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Communications Bill

– in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 23rd June 2003.

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Votes in this debate

Report received.

Clause 3 [General duties of OFCOM]:

Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour 3:07 pm, 23rd June 2003

moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 3, line 3, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

"(1) It shall be the principal duty of OFCOM, in carrying out their functions—

(a) to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters; and

(b) in that context, to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets; and to do so where appropriate by promoting competition.

(1A) Where it appears to OFCOM, in relation to the carrying out of any of their functions under Chapter 1 of Part 2, that the requirement specified in subsection (1)(a) conflicts with the requirement specified in subsection (1)(b), they may give priority to the requirement specified in subsection (1)(b)."

Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1 I shall also speak to Amendment No. 14. In doing so, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, on his arrival as a solo act on the Front Bench.

Following constructive discussions with Ministers and officials, the precise wording of the original amendment has been somewhat adapted to accommodate legitimate concerns relating to connectivity. I am personally satisfied that this revised amendment represents no diminution whatever in the principle of a clear hierarchy of duties favouring the concerns of the citizen when at variance with the imperatives of the market place. We have all worked hard to future-proof this legislation. I believe that the amendment will help to safeguard the interests of the citizen irrespective of changes in market power in the years to come. Read in conjunction with the public interest plurality test, the subject of an amendment likely to be debated next week, this amendment represents the closest I believe we can come to achieving reform of a regulated market environment—which, as I read it, was the all but unanimous view expressed on all sides in Committee.

As for Amendment No. 14, it is fair to say that the broad view of the Committee was that we should hold the feet to the fire of those legal experts who believe that there is no place for "citizen" in the legislation. I have no idea what the outcome of that element of debate is likely to be, but the Romans discovered two thousand years ago that it is a valuable word. We should cling on to it as long as we can. I sincerely hope that the Minister, in his reply, will do all in his power to find room for a word that far and away best expresses the community of interests that we discussed in Committee. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Brabazon of Tara Lord Brabazon of Tara Chairman of Committees, House of Lords

My Lords, I should point out that if the amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 2.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I support the amendment. I also associate myself with the general welcome to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in his new role. It comes as something of a culture shock after dealing with the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone; it is a little like being invited to tea by Lady Penelope and finding Tony Soprano waiting for you when you arrive. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister will address himself to his new task with the open-minded flexibility for which we have come to know him in his long-standing role in the Whips' Office.

The amendment is deep in the philosophy of the Bill. The pre-legislative scrutiny committee came to the conclusion that, although many of the Bill's proposals to inject vigorous competition into the industry were welcome, there was a need for balance that did not and would not exist unless responsibilities were laid down in the specific duties of Ofcom to protect the rights of the citizen.

The amendment would take nothing away from the desired objective of the Prime Minister and the No. 10 policy unit to create a dynamic regime for the communications industry, but it would remind us that the very reason we have a Communications Bill rather than leaving matters simply to competition and enterprise legislation is that communications is different. It properly redresses the balance that makes communications different, and so would make the Bill all the better for its insertion.

Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative

My Lords, I support the amendment. Those of us who served on the Joint Committee tabled a considerable number of amendments in Committee that really covered all the matters we felt had not previously been dealt with adequately by the Government. I am sure that the Minister, whom I too welcome to his new position, will be glad to see that on this occasion far fewer amendments have been tabled in the names of the group that has been described as the "Gang of Four"—those of us from different parts of the House serving on the Joint Committee.

The amendments that remain are those that we all feel are still important. The fact that we are narrowing our field of fire may indicate to other Members of the House who have not followed the Bill in quite so much detail that there are still a number—quite a small number—of major issues to which we attach importance. It is on that basis that I support the amendment.

I want to make a couple of other points with reference to what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who spoke in Committee on the relevant group of amendments; at that stage, the amendment was grouped with others. She said that accepting the amendment would make "no legal difference whatever", and went on:

"I will resist it, because it would only confuse and not simplify".

If it was going to make no legal difference, I am not quite sure why she was so determined on that occasion to resist it. Almost everyone else who spoke felt that, far from causing confusion, the amendment would make much clearer what Parliament thought were the principal objectives, and would therefore be helpful.

The noble Baroness also suggested that "citizens" should not be used because it was,

"invariably bound up with the concept of nationality".—[Official Report, 29/4/03; cols. 594-95.]

