Amendment proposed [this day]: 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.'.-[Mr. Simon Thomas.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
I remind the Committee that with this we are taking 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.'.
Thank you, Mr. Gale, and welcome to the Committee.
As colleagues will recall, the amendment was moved by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), who represents Plaid Cymru. It has my support, and we might see whether my hon. Friends share my view. Someone on the main board of Ofcom should understand the problems of the language interests in Wales and the differences between its environment and that of England. The same goes for Scotland.
It is clear that there will be problems with small radio stations. We have already discussed Radio Maldwyn and Radio Ceredigion. I was involved in the establishment in Gowerton and Gorseinon of Swansea Sound, which could not be described as a dual language radio station although it has a Welsh language remit.
I hope that officers of Ofcom will include current officers of the Radio Authority, especially Mr. Tony Stoller and Mr. David Vick, who do an excellent job. I must declare an interest in that respect: the other day, we worked out that I had known the two of them for more than 50 years-combined, I hasten to add. At times, the officers of Ofcom will make decisions that have to go before the Ofcom board as a whole. If it transpires that the board contains only English men and women, the problems encountered by small, rural Welsh language radio stations will not be understood.
When I first came to the House, the first Standing Committee on which I served considered what became the Welsh Language Act 1993. I learned much about the culture of Wales from that Bill. I also learned from my mother, who briefed me incessantly and sang the Welsh national anthem to me in Welsh. I would sing it now, but I know that you would rule that out of order, Mr. Gale.
I expounded on the subject this morning, Mr. Gale, so I shall not try your or the Committee's patience now.
Because of the language and the peculiar conditions in rural Wales compared to those in rural England-the spread of internet provision was mentioned this morning-representatives from Wales and to lesser extent Scotland are needed on the authority. If the Minister does not support the making of provision for that, many people in Pontypridd will write to him tomorrow asking why he takes an opposing view.
It seemed to me that in speaking to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and supported by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), both hon. Gentlemen spent a great deal of time demonstrating not only their ability to pronounce the Welsh language, but their passionate commitment to it. Their arguments were in essence
about proper regard being accorded to community radio, but were specifically slanted towards the Welsh and Gaelic languages. They tended to ignore, for example, my constituents and people in Greater London. If we took into account community and other radio stations broadcast in London, would there have to be representatives for Greek, for Turkish and for other languages and dialects spoken on the Asian sub-continent?
I appreciate that point. Radio and television stations that one could deem to be the official broadcasting arms of the UK in Wales, albeit they are not, have to broadcast a proportion of programmes in the Welsh language. I understood both hon. Gentlemen to have said that the issue affected small community radio stations. The hon. Member for Ceredigion may shake his head, but the basis of his initial argument was that one small community station-
An example to which the hon. Gentleman devoted a great deal of time. The basis of his initial argument was that there should be some way to protect such stations, especially those in rural areas, against the threat of commercial interests from a wider media base. He said that that was especially true for Wales, where picking up mainstream programmes can be difficult.
To return to my argument, I mentioned some languages represented by community radio stations in the Greater London area. There are pockets in that area where people have extreme difficulty in receiving all mainstream broadcasting, be it radio or television. The problem is not exclusive to Wales, although the percentages may be higher there.
We are considering a period in which there will be an increase in what one might call community television broadcasting. In the Greater London area, there are several small community television outlets, most of which are linked to local authorities. Should all such interests be represented in Ofcom, which is a regulatory, not representative, body?
No one would deny that community broadcasting is important, whether on radio or television. However, if we approached the issue on the basis of languages spoken, and if the Government accepted the amendment, Ofcom would need more than one boardroom. It would probably need two large office blocks.
I rise to speak briefly because I heard something different from the hon. Member for Ceredigion. As well as community radio, for which he obviously has a passion, he mentioned internet access, broadband access and a range of other issues in Wales. The hon.
The Liberal Democrats' sympathy lies with the amendment because of our feeling that the United Kingdom comprises constituent countries. We have always taken a strong line on the subject. The hon. Member for Ceredigion referred to the views of ''our'' Liberal Democrat member who is part of the Administration in Cardiff. We have always held the view that UK bodies should, so far as possible, respect the fact that the UK is a federation of different countries. It is appropriate to raise the question of the extent to which the different countries should be represented because of their power base rather than their language. Power has, quite properly, been devolved, and whenever possible we would like to see United Kingdom bodies respect the fact that we are a federation.
I would be interested to hear the Minister's response to amendment No. 55, which is about the need to consult. If he is not sympathetic to appointments being made by the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales-one could include the Northern Ireland Assembly as well-it would help to know what sort of consultation will take place. The Government are responsible for having set up those legislative bodies, and we hope that they will be properly respected in the creation of a new UK-wide body.
No, it is not. Do the Liberal Democrats not agree with the official Opposition that it would be better to do what the Select Committee suggested, which is to have a formal mechanism for consultation with the relevant Committees of the devolved assemblies?
I was trying express sympathy for that view by referring to amendment No. 55, which expresses that point. The devolved assemblies will take their own view about how they should be represented on UK-wide bodies. What we seek and what the hon. Member for Ceredigion is trying to tease out is a commitment to respect the new constitutional
structure of the United Kingdom whenever we establish a new UK-wide body.
There are different ways to achieve that. It would be a shame to go through the entire Bill without even recognising the issue and without having any statement on the record from the Minister about how he intends to deal with it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion on instigating the debate. I hope that the Minister's response will show that there will be respect, not so much for language, but for the constitutional structure that now pertains.
As one who grew up in Belfast, I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Ceredigion restricted himself to Welsh issues. That demonstrates what Plaid Cymru is about.
I am worried about the fixation on regional issues. A debate that is solely about Wales and Scotland-and Northern Ireland, perhaps-ignores the vast majority of the people of the United Kingdom. There are regional issues in England-centering on Cornwall and other parts of the country-as well as other interests that are ignored when we become fixated on geography.
Previous debates exhibited a tendency to treat the Bill as a broadcasting measure, not a communications measure. We seem to be fixated on the broadcasting element rather than on the new technologies and their convergence, and the other issues with which Ofcom will have to deal. If Ofcom is pushed down the route of dealing primarily with broadcasting issues and ignoring the far more fundamental regulatory issues, we are in for trouble.
I regret the emphasis on broadcasting. There is a distinct problem with it, in that Ofcom will have to deal with issues of dominance as Oftel has done. That will be a key issue for the new regulator, which will not be better equipped to deal with Welsh issues, Scottish issues or Orkney issues by having each of those different elements vested in a board member. Those issues need to interact with the board, and the board needs to be small so that it can interact properly. What is important is the processes that are set up under Ofcom, not the creation of vested interests on the board.
The hon. Gentleman is correct to a certain extent, but is he not in danger of losing sight of one of his Government's great achievements? Devolution comprises the institution of a legislative Assembly in Wales and a fully legislative Parliament in Scotland. Surely, that demands that any UK body should deal with them in an appropriate way. One way is suggested in the amendments, and I would be delighted if the Minister came up with another.
I believe that devolution is unfinished business. I am a strong supporter of regional government for this country, in which we have a long way to go. The hon. Gentleman may have achieved devolution in his part of the United Kingdom, but I long for the day when there is a regional assembly in the south-east to deal with issues
that affect it, not least its relationship to London. Real issues, particularly economic ones, require regional government, but I will not go into that because you would rule me out of order, Mr. Gale. However, England has strong regional issues that need addressing.
Questions such as how Ofcom and its set-up will deal with the European Union framework directive on telecommunications are critical for the success of the industry. As the hon. Member for Lichfield said, we lead the world in this area and it is important that Ofcom enables that to continue. Although it is important to recognise the interests of Scotland and Wales, to introduce artificial barriers that require board members to be their representatives would undermine Ofcom and its effectiveness. It is critical to have a small board to set up processes of communication, consultation and two-way interaction. That is far more important than having an artificial element on the board, as the amendment suggests.
In speaking in support of the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, I should declare an interest. I had a Welsh paternal grandmother and am proficient at pronouncing Glamorgan and Neath.
The arguments for the amendment are similar to those for having more people on the board. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate was right to say that we cannot have an enormous representative body because it would get out of hand. However, the number suggested is too small to encompass the spectrum of needs and interests that we have heard about. It must be larger, with a sensible balance so that the interests of customer groups in Wales and Scotland, and of those people to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) referred, who do not want swearing and gratuitous sex and violence on the television. A wide spectrum of interests should be on the board to ensure that everybody's needs are considered.
It is certainly true that Wales has special needs in relation to broadcasting, broadband, the internet and almost every field that will fall within the scope of Ofcom. It is good that those issues are being aired.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion did not mention that Wales enjoys the highest level of digital television penetration in Britain. I have said many a time and oft in the House that that is partly because many people want to watch Channel 4 as well as S4C-and some want to watch S4C as well as Channel 4-because of border area complications and sports rights, particularly rugby rights. However, that does not mean that we must go down the route that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
We do not have the 10-member option; we are talking about two of six-possibly two of three-members of the board of Ofcom being devoted to Wales and Scotland.
It would indeed be in order, but not sensible because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, we are not talking about a representative body. I worry that hon. Members appear to think that Ofcom should be some sort of council on which every affected interest group-such as the disabled and radio interests-is represented and has a person to whom they can put their case. As my hon. Friend said either we would end up with vast numbers of people, or a fierce process of discrimination would be mounted. Later amendments refer to whether religious broadcasting should have special notification in the process. That, too, would be wrong.
Broadcasting should not be devolved for the reason acknowledged by the hon. Member for Ceredigion: many parts of the country already have problems with channels being received according to the side of the border on which one lives, or in which direction the valley points. As for internet connections, digital television and other issues, the Welsh valleys have more in common with many ex-coalfield areas in England than with parts of north Wales. It makes more sense to have a small regulatory body, especially for the initial processes dealt with in the paving Bill.
The amendment fails before the basic tenet of the Bill. Convergence of the internet, television and telecommunications is the reason why we must bring the regulatory bodies together. The amendment proposes the opposite of convergence: disintegration in a variety of forms. Whether one splits things up into radio, internet and television, or into Scotland, Wales, England, the regions and so on, all those who support the amendment have failed to acknowledge convergence in the industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said, that is a problem because the EU has a significant role in the framework directive being introduced, much of which will be incorporated in the next Bill. If we start to break down Britain into representative parts, we will do a gross disservice to the broadcasting, telecommunications and communications industry in this country.
The hon. Member for Lichfield set a precedent this morning by declaring non-interests. I will join him by saying that I am not Welsh, nor have I a drop of Welsh blood-I am Irish. However, my wife affects to be Welsh and my four month-old daughter, Aneira, is named after the great Nye Bevan.
I am sympathetic to the aims of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, as is the Minister. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is from Aberdare, or an original Pontypridd boy, but he is definitely Welsh to my ears and he has made it clear that his views on accountability are strong.
My problem with amendment Nos. 46 and 55 is different from that of my hon. Friends the Members
for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) and for Hampstead and Highgate. I had the same problem with the unsuccessful Conservative amendments Nos. 25 and 8. Those amendments tried through the back door to change the system in Parliament to a United States-style system of ratification of appointments, without properly worked out procedures. That is a matter for fundamental House of Commons reform and I look to Opposition Members' future proposals to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to complete that process.
Amendment Nos. 46 and 55 run the danger of extending that process even further to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Their practical effect might be to bog down a sensible paving Bill in rows about individual appointments. I would be the last to suggest that the Opposition were up to mischief, but many Conservatives in the House did not want this paving Bill at all. When he was not straying on to Mrs. Whitehouse's territory, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury made it clear that he did not want the Bill either. I am glad that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) did not take that approach today, and that our debate has been constructive.
The amendments are tantamount to a wrecker's charter that might lead to futile rows that would overshadow the launch of Ofcom, which is to do valuable work in many areas, including the digital superhighway and broadband.
I shall not detain the Committee long, but I want to pick up on a couple of points. It is important that the Bill is fair in regulating the industry, but first and foremost it must concentrate on looking after the interests of the consumer. I say that in support of the hon. Member for Ceredigion-I hope that I said that right, having practised all morning.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East consistently stressed the telecommunications aspect of the Bill. That is fair enough, but that part of the industry currently has only a limited influence on children and vulnerable people, other than through internet. He is wrong to accuse Conservative Members of being over-concerned about media effects on the consumer; they need to be considered. That brings me back to my main point. Consumers' interests must come first, over and above those of the industry.
I had wondered why Northern Ireland was not mentioned in the amendments, but I have received a satisfactory explanation from the hon. Member for Ceredigion.
I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Gale. It will be a pleasure to consider the Bill under your chairmanship.
It was remiss of me not to respond to the point about radio that was raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield. Of course, he has great expertise in that field. I have been informed, reliably or otherwise, that when he worked for Radio Brighton he went by the name of ''Mickey Fabb''.
I have taken note of everything that has been said. We have had an exhaustive debate, but I am sure that there is more to come.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the calls for representation and diversification. We understand the implications of the devolution settlement. However, this is a modest paving Bill; indeed, one Conservative Member described it as a mouse of a Bill. It will not shake the future of broadcasting, but merely set up Ofcom. We can have those discussions when we debate the substantive communications Bill.
It is important that Ofcom represents the interests of the various parts of the United Kingdom, and we want to ensure that that is done properly. We intend to keep the Ofcom board small and flexible initially-we should remember that Ofcom will not be regulating in the initial stages, after the Bill is passed. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ceredigion understands that it is impossible to establish a board that represents every single interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said that there will be demands from the substantial minorities who live in her constituency. That is proper, and it is the same everywhere.
One hon. Member-I am not sure who it was-referred to the different language in Scotland. I know that there is a small Gaelic minority there, but they just sound funny; they do not speak a different language from us.
If the new creature were to take on board every single interest, it would be far too large and unwieldy, and it would be difficult to imagine it operating with any degree of efficiency. The Bill therefore does not provide for specific representation on the board from Wales or Scotland, nor from Northern Ireland or England. We should not forget that there are 50 million people in England, and they do matter. The board will be kept small, with between three and six members. The main communications Bill will include measures to ensure that the legitimate interests of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are properly represented within Ofcom's structures.
The Minister makes an interesting point. We all accept that this is the paving Bill to set up Ofcom, which will either survive when the existing bodies are consolidated into a new Ofcom or be disbanded if that does not happen. Is the Minister saying that initially there will be a shell board that is very different in shape from the board of Ofcom as fully incorporated in the Bill that is yet to be presented to Parliament?
Yes, I am saying precisely that. It could be very similar or very different. That is a matter
for Parliament to decide. We are, after all, the United Kingdom Parliament. We are not here to parrot the deliberations, aspirations or decisions of the devolved bodies. We are here as representatives of the constituencies of this Parliament. I owe allegiance to no other body than this one.
No, I will not.
Amendment No. 49 goes too far in proposing that every committee set up by Ofcom should include a Welsh and a Scottish representative. In certain committees-a remuneration committee, for example-it is difficult to see what specific Welsh or Scottish interests would be involved.
I cannot envisage a Greater Milton Keynes standing assembly, but my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East was right to say that modern communications do not recognise frontiers or borders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, our needs in the valleys of south Wales are not unique-they are reflected in many parts of Great Britain-nor are the valleys unique in terms of topography, which causes problems in many parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate pointed out that London has similar difficulties. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport receives more letters from London about poor reception resulting from the construction of Canary wharf and its associated towers and the shadow that they cast across the area, than from any other part of Britain.
I hope that the Minister will not respond by being rude to people north of the border. [Hon. Members: ''Which border?''] Perhaps I should have said north of Hadrian's wall. The Select Committee lamented the absence in the White Paper-an absence continued in the Bill-of any development of good links with the relevant policy Committees of the devolved assemblies.
I shall answer that in a moment. Where there are legitimate interests, Ofcom should ensure that they are reflected satisfactorily in the committees that it may establish.
Turning to amendment No. 54, in December 2000 the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), stated clearly in response to questions from hon. Members about whether Ofcom would have offices in Scotland and Wales that it would have a presence there. I am happy to reconfirm that in Committee. The details of how that will be achieved will be a matter for Ofcom. We should not be so heavy handed as to tell Ofcom what sort of office to set up, where to set it up and what its relationship should be with the devolved bodies, although I am determined that it will have a proper relationship with them.
Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), I expect Ofcom to consult closely with the devolved assemblies and the English regions to ensure that constituents' needs are taken into account in an appropriate way. The
amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ceredigion raise some interesting issues about how best to ensure that Ofcom relates properly to the nations and regions. I am certain that those issues will have a good airing when we draft and put out to consultation the communications Bill.
I want to tease out a little more on methods of consultation because I have suggested two ways of doing that. First, the assemblies could become involved in the appointment of Ofcom members either by being consulted or by directly appointing them. Secondly, amendment No. 51 would set up a Welsh advisory committee that would advise Ofcom on matters relating to the range of issues in Wales. I accept the Minister's statement that communications are cross-border, but government is not: it has been devolved within borders. Is he saying that we cannot address that issue in a paving Bill? Once we have laid the pavement we will be walking on it?
I am saying precisely that. One cannot do it in a paving Bill, and I do not want to do it in a paving Bill, because that would be the wrong move. Broadcasting in this country does not recognise the new borders because it is not a devolved matter; it is a matter for Parliament. [Hon. Members: ''S4C''] I hear S4C being mentioned, but it does not want to fall under the control of the National Assembly for Wales because it knows that it would not get half the money that it gets from the Westminster Parliament.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion tells the Committee his amendments reflect intense lobbying from Welsh broadcasters. There has been no lobbying, except from something called Radio Ceredigion. If he is saying that BBC Wales, HTV and S4C have been lobbying to make broadcasting a devolved matter, it is interesting that they have not bothered to lobby the Minister responsible for broadcasting. They have also not lobbied me about having a separate Ofcom.
No. I have given way to both hon. Gentlemen already. We must be careful not to assume that other bodies have a hold over us that makes us make decisions that we would otherwise feel were improper. The Bill simply sets up Ofcom, and it contains adequate powers to allow the Secretary of State to enlarge its board. I therefore oppose the amendment.
The custom and practice is that only one amendment, in this case amendment No. 46, is moved. None of the other amendments have been moved. If the hon. Gentleman wants to move other amendments, he is entitled to indicate that to the Chairman, and it is up to the Chairman to decide whether to accept that. Initially, we are dealing with amendment No. 46. The other amendments do not have to be moved or withdrawn.
Thank you, Mr. Gale. I should like to respond to the debate on amendment No. 46. The Minister's response, which I was looking forward to, was disappointing because it added nothing to the written replies that I have received from Ministers. With the full communications Bill likely to come in draft form before very long, we should have a better idea of how the consultation process should be undertaken.
The Minister said that somebody described the Bill as a mouse. In my amendments, I have tried to give the mouse a little Welsh squeak and bit of highland dress. The issue will arise again because, despite what he said, many in broadcasting in Wales have been asking for a Welsh representative on Ofcom.
Did the hon. Gentleman notice an inconsistency in the Minister's statement in that there are national members for Wales, Scotland and Ireland on the board of the BBC, the Independent Broadcasting Authority used to have such representation, and the Independent Television Commission still has? Why is it suitable for them, but not for the new consolidated board?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I add the example of the Strategic Rail Authority, another utility regulatory body that has a member for Wales appointed by the Assembly.
I am grateful for the support of the hon. Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), for Lichfield, for Sheffield, Hallam, for Vale of York and for Tewkesbury on the amendment's principle. The response of Government Members such as the hon. Member for Rhondda showed that subtlety does not work and that I should have been blunter in my original speech. Perhaps they forgot what I said this morning; what was fed back to me was not what I said. That was especially true of the speech by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate, which was antediluvian and anti-devolution.
The amendment does not mention the Welsh language because it deals with the devolved structure, which is the Government's chosen method. I say to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) that if anyone were to use wrecking tactics in the devolved Administrations it would be his party because it is in control in Wales and Scotland. The arguments that have been advanced are designed deliberately to thwart my ambitions, which is a pity because I have been advocating something that many in Wales will expect from Ofcom in one way, shape or form.
I beg to move amendment No. 48, in page 1, line 6, at end insert-
We move to another aspect of representation, but one that may find more favour with Government Members. I hope that it does because it has been advocated by many of their constituents, and it is not confined to Wales.
Amendment No. 48 would ensure that within the membership of Ofcom, a member is dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented. There is a material difference between this and the previous amendment, which it is worthwhile underlining. I do not attempt to seek a representative member on Ofcom for people with disabilities. That would be very impractical, as it is difficult to think of one organisation that could claim to represent all disability organisations throughout the United Kingdom. It might also be impossible to achieve in the context of what the Minister said in response to my earlier amendments.
I hope that the Minister will appreciate that I have made every effort, and tried every little way, to get my points across, within the Bill's ambit. I hope that he will be a little more open to the spirit of the amendment. As he said earlier, there are nearly 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, including 2 million with serious sight problems. The report commissioned by the present five regulators, the Towers Perrin report to the steering group of those five regulators preparing for Ofcom, said that Ofcom should
''actively promote clear links with, and understanding of, all of Ofcom's key stakeholder categories.''
Of all those stakeholder categories, the major one is surely people with disabilities. The way in which disability legislation has moved on, and our tackling of discrimination in society, raises the question of how Ofcom will ensure that in the whole gamut of its responsibilities-from broadcasting to communications to broadband to accessing the internet and wireless services-the doors are equally accessible to people with disabilities.
Is there not a danger that having only a single person in charge of ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented will lead to the marginalisation of their needs and views? Would it not be better if every single member of the Ofcom board were dedicated to ensuring that the needs of those people were represented?
I agree with that 100 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman wants to table an amendment on Report laying that out, I will support it. I thought that the danger was that if we did not say in the paving Bill that someone on Ofcom should be responsible for people with disabilities, that would be forgotten and the needs of those people would tend to be neglected if not ignored. Those people would then constantly have to work through their representative groups and campaigning organisations, as they currently do over transport to get access to buses and trains. They would constantly have to lobby Ofcom for recognition.
I want to avoid that. I want Ofcom to represent as many of the stakeholder groups as possible. I accept that if the Government will not move on the number
of Ofcom board members, we must find an alternative way to ensure that Ofcom members are responsible for the different stakeholder groups. It may well be that of the individual members of Ofcom-say there are six-one might turn out to be responsible for broadcasting in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. That might be one way of doing it. Another might be responsible for ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are met. Another member might be responsible for community radio, with some other aspect of broadcasting. One might be responsible for ensuring that access to the internet progresses at the right speed.
That might be an attractive proposition. We have the small, focused group that the Government want, but we also have some idea, especially with the communications Bill coming up, of how we want that group to work, and how the individual members of Ofcom should undertake their responsibilities. If we do not face now the need for a lead from the top for people with disabilities, we are in danger of neglecting how their needs will be addressed.
The hon. Member for Rhondda said that everyone should be responsible for people with disabilities. Of course they should. We all should, as we undertake our tasks as Members of Parliament. We should make sure that our surgeries, and all our work, are accessible and that our publications are readable and available in different formats. We should do all those things, and so should all Government bodies and agencies.
