Amendment proposed [24 January]: No. 28, in page 7, line 8, at end insert—
', and shall have regard to the principles of public life set out at page 14 of the First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (Cm 2850-I).'.—[Miss McIntosh.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 31, in page 9, line 18, at end insert—
'(1A) In appointing the Chief Executive and other executive members, the Chairman and other non-executive members shall have regard to the principles of public life set out at page 14 of the First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (Cm 2850-I).'.
No. 37, in page 7, line 11, at end insert—
No. 38, in page 9, line 18, at end insert—
'(1AA) The chief executive and other executive members of OFCOM shall declare their financial and pecuniary interests in full in a publicly accessible Register of Interests.'.
I point out to the Committee that amendments Nos. 28 and 31 refer to page 14 of the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, copies of which are now available in the Room.
Amendment No. 28 would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the principles of public life set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life before appointing the chairman and non-executives members of Ofcom.
The seven principles to which the amendment refers are relevant to all holders of public office, and the Government endorse them. In our previous sitting, we had difficulty remembering what the seven principles were, so for the benefit of the Committee, I shall read them out. They are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Those are the principles of all politicians, and they are relevant to all holders of public office.
The principles of public life are general in their scope and do not apply only to the making of appointments. In carrying out her duties, the Secretary of State must have regard to the principles of various pieces of guidance and codes—including ministerial codes—relating to the making of appointments. Guidance from the Commissioner for Public Appointments is also important. It would be
incumbent on the Secretary of State to have regard to all relevant guidance and principles when making appointments to the Office of Communications. However, we do not propose to set out in the Bill what each of those pieces of guidance might be.
We have had a good debate, and I thank the Minister for his response, but this group of amendments covers two topics. The first is that appointments should be made with regard to the Nolan rules. It was helpful to be reminded of the seven principles, but I hoped that the hon. Gentleman would see fit to enshrine them in the Bill, so I am disappointed that he does not feel able to do so.
I do not think that the Minister has responded fully to the second topic raised by the amendments.
I shall, and I apologise for not doing so previously—it is because of the interregnum.
Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 would have a similar effect. They call for all members of Ofcom, whether executive or non-executive, to declare any financial interests in a public register. We are happy to agree with that principle—indeed, I believe that the Bill already provides for it. Clause 3 requires that Ofcom should have regard to guidance on the management of the affairs of public bodies. Current Cabinet Office guidance requires such bodies both to keep a register of the relevant interests of members, and to make the information publicly available. I expect Ofcom to comply with that requirement, but I do not believe that we need to go further and insert into the Bill a specific requirement for a register of members' interests.
I am grateful for that reply, but the Minister seems to have missed the point. Representations have been made to us by various organisations, not only those that will be replaced by Ofcom, about potential conflicts of interests. We tried to plug that gap with the amendments. Nevertheless, given that we may pursue the matter at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 13, in clause 2, page 3, line 2, at end insert—
No. 18, in clause 6, page 5, line 28, at end insert—
'(aa) the BBC Board of Governors.'.
The amendments deal with some of the most significant provisions that we have yet reached, so I shall devote some time to explaining the reasons behind them.
Amendment No. 20 would bring the BBC within Ofcom's structure and remit and include members of the BBC board of governors in the schedule's provisions. The BBC should be brought within Ofcom's remit, and using the schedule to do that
may be justified. Amendment No. 13 would include in clause 2 a proposal that the Secretary of State should bring the board of governors within Ofcom's remit, while amendment No. 18 would include the board of governors in the definition of existing regulators.
We make these proposals because the Bill is silent about Ofcom's remit in respect of the board of governors. Only five of the current regulators are to be embraced and replaced by Ofcom and, in the fullness of time, subject to the main communications Bill. The Government have, however, made an even greater omission. We have an opportunity to consider where the BBC fits into the long-term scheme of things.
Miss Widdecombe, you will be familiar with the BBC charter established by the last Conservative Government, which currently provides for regulation. It is due to expire at the end of 2006, which means that the Government must produce a successor framework before the next general election. The Government have only three and a half years left in office—thank goodness—and it is unacceptable that they have not taken the opportunity offered by the Bill to discuss future regulation and the framework that governs the BBC.
I put on record my admiration for the BBC as an avid viewer of its programmes. I have said before that, as a Scot living in north Yorkshire, I do not subscribe to a digital service. I shall not be among the first to switch from analogue to digital unless the Government take a clear lead, which they have so far failed to do. I am perhaps a more avid BBC viewer than people who have access to digital or satellite television.
On a point of information, the BBC's viewing share holds up very well among viewers who take up digital television—indeed, it holds up better than other channels, whose share fragments. The BBC's principal channels—BBC1 and BBC2—hold up well in the digital viewing figures, so the hon. Lady need not worry that she will contribute to the BBC's decline if she gets digital television.
Perhaps I am being prescient and looking to the BBC role in the long-term future, when everything will be digital.
Several representations have persuaded me that there is no reason for continuing to make a special case of the BBC, and the arguments were set out in another place. I hope that that view is uncontroversial and finds some sympathy, and that I can persuade the Minister that the BBC should be brought within Ofcom's remit on economic and content regulation. That is the purpose of the amendments. Without going into too much detail, it is important to realise that the BBC has the advantage of receiving a licence fee, which it uses to pay for some parts of its development. It is also developing an impressive commercial network. I have been privy to briefings on that at the BBC.
I hope that some of the representations that we have received will help to persuade the Minister of the
force of my arguments. In particular, I want to pray in aid the representations from ITV. It states—I am paraphrasing—that it has consistently argued that in the new convergent media world, which we hope will be set out in the communications Bill, it is essential that a single regulator has responsibility for all broadcasters, including the BBC. ITV goes on to say that it makes no sense to exclude the United Kingdom's largest broadcaster: leaving the BBC governors primarily responsible for establishing remits and monitoring the performance of BBC channels will weaken Ofcom's ability to sustain and promote the whole of the public service broadcasting ecology—ITV's word, not mine.
ITV adds that although the BBC has expressed concern that its independence will be threatened if it is brought fully within Ofcom, ITV does not understand the BBC's concern because the editorial independence of its broadcasters is currently regulated by the Independent Television Commission, and is not in question. ITV also says that the incorporation of the BBC within Ofcom would offer more genuinely independent regulation of the BBC than is currently offered by the board of governors, and that the governors' heavy reliance on BBC staff makes it impossible for them objectively to judge the corporation's activities. I shall spare the blushes of an individual who has been caught in parts of the Palace of Westminster to which he should not have had access, but many of us could relate arguments about how the impartiality of the BBC as upheld by the board of governors has sometimes been in question.
A representation received from the Commercial Radio Companies Association says:
The BBC must be brought under the wing of OFCOM. This will ensure that: the BBC focuses on broadcasting output which needs to be publicly funded; and does not chase ratings or duplicate the output of commercial broadcasters; and there is fair access to digital spectrum.
We all suspect that the BBC might be using some of its income from the licence fee to develop its digital networks. The National Consumer Council made a forceful contribution to the debate, stating that
excluding the BBC from the remit of OFCOM was disappointing and would not prevent the unwanted clash between BBC1 and ITV's main evening news bulletins.
That was stated at the time of the White Paper and I understand that the National Consumer Council stands by that opinion.
The BBC has robustly explained why, in its view, the Bill should not provide for it to be encompassed more fully within Ofcom. It is important to put those arguments on the record and, I hope, to refute them. The BBC argues:
This Bill isn't about OFCOM's regulatory powers. It's simply about setting up the body called OFCOM, ready to assume whatever powers the forthcoming Communications Bill should give it.
We rehearsed last week the concerns of the Committee and of those who have made frequent and lengthy representations to its members about the fact that a vacuum is being created by the paving Bill establishing the framework before the mother of all Bills—the communications Bill—is introduced. If the Committee
is to serve the refugees from the Utilities Act 2000—we can discuss the part of the Bill that relates to telecommunications under a different set of amendments—well, it is important that we get the structure right.
We have a one-off opportunity to bring the BBC board of governors and the content and economic regulation of the BBC within the framework of the Bill. To fail to consider the matter would be a dereliction of our duty. It would leave serious questions about the future of the BBC that would be of no benefit to it; I am sure that the BBC now welcomes the debate.
The BBC argues that
Nothing in the current Bill as drafted would prevent OFCOM being given more responsibilities over the BBC in the forthcoming Communications Bill.
It speaks volumes that the Bill that we are debating will be silent unless the amendment is made. If we do not insert reference to the BBC board of governors now, the opportunity will pass. The BBC's argument therefore fails. The BBC continues:
The Government has said that a draft of that Bill—
the communications Bill—
will be published during 2002. There will then be several months of pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation before the Bill itself is introduced into Parliament.
I am sure that you are as disappointed as the rest of us, Miss Widdecombe, that we have failed to obtain a definitive date for the publication of that Bill. The Minister could take this opportunity to state definitively, for example, whether it will be published before or after the Budget—but he is silent.
If we defer the decision to proceedings on the communications Bill, we will be told that the debate is out of order. If you were fortunate enough to be Chairman of the Committee that will consider that Bill, Miss Widdecombe, and if we were fortunate enough to have you, I am sure that you would rule us out of order for trying to bring the BBC board of governors within its scope. Now is the time and place to introduce amendments such as those in the group under discussion. I am sure that the Minister, who is a lucky man, will not want to let the opportunity slip through his fingers.
The BBC states:
So there's plenty of time and opportunity for further debate (and, if necessary, amendments to that Bill)—
the communications Bill—
about the relationship between OFCOM and the BBC.
I have already refuted that argument. The BBC continues:
It is right that that debate should take place in the context of the entire regulatory framework. The Communications White Paper left a lot of the detail about how OFCOM would exercise its powers unsettled. For example, what sort of role will OFCOM have in policing the 'Statements of Programme Policy' prepared by ITV in place of a detailed remit?
The BBC is wrong to postpone the matter. I humbly argue that now is the time to discuss it, given that the Chairman of the Committee on the forthcoming
communications Bill would rule us out of order if we discussed it during that Committee.
The BBC's statement continues:
Only when those details are clarified, in the Communications Bill, can we sensibly look at the detail of the regulatory options for the BBC.
That will be too late. I am sure that the Minister will not disappoint—we certainly will not. There will be oodles of matters to discuss when we talk about the policy and remit of Ofcom, but today, we are discussing its structure. Not only five regulatory bodies should be replaced; the BBC board of governors should be replaced as well and brought within both economic and contents regulation.
The BBC states that
it would be bad law-making, as well as inequitable—
presumably it means unfair—
to take the issue of the BBC's governance and attempt to make specific legislative provision for it now, ahead of providing for the treatment of all other broadcasters.
Regulation of all other broadcasters is subject to the Bill, so now is the right moment.
The BBC asks:
Why shouldn't provision be made in the Bill for the BBC's Governors to cooperate with OFCOM to prepare for the transfer of powers?
The Bill is about the practicalities of merging several freestanding public bodies into one new one. It's a bureaucratic measure largely about structures—employment, property, etc—not about regulation.
If we have learned one thing from the better regulation taskforce, it is that if the new regulator is going to regulate properly and with a light touch, as we hope Ofcom will, it will be better if it encompasses completely all six existing regulators. The BBC argues that
The board of governors is not a free-standing body. In legal terms, the board is the BBC. Independent of BBC management, it has no staff, no property, no assets. So there is nothing to be merged into Ofcom.
If there is nothing to be merged, what is the BBC board of governors? Perhaps the Minister would elaborate on that.
The BBC says that
Even if Ofcom were to be given more responsibilities for the BBC, it would not have to physically subsume the existing body called the Board of Governors in order to do so. It would simply be given powers in the forthcoming Communications Bill.
It also says that
adding the board of governors to the list of ''bodies'' which have to prepare for being merged into Ofcom would be misguided—it would serve no practical purpose.
However, I believe that we have sufficient force of argument on our side. It is the wish of the general public, as well as of other regulatory bodies and those who wish to be regulated—I have quoted ITV and the Commercial Radio Companies Association, among others—that a merger should take place. The National Consumer Council has also expressed such a wish. We will discuss in the context of later amendments the role of consumers and the consumer panel.
We have a unique opportunity to do something that is well within the remit of the Bill. A tidy move, it
would save the Government a lot of hassle and concern in the run-up to a general election in about 2004 or 2005, when in any event they will have to present to the House their proposals for the successor to the BBC charter.
I had some hesitation and some doubt about whether it was right to bring the BBC board of governors within the remit of Ofcom. I was mindful of the fact that it was the last Conservative Government who set up the board of governors and the charter that currently governs the BBC. However, on reflection, and having considered the weight of evidence that has been placed before the Committee, I have no doubt that it is the right thing to do and that this is the opportunity to do it.
We cannot afford to leave the arguments until the debates on the communications Bill; that would not be appropriate. I am sure that you, Miss Widdecombe, would be the first to point that out to the Committee. I humbly submit the amendments to the Minister's consideration. I hope that the force of my arguments will overpower him and he will adopt them.
It gives me great pleasure to follow my fellow north Yorkshire MP, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), whom I will attempt to overpower with my arguments in the next few minutes. Apart from the close proximity of our constituencies, I have one thing in common with the hon. Lady in that I, too, have not yet got digital television in my constituency home. I urge her to join me in getting one of the £99 boxes retailing from a good Yorkshire firm, Pace, which allow the purchaser to pick up all the free-to-air digital channels, including the BBC's.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my distinguished neighbour. What does he propose for those of our constituents who have more than one television set in their home? Should they spend £99 per set, or should they physically move their box around the house from set to set?
Some of my constituents have more than one television, but I would say that the purchase of a £99 box would represent a toe in the water for them, enabling them to see the new channels that are now available. It is interesting that they have become available because the BBC, unlike other broadcasters, cannot set up new channels without the Secretary of State's consent. It is regulated more than other broadcasters. If Ofcom rather than the Secretary of State had complete control over the BBC, I doubt whether Ofcom would be able to withstand the many commercial pressures from commercial TV companies, which it will have a duty to promote and help. For example, would it have been able to resist those companies arguing against the BBC's new children's channels, which are coming into operation shortly?