Again, that argument was questioned. Amendment No. 14 today clarifies exactly what "citizen" means in the context of the Bill. Therefore I do not think that that can be a serious argument.

Bearing in mind the strongly held views of those of us who served on the Joint Committee, the widely held views expressed on the previous occasion by Members from all parts of the Committee, and the amendments that have now been made to try to deal with at least one of the points made, I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 3:15 pm, 23rd June 2003

My Lords, the situation is very hopeful. What stands out in my mind from Committee is that comments made in the first two debates—the second was on an amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, on public service broadcasting—were crucial to the success—indeed, I would argue the actual viability—of the legislation.

Three issues predominated: first, the impossibility of co-equality, which is not mentioned in the Bill but is nevertheless glaringly implicit in the Government's previously revised Clause 3(1); secondly, the crucial importance of giving Ofcom a principal duty, right up front, to consider the "public (the citizen) interest"; and, thirdly, the growing recognition that what is distinctive about British broadcasting, contributing to its original and continuing pre-eminence globally, is the enshrined concept of public service broadcasting. I hope that what I have heard—that we are not able to vote on the amendment—is wrong. That would be a great disappointment to many noble Lords. We very much want Amendment No. 1 to be agreed to.

This time, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and his colleagues have tabled an amendment of even more compelling substance. I am sure that it will get even greater support from both sides of the House. He and his colleagues from the pre-legislative committee—I say this not as one of them, but as a groupie for that system and what it has produced—are to be warmly congratulated on the considerable efforts they have put into arguing the case for this and other changes to the Bill prior to Report. I have very little doubt that we shall all have cause to be grateful to the noble Lord in the years ahead. I wholeheartedly support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment before us today, as, indeed, I did when it was discussed in Committee. However, I did not speak on this amendment at that stage because I was not sure whether or not it was unnecessary.

The amendments have, as it were, been improved by Amendment No. 14, which is, as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, meant to deal with the then Minister's objection to the use of the word "citizen". But I understand that the main argument for these amendments combined is to ensure that Ofcom will have concern not only for the economic considerations of the interests of the consumer and the way that competition can assist the consumer but also for the interests of the individual—the citizen, if one likes to call him that—in terms of the quality of what is provided and especially in terms of the public service obligations, which were emphasised by my noble friend Lord Puttnam and others elsewhere in the debates on the Committee stage.

However, I am torn between supporting the amendment and, on the other hand, feeling that perhaps it is not necessary. Clause 3(1) sets out two duties. The first comes before the second because, of course, one must come before the other if two duties are set forth. But no distinction is made between the duty to further the interests of consumers and so on, which happens to be in Clause 3(1)(a), and the duty to further the interests of the community as a whole in relation to communication matters. I do not know what the second one means unless it is to favour quality and public service obligations. Therefore, I believe that, as the Bill stands, the obligations of Ofcom go beyond that of economic concerns, and I rather doubt whether the persistence of my noble friend Lord Puttnam and others on this matter is really necessary.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, I, for one, could not disagree more strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, has just said. Before I start my intervention, which will be very short, I want to say that I was not sure what prompted the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to find herself in a hopeful position. If it is a hopeful position, I do not share it with her at present and I have no prospect of doing so unless or until I hear that the Government are prepared to move on this amendment.

I, for one, regard the amendment as being of paramount importance. I do not really mind about the verbiage attaching to it—whether one is talking about the "customer" or the "consumer" or about the "market" or the other word for it. I have been persuaded as to the importance of the amendment by two speakers on the far side of the House. The first is the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who wishes to provide Ofcom with an unambiguous basis from which to address even the most complicated issues which will come within its remit. I do not believe that it can be put more clearly than that and I accept it entirely.

The other source which persuaded me to see the light was, oddly enough, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who explained in words that I fully understood just how difficult the position of Ofcom would be. She said:

"The Bill in its totality delivers for both consumers and citizens".—[Official Report, 29/4/03; col. 594.]