Let us look at an analogy: school governors. All school governors are responsible for ensuring that special needs are met in their schools, but one school governor will have that as a special responsibility. That is the analogy that I would like Labour Members-although I suspect that there is a little more sympathy on the Opposition Benches-to bear in mind. Does the hon. Member for Vale of York wish to intervene?
I formally welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Gale. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion. Everyone will notice that I did not stumble over that this time-a lunch break was fortunate and timely. I am not entirely in agreement with him, but as a probing amendment, his raises a number of issues for debate. We have all received many representations concerning people who are hard of hearing, poor of sight or less mobile. The elderly and those disadvantaged in other ways might also be included. Certainly, many responses to the White Paper referred specifically to the elderly, those on low incomes and those living in rural areas as well as to those with disabilities.
The amendment is helpful in probing and pressing the Government further. Can the Minister assure us
that people with disabilities, as well as areas such as equal opportunities, will be considered both in the composition of Ofcom, which is proper for debate today, and in the way in which Ofcom carries out its work through its constituent committees? I have some hesitation over whether it is right to suggest that one member alone should be dedicated to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are represented. Without putting words into the hon. Gentleman's very eloquent mouth, I suggest that he considers coming forward later with a Bill-sorry, an amendment; we do not want two Bills on one subject-to say that in the working and decision-making of the committees, regard will be had to such interests.
Many people are deprived, some, as in my case, by choice. Being a Scot by birth, I can say that one is loth to part with a television set until it reaches the end of its proper life unless it can be used for spare parts for the next set. One's home can always have a number of television sets, and if they are not as yet quite so difficult to get rid of as fridges, one can always think of ways and means to add to the complications of getting rid of them. However, many areas are disadvantaged, perhaps through being unable to get the Channel 5 signal, such as parts of North Yorkshire, where my brother lives, less than 40 minutes from the Vale of York. There is not a universally accessible Channel 5 signal in this country for reasons with which we are all familiar. We should also ensure that those who are disabled for whatever reason have access to digital services, perhaps a little earlier.
One vexed question is subtitling, and it should be incumbent on Ofcom to deal with that. That could be done, preferably, in structural arrangements later in the Bill, or through a dedicated board member, if the amendment of the hon. Member for Ceredigion is successful. It is regrettable that, contrary to the wishes of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the Bill is silent on both subtitling and signing on television. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the idea of helping disabled people, whatever disability they have.
I too have much sympathy with the amendment. The Minister referred to the Bill being described by others as a mouse, which I think does it a disservice. My understanding of the timetable for the evolution of Ofcom is that through the paving Bill, a chair of Ofcom will be put in place and board members appointed later in the year. Its full powers will not be taken on until the end of next year, and we are constantly referring to the communications Bill that will be published, but the timetable for that is that it will be published in late spring, and we do not know when late spring is. Quite properly, there is a long period of pre-legislative scrutiny, and the final draft of the communications Bill might not be produced until sometime in 2003.
The Ofcom that we create through the Bill will shape future communications policy for some time to come, and will have a significant role-it will not be a mouse of an Ofcom. Once the chairman is announced,
it will become the major player in broadcasting, and on the internet and other communications issues that we want to keep on the agenda. Ofcom's shape, accountability and accessibility are important. The hon. Member for Ceredigion has identified specific interests that will properly need to be translated to Ofcom. We have received many such submissions in respect of this part of the Bill, and as Ofcom's chairman is appointed and it begins to evolve, organisations representing disabled people will properly want to have their input. They will not want to wait for the communications Bill, because a lot of decisions will have been taken by then, including decisions affecting the offices of existing regulators that deal with disability issues.
We anticipate some form of merger-otherwise, there is no logic to Ofcom. However, individual groups will doubtless feel that a particular merger or dismissal is inappropriate, or that the new structure for dealing with disability issues is unsuitable. Under existing legislation, there is no guarantee of an accessible route into Ofcom for those who wish to make representations. Although there is no point in delaying the Bill's passage, the Minister could help by giving us the guidance that we need as soon as possible, and certainly before completion of the main communications legislation, which will not happen for some time.
I told the Committee this morning-you were not present, Mr. Gale-that the draft Bill will be published in full. There will then be a period of approximately three months for full consultation. No one in this country will be unable to respond to that process, and we will ensure that all the hon. Gentleman's concerns will be addressed.
That is very helpful. It is perhaps safe to assume, therefore, that the rules governing the ability of interest groups-be they disabled people, people from regions and nations of the United Kingdom, or whoever-to access the Ofcom that we create in this transitional period will be those in the draft Bill. Presumably, one could read guidance on Ofcom's operation on completion and assume that the shadow Ofcom will operate in a similar fashion. The question of accessibility is at the heart of the amendment.
Obviously, I have not made this point clear. As the hon. Member for Lichfield said, the Ofcom that we are creating is a shell. We should not use the phrase ''shadow authority'' because there have been too many of those. According to the Bill, Ofcom has the function to form itself. It will not regulate or perform any other function until the substantive communications Bill receives Royal Assent, at which point the process of regulation begins.
I hesitate to disagree with the Minister about his Bill, but if that were Ofcom's sole function we would not need to consider a separate paving Bill. Ofcom will have a role in the intervening period-otherwise, there would be no point in creating it-which is to shape existing regulators. Ofcom itself will not regulate, but it will guide regulators on how the merger will take place. As I understand it, the purpose of the Bill is to guide regulators so that the transition to the full assumption of powers is smooth. For
example, decisions on personnel in respect of existing regulators will have to be taken within the aegis of Ofcom, as set up under this Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is very patient. He will know that, if a communications Bill had been included in last June's Queen's Speech, this Bill would have been unnecessary. The purpose of this paving Bill is simply to avoid a further six-month delay in the setting up of Ofcom, prior to the substantive communications Bill's receiving Royal Assent, hopefully in mid-2003.
''It shall be the function of OFCOM . . . to do such things as they consider appropriate for facilitating the implementation of, or for securing the modification of, any relevant proposals about the regulation of communications.''
The paved Ofcom will surely do a great deal, therefore, in its first few months.
That is very helpful. It reinforces the central point-I do not want to labour it, as we have had a lengthy debate-of the amendment, which is that people with disabilities will want to make their views known during the new Ofcom's evolution. They will not want to wait until Ofcom is fully in place, because their natural suspicion is that it is much easier to make changes during the formative stage. Like other hon. Members, I will of course encourage people with disabilities to have their say when the draft communications Bill is published for consultation, but it is none the less valid to try to tease out their route to Ofcom. We will be paying those in Ofcom to do something, and that ''something'', as the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, could have implications for staffing and the new structures, although formal powers will not exist.
It is absolutely right that this issue be discussed now, even though this is a paving Bill for a shell organisation. There are almost 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, and they should not be ghettoised. According to the Rowntree Foundation, the north-south divide and the gap between rich and poor has widened in this country in the past five years, and we want to ensure that the gap between the able-bodied and the disabled does not similarly widen. Indeed, there is no reason why it should, because the technology exists to prevent that, but Government action is none the less needed. The question of whether one person on the shell board should be responsible for achieving that aim is not that important. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, the amendment gives us the opportunity to discuss these matters now, and as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, if there were not more to the shell organisation, we would not be discussing this paving Bill.
As I have said, the technology exists to try to narrow the gap between the able-bodied and the disabled, and there are very good reasons why we should enable access for the blind to, say, television. Many might question the need for that, given the existence of radio, but the blind need to interact with those who watch television. They should not be ghettoised. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East will probably chide me for again talking only about broadcasting, and he would be right to do so. He will know, however, that technology exists-I am not sure how it works-to enable the blind to use the internet. They should have access to it, but that argument needs a strong and powerful advocate, not only in the Government but in Ofcom. Is it really so wrong or unusual for someone to stand up and appeal for the 8.7 million people in this country who are disabled? I think not.
It certainly is unusual if that person is a member of the Conservative party, who when in office fought tooth and nail to deny people with disabilities civil rights.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting the record straight.