I want to consider some of the hon. Lady's arguments in detail. She insisted several times that Ofcom should regulate the BBC for economic and content purposes. Of course, Ofcom will regulate the BBC for those purposes—that is stated clearly in the
White Paper. In economic terms, for example, commercial radio stations need have no fears, given that allocation of radio spectrum and other matters come under tier 1 regulation. Equally, the BBC will be regulated in terms of content. It is externally regulated now by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, to which one can make complaints about BBC programmes, as people in north Yorkshire occasionally do. There is already an independent regulator to which they can apply in relation to content, and they will be able to apply to Ofcom in the same way.
Ofcom will carry out light-touch regulation for many commercial companies, but it will regulate the BBC far more heavily than it has been regulated in the past. If the hon. Lady or her constituents are concerned that the BBC is not fulfilling its regional remit, they will be able to complain about the BBC to Ofcom, as an external regulator. She suggests that people sometimes have complaints about impartiality. If she feels that the BBC's news coverage is prejudiced, she will be able to complain to Ofcom about not only the content but the lack of primetime news. The BBC will be strongly regulated by Ofcom.
The argument centres on tier 3 regulation—that is the meat of the debate. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) is not here, as he is debating the same issue in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. His was the crucial speech on Second Reading; he asked what public service broadcasting was all about. It is about the content of BBC programmes such as ''Walking with Dinosaurs''; it is about its history and sports programmes, which allow the mass of the population to watch the World cup, for example, rather than restricting coverage to those on subscription. To propose that Ofcom should have a detailed overview of that is to misunderstand the ecology of broadcasting, to use the hon. Lady's phrase.
Ofcom should be a light-touch regulator. The BBC itself must ensure that it maintains high standards in its programming output and remains one of the leading public service broadcasters in the world. BBC governors have a long history of holding the BBC to account, ensuring that it appoints managers who are committed to delivering programmes of the sort that I mentioned. Under tier 3 regulation commercial companies will have to report to Ofcom and give a broad outline of their programme priorities, but Ofcom will have a light touch. The BBC will have to do the same but, if it fails to fulfil its remit, the backstop powers will rest with the Secretary of State and Parliament.
The BBC was set up, all those years ago, with the intention of distorting the market—it was intended to be a public service broadcaster with a different ethos from other broadcasters. That ethos is summed up in the culture of the BBC governors. Will the hon. Lady reflect on the matter? Her party's policy is a little awry. On Second Reading, the Conservative Front Bench spokesman could not say whether his party supported the privatisation of the BBC. The hon. Lady has expressed her admiration for the organisation—indeed, the Conservative party in government has a
long tradition of supporting public service broadcasting, for example, it presided over the establishment of Channel 4 and ensured that the BBC was not privatised.
None the less, the hon. Lady referred to the possibility of replacing the governors. If that is on her agenda, it would be a radical step and beyond the scope of a modest little paving Bill like this. She should develop her policies over the next two or three years. As she says, there will be a big debate about the future of the BBC in 2004–05. I hope that the Conservative party will have clarified its views by then, and that it come out in favour of public sector broadcasting. Now is the wrong time to raise the Aunt Sally of the BBC's not being regulated. Clearly it will be regulated more tightly than before under OFCOM.
There is no need for the amendments. Their logic, if taken to its limit, would whip up the ecology of public service broadcasting that has served us all well. As a fellow north Yorkshire Member of Parliament, I urge the esteemed hon. Lady, for whom I have much respect, to reflect. I am pleased that she admires the BBC. If she were to reflect a little more, she would probably withdraw the amendments.
This is becoming something of a Yorkshire debate. I shall add a south Yorkshire perspective, probably with more sympathy for the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) than for those of the hon. Member for Vale of York, although hers were seductive. When first thinking about the establishment of Ofcom, it is logical to ask why the BBC should not be included. However, the amendment would fail to achieve that in sensible way. In any case, the hon. Lady suggested the proper context for consideration of the future of the BBC—charter renewal in 2006.
One of the hon. Lady's more seductive arguments involved asking why the Government do not deal with the matter now, to save themselves hassle in the run-up to the next general election, so that they do not need a big debate about the BBC in 2004–05. That was a wonderful offer coming from the Opposition, but they would do neither themselves nor the British public any favours by getting the BBC question dealt with separately.
The BBC is a big issue for the British public. Every household pays towards it and feels sensitive about it. Most households regularly use it for radio, television and interactive services over the internet, and they feel warmly about it. It is right to hold a big public debate in 2004–05—a debate that should be independent and non-partisan, in the spirit of the BBC. Election timetables should not worry us. We should not shy away from that debate.
My fear is that if we try to tuck everything up in the Ofcom process, we shall go without the full debate that is required. If we do not give the issues enough thought, unexpected ramifications will emerge later. We will have set a time bomb, whose eventual explosion will damage public service broadcasting, the public interest and the reputation of politicians—if that can sink any lower.
A flaw in the amendments is the suggestion that the BBC governors are comparable to the group of regulators being merged in Ofcom. They are not. The BBC is a self-regulating broadcaster. If a body were being set up in which the board of directors of Carlton, Granada, News International and so on were to be represented, it could be argued that a BBC governor would be comparable to those—certainly more than to the independent standards commissions and other authorities. To add the BBC board of governors to a list that includes the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Director General of Telecommunications, the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority would create an unwieldy five-legged stool, with one leg not comparable to the other four. That would be the wrong method.
In considering the future of the BBC, we think of it as a broadcaster. We must consider the extent to which that broadcaster, which is comparable to Carlton or some other media group, should be made even more comparable to such groups and brought into a common, market-based framework; or the extent to which it should stay separate. In this context I differ from the hon. Member for Selby on one point—although we might agree if we flesh out the argument. I think that public service broadcasting is not fundamentally about content, but about channels. That is the crucial distinction in respect of the BBC.
The BBC controls channels of the current terrestrial broadcasting spectrum, which every broadcaster must carry. Digital and satellite broadcasters too must carry the BBC channels. It controls channels of the airwaves, with local radio, and now it controls channels within the internet, with respect to the BBC interactive services. It is important to putt together those channels, which include content with a public service remit, but far more than that.
I want to avoid the situation that would occur if the amendments were accepted and an homogenised, market-based framework developed in which we saw the BBC only in terms of its provision of content. We have an organisation that provides a ''Walking with Dinosaurs'' every now and then, and then flogs it to all the commercial channels, but if we thought of the BBC as essentially commercial and decided that only content provision was important, we would lose sight of an important part of the BBC spectrum.
Developments such as BBC interactive are very significant. The BBC has developed perhaps the most successful website in Europe. It is the primary point of contact for news and many other things. No commercial provider would have developed that; the licence fee enables its provision for everybody—globally, as well as in the United Kingdom.
Local radio has a particular market niche. All of us as local politicians are familiar with it, because BBC local radio provides us with our primary exposure to constituents and others in the area. No other body fulfils that function: in the commercial market, nobody wants to listen to us talking about topical issues—or, at least, few people would pay money to do so. However, through the BBC, people engage in the debate—they are led into it in a way that would not
happen commercially. Commercial radio broadcasters do a good job locally, but their news content is very small and their local political news is tiny; they cover only big, national political issues.
