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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 9:15 pm, 8th February 2017

There is nothing coming from the Box—I think that I will have to come back to this point.

Ofcom’s role as a regulator is to have ongoing oversight of these matters. The important point, however, is that the Secretary of State’s power to intervene in media mergers provides an additional layer of protection for media plurality in the UK. In the case of Amendment 229ZA, the very fact that these matters are part of the regulatory broadcasting framework with which licence holders must comply means that they can be taken into account by the Secretary of State in deciding whether or not to intervene, particularly in terms of the impact that such matters have on the need for persons holding broadcast licences to have a commitment to broadcasting standards. In addition, any merger must also be judged on competition grounds by the relevant competition authority, and the existing competition law. The Government believe that the existing provisions in the Enterprise Act 2002 already give the Secretary of State wide and proportionate powers in relation to proposed media mergers. While we understand the intent behind this amendment, we do not judge that it is necessary.

Amendment 229ZB would similarly seek to add unlawful acts or corporate governance failures as specific matters that Ofcom could take account of when determining, on an ongoing basis, whether an individual or a corporate body satisfies the fit and proper person test, which will include an assessment of those with material influence or control over such bodies. Ofcom can and does take into account such matters and this amendment is therefore unnecessary. There is also a risk that this amendment may potentially narrow Ofcom’s discretion here, although I acknowledge that that is not the noble Lord’s intention.

From a legal standpoint, there is always a danger in seeking narrowly to define the parameters of the law. Indeed, I sought to do just that during our debates on this issue back in 2003. I was seeking to limit the scope—the boundaries—of the Government’s intended plurality test; I wanted the law to be narrowly defined and to target specific circumstances in which the plurality and public interest test could apply. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, disagreed with me, saying that breadth is very important. Of course, it was he who won the day. So I do think it important to take care when trying to narrowly define what does and does not apply, thus narrowing the scope, as that can constrain the whole approach. It is important to take this into account when considering these amendments overall.

The Government therefore believe that the powers introduced in 2003 are sufficiently wide to deal with complex media merger cases which raise public interest concerns and, for this reason, we ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendments.