Clause 1 - The Office of Communications

Office of Communications Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 24th January 2002.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 9:30 am, 24th January 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 2, leave out from 'the' to end of line 3 and insert 'Communications Regulation Commission.'.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

With this it be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 1, line 4, leave out 'OFCOM' and insert 'The Communications Regulation Commission'.

No. 1, in clause 7, page 6, line 6, leave out 'Office of Communications' and insert 'Communications Regulation Commission'.

No. 2, in title, line 1, leave out 'Office of Communications' and insert 'Communications Regulation Commission'.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Miss Widdecombe, welcome to the chairmanship of this Committee; I look forward to serving under you.

The amendments would replace the original title, ''Office of Communications'', with a new title, ''Communications Regulation Commission''. The proposed changes reflect the fact that the Government intend to replace five regulators—the Office of Telecommunications, the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards

Commission, the Radio Authority and the Radiocommunications Agency—with one overall regulator. Hon. Members will notice that amendment No. 2 seeks to leave out ''Office of Communications'' in the title and replace it with the new wording, ''Communications Regulation Commission''.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Is my hon. Friend aware that the new title is excellent, not just because she has suggested it, but because it was the very title suggested by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in its report, the ''Multimedia Revolution''? We should give credit not only to that Committee, but its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who came up with so many proposals that were a precursor to the White Paper.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pre-empting comments I was about to make. I want to record my enthusiasm for his remarks.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

On behalf of Labour Members, will the hon. Lady thank her hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for getting that out of the way before we start?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am grateful to the Minister and, in the spirit of co-operation, I look forward to congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield on future such occasions.

Amendment No. 1 addresses clause 7, page 6, line 6 and seeks to take out ''Office of Communications'' and insert ''Communications Regulation Commission''. Amendment No. 4 addresses clause 1, page 1, line 4 and again would insert the proposed new title, as would amendment No. 3.

I have not read the report to which my hon. Friend referred, but in another of its reports, on the communications White Paper, the Select Committee concluded that the internal structure would be better reflected if the new regulator were called the ''Commissions Regulation Commission''.

That report, as I am sure my hon. Friend will recall, went further in 1998 and called for a separate Department of Communications to be established, with its own Secretary of State, assuming the broadcast media responsibilities of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the telecommunications and internet responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry and the responsibility for electronic delivery of government services of the Cabinet Office. I did not think it appropriate, and I was not brave enough, to go so far as to suggest an amendment to that effect here, but I give notice that, given the opportunity on another occasion, the Government might see fit to reconstruct the relevant Departments. I think that it is the preserve of the House, once the Bill has been passed and received Royal Assent, to reconstruct the Select Committees.

The question facing us today is why the Government argue that the time is right for a converged regulator, Ofcom, but not a converged Department, as the Select Committee and I have suggested, to provide a coherent strategic direction for

the regulator and for the sector as a whole. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield pre-empted my comments: I find myself in complete agreement with, and admire, the conclusions of the Select Committee. However, one reason why I proposed a new title is that if we remain with the title Ofcom, the Office of Communications, for the new regulator, one public body, Ofcom, will be responsible to two Government Departments.

The new title recognises that dichotomy and more accurately reflects the internal organisation and working structure of the new unified regulator which the Government are introducing, and which we support. The new regulator represents the merging of elements from current competition regulation and current broadcasting regulation. The competition regulation tends to be dominated in its structure by a single statutory regulator, such as the Director General of Telecommunications. It might be appropriate to declare my interest, albeit from 20-something years ago. As a stagiaire, I served as a trainee administrator in Directorate-General IV of the European Commission. I learned, as I thought at the time, quite a lot about competition regulation in the European Union. One of the first acts of the new Labour Government in 1997 was to incorporate article 85 and 86 into our competition law, so I hope that it was appropriate to declare that interest at this stage.

In contrast to competition regulation, broadcasting regulation tends to have a more collegiate structural approach. As so accurately described in the Select Committee's report on the White Paper on communications, in a collegiate approach—I have tabled further amendments on this, which I think have been selected—in which decisions might be taken by a majority, just as in a Cabinet or shadow Cabinet, the whole college of members is bound by those decisions. I believe that a collegiate approach is more appropriate here than regulation by a single individual.

I believe that the amendments reflect what we are aiming to achieve: the merging of five separate, distinct bodies, with five different structures and roles, into one regulator. They are complemented by amendments further down the amendment paper. I hope that the Government are minded to agree to change the title to one that is more appropriate and reflective of the new regulator that they wish to introduce.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe? I hope that the Clerk will not have too much difficulty in telling the difference between us nowadays.

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) in arguing that the name of the organisation be changed from ''Office of Communications'' to ''Communications Regulations Commission''. Despite the possible wishes of my hon. Friend, I shall not speak at length, but I will point out two reasons why the name should be changed, the first of which relates to the Federal Communications Commission, in the United States. In some ways, the Office of Communications will be a similar

organisation, and I hope that it will follow the FCC's example. As I said on Second Reading, the FCC is ably chaired in Washington DC by Michael Powell. He happens to be the son of Colin Powell, but there has been no nepotism—Michael Powell has a good background in this area. The FCC has a light touch, and I hope that the Office of Communications, once established, will also have one.

Britain leads the world in communications technology. It is not often realised that the Swedish or Norwegian satellite programmes that one watches—I do not often do that—in Stockholm or Oslo originate from such exotic locations as Battersea. The same is also true of middle eastern broadcasts in the Gulf.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

In the spirit of helpfulness, if my hon. Friend likes I could assist with the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian programmes.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

That is an intriguing offer which I may well take up after our proceedings have finished. Perhaps we can arrange a date and place to meet to discuss—or do—just that.

The Office of Communications should be called a commission, because such a name would suggest its being based on the structures of the FCC. The FCC is not over-staffed and is a light regulator, and I hope that the Minister can assure me that he does not want heavy-handed regulation to impede the work of the independent companies that deal with satellite broadcasting, telecommunications and the provision of broadband. I am glad to see in his place the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), who is a keen and good advocate not only of his constituency but of broadband distribution in rural areas—a cause that the Office of Communications will promote.

My second concern relates to the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said, the Office of Communications will incorporate a number of existing agencies, including the ITC and the Radio Authority. As I said on Second Reading, before becoming a Member of Parliament my career in part involved the setting up of independent radio stations in the UK. In the early days, the radio directorate of the Independent Broadcasting Authority was very much overshadowed as a result of the emphasis that the IBA placed on television transmissions. The radio division, as it was then known, operated in a very small part of the Brompton road headquarters, and was under-resourced and often neglected by the old authority itself.

As a result, the Conservative Government rightly said that radio should have its own authority. The Radio Authority and the Independent Television Commission were therefore separated out, and I congratulate Tony Stoller, director-general of the Radio Authority, on the consequent rapid expansion of independent radio. I would not like to see that good trend reversed by the Radio Authority's and the Independent Television Commission's being absorbed into another super-behemoth, which would mean that radio would, once again, become neglected. I also seek reassurance from the Minister about the way in which

the communications office will be structured to ensure that radio maintains its rightful and important place in broadcasting.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 9:45 am, 24th January 2002

I also welcome you, Miss Widdecombe, to the chairmanship of this Committee. It is a great pleasure to serve on the Committee with you.