The BBC fulfils some very specific functions, going well beyond the obvious remit of the BBC1 and BBC2 channels. We can become fixated on the BBC's most obvious output, but interesting changes are ahead. That is an argument for waiting until the 2006 charter renewal to see how things develop.
Digital free-to-air services are crucial. The £99 box available from Pace—a Yorkshire firm, as we have heard—should sell, because it will appeal to many people who do not want to take up a subscription service. I have put on record my view that the digital switchover—or analogue switch-off—is not feasible unless and until there is mass penetration of free-to-air devices, which has not been the case to date. I shall welcome it.
People will have to make a choice. I hope that the price of the boxes will come down; that is usually the case with technological devices. Currently, people who have four television sets would have to buy four boxes, but in future, using what might become a £49 box, they might be able to extend the range of each set from five to 20 free-to-air channels. Most households will probably find a one-off payment of £49 comfortable.
That will create a new landscape for the charter renewal and for the concept of the BBC. If people see a range of free-to-air channels, digital radio services and interactive services developed, we shall be going to them with a different proposition. They will be asked to pay £100 or so a year for a licence fee—or some different model of payment—for the range of services. Perhaps we shall include within the digital television subscription an element that pays for the public service broadcasting channels. A range of options that we cannot foresee will become available. We shall see it more clearly by 2006—another reason to wait until that stage before making any fundamental decision about how the BBC should move forward.
My final point relates to independence. We live in moderate times—there is no perception of major political control of the broadcasters, although it is sometimes suspected—accusations are often bandied around in the case of the growth of News International. However, there is no perception that any individual political party has control of the major news broadcasters in the way in which, for example, Prime Minister Berlusconi clearly had control over the major media broadcasting group in Italy, which created a lot of political difficulties.
In some ways, we underestimate the importance of independence. There are vehement complaints from both sides: whoever is in government accuses the BBC of not being independent, and such complaints have heard for years. The fact that the complaints come from both sides suggests that perhaps the balance is appropriate. Having a statutory independence and lacking dependence on the owner of a group are important. One cannot regulate for true independence
if ownership is in the hands of a particular political interest group. One can put regulators in place, and make all the rules that one likes, but ownership that is not in independent hands will always override. Fortunately, we have not experienced anyone asserting such control. That is partly because the BBC has been there as a bulwark.
Making an explicit decision to place control of a certain number of the most popular channels in the hands of an independent broadcaster goes against market logic. There is market failure in that respect, and my perception is that that failure is growing. Media ownership is concentrating. We have seen the ITV groups restructuring into ever larger groups. The risk of political control of media outlets increases in the current marketplace, and it looks as though that risk will increase further. That suggests to me that the question of independence will become more, not less, critical in the future.
I agree. The Committee will not be delving into cross-media ownership, but the issue has been raised in the context of the position of the BBC. I perceive a certain logic: economists like Galbraith point towards our tendency towards oligopolies, and broadcasting oligopolies seem now to be taking shape. In that market, the logic of maintaining an independent broadcaster is stronger now than it was when the BBC was set up.
The logic of maintaining a public service broadcaster that controls channels, not only content; the fact that the charter review is coming up; the fact that the amendments would create an unbalanced structure; and the fact that, whether or not the charter renewal comes up with a different structure, large elements of the BBC can be incorporated within Ofcom—for all those reasons, I suggest, with due respect to my Yorkshire colleague, the hon. Member for Vale of York, that the Bill is not the appropriate place in which to make changes in respect of the BBC. It will be far better to wait until charter renewal. I hope that, on the basis that we should return to the matter in a big public debate in 2004–5, she will be persuaded to withdraw the amendments.
Before I underwhelm the hon. Member for Vale of York, perhaps I could come down the M1 from Yorkshire, skip across the A50 and add my constituency in Newcastle-under-Lyme to the queue of complainants about digital terrestrial reception signals. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tweak the transmitters for all of us.
It is indisputable that the BBC is the Goliath of the British broadcasting scene. Last year's report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee raised pertinent concerns about the commercial power of the BBC and its ability to influence or inhibit the development of the rest of the broadcasting and information market, including the internet. As a new Member of
Parliament, I should like to congratulate that Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and including the colourful hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), on the report. It is a very insightful commentary on the communications White paper.
In an ideal world, the report rightly says, the BBC should fall within Ofcom's remit to level the regulatory playing field. It is absurd to say that the BBC's status and editorial independence would be diminished if regulatory responsibilities of the governors were transferred to Ofcom. I am concerned that the launch of Ofcom, which is about much more than broadcasting regulation, is being overshadowed by debate substantially about the BBC—so much so that one of its most vital duties and responsibilities, the promotion of a national broadband infrastructure for the digital age, is being lost in communication with the outside world about what Ofcom is to be about.
The Committee's report recommended that a concurrent review of the BBC take place early in this Parliamentary Session. That has not happened and is unlikely to happen. The Minister has already made it clear that, in the meantime, steps will be taken so that the BBC in practice operates on a level playing field as the regulatory structure changes. Aspects of the BBC's broadcasting functions can be considered during debate on the main communications Bill.
Pragmatically, I see little objection to the proposal of the Independent Television Commission. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) that the constitutional regulatory position of the BBC governors can be reviewed after Ofcom has been set up and has settled down, and in the run-up to charter renewal from 2004. To do otherwise would be to legislate on the hop.
I declare a non-interest as a former print journalist. I was the City editor of The Observer. I never thought that I would say it, but I am with the techies. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) might have my babies for that, as my assistant, who used to work for him, said yesterday. Broadband and better access to the digital highway are vital, as is the promotion of those objectives by Ofcom.
Let us not overshadow the Bill with a controversy about the BBC. ITV and Sky will jump up and down about it, but it is a distraction. For similar reasons—we will discuss them when we come to the substance of the communications Bill—I have grave concerns about overloading Ofcom with too many additional responsibilities, so that it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare and loses any agility or focus.
When considering this group of amendments, it is important to ask what the Bill is supposed to do. The White Paper begins by stating that it is supposed to
safeguard the interests of . . . consumers.
I understood also that the Bill was designed to provide a united regulatory body. If so, it seems odd that paragraph 1(4) of the schedule, in effect, bars anyone who is or has been a governor of the BBC from sitting on Ofcom. It lists several people who would not be barred, but past or present governors of the BBC are not included. Our amendment would simply add such people to that provision, which seems sensible.
The Government have told us several times that we must wait and see what is in the communications Bill; that will set the scene. If that Bill is so important and this one so unimportant, why are we taking up parliamentary time debating it when we ought to be attending to many other matters? It is important that we discuss the paving Bill and get the framework right. That framework should include the BBC. There is in this country a mish-mash of regulation; one of the reasons for the Bill is to bring that regulation together.
The BBC is given a licence fee; someone who wants to watch another channel still has to pay for the licence. That is an extremely peculiar arrangement. I cannot think of another example.
May I suggest one? All forms of local tax are required to be paid by households whether or not those households use local services. There are other examples, although I am not sure that we are keen on them.
I used to think that the hon. Gentleman was a friend of mine, yet he devastates my argument, just like that. He makes a powerful point about the acceptance of state-controlled broadcasting, although there are several differences between paying local taxes and the paying BBC's licence fee, one of which relates to ability to pay.