Some people prefer the word "markets" to "consumers"; I do not mind which it is. She then went on to admit that balancing and reconciling the duties might well leave Ofcom with a very difficult task. I have no doubt about the truth of that. She made it very clear. She was able to offer to Ofcom only what she called "overarching principles". I am not sufficiently familiar with what "overarching principles" are to be sure that they would be of any great comfort or help to Ofcom when meeting these difficult problems. I believe that the position of Ofcom would be not unlike that of those rather odd gymnasts who nowadays precede all BBC news programmes, cavorting about on our screens without any particular purpose and from time to time finding themselves in what seem to me to be extremely uncomfortable positions. However, I do not believe that we should even consider the possibility of leaving Ofcom in such an appalling, distorting and uncomfortable situation.

In reality, such a balancing act, if it can be called that, by the Government is itself a slight deception. I believe the Government must be well aware that the forces of the market are such that 99 times out of 100 the real pressure of short-term demands, with the full support of the media moguls, would be more than sufficient to win the day. Supporters of the amendment fear that that position will be infinitely weakened by the pressures that the market and those who control the media—the moguls of television and other media—will be able to marshal against it.

The consumer and the citizen are two sides of the same coin. All of us are both from time to time, but the consumer will almost always take a short-term point of view. In our time, we badly need reinforcement for the long-term view. I submit that the amendment would give Ofcom the necessary basis from which to view its and our problems. I very much hope that the amendment will be accepted. If the Government do not accept it or move substantially towards it and if the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam—once again, I acknowledge readily our indebtedness to him—is not satisfied, I hope that he will support the amendment in the Lobby. I shall certainly follow him with the absolute certainty that I am right to do so.

Photo of Lord Bragg Lord Bragg Labour

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Puttnam. The word "ambiguity" lies at the heart of our concerns—and not only of the famous "Gang of Four". Nine Peers from all sides of the House spoke during the Committee stage and all were convinced that the original formulation was mined with ambiguity. I believe that there is now a great opportunity to exorcise this legitimate anxiety and to rid ourselves of it once and for all.

Secondly, I hope that your Lordships will fully support and champion that fine word and state of "citizen". It has a lengthy and distinguished pedigree.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Conservative

My Lords, as all your Lordships are now fully aware, Clause 3 goes to the heart of the operation of Ofcom. I want to take us back to something that the noble Lord, Lord Currie, said at Second Reading:

"Ofcom needs some freedom of manoeuvre to carry out its duties in the interests of all consumers and citizens, in a proportionate way".—[Official Report, 25/3/03; col. 683.]

That said, there is a need for clarity, and some considerable debate took place in Committee in your Lordships' House concerning the fact that this part of Clause 3 was riddled with ambiguity.

We support the amendment because we believe that it gives clarity to the Bill. I refer briefly to another place, where my honourable friend the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Mr John Whittingdale, questioned whether only the interests of consumers should be given primacy or whether that should be extended further to cover the interests of citizens more generally. He gave the example of public service broadcasting, which, as he noted, is in the national interest, although only some may wish to consume it.

The amendment does not diffuse the need to promote competition, where appropriate. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said that the amendment makes no legal difference. Nevertheless, I believe that it negates ambiguity, simplifying and clarifying the principal objectives.

As to the definition of the word citizen, I agree with my honourable friend John Whittingdale, who said in another place that when we are talking about promoting the interests of citizens, we are talking about the national interest. The Minister was concerned about the use of the word citizen, when it was debated in Committee. I refer him to a speech, "Progressive Politics Maturing", made by the Prime Minister last week to the Fabian Society. The Prime Minister made several references to the citizen; I will quote only two. He referred to

"rebuild[ing] civil society around a new contract between citizen and state based on responsibilities as well as rights", but also to public services as

"bind[ing] society together in collective action, citizens as well as consumers".

The word citizen is very much a part of our vocabulary; it is time we accepted it into our law. Amendment No. 14 does just that.

Photo of Lord Currie of Marylebone Lord Currie of Marylebone Crossbench 3:30 pm, 23rd June 2003

My Lords, I declare an interest as Chairman of Ofcom, and I should like to speak from that perspective. I was appointed just under a year ago to this position. We have been preparing Ofcom over this period, and have consulted widely with organisations that represent the public interest and with companies regulated by Ofcom in the telecoms and broadcasting fields—all of whom have expressed support for the concept of the consumer/citizenship duality at the heart of the Bill as currently drafted. Ofcom has spoken little about the substance of the Bill, and that is because it is for Parliament to decide what Ofcom is to do and how that is to be done. We will seek to work within whatever remit Parliament decides to give us.

I made only one contribution on Second Reading, but I speak of these general duties today, because they can fundamentally determine the nature of Ofcom's duties and operations. This clause has been debated much more than others, and rightly so. It sets the fundamental architecture. During the debate the clause has changed significantly, and for the better. The general duties have been simplified—as the joint scrutiny committee recommended—from 15 separate duties to an overarching one. The Government's draftsmen have helped to reflect in those general duties what we as lay people refer to as the citizen interest, although not expressed in those words.

The dual concept of the citizen/consumer has been at the heart of the appointments to the Ofcom board, in the selection of its senior management, and in the nascent processes that we are putting in place. The Ofcom board reflects a wide and appropriate range of experience, to regulate in the interest of both the consumer and the citizen. Although I am best known as an economist and dean of a business school, I also believe passionately in the interests of citizens and the role of the community as a whole. My work as a trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and its commitment to diversity and plurality attest to that. These issues are fundamental to the role of the citizen: plurality, impartiality, high quality, diversity, and effective support for democratic discourse are critical outputs of our society.

I and the rest of my board regard it as a crucial part of our remit to nurture and cherish those values. We are confident that we can work well within the general duties that the Bill now gives us. If the Bill is passed, one of our first tasks will be to undertake a major statutory review of public service broadcasting with a view, as the Bill puts it,

"to maintaining and strengthening the quality of public service television broadcasting in the United Kingdom".

That is an immense responsibility; we shall discharge it with the utmost seriousness.

I do not presume to comment on the technical or legal drafting merits of the amendments moved by the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam, Lord Crickhowell, Lord Hussey, and Lord McNally. I will say, but only as a compliment, that between them, they have many parliamentary miles on the clock. Their amendments allow us to have a good debate about this vital issue.

It is essential that the Government listen carefully to the points made this afternoon. I am sure that they will. I also hope that in responding, the Government do not so far change matters as to distort the fundamental architecture of Ofcom. That architecture has been two and a half years in the preparation. No doubt, there is room for some changes, but it is not the time to pull out foundation stones when the Bill is almost complete—otherwise, the law of unintended consequences might kick in with a vengeance. I hope, therefore, that the Government can strike that balance, for this clause sets the fundamentals that drive all from this point forward.

Photo of Lord Peston Lord Peston Labour

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, could he put on his economist's hat rather than his Ofcom hat, and agree that the concept of citizen is fundamentally different from that of consumer?

Photo of Lord Currie of Marylebone Lord Currie of Marylebone Crossbench

My Lords, I fully accept that, and that distinction is fully reflected in the drafting of the Bill.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, I must start by acknowledging the care that has gone into the preparation of these amendments. I also acknowledge the strong feelings that have been expressed in the House, both in Committee and today. I intend to respond in a positive spirit to the thinking behind the amendment.

We could be led a bit astray if we were to spend too much time talking about the words "citizen", "consumer" and "community". The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, started off badly by saying that he was indifferent as to whether we talked about consumers or markets, and then, interestingly, said something with which I agree:

"the consumer and the citizen are two sides of the same coin".

It is not our intention—nor is it in the English language—to equate consumers with markets. The word that I have always used, in 50 years with the Labour Party, is that we have to be on the side of the "punters". I think everyone understands that. However, "consumers" is not the same as businesses in the market.

I will continue to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton's speech, much of which I agree with, so that he may intervene on all that I say. Certainly, "consumers" is not the same as the market, in the sense that it is not the same as the businesses in the market—"those who control the media", or, as he went on to say "the moguls". "Consumers" is not a doppelganger for the wicked and self-seeking market, which some people in the Chamber seem to fear.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for his courtesy. I will briefly explain myself. The point I had in mind, even if I did not make it clearly, was the habit of the market to pinch or annexe the position of consumers, which is often taken, quite wrongly, to speak for the bulk of consumers.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, I agree with that, in particular with the words "quite wrongly". There is no sense in which our division between the phrase "community as a whole" and the word "consumer" should be taken to imply a subtle take-over by the market of the regulation which Ofcom is to undertake.