The communications White Paper set out the Government's proposal to create a new, unitary regulatory body for the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors and the intention that it would be called the Office of Communications. Hon. Members will recall that the second report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which was published in March 2001, made a recommendation that the new regulator's name should be the ''Communications Regulation Commission'', which is a bit of a mouthful, and the amendments echo that recommendation. The Government's response to the Select Committee noted that the nature of the governing body, Ofcom, had been made clear and confirmed the intention to retain the title ''Office of Communications''. That remains the case.

We must move away from the old-fashioned concept of regulation being purely about stopping people doing certain things and towards a more facilitating approach. Ofcom will be involved in more than regulating in the old sense. It will have positive obligations such as promoting the interests of consumers and citizens and media literacy and in relation to various matters concerning public service broadcasting. It will also facilitate the effective use of spectrum and access to a wide range of high-quality services. The use of the word ''regulation'' in the title of the new organisation would therefore set wholly the wrong tone for many of the things that Ofcom will do.

The Office of Communications and the acronym Ofcom are already familiar to many in the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors. Indeed, they have gained currency through use in the media, by the existing regulators and by Government, and are therefore becoming better recognised by the wider public. There is little to be gained at this late stage by altering the name as the amendments propose.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way and I am somewhat reassured by his point on regulation. However, he did not address the second point. He spoke about the light touch, by implication, when he said that he did not wish to see the word ''regulation'', but he has not addressed the point about the size of the organisation. How many employees does he imagine it will have?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

That matter is not dealt with in this part of the Bill or in the amendment, and I do not intend to discuss it.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am grateful for the Minister's comments and his explanatory words. I believe that the Committee is handicapped by having to consider the structure of the new body without knowing precisely what its remit will be. The Minister has a distinct advantage over us, because he has probably had sight of the draft broadcasting Bill.

Even though the long title of the Bill contains the term ''regulation'', the Minister has not responded to my point that we are replacing five organisations with one organisation. The desire to call it the ''Communications Regulation Commission'' reflects the Select Committee's concept of it as more of a collegiate commission: the chairman will share the commission with the members of Ofcom—we shall discuss this in more detail later—but it will not be the chairman on a frolic of his own, as would be the case, for example, with a director general of communications. Will the Minister respond to those points?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I shall, very briefly. During the Committee's proceedings we will have many discussions about the make-up of the Ofcom board and its committees, and that is the right time to deal with the matter. Every page of the Bill gives a sense, which I hope we have communicated, that we strongly favour the collegiate approach. Nevertheless, we believe that we have arrived at the best title for the body that we aim to establish.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

May I ask hon. Members to be alert? When we reach the end of a debate I need to be told whether an hon. Member seeks to withdraw the amendment, otherwise I shall put the Question on it later.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Thank you, Miss Widdecombe. I was not sure whether to expect the procedure of knives to be used in the Committee, but I have been given to understand that it will not.

Mindful of the Minister's comments, and with the proviso that we may wish to return to the matter at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I beg to move amendment No. 25, in page 1, line 5, after first 'determine', insert

'in consultation with and following consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament'.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 26, in page 1, line 5, leave out from 'of' to end of line 6 and insert

'more than 10 in addition to the Chairman and Chief Executive'.

No. 47, in page 1, line 6, leave out from 'three' to end.

No. 8, in page 2, line 3, after 'OFCOM', insert

'after consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament'.

No. 9, in page 2, line 7, leave out subsection (7).

No. 10, in page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (8).

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Taking the amendments in the order in which they were tabled, amendment No. 25 deals with a new procedure that we have been led to believe the Government intend to introduce: a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. I understand that we are not allowed to refer formally to it by any other name than a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.

Conservative Members believe that it is appropriate for the Government to consider setting up such a Committee, and we welcome it. It is particularly appropriate that it should be consulted on the body established by the Bill, bearing in mind that the main broadcasting Bill will not be published until the spring, probably will not be considered in Standing Committee until the autumn and will not reach the statute book until this time next year at the earliest. That is why we want the Minister to agree to consult the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament and to allow it to consider and report on the matter.

Amendment No. 26 deals with the total number of members on the body. It will not have escaped your alert and astute attention, Miss Widdecombe, that that is left completely open. Close observers of the drafting of the Bill—Conservative Members are not unique in that regard—have received a mountain of representations, most of which do not relate to the Bill but are in anxious and excited anticipation of the broadcasting Bill. That makes the Committee's work easier, because we do not have to consider those points. There is huge concern among the wider public, especially in the existing bodies that the Government intend to replace with Ofcom and will be subject to its regulation, that we should have a compact Ofcom—one might call it a lean, mean fighting machine—which will not be so unwieldy as to be incapable of taking decisions and that its members should be finite in number. We cannot return to the Bill either at the next stage, a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee that the Government are minded to set up, or in the context of the big Bill.

Once we have left this baby Bill, which is a paving Bill, behind, it will be impossible to return. I seek assurance and agreement from the Minister that, rather than leaving the Bill with its loose and inadequate drafting stating that Ofcom shall not have a membership

''of less than three and more than six'', we should say that, in addition to the chairman and chief executive, the total membership of Ofcom at any stage will be 10, and I hope that he will respond positively to that.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the Secretary of State has so much power in appointing people, to be able to get away with appointing only three effectively gives her total control over the new body?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point.

I must declare an interest: I am a minor shareholder in Railtrack. I have therefore had some experience of the manner in which the Government work, although I must say that that does not include the Minister,

whom I find agreeable to work with—I would hate to stop his career in its tracks and I shall not proceed further down that dangerous path. In several Bills that either are before or have recently passed through the House, the Government have set up an independent regulator whose independence and power have been dispensed with by introducing a power of direction from the Secretary of State. Opposition Members are anxious to ensure that there will be no such power in this Bill.

We support the Government's intention to set up an independent regulator, and we are mindful that that regulator's powers, which we shall consider in the next Bill, should be clear. We want the structure to be right from the beginning with regard to numbers and assistance to the Secretary of State during the appointment of such a Joint Committee. I would hate to pre-empt anything that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is going to say, but I endorse his amendment and I like its thrust.

Amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 10 reflect the same theme—the Secretary of State setting up Ofcom. I want an undertaking from the Minister that that process will not just pay lip service to the concept of independent regulation, and that appointments to the regulator will be processed in an open and public manner. Members of both Houses of Parliament must have an opportunity to be consulted, which will strengthen the independent nature of Ofcom.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 10:00 am, 24th January 2002

I rise to speak to amendment No. 47, which has been grouped, and fits well, with amendment No. 26 on which the hon. Member for Vale of York has spoken. I have tried twice to ask the Minister a parliamentary question on the composition of Ofcom and each time I have been thwarted, which must have disappointed him. He has, however, been good enough to give me an idea of the Government's understanding of the need for a small and focused regulatory body that will have the right expertise, and that will not be overburdened with the large governorships that we have seen in other bodies.