We are trying to create an environment in which competition is all important. The White Paper states:
Competition is vital to dynamic markets.
I therefore do not see how the licence fee can be justified. I am aware of a court case—it was not widely reported—in which someone said that she did not watch the BBC and so would not pay the licence. The case went to court but was dropped because it was difficult to prove that the woman had an obligation to pay for the licence. I am saying not that the result would be the same in the High Court, but simply that a case was dropped in court against someone who said, ''I do not watch the BBC, so you cannot require me to pay the licence fee.''
It would be interesting if someone brought another case using the Human Rights Act 1998, although I do not intend to be the person who says that he does not watch the BBC and therefore will not pay the licence. I am not suggesting that the BBC licence fee should be scrapped and the system reorganised—you would rule me out of order, Miss Widdecombe, if I went too far down that road. However, I see no reason not to take this opportunity to regulate the BBC in the same way as all the other channels.
The argument that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam advanced on media ownership was interesting and raised some relevant points, although it went slightly wide of the issue. It is dangerous for the
Government to own media. Although some would argue that they do not own the BBC, leaving aside the board of governors, it is the Secretary of State who is responsible for the BBC. It could be said, therefore, that the Government exercise strong control over the BBC whichever party is in power. If we are to preserve the BBC's independence, we must bring the BBC under independent control.
I have followed my hon. Friend's argument with interest, but I must disagree with his observations about the ownership of the BBC. Does he not agree that, although it would be beneficial for the BBC to come under tier 3 regulation, it is misleading to say that the Government own the corporation? The BBC has editorial independence, and many of its journalists take great pains to resist whatever party is in government.
The only outfit outside the BBC which has any powers over it is the Secretary of State, an elected politician. He . . . determines its charter, the level of its licence fee, what new channels it may launch and who chairs it. There is no accountability other than to a politician. I do not see why the BBC is so adamant that Ofcom should be kept at bay as a way of preserving its independence while apparently accepting that a party politician should have so much power over what it does.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 October 2001; Vol. 627, c. 426.]
That puts it rather neatly. Lord Eatwell said:
We do not want state radio in this county, yet that is exactly the slippery slope down which the absence of independent regulation is pushing the BBC. The creation of Ofcom by the Bill provides the Government and the BBC with a means of escaping from that dilemma.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 October 2001; Vol. 627, c. 445.]
The White Paper says that we should create competition, but it must be fair. The argument is a little like that about free trade and fair trade, which are two different things. If we are to have competition, it must be fair competition. It was said in another place that it would be rather strange if Ofcom had the power to fine recalcitrant commercial broadcasters, but not the BBC. That would indeed be odd.
Our amendments will not tie the Secretary of State's hands when designing the main Bill. We are simply making the reasonable suggestion that anyone who is or has been a BBC governor should not be excluded from sitting on Ofcom.
I was going to say that I take seriously any public broadcasting service that, on the same weekend, shows ''The Bridges of Madison County'' and Pontypridd rugby club's magnificent victory over cash-rich Saracens. So excited was I by the end of the game that I was not sure whether it had been shown on BBC, or whether the commentary was in Welsh and it was shown on S4C, so the BBC may not deserve my congratulations.
The hon. Member for Vale of York was refreshingly honest in saying that she thought that the Conservative Government had made a mistake in
their relationship with the BBC. I hope that she does not go as far as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson).
May I correct the Minister's misapprehension? I did not say that the Conservative Government had made a mistake, nor would I like that suggestion to be placed on the record. I said that the present Government are about to make a mistake, for reasons that I shall mention when answering the debate.
It gives me great pleasure to withdraw the compliment that I paid the hon. Lady—she was not refreshingly honest after all.
The scope of Ofcom's initial function would be expanded to include any proposals made by the Secretary of State to bring the BBC board of governors within its remit. Under amendment No. 20, a person would not be prevented from being appointed as chairman or a non-executive member of Ofcom simply because of his membership of the BBC board of governors.
I made clear on Second Reading that the purpose of the Bill is to set up Ofcom and lay down its initial functions. Much of what was said during the debate was not relevant to the Bill. A number of remarks were made about the relationship between Ofcom and the BBC—indeed, that issue formed the meat of the debate. I said that we would look at the issue seriously, which we are doing. However, the time for serious, detailed discussion of the issue will be when the draft version of the main communications Bill is published in spring. I hope that hon. Members have received a briefing note that sets out clearly the Government's policy on the BBC and Ofcom. I do not intend to go into the detail of the proposed arrangements at this time because that is not what the Bill is about.
I shall resist the amendments, because clause 2 already gives Ofcom the power it needs to facilitate or secure the modification of any proposals relating to the BBC. I cannot stress enough that the power already exists. Under clause 2(1), Ofcom has the power to do whatever is appropriate in preparing for its task. The BBC's charter will allow it to prepare for implementing our legislative proposals. The phrase
whether by transfers from the existing regulators or otherwise
in clause 2(3) means that Ofcom's power is not limited to transfers from existing regulators, as defined in the Bill, but that transfers from the BBC can be included.
I am satisfied that the powers in the Bill are sufficient to cover the points that we are debating. They will allow Ofcom and the BBC to make preparations for implementing the new regulatory regime. When the time comes, they will not prevent proper debate of the exact relationship between Ofcom and the BBC, nor will they pre-empt the outcome of that debate.
I am grateful for the Minister's comments. I regret that my powers of seduction did not win the day. It has been a good debate, even though the Opposition were temporarily underpowered while my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield was elsewhere.
The White Paper refers to the BBC's governors as
the trustees of public interest in the BBC—ensuring that the organisation is properly accountable while maintaining its independence. It is the Governors' responsibility to ensure that the BBC is properly regulated, is on the right strategic course and is effectively managed.
Paragraph 8.1 of the White Paper states:
We shall create a new unified regulator—Ofcom—responsible for the communications sector. The regulator will be independent, will act at arm's length from the Government but will work closely with the DTI, DCMS and other relevant departments, including on European and other international negotiations.
Let me dwell for a moment on the independence of the BBC. Occasionally, the BBC is accused of bias. I hope that someone from the BBC is listening today and the message is carried back to the BBC that its bias on certain occasions does not always go unnoticed. I did not watch a great deal of television during the general election last year, but when I did, it was to catch up with the news. I regularly watched ''Newsnight'', having missed the earlier bulletins.
Amazingly, every night the BBC ''Newsnight'' team dealt with a target seat for the Government and claimed that it was a marginal seat. I am not a card-carrying member of the National Union of Journalists, as other members of the Committee have the good fortune to be, but I would have thought that the real story was the possibility that a Minister occupying a marginal seat might lose it and so lose power. We had identified 60 Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries who fell into that category. That, to me, would have been an exciting story. However, every night ''Newsnight'' religiously carried the story of a Conservative-held marginal seat. It is flattering that the BBC thought at that stage that the Conservatives were still in Government, and that they were the real story.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, but I would not condemn the BBC too much. It said that with a majority of just 238, I was doomed, so I can only assume that my majority increased to 4,500 because of the coverage that I received from the BBC.
That just goes to show that my hon. Friend should not be written off too quickly.
That ''Newsnight'' coverage was a clear instance of bias. I have never had the opportunity to recount it before.