The Government have boasted about the plug-in modules that enable access to television through the audio description of programmes. Will the Minister confirm that those facilities have so far been made available to a total of 45 disabled people in this country? It is a start and I congratulate the Government on that, but 45 is a very small proportion of 8.7 million.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman cannot be deviating from the subject, Mr. Gale, because you would have pulled him up. Surely the point is not who is more on the side of the disabled, but how the views of people with disabilities can best be catered for. He asked how the BBC board of governors is constituted. No individual member has a specific responsibility for disabled people, but the BBC is better than any other broadcaster in Europe in showing its responsibilities towards them. The amendment may be a mistake because it might ghettoise disabled people. It might be better for responsibility to lie with all members of the board.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. We spoke earlier about there being national representatives on the board of the BBC, but no representative for the disabled. I still think it is important that the issue be raised. The hon. Member for Ceredigion who proposed the amendment was the first to say that it should not necessarily be in its
current form, but it gives us an opportunity to tease out a response from the Government. Watching the Minister's rapid scribbling, I believe that we will get a response on those points. I look forward to that.
I will not delay the Committee any further. This is an important issue. The technology exists to enable the disabled to play an active part in those areas over which Ofcom will have control. It is important that Ofcom, even as a shell organisation, recognises that it has a responsibility to the disabled and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion on tabling his amendment.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield on audio description for visually impaired television viewers. Visual impairment covers a wide spectrum; only a small proportion of people are registered as totally blind. Many people who are visually impaired watch television in the company of sighted people. An additional help with audio description would enable them to take a fuller part in that. That points towards the need to have someone with specialist knowledge. An interest in disability and specialist knowledge are needed to enable the specific technical improvements to be made available to those who need it.
I appreciate why the hon. Member for Ceredigion tabled the amendment. It deals with an important issue, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides agree. Ensuring that disabled people's interests are properly represented in Ofcom will be extremely important. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was right to ask for that undertaking, and I hope that he will take my word for it. Currently, there are five different regulators, plus the BBC and S4C, and we are making progress.
I keep returning to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. We seem obsessed with broadcasting, but there are many other forms of communication that we can work on, and to which the hon. Member for Lichfield drew attention. We fully recognise the importance of access to television services for people with sensory impairments, and consultation on the draft of the main communications Bill will enable us to get it right.
The Government recently reviewed the current requirements for the provision of subtitling, signing and audio description. We also considered that in the context of the advent of digital broadcasting, which offers much greater scope for meeting requirements in that regard. We decided that the target for subtitling provision on digital terrestrial television should be raised from 50 to 80 per cent. of programmes by the tenth anniversary of the start of the service, and we are determined to get there. That is one of my main priorities. The current targets for sign language and for audio description, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are 5 per cent. and 10 per cent. respectively by the tenth anniversary. Those are immediate targets, but we want to drive them forward.
The hon. Gentleman read out a brief from the Royal National Institute for the Blind; he will not
know that I met the RNIB to discuss the issue. The technology relating to audio description services is still relatively new, expensive and, for many people, difficult to get hold of. That is reflected in the numbers that the hon. Gentleman quoted; I thought that they were a little higher. However, we are determined that there will be greater access to the service. I have heard an audio description and I am not sure whether I am a huge fan, but I can see its tremendous potential.
I am sure that you are aware of the technology, Mr. Gale, but for the benefit of the Committee, I should explain that a description comes over an attachment to a television, so that the blind or partially sighted person can hear what is going on in the story on screen during a purely visual passage in the programme. That is important in dramas, feature films and so on. We are very much up to speed on that technology and we want it to be greatly extended.
The requirements on digital terrestrial television for all those services should be extended to digital cable and satellite services when legislation permits. I cannot contemplate Ofcom's having less ambitious targets than some of those that I mentioned. I am determined that it will take the targets forward. Its responsibilities and remits will mean that it has to develop those services in ways that exceed the achievements that we have seen so far.
The Minister will have recognised that this is a probing amendment, and I welcome much of what he says. However, I think that he will accept that, during an earlier debate with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, we established that the early Ofcom would have an important and influential role on the production of the communications Bill and the regulations that follow it. Will he give an undertaking that, notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of the amendment, he will, on appointment, instruct the chairman or the first members of Ofcom, in a letter or guidance, that the needs of disabled people need to be taken into account as part of their influential role set out in clause 2?
No, I am not prepared to do that. No Government worth their salt would appoint a chair of a public body who would not address the huge needs of disabled people. Many Opposition Members do not seem to understand that the Bill will allow regulators to prepare the new regime, but it will not interfere with the existing one. During early stages of the discussions, one of my biggest worries was that the existing regulators might lose their best staff because of the uncertainty. They would have been severely weakened as a result. The creature that we are setting up will not have the right to interfere with the role of the existing regulators until the Bill receives Royal Assent.
As a fellow refugee from the Utilities Bill, my hon. Friend will be aware of the issues that arose during the setting up of Ofgem. People reacted to the shell authority to the exclusion of the existing regulators. The fear is that people will not go to the existing regulators but address Ofcom, in its shadow form, and that fear drives many of the amendments. Relating that issue to the experience of Ofgem and the Financial Services Authority would be helpful.
That is a valuable point, and I give that undertaking to the Committee. We must understand that the powers of the existing regulators remain intact until the Bill receives Royal Assent.
I shall briefly describe the issues that motivate our concerns. The Minister is right: existing regulators will remain in place. However, they may decide that Ofcom's disability unit will take a different form from those that exist in the current regulators. People will express concern if they perceive a weakening during the interim period. We are trying to address that concern: it is a watching brief. During the interim, Ofcom might propose that the radio authority contracts with a different regulator for its disability officer service in order to prepare for a merger. I hope we can keep an eye on those matters.
That is a good point. I say to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that we might improve the systems of communication. I would have thought that the Committee would welcome that. We have an opportunity to assess what has happened so far to the vast community who suffer from a disability, and the way in which it is represented in communications, and in other ways. That is one of the prime purposes of the Bill, and the way that Ofcom would work.
As I said earlier, this is a probing amendment. It was designed to clarify the views of the Minister and establish how Ofcom will look after the needs of disabled people. We have had some encouraging news: the Minister gave a commitment to progress to new targets. He set out how the present regime might co-operate with a shadow Ofcom in ensuring that those needs are met. We will return to the issue, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The procedure is that the hon. Lady makes her speech if she wants to speak to those amendments. Amendment No. 34 is moved formally. If the hon. Lady wants to move amendment No. 36 separately, the amendment will be debated now, but will be moved formally later. However, she will need to give plenty of notice of her intention.
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 41, in page 1, line 11 at end insert-
'(3B) Appointments made by the Secretary of State falling within subsections (3)(a) and (3) (b) shall be subject to a vote of approval from a designated Select Committee of Parliament.'.
No. 36 in schedule, page8, line 39, at end insert-
I became increasingly alarmed by the Minister's comments in the previous debate, for reasons that I will share with the Committee. Amendment No. 34 is self-explanatory and seeks to insert a new subsection (3A):
Amendment No. 36 would also ensure that the appointment of any member of Ofcom as deputy chairman was made
''following consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.''
I look forward to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam moving amendment No. 41. Conservative Members have some sympathy for the role of the Select Committee, and we will discuss that when we debate later amendments.
The Minister in the House of Lords recognised in his concluding remarks on Third Reading that there would be a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, which the Minister confirmed in today's debate. The Minister will have detected in our discussions on earlier amendments the reason why we are loathe to leave the Bill and enter a vacuum for a considerable period between the publication of the broadcasting Bill and its formal consideration in the House. That vacuum will mean that the continued fusion of several matters, under the remit of existing regulators, will not be considered by the House other than through the pre-legislative Committee.
A reliable source informed me that we cannot formally refer to such a pre-legislative Committee as anything other than
''a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.''