In Wales, the national library has a court of governors and an executive committee, and such bodies are also in place in the universities. There are many overarching regulatory bodies that are overburdened with the great and the good, and the Government's intention is to get rid of the great and simply leave the good. People who know the business of communications can take over the five regulators' jobs to ensure that there is a seamless transition from the present system to the new system, which will mean that broadcasting is balanced correctly among different areas and needs in the United Kingdom. I understand and appreciate that, and the Government are right.

However, the Bill is fettering the Government's discretion. It states that Ofcom will consist of between three and six members; it cannot be fewer than three or more than six. The Conservative amendment would allow us to go up to 10, which would be a considerable

improvement, if only because it would allow national representatives from Wales and Scotland to join Ofcom. I shall return to that in a moment.

Having heard the Minister's thoughts, read the paper that he kindly sent to all members of the Committee and reflected on the matter, I think that he has got it wrong. An Ofcom containing between three and six members will not have the necessary breadth to show the public that they can have confidence in it to hold together national interest groups, disabled interest groups and minority language interest groups from cities and towns in England, Wales and Scotland. Those interests cannot be held together by a membership of between three and six.

The Minister needs greater discretion, and I am surprised that he has not given himself that discretion. For example, he could set a minimum standard membership, which my amendment would do, and take control of the upper membership limit. Some members might not like it, but it would allow the Minister to pick and choose, to have his focused body and, in time, to add or take away from the membership as needs dictate. We do not know what the regulatory process in the communications Bill will be, but in preparing the way for Ofcom, we are going too far down the road of strictures; there should be greater flexibility.

We are amalgamating five regulatory bodies and we must consider where radio interests, communications interests, broadband interests, Welsh interests, Scottish interests, Irish interests and English regional interests will come in. I am speaking for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party in this Committee; Northern Ireland can speak for itself. Other interest groups such as Christian radio broadcasting and disability interest groups will also need to contribute to Ofcom.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman has touched on several groups whose interests should be represented. The people to whom he has inadvertently not referred, but I am sure that he will, are the vast majority who do not fall within any of those categories. They may be termed the silent majority. They are dismayed by what they see on their television screens and deserve representation.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is, however, difficult to know what the silent majority's interest is by virtue of the fact that they are silent. Nevertheless, Ofcom is there to protect their interests, and to ensure that their needs are reflected. Ultimately, we have a Minister, and a democratic political process in which the silent minority can make its views felt.

To have three to six members of Ofcom will limit the Minister's discretion too much and will not allow him to examine needs that come online in the future or to change its structure. It cannot have just one or two members—they would be overburdened—and three seems a reasonable de minimis for membership. Will the Minister take the opportunity to explain why he feels that there must be an upper limit of six? Can he

look at the spirit of either my amendment or the Conservative amendment and consider how he might be able to give himself some more discretion for the future, and produce an Ofcom that is focused and streamlined but also demonstrably answering the public's needs?

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Upminster

This is the first Standing Committee dealing with detailed legislation in which I have been able to take part. May I say that I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe? I am sure that you will correct me if I stray from the remit of the discussion. I understand that we are examining not policy, but the framework and structure of the new body.

I support the amendments, which deal with who should make decisions, who should be on the board of Ofcom and how many people should be on it. I would welcome the widening of the decision-making procedure for choosing the board's membership. To ensure that the wide range of interests in the broadcasting and telecommunications industries is fairly represented, it is critical that the right individuals are chosen. They, like the organisation, will be extremely powerful. The selection of those people will be crucial to the future success of the industries.

I, like most other Committee members, have received a wealth of lobby information from all sorts of interest groups, some of them extremely concerned about their future representation. Hon. Members have already referred to people with disabilities. I have had an interesting communication from the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which, as we all recognise, has an important interest in radio. My mother was blind, and I know how much she relied on the spoken word. It is important that groups such as blind people and those with other disabilities are adequately represented.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Some people might foolishly ask why the blind should be concerned, since they have radio. Does my hon. Friend agree that those people underestimate the importance of blind people being able to enjoy television programmes? That is not only because of the information that those programmes impart, but because they can then talk with sighted people about those programmes, and other things, so that they are not sidelined in life. Blind people should not find themselves in a cultural ghetto because they cannot participate in the situation—some might call it a rather unfortunate one—in which so many people spend so many hours watching television each day.

Angela Watkinson rose—

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Order. Before the hon. Lady responds, I remind the Committee that interventions should be just that. I also remind hon. Members that there will be an opportunity to discuss disabilities under a later amendment, and that they must keep within the scope of the amendment under discussion. I allow a little latitude to new Members, but it is not endless.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Upminster

I am grateful for your advice, Miss Widdecombe.

I welcome the amendment that allows for more people to serve on the Ofcom board. There is a danger in it having as few members as three. If we happened to have three people unsympathetic to a particular group, that group could end up without adequate representation.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The concern is not only that three people could be unsympathetic towards a group but that the Secretary of State could be similarly unsympathetic and that his selection of those three might reflect his lack of sympathy.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Upminster

I entirely sympathise with that point. We need an organisation that can regulate with a light touch and ensure that all interest groups in the community have the opportunity to use broadcasting services without restriction. I include the BBC in that. I think that we have all had lobby material from the BBC, which is ambivalent—that is the kindest way of putting it—about being included in the new umbrella organisation. I am sure that we will come to that later in our scrutiny.

Broadly, I support a wider body to select members and having a larger number of people on the Ofcom board, to give wider representation to all groups.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I appreciate that a balance must be struck here. Having just argued for a light regulator, it would be incomprehensible were I now to argue for a very large board. Before the Government get too excited and think that I might oppose my Front Bench, I say hold fire.

Although I know from experience that a large board can become unmanageable, I think that this very small board suffers from two problems. First, there are the issues raised by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. The second problem concerns perception, which is an important point. During the past few years, the charge of cronyism has been levelled at the Government, and the same charge might be made against Ofcom. Whether it was right or wrong, it would be invidious to Ofcom's authority if that charge were made. With a very small board and a chairman appointed by the Secretary of State, that charge will almost certainly be levelled.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Is not the danger of all the arguments so far used in favour of the amendments that they are talking about a representative organisation, not the regulatory one that we need? As it is, representatives from what I have now counted as the 15 different bodies that have been referred to will be difficult to fit into the membership of 10 being suggested.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I certainly agree that were all the different parties represented, we would end up with a wholly unworkable board of 15 or 20. I am not totally convinced that even 10 is a good size for a board, but six is far too small, and the perception of the board would be wrong.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to ask the Minister if, in view of what the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the Government do not wish Ofcom to represent stakeholders in any shape or form and if they want it to be truly regulatory in nature?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I rarely disagree with my Front Bench, but there is no way that I will use the word ''stakeholder'', which I think is the most terrible example of new Labour speak. However, interested parties—I think that that is a nicer expression—might well be unable to be represented. The question is valid, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it. Before I give him the opportunity to do so, I will happily give way to the hon. Member for Ceredigion, which I enjoy saying.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman finds something here that he enjoys saying.

