to raise that point of order. I think that she will know that the Chair cannot opine on the second part of her question. The answer to the first part of her question is no. She has, however, put the matter on the record and attention will, no doubt, be paid to her anxiety.