There is a need for both amendments, which relate to the appointment of two chairmen and a deputy chairman. When those appointments are made, consideration should be given to the ongoing merger of the work. As the Independent Television Commission pointed out, the ITC and BSC audience research programme and various operational groups set up under the regulated steering group are already co-operating. My concern, which is shared by hon. Members on both sides, is that it is beyond the powers of the House to consider the Bill once we have left it unless we formally work that in.
Much has been made of the alleged vacuum that a Bill such as this will leave, rather than it being seen as a sensible, preparatory step. Does the hon. Lady agree that these paving arrangements are nothing new? The Financial Services Authority was set up in advance of the city legislation taking effect, and the transitional arrangements worked well. There was not a massive outcry when that legislation was enacted.
I will be grateful if the hon. Gentleman can confirm my recollection that similar measures were proposed at the Committee stage of
that Bill. We are following exactly the same procedure in tabling these two amendments.
I do not want to repeat arguments that were well rehearsed on Second Reading, as you will rule me out of order, Mr. Gale. I simply regret that we are being prevented from considering the two matters because that stifles debate. How can we debate which people are best able to do the job when we do not know what the job is?
The purpose of the amendments is to recognise, as one regulatory body has done already, that matters are proceeding apace and it is regrettable that the main communications Bill has been delayed. The Independent Television Commission welcomed the Government's commitment during the final stages of the Bill in the other place to publish the main communications Bill in the spring and invite Parliament to set up the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee to which I have referred. The ITC is confident that that deadline will be met, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that spring will not become early summer and that he means before the end of March. The Easter and Whitsun recesses have been announced today and they are longer than I have experienced in my short time in the House, and that may push back matters even further.
I received a useful communication from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, which said
''We also believe that the appointment of the Chief Executive and members of the Board should be subject to approval of a Select Committee.''
I believe that the best way of conducting such approval would be through a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee rather than the relevant Select Committee, as proposed by amendment No. 41. One problem that we will have in the House in relation to establishing Ofcom and reviewing its work is that neither the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, whose work which we have referred to with admiration, or the Select Committee on Trade and Industry is responsible. The Minister may like to share with us an advance announcement that owing to the poor performance of successive Secretaries of State, the Department of Trade and Industry is to be phased out and its responsibilities merged, as was advocated by the Select Committee report on the communications White Paper. I am happy to give way if the Minister wants to make such an announcement, but we may have to wait until the reshuffle, which may be sometime in the spring.
This debate follows on from amendment No. 48, and I want the Minister to tell us precisely what he envisages as the role of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. Will he confirm whether he is minded to support amendment No. 34? The Committee's role would be to consult on, consider and report on
appointments of the chairman in amendment No. 34 and the deputy chairman in amendment No. 36.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's agreement that the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee should ratify the appointments. That is precisely the thrust of my amendments. I am grateful to him for expressing it in a much simpler, clearer way than I did.
The Labour party has made it clear that it is committed to pre-legislative scrutiny to improve legislation. However, the hon. Lady has effectively agreed that she is discussing a ratification Committee. We should be clear about what she is asking the Minister.
Yes, it is a form of appointment ratification. It could lead to congressional-style hearings of a limited duration; obviously, the candidates will be experts in the field. It would overcome the problem of not having a Select Committee until the departmental responsibilities have changed. DTI responsibility may be removed in some reshuffle; the Minister may like to refute that. As such, it would be more appropriate to use the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee for that purpose.
The Minister said that there would be a three-month consultation period following publication of the Bill in the spring. When is spring? We had a discussion about the autumn budget-
On that basis, we in north Yorkshire do not have spring until August; thus, the Minister is not raising our expectations of early consideration. However, I hope that he understands the thrust of my remarks. Ofcom will be established, a chairman and deputy chairman will be appointed and it will consider the functioning of the regulations before we have even had possession-[Interruption.]
Order. This Chairman wishes to hear at all times what is said by the Member who has the Floor, from whichever party. I have been tempted to say this earlier during our deliberations: if Members wish to have private conversations, there are comfortable green benches outside where they may do precisely that. I prefer that such conversations do not take place in the Room.
As ever, I am grateful, Mr. Gale. The Minister said that Ofcom will be established and the chairman and deputy chairman will be appointed before the House considers the communications Bill. Therefore, does he agree that it is entirely appropriate that the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee should be consulted and should have the opportunity to consider the appointments?
The Government recognised the importance of the Committee when they agreed to set it up during discussion in the other place. However, they have not told us what its role and constitution will be or when it
will be set up. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to do so.
I rise to speak to amendment No. 41, which the Minister shall find as resistible as the invitation of the hon. Member for Vale of York to abolish a Government Department. I have no illusions about the amendment's fate, but it is important to put something on the record about it. My mother always told me that spring is sprung when the grass is riz. Thus, we must look out for the grass rising to know when the Bill will be introduced.
Opposition Members are suggesting that Ofcom appointees by the Secretary of State should appear before a Select Committee, and the hon. Member for Vale of York discussed the consideration of such appointments. I would not expect the substantive Bill to be different from the paving Bill if it returns to that issue, which means that the Secretary of State would make the appointments, it would be a done deal and Parliament would have no further role in the matter.
As a matter of principle there would be a better relationship between Parliament and the Executive if Parliament had a role in respect of a range of appointments. In a sense, we are referring to the system by which the Treasury Select Committee interviews appointees to the monetary policy committee before they are appointed. It is not a formal confirmation, but there is a clear understanding that the Treasury Select Committee has a role to play. Again as a matter of principle, the idea that Select Committees should have a role in appointments to powerful non-departmental public bodies is helpful. By definition, the Government have a majority of members on every Select Committee, and if we are discussing political balance the Government can always get their way. The regulators and other non-departmental public bodies would benefit in terms of their legitimacy by offering their appointees up for consideration by the House before those appointments are made.
As the Government consider how they can reform the constitution, I hope that they will be sympathetic to that point of view. They may not want to concede the point on this Bill for this particular regulator, but I hope that they do not feel hostile to the general principle that Parliament should have a role in appointments to powerful positions.
The MPC analogy is appropriate to Ofcom because if one accepts the premise that information is the currency of the new economy, Ofcom's position will be fundamental. It will be so powerful if it regulates broadcasting across all potential media, which will include the internet and telephony. Ofcom will be in a sensitive political position because of that, and we have not previously been in a position in which the media and our means of distribution of information is regulated by a political force, but we read about such cases in the newspapers on a daily basis. In different countries around the world, including European countries, certain people have been elected who have large media interests, and there are concerns around that. The Ofcom position will be sensitive in political terms as well as in terms of the amount of power that it will have.
When we discuss these matters we must put our alternative point of view and hope that the Government will consider, and in time come to agree with us, that both Houses of Parliament, in their independent role through their Select Committees, are able to give additional legitimacy to positions like this without threatening the Government's and Secretary of State's ability to appoint people. Indeed, if the people concerned are halfway decent, as I am sure that they will be, they should have no fear of appearing before a Select Committee, as they will have to do that once they are appointed. They would be in a stronger position if they had a parliamentary stamp of approval.
We have not specified which Select Committee should be involved because their responsiblities change. We hoped that this would future-proofed if we discussed an appropriate Select Committee.
I am happy to leave that in the hands of the Secretary of State. In these circumstances the Select Committees on Culture, Media and Sport and on Trade and Industry both have a role. A joint hearing would be the ideal method of dealing with these appointments, but we are trying to establish a general principle in law that, as we establish powerful bodies, parliamentary Select Committees are given the crucial role of giving an independent stamp of approval to a Secretary of State's appointments.
The hon. Gentleman describes Select Committees as independent. What confidence does he have that decisions made in that way would not simply be rubber-stamping exercises, because the composition of Select Committees reflects the balance of Members in the House?
I would list the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), among others. A tradition has grown up whereby Select Committees exert a fair degree of independence. The best ones, and those that receive the most respect inside and outside the House, are those that demonstrate such independence.