As a despised card-carrying member of the journalistic profession, I remind the hon. Lady that journalists, like other people, are guided by opinion polls. At that time, the polls were decidedly against the Conservative party. Like any other news programme, ''Newsnight'' deals with news, not with Alice in Wonderland fantasy.
I do not want to debate those issues. However, I was appalled by the remarks made last week by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), who referred to the popularity of politicians as on a par with that of actors and actresses, or journalists and lawyers.
If the hon. Lady is referring to a contribution that I made in a previous sitting of the Committee, I never once used the words ''actor'' or ''actress''. The words I used were ''politicians'' and ''journalists''. Perhaps she would like to apologise.
I apologise; I shall reread the record more carefully. Perhaps we can at least agree that estate agents outrank us all in the unpopularity league.
As I said, I would like to dwell on the question of independence. In forthcoming debates, I want to discuss regional television, which was referred to in the margins of the Select Committee report. Regional television is coming under
The Government intends that OFCOM will be responsible for agreeing targets for regional production with the BBC and monitoring the Corporation's compliance with them.
We are mindful of that issue, which provides another reason why the BBC should be brought within the remit of the Bill.
The White Paper clearly states that the BBC's role must be independent but, for reasons that I have mentioned, that independence is sometimes called into question. I draw the Committee's attention to the powerful conclusion in the Select Committee report, which states:
By failing to provide for an integrated approach by the new regulator to all broadcasters including the BBC, the Government has left a large amount of unfinished business. We find it absurd to suggest that Parliament's role in reviewing the BBC's status would somehow be diminished if the BBC were subject to equal treatment with other broadcasters in legislation that will doubtless be subject to extended and detailed consideration by both Houses of Parliament.
It is regrettable that the Government have not taken the opportunity to air those views in debate on the Bill, because they are storing up problems for themselves that will emerge when the main Bill comes before the House and the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, and the charter comes up for review about the time of the next election. It would be untimely to have that debate in the run-up to a general election.
The BBC does not have a monopoly on public service. S4C—the broadcasting company established by the last Conservative Government—is a public service broadcaster with the strongest public service remit of any channel, in that it broadcasts high-quality television in Welsh when there is no Welsh television provision on any other channel. The debate should not be clouded by the insinuation that the BBC has a monopoly and that public service broadcasting is solely in its preserve.
I regret that the Committee does not agree that this is the time and place to discuss that matter. I shall not press the amendment to a Division, but I reserve the right to discuss the matter at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 7, line 28, at end insert—
'(5) In making appointments the Secretary of State shall take into account the need to secure appointments of persons with experience of—
(a) regional television;
(b) religious broadcasting;
(c) competition aspects of media ownership;
(d) mobile phones;
(e) broadband technology;
(f) internet; and
(g) the radio sector.'.
The Minister will recall that the subject matter of the amendment was not discussed on Second Reading. However, it is important to add to the schedule that, when the Secretary of State makes appointments, she should have regard to the need to appoint people with relevant expertise. I crave the indulgence of the Committee as I share my thoughts on the need for including certain areas of expertise.
All Committee members will be aware that regional television, in its entertainment and news programming, has undergone fundamental change: for example, the ratings war has escalated. I am proud of the fact that Yorkshire Television produces ''Countdown'' and that Granada Television produces ''Coronation Street'', which is the subject of an all-party parliamentary group considering all aspects of that programme. A further change that cannot have escaped people's attention is that income from advertising has fallen. That trend may have been influenced by the events of 11 September: during the economic downturn of last year, we became aware of the serious drop in income from advertising.
Both those factors—ratings and the drop in income—have increased the pressure on BBC and ITV television news programmes. The amendment would ensure that some experience of regional television would be reflected on the board of Ofcom. I am concerned that regional television may change further. News teams are under increasing pressure, and the regional news programmes on Sundays and late on Thursdays, from which hon. Members all benefit, are under serious threat. There is an omission from paragraph 1(4) of the schedule, in that no account is taken of the growing pressure on regional television.
It could be argued that religious broadcasting is a specialist area. It is important to note that ''Songs of Praise'' and Sunday radio programmes are coming under increasing pressure for their slots. There should be a place for such broadcasting; that place should be secured, or even increased, as people who cannot go to church often find it a lifeline. The lack of reference to a background in religious broadcasting in paragraph 1(4) is an omission.
The White Paper and the Select Committee report examine at some length the competition aspects of media ownership. The White Paper even considered how our European partners deal with media ownership. I give notice that I shall, at the proper time, request a stand part debate on clause 2. I regret that one of the greatest omissions—the Minister must accept that it is huge—is the Bill's silence on the competition role that Ofcom is clearly being asked to play.
Does my hon. Friend recall that the Select Committee report discussed the need for two sides to Ofcom, one concerned with the provision of the programming and the other with delivery, including the ownership of the means of delivery? Does that reinforce her argument that such matters should be covered in the paving Bill?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his pertinent remark and for the experience that he brings to the Committee, having been a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee when it considered the White Paper. His comment enhances my argument.
In competition matters, Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading will both have a role. Perhaps it is because I am by profession a lawyer, albeit not practising at present, or because I did my traineeship at the European Commission, but I have received representations expressing horror at that omission from several bodies that will be subject to regulation. They insist that it should be rectified. In fact, NTL argues that a new clause should be inserted as follows:
A lawyer will be qualified for these purposes only if . . . he has a seven year general qualification
he is an advocate or solicitor in Scotland of at least seven years' standing.
To have gone to such a degree of specificity may not have won much support from the Minister or from other members of the Committee, but the crucial point is brought home strongly by the way in which Directorate-General IV of the European Commission does its work. For example, it receives a considerable amount of information from journalists writing for the Financial Times that was perhaps not available through any other medium. However, in addition, most of the people who work full time for Directorate-General IV, and possibly for the OFT in this country as well, are either lawyers or economists.
I will not rise to that interesting provocation, but I shall think about my hon. Friend's comment during the day.
If the intention is that the Bill should remove barriers to cross-media ownership, it should state, as the amendment proposes, that appointees should include someone who is familiar with the competition aspects of media ownership, either through their legal or economic expertise. That subject could open a can of worms when we come to consider the main Bill. It is important that the board should include a lawyer and, perhaps, an economist.
I turn to the requirement in the amendment to appoint someone with expertise on mobile phones. I
have been greatly assisted by Orange, which I am sure has written to all members of the Committee; that is Orange, the mobile phone company, not the colour. My favourite colour is, of course, blue. Orange implies that Ofcom will have a fuller role even before the introduction of the communications Bill and it would wish the Government and the Committee to agree to include a reference to someone on the Ofcom board having expertise in mobile phones.
The White Paper was helpful in setting out the background to broadband technology. The Bill is being introduced at an exciting stage in technological development. We have seen the Government's last round of mobile licences and, at the same time, BT has been seeking to develop broadband technology. I have received several briefings from BT, including one very local briefing. It has introduced a facility for the latest state-of-the-art broadband technology at the cluster that surrounds the university of York. In fact, it might be in the constituency of the hon. Member for Selby, which I usually have the occasion to visit every year or 18 months. We are all immensely proud of that impressive facility in north Yorkshire.
