Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 9:00 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, this has been a very important debate on a very big issue. Its sharpness has been reinforced by the fact that we are currently in a process involving all the issues that have been referred to. Obviously, this will be reflected in the fact that the response will not be made by a Minister in the department which might have to deal with some of the results of the current proposals for a merger, and we respect that and understand the reasons for that.

The wonderful speech by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, which took us back to the origins of the Ofcom regime that we now have and reflected on points along the way, including the dark shadows cast by the events of 2011, gave a texture to this that makes it much more important. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, spoke about the need to think about how all this interfaces into descriptions of the sort of country we want to live in and the sort of society that we can enjoy. The necessary handles on both policy and the implementation of that policy are very important.

At heart, the amendments are simple. They draw out in more detail and focus on issues which have been live ever since they were first introduced. Indeed, I recall discussions in your Lordships’ House on two Bills which dealt with issues that bore on this and for which we had debates of this type. That does not mean to say that this is ground that no longer needs to be tilled. It does, because in thinking about this we have to recognise some of the issues that have already surfaced in Committee today and throughout the Bill—that when we are talking about the media, particularly but not restricted to the digital media, we have to think very carefully about the pace of change and the adjustments that have to be made to the policy framework in order to achieve what will be proportionate and appropriate regulatory functions later on down the line.

The good thing about the amendments is that they make us think about the words that were used, which seemed appropriate at the time, in relation to the twin requirements: that we look at plurality in relation to media but also at control. If this were a simple case of looking at how a monopoly might influence outcomes and how consumers are treated, it would not be necessary, perhaps, to delve so deeply. The issues that are currently addressed by the CMA, for instance, are largely economic. They deal with prices. They deal with the way in which consumers are treated, but they are basically around whether or not the price has been artificially moved in order to favour the producer against the citizen. In that sense, we do not need to think too hard about some of the issues, although we can regret them, as we did in the debate in the dinner hour, which I was able to participate in, which focused almost exclusively on why consumers have disappeared from government, consumer interests are rarely referred to and there are not even consumer panels on the CMA. But that debate can be read in Hansard, and I am sure it will be of much interest to those who are interested in this point.

The amendments would go back over the grounds on which a PIIN is issued and make it clearer than it is currently that simple questions of plurality, which are readily gamed in terms of corporate structures these days—this issue was perhaps not so resonant at the time that the legislation was drafted—need to have a little bit more bite if they are to look at some of the detail that we want in this area. We have to look not just at the question of ownership and control in relation to a market-facing issue but at the way in which such an agglomeration can distort and change that market, which is not in the public interest. It is very important that we do that. There may well be a way of dealing with this under the existing legislation, but it would be so much easier if the amendment was accepted because it would take us down a line that was more focused on the particularity of the media arrangements.

Then there is the question of the fit and proper person test for those who have broadcast licences. The basic structure is there. Again, on reflection, it could be argued—and I think it has been demonstrated today—that without more concern about the issues which arise out of the merger, without more concern about how the operation will work in terms of who activates it, what exactly the issues are that will be looked at, what the proprieties are that we are concerned about, and where the ethical concerns are and all that, then it will not be as effective. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.