Amendment 88

Part of Media Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 22 May 2024.

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Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 7:30, 22 May 2024

My Lords, we have spent a great deal of time during discussions on this Bill quite rightly talking about Ofcom—its duties and its vital role in supporting our creative industries and in protecting the public. Its primary purpose remains as laid down in the Communications Act 2003: to protect the interests of citizens and consumers. However, in recent years, it has become something of the proverbial Christmas tree on which we have chosen to hang a procession of new regulatory burdens and responsibilities, from regulating the BBC to overseeing online safety.

It has grown like Topsy, and it continues to do so as it adds 350 new members of staff just to deal with the online safety responsibilities. That is before it has to consider more staff to deal with the additional duties proposed in this Bill. It will soon, therefore, have over 1,500 staff. I have said it before, and I repeat, that at some stage there will be a case for splitting Ofcom into two, with one body looking after infrastructure and the other responsible for content. However, I accept that that is for another day.

Meanwhile, Ofcom lies at the heart not just of our creative and telecoms industries but of our democracy. It is difficult to overstate either the power or responsibilities that it wields. Yet, as I have pointed out on a number of occasions during the passage of this Bill, we have very few levers of accountability or scrutiny as a Parliament. When, for example, some noble Lords argued—I supported them—in relation to the remit of PSBs, that we should be retaining the list of genres and the Reithian principles, the Minister argued that the streamlined approach in this Bill would be overseen by Ofcom. I pointed out that such an approach would give Parliament no say in what Ofcom considers appropriate genres to be covered. I was then told that that was not a problem because the royal charter for the BBC and the licences for the other PSBs would cover this. I argued in turn that, if that was happening, would we have an opportunity to have a say on the royal charter and the licences? The Minister pointed out that the royal charter is laid before the House and there is a debate, but I hope he will acknowledge that there is no opportunity for that royal charter to be amended, regardless of what is contained in the debate.

The Minister did not answer my question as to whether or not the licences would be laid before Parliament and debated, and whether we would have an opportunity to amend them. I have checked, and my understanding is that there is no opportunity for Parliament to have a debate, and certainly no opportunity for Parliament to amend them. Therefore, Parliament has no say. I would be grateful if the Minister—he can intervene now if he wishes to—could confirm whether I am right or wrong. Perhaps he will do it at his wash-up, in due course.

I also raised the issue of Ofcom choosing to make its own interpretation of the regulations around due impartiality and of what constitutes news. I believe there is a greater need for parliamentary oversight over Ofcom. It seems sensible to start by looking at the appointment of its chairman, hence my Amendment 88. Currently, the Government appoint the chairman, with no safeguards against a highly partisan political appointment which may have little to do with promoting public interest. After that, the chair is effectively free to follow his or her own prejudices or political fixations.

This may sound like I have a particular beef about the current chairman, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever his political allegiances, we could not ask for anybody better. He rolls into one being a former BBC chairman, ITV chairman and Channel 4 chief executive. That is pretty good experience, and we are very pleased that we have him, even if—allegedly—he has never used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok.

However, that is simply not the point. Given the power wielded by this hugely important institution that lies at the heart of our culture and our democracy, it is imperative that we ensure that the appointment of all chairs is carried out with proper scrutiny by Parliament, which, after all, determines what the regulator should do. Ideally, I would have tabled an amendment arguing for an independent body to recommend a candidate for final approval by Parliament, but, sadly, such an amendment was deemed out of scope. My Amendment 88 is the next best—in scope—option. It would require the Government’s preferred candidate to appear before relevant Select Committees of both Houses to explain how he or she believes Ofcom should discharge its duties under this Act. If the committees conclude that the person should not be appointed, the Government must, if they still plan to go ahead with the appointment, at least explain why they are doing so, in a debateable Statement.

Of course, it is equally imperative that Parliament have the opportunity to scrutinise Ofcom’s performance in the exercise of its duties under the Communications Act, so Amendment 90 ensures that Ofcom is subject to review within a year of the Bill being passed, and that Parliament will have an opportunity to debate the outcome of that review. It is in fact not that dissimilar from Amendment 91, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton.

As Ofcom grows inexorably in size and importance, it is incumbent on us to ensure that it is properly held to account. At present, I do not believe it is. These two amendments would make a difference in that regard. I beg to move.