Notwithstanding the fair point that the hon. Member for Rhondda made—although it is covered in the next group of amendments, which seek a representative role—does the hon. Member for Lichfield recall that the Towers Perrin report from the present regulators clearly said that Ofcom, with regard to its new functions, should

''actively promote clear links with, and understanding of, all of OFCOM's key stakeholder categories''?

Can we do that with five or six members?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 10:15 am, 24th January 2002

No, we cannot, but the problem is that nor could we do it with 10 members. I agree that the interests of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should be represented on the board of Ofcom.

Perception is important. I have often criticised the structure of the board of governors of the BBC, not because they necessarily do a bad job, but because they are perceived to be their own judge and jury. That is wrong, and for that reason I may later argue that Ofcom should have greater powers over the BBC simply because of perception. I strongly argue that if there is a board of between three and six, with a chairman appointed by the Secretary of State, the charge will be made—rightly or wrongly—that Ofcom is yet another example of Tony's cronies.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The amendments are important because they largely shape the make-up of Ofcom. Without straying on to the next group of amendments—you would rightly call me to order if I did so, Miss Widdecombe—we must understand that the amendments under discussion are important if the next group are to remain so. The provisions are restrictive in some ways.

We should remember how important the media are. It is not exaggerating to suggest that children—perhaps children and adults—are greatly influenced by what they see on television, and, to a lesser extent, hear on radio. The question of whether regulations should be a guiding light, as the Minister suggests, or show the heavy hand of regulation is significant. We cannot overstate the importance of what comes through our

television screens. How do we prevent the wrong things from coming through and ensure that the right things do?

Like many other hon. Members, I receive many letters and representations on what people deem to be inappropriate material on television. People often ask me how we can stop too much sex, violence and bad language on television. My response is that it is difficult because we live in a free society and a democracy. I say that one thing worse than a free media is one that is heavily regulated. The problem is how to protect people from bad influences without curtailing the freedom of the press or media.

It strikes me that the Bill achieves the worst of both worlds. It may not reflect the interests of the many groups addressed in the next group of amendments, but at the same time, it has the potential for extreme regulation and control by the Secretary of State, who will determine Ofcom's size. The detail of the Bill suggests that the board will not necessarily be restricted to between three and six, but that the Secretary of State will have powers to modify by order the numbers specified in subsection (2). Presumably, she could determine that the number be reduced to two or even one. If I am wrong, the Minister will correct me. My reading of the Bill is that the Secretary of State could make the matter worse through statutory instrument. She could have only one person to make up Ofcom. I should be glad to be corrected, because it is an extremely important point. Something would have to be passed by the House, but we have seen how easy that is when a Government have a majority of this size.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

It gives the Secretary of State even more power than Opposition Members have discussed, and I am concerned about that.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

In the context of a single regulator and democracy, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have an example at present of a single regulator, which is Ofwat. There is one regulator for the water industry. The last review of the water industry began with the Government telling that regulator ''You will have lower water prices''. It had nothing to do with the environment. That may have been a good thing, but without the body behind it, that regulator has little choice but to listen to the Government.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Member for Ceredigion—which I do not enjoy saying—makes an important point. Although regulation of the media is important, it is perhaps not quite as important as the supply of water.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said, to appoint members to the new body and to frame its set-up when we do not know what its powers will be seems a little like putting the cart before the horse. If I am allowed a brief analogy, before we determine who sits in the House of Lords or how they get there, we should determine what that body does. In the same

way, we should determine what the new body does before we decide who sits on it. It may have little regulatory power, in which case it does not matter who or how many sit on it, but if it is to have great control over what comes through the media, we must first know what its power will be. I fear that I shall stray out of order if I carry on down that road.

I have a problem with the power that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State. I do not want to be party political, but over the past four and a half years, we have seen the Executive taking more and more control over this place. To stray slightly wider, I suggest that it has not just been in the past five years. There has been a tendency over a number of years for the Executive to gain control over this place at the expense of Parliament. I greatly regret that the Bill furthers that process. It gives the Secretary of State the power to decide the size of the body and to vary the parameters. It gives her the power to reflect her interests and intentions rather than those of consumers, which is not a welcome move.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

Given that one of the organisations being replaced is Oftel, where one person makes the decision, and we are moving to a board, can the hon. Gentleman explain why he thinks that having a focused board is not an improvement on a single regulator? Is his not an argument against the Conservative Government?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman has made the point that we are trying to make, in the sense that one is not enough, but nor is three, when media and telecommunications are being lumped together.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

We are lumping together, to use my hon. Friend's colourful expression, not only programme content but also the means of providing it. Therefore, it is not simply control over programmes and ''the internet'', but control over the way in which they are delivered. Three would certainly be inadequate.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. My concern is the power that the Bill could give to the Secretary of State. The Government will almost determine what comes on to television screens. The regulation could be too tight, and political debate could be stifled; or it could be too liberal, in the sense that the three things that I do not like to see on the television screen—sex, violence and bad language—could be given free rein.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

Don't turn it on, then.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does not a family have a right to watch television without seeing filth? To say that one can simply turn the television off is, if I may say so, a rather flippant remark. No doubt it was meant flippantly—

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Order. Could we return to the scope of the amendment?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I apologise for being diverted from the theme of my speech, which is that the Secretary of State will have far too much power. As was pointed

out, a larger body would be less likely to be influenced by the Secretary of State. We will discuss in due course the individual organisations and interests that should be represented on it, so I shall not stray down that path now. However, I think it important that we accept the amendments to facilitate the level of representation that the subject's importance warrants.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

May I add my voice to those who said what a privilege it is to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe?

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

Let me get started, for heaven's sake.

In essence, I rise to respond to the contribution of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who began by referring to what he perceives as the lack of regulation of television in this country. I must contest that argument. There are those who say that we have one of the most tightly regulated television industries in the world. As I understand it, Ofcom will incorporate five existing regulatory bodies. We are contemplating a future in which all elements of the communications industry will have to work together increasingly closely. There are already areas of the industry in which it is extremely difficult to define where responsibility lies. They are bleeding into each other in a way that was not possible in the past. All areas will drive for greater integration, and as other members of the Committee have said, there is clearly a need for a light regulatory hand.

My central point relates to the hon. Gentleman's argument that the decision about the chairmanship of Ofcom should not rest with the Secretary of State. His worry, about which he spoke almost exclusively, is that the Government will be able to decide what appears on our television screens. However, if the aspects of television broadcasting that seem to cause him most concern were obliterated from our television screens, there would never be any news, because if we are not allowed to see violence, we cannot have news. That is simply one example.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Surely the Committee can distinguish between the reporting of, say, the war in Afghanistan and the gratuitous violence, sex and bad language that is broadcast in so many programmes? There is a very clear distinction between the two.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

Representations have yet to be made directly to me about the amount of gratuitous violence, sex or bad language on our television screens. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman and I move in somewhat different circles.