I am a great fan of Select Committees. In general, once their members get together to work on an issue they take their responsibilities seriously, regardless of which party they come from, so they would rise to the challenge if they were given this additional function. The majority of members are always on the Government side, so ultimately no power is handed over. However, I believe that Labour Members in the current Parliament would take it seriously.
The amendment proposes a constitutional novelty with which I would have some sympathy. The hon. Gentleman is looking to tease out some general acceptance of the idea, if not in relation to this Bill, as a general principle. Does he accept that we would need to agree procedures and rules of questioning, and that we would need to ensure that a Select Committee was the appropriate forum given that its role might be compromised by the
appointment of people who were not up to the job and whom it might wish to criticise later?
I hope that the Minister is amenable in spirit to the amendment. It is crucial to get a commitment on behalf of Secretaries of State that they can safely move forward to appointing people to public bodies in ways that will command far more respect. All Members, of whatever party, understand the criticism that constantly takes place. We heard it on Second Reading in relation to appointees to bodies such as the BBC. Parliament must do something about that, or we will devalue the bodies that we set up. We all want Ofcom to work well, regardless of who its chairman is. The amendment would give it an additional stamp of approval that would be helpful to it and to the authority of Parliament.
I have some sympathy with the amendments, although I find it hard to accept criticism from the Tory party, which gave us privatisation and regulators appointed without consultation. I shall say no more about that, although it is tempting to do so.
I want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of individual regulators. Claire Spottiswoode, the former gas industry regulator, differed with the electricity regulator on how to deal with environmental considerations and on who had the power to do so. That gave rise to a lot of discussion when Ofgem was set up. The Minister was at the DTI at the time, so he will remember only too well the painful nights that he had as a result. Oftel under Don Cruickshank was a very different beast from Oftel under Dave Edmonds. The initial appointments to Ofcom are crucial, because the attitudes of those people will be fundamental to the way in which it works. We could pay a heavy price if we make mistakes at the outset. Ofcom will probably be the first body to introduce the EU framework directive, so it will be setting the trend not only for this country, but for the whole of the EU. Will the people who are appointed be broadcast biased? Will they recognise the needs of telecoms?
I have a certain amount of sympathy with the amendment, although it is not appropriate in such a paving Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme so graphically pointed out. The Government will have to grapple with the real issues that lie behind the amendment. Will the Minister address those concerns, if not necessarily in his response, then later? They will have to be addressed if we are to get Ofcom right.
I have some sympathy with several hon. Members' contributions. I was attracted to the Liberal Democrat proposition that the Select Committee should be asked to approve such appointments. I am attracted for two reasons. First, I relish the idea of the right hon. Member for
Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) tearing apart anyone whom the Government propose as chairman or deputy chairman. We note the record of the Cultural, Media and Sport Committee, and its predecessor, the Select Committee on National Heritage, which systematically destroyed all the Secretaries of State in that Department.
Secondly, having a pro-American tendency, I see certain parallels with the position in the United States Congress and Senate. We should remind ourselves that Margaret Thatcher established Select Committees on the American model. Of course, American select committees-House committees, as they are known there-approve presidential appointments. The Liberal Democrat proposition is therefore attractive. Nevertheless, just as this is a paving Bill, I suspect that it is a teasing-out amendment.
The important question is: why have the amendments been tabled? I think that they were tabled for the protection of Ofcom. Earlier, I spoke about the BBC board of governors. I said that, in my view, they do a good job, but they have to be seen to be fair, as well as being fair. Being their own judge and jury creates difficulties. Recently, the Government appointed a new chairman of the BBC in the shape of Gavyn Davies, and of course the director-general is Greg Dyke. Both are extremely able people. I know Greg Dyke especially well from his background in London Weekend Television. During his few weeks with the BBC, he has done all the right sorts of things. Gavyn Davies had a distinguished career at Goldman Sachs, and he has been an excellent chairman. However, criticism has been made of those two appointments, because the BBC is a powerful media organisation, not only in the United Kingdom but in the world, and the two men are known to be supporters of the Labour party. The accusation was made that it was another example of cronyism. Had those appointments been considered by a Select Committee or Joint Committee of Parliament, the BBC would have been seen to have had fair appointments, and the Government would have been protected from accusations of cronyism.
I do not have to do so, as by implication they were Conservatives. However, they were not all at the BBC at the same time, which is a big difference. Both Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke give huge amounts of money to the Labour party, and they are at the BBC at the same time. I am sure that they will bend over backwards to be fair, because they are professional people, and would not want accusations that the BBC's programming output is biased, although many would argue that it is. Nevertheless, they would have been protected from such accusations if there were a structure, as is being proposed, to ensure that a Government could not be guilty of cronyism.
However, I am not totally attracted, despite my natural inclination, to the Select Committee idea. While the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam rightly points out the independence of Chairmen such as the
hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, and the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, that is not always the case. Moreover, the Chairmen may be independent-indeed, members of Select Committees should be, too-but we know that it does not necessarily work that way. People have ambitions and sometimes fall prey to the Whips.
Surely the answer to the hon. Gentleman's conundrum is reform of the way in which Select Committees are compiled? A process is under way by which we will shortly-I hope-get them away from the Whips and have proper elections to find the best Members to be on Select Committees.
Michael Fabricant rose-
The hon. Member for Ceredigion makes a powerful point, and I am sure that the Committee has noted it.
It is not that important who monitors and approves the appointments made by the Secretary of State or how that is done. However, an independent mechanism should be set up, either by the House of Commons or jointly by both Houses. That would protect not only Ofcom but the Secretary of State.
I am immensely touched by the faith expressed by hon. Members as to the general public's view of parliamentarians. Every newspaper poll conducted shows that the two most despised professions in the country are journalists and politicians, in that order. I cannot perceive why people would have a greater belief in the independence of those appointed to Ofcom if the holders of those posts were appointed by parliamentarians. That is what the argument is about.
I can well understand the need for scrutiny of appointments, and I have already argued in Committee that it is right and proper that the appointment should, in the first instance, be made by the Secretary of State, as that way, there is a clear line of accountability to the person responsible. If the appointments are vested in the hands of parliamentarians from all parties-that is fair enough, but there will be a bias towards whichever is the majority party in any Government-and a wrong appointment is made, the clear line of responsibility to the electorate would simply not be there.
I am fascinated by the hon. Lady's line of thinking. Perhaps she could explain why the Government have decided that the public should no longer have the right to a full examination of major infrastructure projects through public inquiry and in-depth examinations in consultation, yet parliamentarians are to be asked to play the role that the Secretary of State would normally have played, or the role of the public in the public inquiry. Why is that more appropriate for major infrastructure projects? I know of a line of pylons, the largest the country has ever seen. In future, such lines of pylons will not be subject to a public inquiry.
Glenda Jackson rose-
Thank you, Mr. Gale. I must admit that at first I thought that the hon. Lady was referring to the disaster of Railtrack. I now understand that she was talking about pylons. However, I accept your guidelines and shall not discuss that.
Setting aside the popular-albeit misconceived-disquiet about the ability of parliamentarians, I am deeply doubtful of scrutiny that occurs before an individual does anything. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East made a pertinent point about variable approaches on environmental matters between gas and electricity regulators. Parliament should be able to give detail more finely on regulations to ensure that such incompatibility on the basic essentials of life cannot occur.
A point was made by an hon. Member whose name I cannot remember-I am sorry, my mind is developing the capacity of a sieve-that it is absolutely essential that a person who is appointed to a regulatory body with such vast importance should be scrutinised by a Select Committee or combination of Select Committees. However, that should occur after the person has actually done something. It is entirely improper to scrutinise a person on his or her past record and to relate that to a situation that has not occurred, especially if the scrutineers are perceived by the electorate to fail consistently in their own professional responsibilities.
The hon. Lady makes assumptions about why the electorate do not have faith in politicians. The turnout in the last general election may have been because people did not think that it was worth voting. That trend will continue if we invest more power in the Executive or smaller groups of people.