Let me respond to what I believe to be the thrust behind the amendment as well as to the wording of the amendment. We have always said that we want Ofcom to be a strong regulator. Its actions will be governed by the principles of good regulation and that is spelt out. But we should have no doubt that where intervention is necessary to further the interests of consumers and the community as a whole, Ofcom will have strong powers to act decisively. It will have powers to address market failures and it will have specific and well spelt-out powers in the Bill to deal with consumer issues. It will have the responsibility to uphold diversity and plurality and the powers to do so. It will also have the responsibility to preserve standards and the powers to do so.

In the past few days, I have read a great deal in the press about the dangers of dumbing down to American television standards. I have read in particular a vivid article by Professor Michael Tracey, which seeks to make the point about the Communications Bill. The difference between us and the United States relates not so much to ownership rules, but to the fact that they do not have content regulation. Content regulation is at the heart of what has been the feature of British broadcasting and it is maintained in this Bill.

However, I do not believe that anyone can say that because in some senses the Bill is deregulatory it is also soft. Where consumer interests and citizen interests—and I use that phrase in the widest sense that the Prime Minister was able to use it in his Fabian Society lecture—need to be protected, safeguarded and furthered, the Bill gives Ofcom very strong powers indeed. It will have concurrent powers with the Office of Fair Trading in respect of competition. It will uphold tough content requirements, including radio formats which ensure "localness" and quotas which will deliver regional and independent television production.

I turn to the difficult part about citizens. In daily life, we all use the word "citizens" in the way the amendment uses it. The Prime Minister used it last week and the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, used it in her Reith lectures and in her speech at Second Reading. It is entirely legitimate that we should do so, but it is unfortunate that legislation cannot. In legislation, the word has a more restricted meaning which is confined to that of nationality. If we were to start to use "citizens" here, even if we define it as is done in Amendment No. 14, the definition is in conflict with all of the undefined uses of citizenship in all other legislation.

It is a trivial point, I hope, because surely when philosophers, the Prime Minister and everyone else are talking in ordinary life about citizens, they are talking about the community as a whole. And that is the phrase that we use in the Bill. I cannot for the life of me see what is lost by avoiding the difficulties of legislative language and using the phrase "community as a whole". Politically, it means the same as "citizen" is often taken to mean in non-legal contexts.

I understand that there are calls to give Ofcom stronger direction about when the interests of the community as a whole—or the interests in non-legal terms of citizens—should take precedence. I understand that unless we give it a clear and unambiguous steer, there are worries that we could lose all the things that all of us want to protect. Let us be clear that at the heart of today's debate is the broadcasting tradition with which we have grown up, which is admired across the world and of which we are proud. We are protecting that in this legislation.

We are not being stubborn on this point. We are open to proposals but we have to recognise that we do not want to cause more difficulties than we are trying to solve. On that point, we have to listen to what is said by the noble Lord, Lord Currie. So let us all agree that this is a matter of crucial importance, but we are concerned that we are trying to amend general duties to address a specific concern about one aspect of the Bill. We have to consider those general duties across the full range of Ofcom's responsibilities.

We need to strike a balance between giving direction to Ofcom in legislation and giving it flexibility to make some very complex decisions. We are trying to put into place a Bill that will last. That means that we can anticipate issues that will arise in the future.

The principle of saying that in some instances or in some parts of the Bill Ofcom should give precedence to the interests of the "community as a whole" has its attractions. In practice, it sets out in the most public way at the very beginning of the Bill that we are expecting Ofcom to act differently depending on the matters with which it is dealing. Consumer interests do not cover the whole range of Ofcom's activities. But I wonder whether that is what we really want. It does not meet our aim of having a converged regulator.

There are already occasions when issues are regulated across more than one part of the Bill; for example, conditional access or electronic programme guides. How can we give definitive guidance to deal with those issues? We cannot predict what others will arise, so I urge the House to be cautious about trying to put in place different overarching principles in the general duties.

I am not saying that we do not recognise the concerns expressed today and in Committee. But when we have analysed them, we believe that they concentrate on the issues that will rest not so much with Ofcom's board but with the content board. It is here that we need to put beyond doubt that the content board will act in the interests of the community as a whole. I want to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, by saying—

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage) 3:45 pm, 23rd June 2003

My Lords, if I may finish the sentence because it is a rather important sentence. I want to say to the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that I am willing and happy to take away the issue of how to give effect to what I know he wants by thinking again about the remit of the content board.