Regrettably, the broadband technology was put in place where it was thought that there would be most demand, but I discovered at a meeting with local businesses in my constituency that demand seems to be greater at Clifton Moor, north of York. I hope that when we discuss the next stage, we will argue that we should knock some heads together and get those who are trying to develop state-of-the-art broadband technology—whether they are in telecommunications or other areas of communications—to work together.
Having a representative with experience of broadband technology on the board would help Ofcom to carry out the task that we imagine it will have under the communications Bill. It is important to recognise that neither the Government nor, indeed, the official Opposition wants to regulate the internet through Ofcom, other than in the ways alluded to in the White Paper and the Bill. It is, however, important that a member of the board should have background knowledge and some years' experience of the internet.
Finally, there is the radio sector. Clearly, I am not suggesting that one person should encompass all the expertise and responsibilities that I have listed, but I am mindful of the fact that Ofcom will have to make decisions about different sectors and that the Bill does not provide for it to draw on the relevant experience.
Blue is also my favourite colour, because of its scarcity value. Does the hon. Lady derive perverse pleasure from using her list to put the Minister in a straitjacket? We could formulate lists of other sectors that were not represented, such as television programme making, religious broadcasting and wildlife broadcasting. What about people with experience of ''Bob the Builder'' or even ''Coronation Street''?
I shall respond most vigorously to that point, because the straitjacket was imposed by the Minister or by whoever drafted the Bill without including the provisions in the amendment. The Bill simply includes four categories, and it is the poorer for
that. The Government have made a serious omission by not extending the categories, and we should adopt the amendment because of precisely the problems that the hon. Gentleman identified.
We have received several representations from the radio sector. Ofcom will look specifically at the role of the Radio Authority, radio ownership, the onward sale of radio licences and cross-media ownership. Again, we must appoint someone with a background in radio, the sector that Ofcom will be seeking to develop. I would not like to take away the impression that the Government were ignoring the radio sector and looking only at television as a broadcasting medium. That would be a false impression, and I hope that the Minister will be minded to secure for the board the expertise of someone from radio.
As the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) identified, the Bill imposes a straitjacket. The Minister will find the amendment extremely helpful, because it would expand the expertise available to Ofcom.
First, may I make an apology? I should have declared an interest when I first spoke last week. I am the chairman of EURIM—the European Informatics Market group—which brings together parliamentarians, the IT industry and others. Indeed, we shall be meeting the team working on the communications Bill next week. I apologise for not having made that declaration last week.
The amendment goes to the crux of the Bill, but it makes a fundamental mistake. On Second Reading, I alluded to what we wanted regulations for, and I went through the types of regulation. The regulations were set up to try to create market conditions at a time when a state-owned industry was being liberalised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme seeks to portray my arguments as those of a techie. I refute that; my arguments are more about his field of economics and the way in which Ofcom will interact with market forces. As the new framework document takes effect, we shall be considering not just the old, monopolistic industries such as BT, but players with significant market influence; mobile phone companies and some of the television companies. The document deals with a range of fundamental issues, but it does not look to the challenges of the future.
We are considering the communications industry and talking about convergence. Rather than going through a list of the historical ways in which the industries have developed, as the amendment seeks to do, we need to find people who can read financial data and who understand how the technologies are changing market forces. We must ask whether price control is the appropriate mechanism to intervene in the market and whether issues such as access are dealt with. Those are the critical issues, and those are the skills that we need to secure for Ofcom, rather than asking for people with experience in a particular field. Those skills are not highlighted in the amendment.
The games industry is not mentioned in the amendment. It is one of the most significant contributors to the British economy and we should consider how it interacts with TV, with broadcasters and with mobile phone suppliers. Oftel, in its current form, will be concerned about some aspects of that, but it is not mentioned.
Apart from my brief exit, I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's remarks with interest. While Miss Widdecombe has already said that she will not accept manuscript amendments, surely the hon. Gentleman, who makes a powerful point, could have added those very criteria in an amendment of his own.
I certainly could. However, that misses the point that I am making. The Bill is as limited as it needs to be; the amendment goes way beyond that. Many things might have been included; a lot of things are missing. The hon. Member for Vale of York probably knows that a range of skills could be listed and that trying to get a balance would make a nonsense of the Bill, as no individual would have all the skills and all the experience required.
How will Ofcom relate to all of the issues and to people? What type of regulator will it be? Will it be a protectionist lobby representing every vested interest—something that some of the amendments seem to argue for—or will it be a light-touch regulator, intervening to tackle market dominance or significant market influence, where appropriate? Will it generate new markets? Will it tackle broadband and some of the access issues, and intervene in the market to do so? Will it argue with Government for changes of policy? If it is not independent, it will not have that role. Ofcom's ability to say to the Government, ''These significant issues must be addressed'' is critical.
That prejudges what will be in the communications Bill. The relationship between Ofcom and the OFT and that between Ofcom and existing regulators must be considered. How will Ofcom deal with self-regulation? How will it deal with various forms of co-regulation? What is its relationship with TrustUK?
It worries me that Oftel is trying to get its grubby fingers on the internet. At a recent seminar, it produced a grid showing that there is no regulation of that aspect of the internet, yet the regulators were sitting in the audience. I am worried that Oftel and other regulators will try to present Ofcom with a fait accompli, and that Ofcom will be bound by decisions taken before it was set up. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. I do not expect him to respond immediately, but we must ensure that the existing regulators do not screw up Ofcom with their current decisions.
The hon. Member for Vale of York referred to regional television. It is not a question of ownership but of how to protect regional access, regional
programme-making and regional news. One of the Conservative Government's fundamental failings on privatisation was to concentrate on ownership, not liberalisation. It was also one of Labour's fundamental mistakes. However, we recognised belatedly that liberalisation drives the market, and that questions of ownership are irrelevant.
The hon. Member for Vale of York spoke about mobile telephone communications. Oftel, which is currently investigating the mobile telephone industry, said that many aspects do not require regulation, but then stated that international dialling and SIM card control will need to be regulated. Ofcom's experience and its relationship to the industry will be crucial, but I emphasise that a number of vested interests are involved. If Ofcom is treated as a representative body that should take note of all those who lobby it, it will not succeed. The existing regulators all have the failing of being dominated by the idiosyncrasies of those who head them. The regulators must be open and transparent, and should not allow particular issues to dominate.
Another question is how Ofcom should act in relation to anti-terrorist legislation. Again, that is not covered in the Bill, but decisions that are being taken now could determine Ofcom's relationship with the Home Office. The Minister may say that that is right, which I would accept, but those appointed to the shadow board need to be aware of it.
The hon. Member for Vale of York was right in one respect. We need to learn from the experience of the Radio Authority, under the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Now that the hon. Member for Lichfield is here—he is more competent than I am to talk about this—I can tell him that those lessons apply not only to radio, but to the whole of broadcasting. We must ensure that the smaller but equally important aspects of the communications industry are not ignored in the setting up of Ofcom simply because the Government are interested in something else; for instance, the privatisation of the BBC. Ofcom should be constructed so that it can take account of such dangers.
One of the problems is that we tend always to look back. We should be looking to the challenges that lie over the horizon: how we make the markets work; how we continue to get the skills and development needed in the new technologies in this country; how to exploit broadband technology.