My central point is the question of where the power of appointment should lie. To consumers who pay their television licence fee and want improvements in programming—I shall not go into detail about what would constitute improvements in my book—it is vital that the person who appoints the chairman be accountable to them. If the planned changes to the regulatory system did not take place as described, or if

Ofcom's sub-committees failed to respect and observe specific national or group interests, it would be essential that the person who determines Ofcom's chairman be accountable to the electorate. It would be extremely dangerous to put such power into the hands of someone whom the electorate could not remove.

The industry has immense power in this country and internationally, so in considering who will be responsible for appointing to such a sensitive post, we must ensure that the electorate will be able to say directly and without fear or favour, ''You are wrong and you are out.'' That would be extremely difficult to do if there is no direct line of responsibility to consumers and the electorate.

Mr. Robertson rose—

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

One thing that concerned me about the remarks of certain Opposition Members was their concentration on broadcasting. Ofcom's remit will be far wider. References to control and to stopping filth suggest that its role has been completely misunderstood. Do the Opposition want a regulator that is concerned with prevention?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

That is the very point: we do not know what Ofcom's role will be.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the White Paper, which makes that clear. If he had followed the debate on communications, he would know why there is a need for Ofcom. Select Committee reports from a few years ago, to which the hon. Member for Vale of York has referred, gave rise to the issue. It has a substantial history and we are not approaching it in a vacuum. Various manifestations of Ofcom have been discussed for some time, so we know what we are talking about.

When considering the Bill, which is about setting up the shadow body that will become Ofcom, we should remember that the industry with which it is to deal is fast moving. The board needs to be small and focused. It needs to be able to take speedy decisions and have the flexibility to respond to changing situations. To create an unwieldy board would be a major mistake.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman highlights a problem about which we can all agree. Ofcom's remit is to be large. In respect of certain powers, the Office of Fair Trading has a concurrent remit. That is why it is better to establish at the outset the board's maximum and minimum membership. We cannot change our minds at a later stage.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

Hon. Members have referred to geographic and sectoral interests in connection with television, but there are many other interest groups that cannot possibly be represented on the board. We must not create a board that is far too large and unwieldy. It must be small and focused, so that it can take decisions quickly, be flexible and give effect to the light regulatory touch that we have all said we want.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

The hon. Gentleman is right, of course, and I said that I do not disagree with the Government in that respect. My amendment is not designed to give a representative role in Ofcom to any particular individual. However, many interests exist; if it is to do its job properly, Ofcom will need the confidence of the public as well as broadcasters, the telecommunications industry and so on. Will it be able to secure that confidence with only a limited number of board members, who might be stretched to do their job?

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

I am not often a fan of Oftel, but it is fair to say that that regulator has achieved the public acceptance to which the hon. Gentleman refers. If we adopt a focused approach, Ofcom will be able to respond quickly and secure public confidence.

The amendments are wrong. The Government must ensure that the board is flexible and responsive, and that it does not become bogged down by a bureaucracy that prevents it from taking decisions quickly.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am sure you agree, Miss Widdecombe, that we have had an interesting debate. Having spent years in opposition myself, I know that when one gets a chance to bite at something like this, one does so. However, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury understands, this is a paving Bill. The whole idea is to set up Ofcom so that it can hit the ground running when the substantive communications Bill receives Royal Assent at some future date—sooner rather than later, I hope.

I shall deal with each of the amendments in turn. Amendment No. 25 would require the Secretary of State to consult a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament before determining the number of members of Ofcom; in doing so, he or she would not be able to determine a membership of fewer than three or more than six. Members of the Committee might be forgiven for thinking that that would not leave much for a Joint Committee to consider, apart from whether the Secretary of State should determine a board of three, four, five or six members. That would be a rather unproductive use of parliamentary time and would be the cause of inordinate delay should it not be convenient to convene a Joint Committee at an appropriate time. Perhaps the amendment is really aimed at changes to the size of the board that might be made at a future date, should that prove necessary.

I remind the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that we had a long debate on Second Reading and that there was an exhaustive debate in another place. The hon. Gentleman is pointing to his copies of Hansard. The debate is worth reading, because it was excellent, although some hon. Members seized the chance to discuss what the communications Bill might contain, rather than the contents of this Bill.

On Second Reading we said that it might be necessary to increase the number of members of Ofcom at the time that it takes on its regulatory functions. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made an important point about people with disabilities. I feel strongly about that matter, and I think that we are now starting to understand its

significance. Nine million people in this country are registered disabled—that is more than the populations of Scotland and Wales put together, although, of course, many people with disabilities live in Scotland and Wales. I am sure that the issue will be exhaustively debated during the passage of the communications Bill.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

On the point about the Joint Committee, the Minister said on Second Reading that he expects there to be pre-legislative scrutiny of the main communications Bill. He also said that he expects to appoint the chairman or chairwoman of Ofcom shortly, probably before that procedure takes place. Does he agree that it would be appropriate to consider questions of membership again during pre-legislative scrutiny, when we should have a clear idea of the likely identities of the chairman and other members?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. That is the proper time to discuss the size of the Ofcom board, which could vary. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) made an important point about that. Parliament has been obsessed with debates about broadcasting, but the way in which technology is changing makes it likely that the board might require a member with expertise in a field that we do not yet understand and might not even be aware of. Sufficient flexibility to allow for that is necessary.

On Second Reading we said that it might be necessary to increase the number of members of Ofcom at the time that it takes on its regulatory functions, which will not happen before the substantive communications Bill receives Royal Assent. If it does prove necessary, clause 1(7) and (8) provides for the Secretary of State to make an order that would be subject to the annulment procedure in either House. I note that amendments Nos. 9 and 10 propose to do away with that power and procedure, but it is a perfectly reasonable and proportionate power for the Secretary of State to have. Rather than convene a Joint Committee, Parliament itself would have adequate opportunity to consider any proposed change to the size of the board.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I realise that this is an intervention, but I want to make two points. First, the Minister has embarked on a totally different course. As I understand it, if the Secretary of State proceeds through a statutory instrument, the matter does not come before Parliament and hon. Members do not have a chance to discuss it. The amendments would bring the decision before the House.

Secondly, the purpose of amendments Nos. 25 and 26 is to obtain an undertaking from the Minister that Ofcom's board will never have more than 10 members. The Independent Television Commission said that it must not be so large and unwieldy that it is unable to discharge its responsibilities effectively, and we all agree that regulation must be effective. Is the Minister minded to ensure that the Joint Committee is

consulted not only about the content of the broadcasting Bill, but about appointments to the board?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I cannot and will not give that assurance. I shall explain why in due course.

I turn, as the hon. Lady asks, to amendment No. 26, which would replace the current limit of not fewer than three or more than six members with a maximum number of 10 members in addition to the chairman and the chief executive. As the chairman and chief executive are automatically members, that would in effect provide Ofcom with a board of not fewer than two or more than 12 members.