Photo of Lord Peston Lord Peston Labour

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend when he is winding up, particularly given the remark that he has made. I found it most encouraging. However, for the sake of those of us who may be involved with all kinds of legislation from time to time, is he saying that we all know what "citizen" means and we all know what we want to achieve, but it happens to be the case that when legislating we are not allowed to use the word "citizen" in our Acts of Parliament? Is that what he is trying to tell us? If so, I find it mystifying, given that the word and, as he said, the objective are perfectly clear. I do not want that to get in the way of what sounded like a positive response to my noble friend.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, no, I did not say that we cannot use the word in legislation; I said that we use it frequently in legislation in the context of nationality. To introduce the word "citizen" here to mean,

"all members of the public in the United Kingdom", as in Amendment No. 14, sounds legitimate for this Bill, but it would conflict with the undefined use of "citizen" in all other legislation where its usage is restricted to nationality. It would cause all kinds of difficulty with other legislation.

Photo of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Labour

My Lords, is my noble friend therefore saying that what one Parliament does with the word "citizen" binds the hands of future Parliaments in respect of a particular Bill?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, it is not a question of one Parliament or future Parliaments—no Parliament can bind its successors—it is a matter of consistency in the usage of language in legislation.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us who were on the pre-legislative scrutiny committee are not wholly happy about the power of the content board and the way in which it is weakened in some way? The idea of putting in a fundamental principle is related to future workings of the content board.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, on his ministerial office. I am delighted to see him in his place. However, he seems to have omitted the concerns of the pre-legislative scrutiny committee and of the many amendments tabled in Committee about the content board. He is handing it all over to the content board.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, that is exactly why I am saying that, regarding these two amendments, we shall return to look at the remit of the content board. The intention is that there should be primary legislation—in other words that there should be government amendments at Third Reading. Without being drawn into the wider issues of the perceived weakness of the content board—and I recognise the Joint Committee's comments about that—we recognise that there needs to be some change in the remit of the content board, and that needs to be protected by primary legislation.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, I am concerned over two matters that were referred to by the Minister: first, the converged regulator, which is not as important as he believes, and secondly, the fact that if we use the term "citizen" we shall put a particular burden on the board of Ofcom, as opposed to the content machinery. That is welcome. I want the board to have a responsibility there.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, that is exactly what we shall take away to consider. If the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, is now questioning the concept of a converged regulator, he is going back, not just to the beginnings of the Bill, but for at least two and a half years, and questioning the basis of Ofcom itself. As soon as one recognises the concept of a converged regulator, one has also to recognise that its responsibilities to protect the interests of the community as a whole have a subset. Although all consumers are members of the community as a whole, not all members of the community as a whole are consumers of telecommunications services. For that reason, one has to cover both.

The noble Lord, Lord Currie, was fair in his description of Clause 3(1). That should be read again. It gives due weight to both of those concepts. If further protection is required, then statutory amendments to the provisions for the remit of the content board—and I hope that my noble friend Lord Puttnam will agree, and take part in discussions—will be a good way to proceed. I hope that that point will influence the House. It represents much more important concerns than any difference that there might be between the "citizen" and the community as a whole.

Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour

My Lords, I do not wish to quibble with the Minister over words. However, the word "citizen" can define both the individual and the collective—whereas the phrase "community as a whole" could simply be a majority of the collective. They are quite different, both in law and as far as concerns Parliament.

Before making a final decision as to whether to divide the House, am I hearing a categorical affirmation from the Minister that the concerns that he has listened to during Second Reading and the whole of the Committee Stage will be met by the statutory use of the content board to enforce the intent of the present amendment?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, the noble Lord is asking for an "absolute assurance". Nobody ever asks for an assurance from Ministers, they always ask for an "absolute assurance". A number of different views have properly been expressed in debate this afternoon and in Committee. I cannot give an absolute assurance that all of those views will be accurately and fully reflected in any changes that we make to the remit of the content board. If we put our heads together and try, we could approach that nirvana.

Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour

My Lords, in order to strengthen the Government's will, and to take account of the fact that the issue is important—given the very strongly held views here—I beg to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

*Their Lordships divided: Contents, 179; Not-Contents, 75.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Communications Bill

Aye: 177 Members of the House of Lords

No: 72 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.