That is the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of why people did not turn out in the election. I thought that it was because the majority of people in this country were more than content with the Labour Government and knew that there was hardly any possibility of the return of an alternative Government. That is why Labour is in government today.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam missed the point about appointments. We have argued passionately against appointments to the House of Lords, and I shall continue to argue passionately against that. Are we to go down the path whereby every person in an independent position must be scrutinised in the suggested way before getting his or her appointment and a chance in a new position and a new light? We would create a belief among the electorate that if a person wants the job badly enough, he or she will say anything that politicians want to hear. We would be in danger of creating as much disbelief as reassurance among the electorate.
The hon. Lady accuses the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam of coming up with something new, and she suggests that the new and radical idea would not work. Does she not accept that the same system has operated in the United States
since before the second world war? Sadly, the general public hold Congressmen and Senators in even more contempt than Members of Parliament. However, the general public take more comfort from the fact that such pre-scrutiny is undertaken before people are appointed.
If there was an element of public participation in that scrutiny, I might agree with the hon. Gentleman. He knows as well as I do that the positions are so powerful that if one part of the political spectrum does not find the appointee to its favour, the bottoms of the barrels are scraped away to damage whoever is examined. Nine times out of 10 he is stuck on the horns of party political approaches. If the Democrats appoint someone, there is an absolute requirement on all Republicans to oppose the appointment, whether or not justification for that exists. If the proposition of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was introduced by this House, that could become a danger.
Will the hon. Lady look at a more optimistic example of how the amendment could work? She talked about the tensions in America of the two main political parties tearing the system apart and scraping the barrel by discovering scandals on potential appointees. However, there is no one majority party in the Welsh Assembly, and there we have seen the appointment of Peter Clarke as the Children's Commissioner for Wales. Young people and children were part of the appointments panel; they interviewed Peter Clarke and took the decision alongside the committee. Surely, the amendment of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam points us to that more modern and radical approach with people and politicians getting involved.
I did not think that there were ever any scandals in Wales, so the situation is simpler there. I take the hon. Gentleman's point on board, but one can go too far down that path.
I am prepared to listen to what children have to say-they invariably cut straight to the bottom line and have a more direct and honest assessment of issues-but they should not be overburdened with responsibility before their time. There should be the most minute scrutiny by the House, separate Select Committees and combinations of them, and there is nothing to prevent a Select Committee, when convening a sitting on a matter that relates to people with disabilities or children, from calling them to give evidence and answer questions. However, the idea that we adopt the non-productive American approach that has been described would not enhance the necessary individuality-as perceived by the public-of the positions of importance and authority proposed in the Bill.
designated Select Committee to be given to such appointments.
We have made it clear that the Secretary of State will follow guidance set out by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments when appointing the chairman and non-executive members of Ofcom. That will ensure that appointments are made objectively on merit and that Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, are accountable for the appointments that they make. There is therefore no reason why an extra hurdle should be put in place in the case of appointments made to Ofcom. That is not required for existing regulators, or for bodies such as Ofgem or the Financial Services Authority. As hon. Members are aware, the appointments process can already be lengthy. As one who has appeared before uniformly hostile Select Committees, I know what they feel like. One is a great deal warmer after sitting in one than before.
The first report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life resolved that ministerial accountability was the best way of ensuring that appointments are properly made and that the right people are subsequently responsible for them. In addition to that important constitutional principle, practical considerations exist. The introduction of an additional element into the process of making public appointments would add a stage to a process that can already be lengthy.
The Government will fully co-operate with the Select Committee on Public Administration and any inquiry into patronage and public appointments announced in December. All hon. Members can be sure that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Support will call in whomever we care to appoint to a position; I have no doubt of that.
I want the Minister to respond to my points about the pre-legislative scrutiny committee-or the Joint Committee, as I have referred to it. The amendments provide a modest role for it. Does he agree that it should be consulted before the chairman and the deputy chairman take up their responsibilities-especially as that will be the last opportunity that it will have to do so, before they take up their duties?
No, I do not agree.
I am confused about the hon. Lady's worries about the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee of both Houses is appointed through the usual channels, which none of us is allowed to discuss. We tried to address the matter on Second Reading, and it is clear that the Committee did a good job with regard to examining financial services.
I made it clear in the Chamber that I am confident that Parliament is capable of appointing the best people to sit on the Joint Committee. The people whom it will appoint will have the ability and the interests to be able to examine carefully the draft legislation that we will place before them for consultation.
Amendment No. 36 would require the Secretary of State to consult a Joint Committee before appointing a non-executive member of Ofcom as deputy chairman. Again, there is no reason why that should not be left entirely to the Secretary of State. She will have appointed the non-executive members to Ofcom fully in accordance with OCPA guidance. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable that, should it be necessary for Ofcom to have a deputy chairman, the Secretary of State should have the ability to make that appointment. As I said earlier, consulting a Joint Committee on such a matter would add inordinately to the time taken to make the appointment.
I am disappointed by the Minister's response. Committee members agree that the Secretary of State should have the last word about the appointment. However, the pre-legislative scrutiny committee should be consulted about the appointment of the chairman in particular, as that is the senior member of Ofcom. We are hampered by the fact that we still have not heard what the role of that committee will be.
I do not understand the hon. Lady's argument. She did not discuss more than one candidate for the job in her most recent contribution. Is she arguing that, if the Secretary of State has appointed someone to the job, before that appointment is confirmed, the decision should be scrutinised by the Committee?
I meant scrutinised in the sense that the Committee will have the opportunity to take a view. The hon. Lady might be pleased to hear that. I pray in aid two recent appointments. The next set of amendments raises a number of questions in that regard.
For the simple reason that I think that, if anything, it should strengthen the Secretary of State's power of appointment. Currently, there is no appeal against a decision. For two recent appointments-one to the BBC board of governors and the other to the ITC-the procedures set out in the first report on standards in public life, to which the Minister referred, were followed to the letter, but an expectation that a particular appointment would be made in each case was not met.
When I discussed the content of the amendments, the Minister had the opportunity to say what the role of the Joint Committee or pre-legislative scrutiny committee should be. It would not take a huge amount of time to be consulted.
I assume that a Joint Committee that considered draft legislation that we had published for consultation would scrutinise it. It is that simple.
That was most helpful. I believe that a Joint Committee should have the power to scrutinise the appointment, although not to veto it. I do not think that the House would agree to such a power.
In that case, what on earth is the point of the scrutiny? If members of the Committee do not have a veto power, what are they? Are they a rubber stamp or just whingers, who will buttonhole journalists in the Corridor to say, ''Well, we wouldn't have had this person if there'd been an alternative, but there wasn't, so we're stuck with him''? What a marvellous way that would be for an individual to take on a new job.
What about other candidates or existing chairs of commissions who feel that they should have been the appointee? Will they have the power to say to the Committee, ''Why was it not me? I don't like the person who's got the job.''
With the communications Bill still being drafted, its contents and the remit of members of the Committee are not known. It is therefore impossible to say whether the name would be appropriate, but the debate has given me food for thought, and I may want to return to the matter.
I suspect that the pre-legislative Joint Committee may get a chance to see the individual anyway. My understanding is that it will talk to industry experts, and if the person who is to be the chair of Ofcom is not a likely candidate for such a discussion, I will be most surprised. We have said, ''You should go the whole way. Either you have the veto power or you don't'', but I suspect that consultation will take place in any case.
In that case, I am the second most despised person in the Room.
Almost uniquely in my experience, the Liberal Democrats have been quite clear on the issue. However, it is not clear whether the hon. Lady's proposal of a fuzzy consultation or consideration exercise is now official Conservative party policy across all Departments and appointments or an ad hoc proposal only for the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman can take it as read that as this is a paving Bill, it is a paving
amendment. I would not read into it that we wish to extend the power to other areas.
In view of the comments made by many hon. Members and subject to refinement at a later date, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.