Given that the Secretary of State will retain her power to determine the number of members, I am not clear whether the hon. Lady intends to press amendments Nos. 9 and 10, which would remove the associated order-making powers and allow for the annulment procedure to be applied to any such statutory instrument. Alternatively, does she intend that amendment No. 26, coupled with amendments Nos. 9 and 10, should set for all time the size of Ofcom's membership at a range of two to 12? Such inflexibility would create great difficulties.

Amendment No. 47, spoken to by the hon. Member for Ceredigion—although he is really an Aberdare boy, as one can tell from his accent—would have a slightly different effect in establishing a minimum number of three members, but no upper limit. At this point, I remind members of the Committee that initially Ofcom will have only one function—that of making itself ready to take on other functions at a later date. We would all love to get stuck in and ask about this interest or that interest, but the purpose of the Bill is to allow Ofcom to create itself. We are determined that during that process the board of Ofcom should be kept as small as possible, commensurate with the effective exercise of its responsibilities. Appointing a membership of between three and six should be sufficient to meet its needs during the initial preparatory stage.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 10:45 am, 24th January 2002

I accept the Minister's points. He has outlined the procedure by which the Secretary of State can in future vary the number of Ofcom's members. He is right to consider future technology or future demands arising from the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, but why does he want to go through a statutory instrument process? I do not share Conservative Members' views on that. I would be perfectly happy for the Secretary of State to determine the number of members necessary for Ofcom, and to be answerable to Parliament, through written questions and so forth, for her decisions. Why do we need a statutory instrument? Why cannot there simply be a de minimis membership and we then give the Secretary of State discretion? Surely she is capable of making that decision.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's confidence in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I share his feelings entirely.

We must not get too Henry VIII about this. That sounds curious coming from a Minister, but there must be parliamentary accountability when serious issues arise, as they do from time to time. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention future constitutional settlements, which might be very different from present arrangements. We must have in place mechanisms such as statutory instruments and direct accountability to Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said. That is the most valuable mechanism to ensure real accountability. I am loth to say that the power is unlimited; it is important to retain some control.

Even when Ofcom is fully operational and has assumed its other functions, its board must not become too bureaucratic and unwieldy. We must keep it small and flexible so that it can react quickly to fast-changing circumstances. Indeed, some have argued that a board of three to six may be too large. The initial debates about what Ofcom should look like examined whether there should be a single regulator, as we used to call it, or whether—using the collegiate model favoured by my the hon. Member for Vale of York and myself—there should be two or three.

As I recall, we went through tortures. I am not sure whether any other member of the Committee was on the Committee considering the Bill that became the Utilities Act 2000. This Bill is paradise after that one. I went into the first day of Committee consideration of that Bill with 300 Government amendments to our own legislation; I then had to rip water and telecommunications out of it. The new regulator, Ofcom, must be capable of being debated and it must have flexibility to proceed. Remember that the four regulators that we were trying to put together under the Utilities Bill were individually powerful.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion referred to the water regulator. I remember him and think it appropriate to name him—Mr. Ian Byatt. I have great regard for Mr. Byatt, but he was a very authoritarian regulator when it came to deciding how many comparators there should be. As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, we should try to get away from that approach and adopt a broader one. Initially, our debate was about whether to have two or three people on the board as opposed to one; now we are talking about 10, 12 or more. We must get things in perspective.

The substance of the Bill is simply to set up Ofcom. That is the sole reason why the board is to be limited in number. We do not want it to become bureaucratic; we want it to be able to react quickly.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

We are trying to help the Minister, although he might find it hard to grasp such a novel concept. I am full of admiration for his handling of the Utilities Bill. Through amendment No. 26, we seek a

ministerial undertaking that the board of Ofcom will never be bigger than 10 members, plus the chairman and chief executive. Can he give us that commitment?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I cannot give the hon. Lady that commitment. I want the board to remain small, but circumstances may dictate that it should be larger.

I turn to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ceredigion on behalf of his hon. Friends on the nationalist side, or Scottish nationalists—I could stray into the dangerous territory of talking about the regions of England, but I will not, even though regional development agencies show that some regions have much larger populations than Scotland, Wales or the two combined. Those regions might press hard for future constitutional change that might give them greater self-determination than they currently enjoy. One expects our system of regulation to have sufficient flexibility to cope with such developments.

I am loth to accept the amendment, or the return to the days of Buggin's turn, or people being nominated for committees only to make up the numbers. That would be a dreadful fate for the Office of Communications, which, as so many hon. Members have said, is important for the future of broadcasting in this country.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Order. Before we come to the winding up from the mover of the amendment, it may be to the Committee's convenience to make it clear that if the hon. Member for Vale of York presses amendment No. 25, I will entertain separate votes on amendments Nos. 26, 47 and 9. I therefore require a clear indication of whether the amendment will be pressed.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

On a point of order, Miss Widdecombe, may I ask about a separate vote for amendment No. 26?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I said that I would take a separate vote on amendment No. 26, but will say so again for the sake of the Committee. Votes on amendments Nos. 26, 47 and 9 will be taken if the hon. Lady presses amendment No. 25.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

To assist the Committee, I will not press amendments Nos. 9 or 10, but I will press amendments Nos. 25 and 26. I did not hear what you said about amendment No. 8, Miss Widdecombe.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

In that case, I will press amendments Nos. 25 and 26.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Is that it?

Miss McIntosh indicated assent.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division number 1 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 1 - The Office of Communications

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 26, in page 1, line 5, leave out from ''of'' to end of line 6 and insert

''more than 10 in addition to the Chairman and Chief Executive''.—[Miss McIntosh.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided, Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Division number 2 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 1 - The Office of Communications

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 47, in page 1, line 6, leave out from ''three'' to end.—[Mr. Simon Thomas.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided, Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division number 3 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 1 - The Office of Communications

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I beg to move amendment No. 46, in page 1, line 6, at end insert—

''The Secretary of State shall ensure that the membership of OFCOM includes a representative for Wales and a representative for Scotland, and in appointing these national representatives the Secretary of State shall consult with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.''.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 55, in page 1, line 6, and end insert—

''( ) In appointing members of OFCOM, the Secretary of State shall consult with the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting needs are considered.''.

No. 54, in page 2, line 18, at end insert—

''( ) OFCOM shall establish an office in Wales and an office in Scotland in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting needs are considered.''.

No. 53, in schedule, page 11, line 32, at end insert—

''(2A) As soon as possible after the end of each financial year, OFCOM shall also prepare and send to the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament a report of how OFCOM are ensuring that Welsh and Scottish interests are being adequately met.''.

No. 49, in schedule, page 12, line 9, at end insert—

(c) for ensuring that the membership of every committee established by OFCOM contains at least one representative for Wales, and one representative for Scotland;

(d) for consulting the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament in appointing the representatives referred to in sub-paragraph (1)(c).''.

