Amendment 88

Part of Media Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 22 May 2024.

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Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 7:45, 22 May 2024

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. I will address Amendment 88 first. The noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, brought up an important point about Ofcom’s impartiality and the process for appointing its chairman. I join him in commending the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, the current chairman, on his ongoing work to steer Ofcom through a time of great regulatory change—I acknowledge the change that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, alluded to in her closing remarks. As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, he draws on his extensive expertise in the sector.

Given the trust we place in Ofcom to regulate our media sector, its independence and impartiality are of paramount importance. To that end, the existing processes ensure that the appointment of the Ofcom chairman is designed to give effect to just those objectives. The chairman is appointed by the Secretary of State following a fair and open competition. This appointment is regulated by the office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The chairman of Ofcom is designated as a significant appointment by the commissioner. This means that the advisory assessment panel, which advises the Secretary of State, must have a senior independent panel member to ensure its impartiality. This member must be independent of the appointing department and must not be politically active.

The parliamentary scrutiny of this process was enhanced in the update to the Governance Code on Public Appointments in February this year. The updated guidance specifies that, should the responsible Minister not follow the advice of the advisory assessment panel, she or he is required to write to the chairman of the Select Committee when she or he announces the chosen candidate, and must appear before the Select Committee if requested to do so.

Furthermore, the chosen candidate is required to appear before the Select Committee before he or she is appointed. These new processes, which I hope the noble Lord agrees will help to address many of the concerns he raised, will apply to all future appointments to the role. We believe that this process ensures robust scrutiny and promotes Ofcom’s independence. I appreciate the noble Lord’s intention in tabling this amendment and agree with him about the importance of the topic it covers, but, given that this process was updated as recently as February, I consider his amendment unnecessary and hope that he will be happy to withdraw it.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for Amendments 90 and 91 relating to Ofcom reporting. Ofcom has been regulating television and radio broadcasters since 2003, and we have confidence in its ability to continue to do so in the face of the changes brought about by the Bill. I appreciate what lies behind their amendments, which would ensure that the scope of the regulator’s functions, powers and duties—as well as its resources and capacity to deliver on its programme of work—is regularly reviewed. I am glad to say that there are already existing legislative requirements for Ofcom to report annually on how it carries out its functions. This information is published and laid before both Houses of Parliament, allowing the public and Parliament alike an opportunity for scrutiny.

In particular, Ofcom is already required to prepare a report on the carrying out of its functions each financial year, under paragraph 12 of the Schedule to the Office for Communications Act 2002. This includes reporting on its work, performance and finances, as well as any other matters requested by the Secretary of State. The last such report was published last July. This existing requirement combines some of the issues featured in the noble Lord’s and the noble Baroness’s amendments. More widely, it allows Ofcom to give a complete overview of its work. I hope that will reassure them.

On the noble Lord’s particular questions, the approach we have taken in the Bill is in line with that of other legislation. We have set out clearly defined principles that we want Ofcom to regulate against, and we have provided it with the tools it needs to do the job. On granular decision-making, it is right that Ofcom make these decisions. It has considerable sectoral expertise and is in the best place to judge the impact of its regulatory decisions. Off the back of the Bill, it will run 11 consultations, which will give a wide range of interested parties in the industry and beyond an opportunity to feed into its operational decision-making. Ultimately, Ofcom is in turn accountable to Parliament in the ways I set out earlier in Committee.

It is crucial that we protect Ofcom’s role as an independent regulator and give it the discretion to do its job. That is the approach we have taken in the Bill. We want to avoid a situation where a huge amount of parliamentary time is taken up making granular decisions about what is on our televisions. Rather, Parliament should set the direction and Ofcom can regulate accordingly, and broadcasters can continue to operate independently in their editorial decisions.