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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:31 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 5:31 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, as no. 13 out of 49 speakers, I am clearly one of a great many who are glad that the time has at last arrived for your Lordships to bring your considerable expertise and experience of the communications industry to bear upon this important Bill. You have heard some brilliant examples of that expertise already.

As some of your Lordships know, I would have preferred two separate commissions—one that was responsible for the economic and telecommunications side of the industry and the other responsible for public service broadcasting standards and content issues. But, there comes a point when it becomes fruitless to pursue an issue that falls upon continually deaf ears.

As a step in the right direction, however, I congratulate the Government on their decision specifically to include a content board in the legislation, and, indeed, the pre-legislative scrutiny committee on its role, both in persuading the Government to accept that point and in securing the adoption of so many other improvements to the Bill.

However, I remain sure that the establishment of a content board will not stop internal arguments as to which aspect of the commission's work should take precedence or secure the lion's share of resources. That kind of concern is certainly not imaginary; it has already surfaced in another place. Of course the old Radio Authority knows that only too well from its own experience as part of the Independent Television Authority, before it was liberated—with its own budget and priorities—in the 1990s. Now, of course, it is due to be swallowed up all over again.

Neither does the establishment of a content board really meet my other major concern. Will complainants alleging unfair portrayal or unwarranted infringement of privacy, accept as unbiased the judgments of a regulator who also licenses the broadcasters and sets the terms under which those licensees operate? Will those decisions be seen as "transparently independent" from the point of view of human rights legislation, as were those of the BSC, for example? Sadly, but honestly, I very much doubt it.

No doubt the content board will try to be as open as possible in its dealings with the public. So I hope it might think of referring complaints on taste and decency and fairness and privacy which reach its level for decision by an outside, and more visibly independent, panel. If, as I suspect—and wrongly I think—it decides against that and keeps this responsibility "in house", then surely it should be content board members themselves and not staff who decide the majority of complaints. It should, in other words, continue with the current practice of the BSC, rather than follow the unconvincing ITC's example, where decisions on many complaints were made by staff members. Charges of "agency capture" are far less likely to be made, and less likely to be justified if it follows the BSC's precedent. Having said all that, I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing that I have the noble Lord, Lord Currie, sitting directly in front of me.

I now want to turn to one or two specific issues. First I deal with diversity. Equal opportunities for women has been a constant theme with me over the years. The racial aspect of diversity—of equal opportunities—is at least as important as that for women and for the geographical and ability/disability diversity, which are specifically written into the Bill as Ofcom's duties, particularly when one remembers the ever increasing range of nationalities and religions that today make up the UK population. I hope the Minister will address that point.

Next, continuing the religious theme, there are the restrictions on licence ownership for those with religious backgrounds. The Government are to be congratulated on removing certain of those restrictions in the draft Bill. But, inexplicably, some remain. I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester—who put the case so compellingly—in calling unreservedly for all such restrictions to be removed. The conditions on which such licences are granted and the regulations which have to be complied with are quite sufficient to deal with any possible breaches that might occur.

I turn to the BBC, which is clearly still controversial. It is right that it should be subject to, and fined for, any breaches of tiers 1 and 2 of Ofcom's regulatory system, should that become appropriate. It should also be required to publish an annual statement of programme policy, and be judged against that by Ofcom and be subject to competition law. And, of course, we should all continue to expect, and press for, the very highest standards of public service broadcasting from all its programmes.

However, I remain unconvinced that the BBC should be regulated in exactly the same way as commercial TV and radio, from which we expect considerably less public service broadcasting. I am also unconvinced that there is a need for it to come within the remit of the National Audit Office. None of us should forget, however critical we may be of some aspects of current BBC policy or programming, that the BBC, with its proud history, is still—much more often than not—the bench-mark. It is the bench-mark against which others, and especially terrestrial channels, can match themselves, and, on occasions, surpass the BBC with the quality and originality of their own public service broadcast programmes.

Next I deal with taste and decency. I am glad, of course, that the structures of Ofcom are being designed with far more emphasis on light touch/self regulation. But equally, I have no doubt that what we see does influence our behaviour to some extent, often of course for the better, but not always. That is why issues of bad language, sexual behaviour and, above all, the portrayal of violence on the screen will continue to cause considerable citizen anxiety. One has only to look at the recent ITC/BSC research, The Public's View, which was published in 2002, to realise that concern about taste and decency issues—55 per cent felt that they had got worse—will not disappear with the establishment of Ofcom, or even with the establishment of the content board. Concern remains high about children's programmes and the viewing to which they are subject. So, though we must of course beware of over-nannying, it remains vital for society to retain some effective balancing influence on unbridled consumer demand.

However, if judgments are to be balanced, they need to be well-informed. So it is quite right that Ofcom should be given the duty to commission and publish research. That duty must surely be delegated to the content board.

Will the Minister assure the House that Ofcom, alongside its commitment to more detailed and in-depth research, will continue to research and monitor changes in citizens' attitudes about what is broadcast—not just from time to time, as the Bill provides, but year on year? It will surely be more important in future to have that information regularly available if Ofcom is to know whether the degree of self-regulation permitted is working satisfactorily for the community interest.

Lastly, I share the concern about Channel 5 and cross-media ownership. That has clearly fuelled ongoing unease about whether the press media should be subject to some form of statutory—as opposed to voluntary, Press Complaints Commission—regulation. I am sure that views will remain divided on the issue, not least because of the historic importance of freedom of speech, which of course remains. However, perhaps there is a need for some kind of half-way house—some more public accountability. That is why I am especially glad that both your Lordships' House and the pre-legislative scrutiny committee have accepted the proposition that a House of Lords communications Select Committee, which will include the print media, should be established once the Bill is enacted.

As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, this is a vast Bill. I am sure that as a result of that, and of what we have heard today, we can all look forward to many hours of stimulating debate.