No. 51, in schedule, page 12, line 22, at end insert—

''( ) OFCOM shall establish—

(a) a Welsh Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Wales; and

(b) a Scottish Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Scotland

and shall, in appointing these Committees, consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.''.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

It might be for the convenience of the Committee if I briefly explain the purpose of the amendments before saying a little about their import and my reasons for tabling them.

Amendment No. 46 would ensure that representatives from Wales and Scotland were on the proposed Ofcom body from day one. There is, of course, flexibility for them to come in later, and we have just had that debate, but the amendment would ensure that they were included them from day one. It also provides for those appointments to be made in consultation with and by the recommendation of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.

The other amendments are associated amendments. Were amendment No. 46 to find favour with the Minister, the others would not be so important, as they build the case that amendment No. 46 would achieve at one stroke.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have tabled an amendment, if he feels that way. I am here as a Welsh nationalist Member of Parliament. If he wants to be an English regionalist Member of Parliament, he is free to table an amendment. His point reflects on him, not on me. I am here as a Plaid Cymru Member: he should understand that and understand where we in Plaid Cymru come from. We are here not as United Kingdom MPs, but as Welsh MPs.

Although we often co-operate with hon. Members on both sides of the House, we remain Welsh Members of Parliament.

As for the Tories, I recall that it is former Conservative Members who join the Labour Party and become Labour Ministers and MPs in Wales, not the other way around. Our conservative members leave and join the Conservative party rather than stay in our party.

Amendment No. 55 would ensure that when appointing the members of Ofcom, the Secretary of State consulted the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting and telecommunications needs were met. Broadband communication is especially important to Wales, because we in Wales failed to get broadband licences working as well as we would like. The amendment is very reasonable, and we see similar provisions turning up time and again in Government Bills. I am surprised that there is not one in this Bill.

Amendment No. 54 would require Ofcom to open an office in Wales and in Scotland—a public office to which members of the public and members of the organisations and industries regulated, controlled or light-touched by Ofcom would have access. That would bring Ofcom to the public and to a very useful level of answerability. It might happen anyway, but I think it useful to test the idea now.

Amendment No. 53 proposes that as well as the annual Ofcom report described in the Bill that, rightly and properly, will be laid before both Houses of Parliament, there should be an annual report to the National Assembly for Wales and to the Scottish Parliament on the work and activities of Ofcom in those countries. I do not think that that would undermine in any way Ofcom's answerability to the Houses of Parliament, which is in the primary legislation. It would add an extra veneer of accountability and an extra means by which people in Wales and Scotland could relate directly to what Ofcom was doing in their countries.

Ofcom will have the power to establish advisory committees, although we do not yet know what they will be. We have debated whether Ofcom will reflect, if not represent, many different interests; I suspect that that will happen mainly at advisory committee level. The board will be small and focused, perhaps to allow a large structure of advisory committees on its different responsibilities. Amendment No. 49 would establish the principle of having on all those advisory committees representatives from Wales and Scotland, who should be appointed in consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament respectively. It is for other hon. Members to advance a similar argument for other areas.

Amendment No. 51 would establish a Welsh advisory committee and a Scottish advisory committee—distinct geographical advisory committees to advise Ofcom on Welsh and Scottish matters. The key point is that, if amendment No. 46 is unsuccessful and there is not to be representation of

Wales, for example, on Ofcom's board, it will be important that Ofcom has an advisory committee for Wales. That balance should be struck.

I do not want to take up too much of the Committee's time—

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

No, I will not. However, I should like to explain the reasoning behind the amendments. Amendment No. 46 was not inspired by my party's policy, which is to have an Ofcom for Wales, to cover broadcasting, telecommunications and regulation there, although I shall not bore the Committee and bring down the quality of debate by going into that now. That debate is for another day; hon. Members will have to wait.

Today, I seek to do what the Government would have done if devolution worked. A year ago today, the Cabinet in the Welsh Assembly, which is run by the Labour party, with assistance, reported to the Assembly's Culture Committee. The Minister for Culture, Sport and Welsh Language in the Assembly is a Liberal Democrat, Jenny Randerson, which shows that both parties have been associated with this work. In its report of 24 January 2001, the Cabinet said:

''We recommend that the Board of Ofcom should likewise include a member representing the interests of Wales. We suggest that that Member for Wales''— in heavy print—

''should be appointed by the National Assembly.''

In other words, the Assembly requested one year ago in its formal response to the communications White Paper that the aims set out in amendment No. 46 be realised. I would have assumed that the Labour party—and the Liberal Democrats, but especially Labour—would support a member of Ofcom to represent Wales being appointed not by the Secretary of State, but by the Assembly. I have not sought that in my amendment: the Secretary of State would retain the power to appoint the person to represent Wales, and that person would be recommended by the Assembly.

Something has gone wrong in the process of devolution. The likely scenario is that the Welsh Cabinet has been told that it cannot have what it wants, and that it should go away and forget about it. It is unlikely that the Cabinet had a rethink, given the way in which things are going in Wales at the moment.

Increasingly, those working in broadcast media and communications in Wales who lobby me raise the Welsh failure to access broadband communications and take up internet connections. Internet connection has been taken up by 20 per cent. of people in Wales, whereas the figure for the UK as a whole is 30 per cent. Many people feel that those issues need a distinct role in Ofcom. Similar arguments pertain to Scotland, although I do not claim to be an expert outside my boundaries—I do not claim to be an expert inside my boundaries, but I can try.

The second aspect that I want to bring to the Committee's attention reinforces the reasons why we need the amendments. It comes from my constituency and my experience, and it involves an aspect of media that is often overlooked—radio. I do not really have an interest to declare because the events occurred more than 10 years ago, and I no longer have an interest in the radio station, but about 10 years ago I was the secretary of a community radio station, Radio Ceredigion. I cannot remember whether the hon. Member for Lichfield was involved in the sector at that stage; I think not.

I was heavily involved with the Radio Authority in putting in a bid to gain a community radio station for the Ceredigion area. I am glad to say that we were successful in the teeth of opposition from commercial radio stations, and that we established the first community bilingual radio station in an area in which 60 per cent. of people are Welsh speaking.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I fear that the hon. Gentleman may be wrong. Was Radio Maldwyn not the first such station in Wales?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me about Radio Maldwyn, which was established at the same time. We went through the application process together, and if he was involved in Radio Maldwyn he will remember the time frame. Indeed, my rudimentary broadcasting skills with reel-to-reel tape were learned with Radio Maldwyn. Although Radio Maldwyn had Welsh language broadcasting, as do other commercial stations in Wales such as Champion FM in the north and Swansea Sound in the south, it was not a truly bilingual station.

A bilingual radio station was innovative at the time, and it lasted for eight or nine years. It had English and Welsh side by side in the same programme, which was a new way of broadcasting which was more commonly used by minority Asian language stations in England. Radio Ceredigion has the highest radio uptake in Ceredigion, which means that more people listen to it than any other station in the broadcast area, and that is something to be proud of for any community radio station.

Like anything that comes from the community, finance is a problem. Radio Ceredigion has recently been taken over by North Wales Newspapers, forming a media magnate for Wales. One result has been a diminution of the Welsh language content on Radio Ceredigion. There has never been any evidence that Welsh language content must decline in order to increase audience share. The audience share was already there and the advertising has remained much the same. Commercial interests think that if one is to be commercial one must do it in English, and that one cannot do it Welsh. We were trying to be commercial in Welsh, and to a certain extent we succeeded.

That problem is coming to a head in a dispute between the community arm and commercial arm of Radio Ceredigion—the shares are mainly owned by the commercial arm—that goes to the heart of the licence given to the station in the first place. That is the

kind of dispute that might well come to Ofcom's attention. The minutiae of what happens in rural west Wales demands that Ofcom has some understanding of Wales, of broadcasting in other languages and of what it is like to try to access broadcasting in west Wales. For example, I cannot get any form of digital in my area except satellite from just one platform.

Those issues are not specific to Wales, but with the advent of the National Assembly we have a format to work within. If, for example, we need additional work on broadband communications in Wales, we would have the regulatory body, Ofcom; we would have the Assembly as a potential funding and investment body; and, hopefully, we would have either a member of Ofcom who would be responsible for Wales or some form of advisory committee with Welsh representatives.

In a nutshell, the purpose of the amendments is to enshrine in this early stage of the Bill what the Minister will argue might come later, but I feel strongly that it should be put down as a ground rule now.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. I must declare that on my many visits to Wales I did not do Welsh radio the service that, having listened to him, it deserved.

I shall declare an interest: I was born in Scotland and subsequently qualified as a Scottish advocate. I should like to use the amendments to elicit some information from the Minister about the representation that he would seek from Wales and Scotland. I am sure that he will have read the second report from the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport on the communications White Paper, to which we referred earlier. In particular, he will be mindful of the fact that his Department's White Paper refers to the need for the regulator

''to develop good links with the relevant policy committees...of the devolved assemblies''.

However, it does not refer to the new regulator's accountability to Parliament with which we have dealt. The amendments to which the hon. Gentleman spoke so eloquently remind me that the Bill is silent on that point.

I should prefer an undertaking from the Minister, and the Bill gives him an opportunity to give one. Our sittings are yet young and a number of hours lie ahead of us, but he might like to table an amendment that introduces some kind of formal consultation with the committees of the devolved assemblies. I hate to disappoint the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but I would prefer a formal reference to such consultation to his amendments. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity, having spent some time in the White Paper on the need, and presumably the wish, for the regulator to develop good links with the relevant policy committees of the devolved assemblies, to say why the Bill is silent on this point. Perhaps he will also help us by saying whether he recognises that there is an omission, and is therefore willing to table an amendment, or whether he will support the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 11:15 am, 24th January 2002

We are all in the mood of declaring interests, so I shall declare my interests that my mother is Welsh and that I am a frequent visitor to Llanfanogfach, not a million miles away from Abergynolwyn.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Llanfanogfach.

There is great importance in the points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. National interests must be represented. It was revealing that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East asked why the English regions were not represented. I hope that it is because many people realise what nonsense the concept of English regions is. It is clear from the fact that the hon. Gentleman omitted to table an amendment that he agrees with that point of view. That is sound and sensible of him.

Wales has a specific reason to be represented, and that is the language. Although Gaelic is spoken in the islands and some of the highlands of Scotland, clearly it is a minority language, whereas a reasonable proportion—I seek guidance on this—

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

About 20 per cent. of the population of Wales speak Welsh as their mother tongue. That raises all sorts of problems. I have been in the Chamber and in Committee on a number of occasions with the hon. Member for Rhondda, who rightly says that in his constituency there are those who want to listen to programmes in Welsh, but there are also those who want to watch and listen to programmes in English. There is a real problem in the Rhondda, as in other parts of south Wales in particular, in that people want to be able to view Channel 4 television and cannot do so, whereas they can watch S4C. That problem will be partly overcome in due course with the introduction of digital television, but it will take time.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but he may not be aware that he has made only half the point. The other side of his argument is that many people in Wales—the number is estimated to be between 20 and 30 per cent.—cannot get Welsh signals because their antenna is oriented towards the transmitters in England. That is one of the problems of terrestrial broadcasting. The hon. Gentleman foresees the coming of digital television, but again a problem arises in Wales, because of the topography of the country—getting digital television to work in a distinct way that does not impinge on other relay stations. That is a technological problem, in addition to the cultural one mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Yes, and now would be an opportune moment to pay tribute to the BBC, particularly the transmission department, which was based in Warwick and now operates as a separate company. It tried to overcome the difficult problem of the topography of Wales, and the coverage there is

now nearly 96 per cent. of the population, albeit, as the hon. Gentleman said, not always in Welsh because of the direction in which antennas point.

Nevertheless, the content of Welsh radio and television programming is an issue. It could be argued that internet content is also an issue, because, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East rightly said, it comes under the Bill's ambit. Should the question of Welsh or English programming, or both, being receivable in Wales also come under the ambit of this paving Bill?

The hon. Member for Ceredigion talked about Radio Ceredigion and its change in ownership; I may be wrong, but I think that similar discussions are taking place for Radio Maldwyn. He rightly said that that is often a problem with radio stations that are funded by the community, not just in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and Australia. If a case goes before Ofcom, it must have members with expertise who understand the particular problems encountered by regional and little local radio stations in Scotland and Wales. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that because he holds a particular interest—he represents Pontypridd—

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

He is a Welsh speaker

Dr. Howells indicated dissent.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

He is not a Welsh speaker. I therefore suspect that he will oppose the amendment. We must ask ourselves whether he is not only an Anglophone, but an Anglophile. The people of Wales will want to know. Before I get too carried away, I give way to the Anglophonic hon. Member for Rhondda.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I am almost sad to intrude on such wild divergences. Surely, Ofcom should have a full understanding of the needs of every part of the United Kingdom including rural Wales, the Welsh valleys and the islands of Scotland. On previous amendments, the hon. Member for Ceredigion said that he would not talk about representatives, but these amendments all refer to them. They almost refer to indirectly elected representatives. Why should there be representatives when we are not talking about a representative body? The board will not be a council of all those involved in broadcasting, so I presume that the hon. Member for Lichfield will not support the amendment.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The short answer is no. My answer to the hon. Gentleman is what I was about to say to the Minister. The Minister will probably answer these questions by saying that there will be officers of Ofcom who will understand the peculiar circumstances of rural Wales and parts of Scotland. However, officers will sometimes have to make recommendations to the main board of Ofcom, so it is therefore important—particularly in Wales—that people on that board understand the circumstances when recommendations are made to them.

I will support the group of amendments because I agree with the general principle. There needs to be a broader range of interests on the main board, although it should not be so large as to become unwieldy. Particular problems exist in areas such as Scotland and Wales because of their rural nature. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, only 20 per cent. of the population of Wales has access to the internet. He said that nationally the figure was 30 per cent., but I think that he is wrong and that it is closer to 60 per cent. We and, indeed, the Government should be proud that Britain has a higher penetration—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.