Use of the internet has its dangers. The Minister may have heard me say before that about 25 per cent. of the revenue of California comes from sales tax. The authorities there reckon that most of that—a quarter of its income—will disappear in the next decade because of the impact of the internet. There are fundamental questions about how the European Union and British Government would operate without a substantial part of the revenue from sales tax, or value added tax, in Europe.
Order. I have been extremely tolerant. However, it has been suggested that a stand part debate is required, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks back to order.
I apologise, Miss Widdecombe. I was trying to make the point that we should consider the effect of issues that are not mentioned in the amendment. It is critical that, in the establishment of Ofcom, we bear in mind other regulators, the Competition Commission, issues of self-regulation and the myriad bodies that go unmentioned. We should look to the future, rather than to such historical lists.
The amendment is well-intentioned but ill-conceived. All members of the Committee have received representations from a wide variety of bodies, all of which tried to point out that people with expertise in their specific subjects ought to be on the board of Ofcom. The amendment is a slight watering-down of that. It suggests not that one person should have specific expertise in each subject, but that a body of between three and six should miraculously try to encompass them all. That is impossible. On most previous occasions on which Parliament has set up regulators, one individual has been the regulator. No one could rationally expect any one person to bring to the post expertise in all such subjects. It seems no more reasonable to expect a small board of three to six people to do so.
It is desirable that the body as a whole should have expertise in all the subjects and a great deal more besides. The problem with a long shopping list such as that in the amendment is that it cannot be exhaustive. The hon. Member for Lichfield invited other members of the Committee to suggest further subjects that should be included. We could all do that and end up with a list as long as the Bill of the expertise desirable for the board, but that is not practical. There are creative and economic omissions. The technical suggestions made by the hon. Member for Vale of York in the amendment could soon become overtaken by events and start to look relatively obsolete.
The danger of making such a long list is that it cannot be exhaustive, but might be regarded as such. Other considerations would be disregarded simply because those in the list happened to be specified. The honest truth is that it is a pointless exercise to draw up such lists. The desirable expertise of a body's board members must be relatively self-evident from what it tries to do.
The hon. Member for Vale of York made some good points. Regional television is important, as is religious broadcasting. For reasons that have been given, the radio sector was the poor relation in the previous regulatory regime. However, one cannot tackle all the issues by drawing up lists. It is an ill-conceived endeavour, and the Committee would do better not to try to write such lists into the Bill.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said that I was in a different place, I was not in the other place. I was down the corridor, listening to evidence from Stuart Prebble, chief executive of ITV, Clive Jones, chief executive of Carlton channels, and Mick Desmond, managing director of Granada Enterprises. What they said relates to much of what is contained in the amendment.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that debating the amendment—perhaps he meant tabling it in the first place—was a pointless exercise. I am not sure that it was. In our Committee, it is right and proper to debate what Ofcom should concern itself with. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East rightly pointed out my concern about the possible sidelining of radio. He will have been pleased that considerations such as broadband technology and the internet were included as areas of expertise. He appears to disagree, but I do not mean that individuals should necessarily be responsible for them, but that Ofcom should address the issues. In previous sittings, he made the point that Ofcom would be concerned not only with broadcasting, but with new technologies.
I shall stick completely to order and quickly make some observations—perhaps not so quickly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York has just looked at me rather nervously—on paragraph 5(a) to (g) of the schedule, which is proposed in the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman should not be so ready to rush out of the Committee, as I am not sure that there will be a tactical withdrawal, or any other kind. I shall be greatly interested to see whether my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York presses the amendment to a vote.
Paragraph 5(a) is concerned with regional television. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East made a powerful point when he said that the ownership of independent television and other television organisations was an irrelevance. He was right. The framework of broadcasting in this country means that regional and other aspects of television can be preserved, whatever the ownership. Various hon. Members, including the then Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, made a huge hue and cry in the previous Parliament about Carlton's acquisition of Central TV. It was felt that regional production in Nottingham and Birmingham would suffer as a result. It has not.
No matter what the ownership of individual companies, they have separate contracts with the Independent Television Commission. Those force them to maintain certain minimum standards. Stuart Prebble, the chief executive of ITV, mentioned a little earlier this morning that there were about 28 regional ITV news centres in the independent television network yet, as we all know, there are only four or five different owners. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East is right in that ownership is not the issue so far as Ofcom is concerned. What is important is maintenance and quality of standards.
We can be proud of the tradition of regional television. We should not neglect the role that the BBC plays in that, although BBC1 and BBC2 are networks. When I worked for the BBC many years ago, we used the term ''regional opt-outs'', of which there were many on the BBC. I do not know whether that term is still in use. Such opt-outs are for not only regional news programmes but the Westminster opt-out, as my
hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York has so powerfully said. Whenever I have been on the Westminster opt-out on local television in the west midlands, only a few rather sad people have mentioned that they watched. Perhaps I should not say that, as one of those people is my association chairman.
I shall move rapidly to paragraph 5(b), which mentions ''religious broadcasting''. Its inclusion is somewhat prescient. Many members of the Committee will have been contacted by an organisation—I cannot remember its name—that wants Christian broadcasting.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, as ever. It was indeed United Christian Broadcasters. In the past, I have made myself unpopular by opposing the idea of religious broadcasters in this country. I received part of my education in the United States of America. I confess I have a home there, which I get to very rarely. In fact I have not been there for the past three years. Unlike Rachman, who made good use of his homes, I have made no use of mine.
I rather welcomed that intervention.
I am concerned about the idea of giving licences for religious broadcasting, because with a limited radio spectrum, fair coverage of different religions might not be achieved. Also, because of my experience of religious broadcasting in the United States, I have concerns about certain types of religion or sect that might not use religious broadcasting in the United Kingdom for the benefit of mainstream religions or the listeners.
Things are changing. Eventually, digital radio will expand in this country. Let us not kid ourselves. There are only 45 digital radio receivers currently in operation in the United Kingdom, even though the technology is in existence and digital radio is being broadcast throughout the UK. That does not include people listening via satellite or similar means. Individual digital radio sets are not currently available, although I believe that Blaupunkt does a very expensive one for cars. However, there is not wide coverage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York rightly pointed out that there are currently pressures on existing broadcasters in the United Kingdom to sideline religious programming. I read in one of the religious newspapers—not The Tablet, the other one—that there was pressure on the head of religious broadcasting at the BBC to transfer all religious programming from BBC 1 to one of its two digital channels, BBC Knowledge or BBC Choice. That
would be plainly wrong because of the many people, mentioned by my hon. Friend, who are unable to go to church.
Order. This is not a general debate on religious broadcasting. If the hon. Gentleman reads the amendment, he will find that it is about whether
the Secretary of State shall take into account the need to secure appointments of persons with experience of
a number of things. It is not a general debate on those things. Will the hon. Gentleman return to the scope of the amendment?
Thank you for that advice, Miss Widdecombe. My point has been to try to justify the inclusion of the various items on the list. If there were no argument about whether there was controversy over religious broadcasting, it might well be asked why the Secretary of State should appoint anyone with skills in that respect. I want to establish that religious broadcasting is a controversial issue at the moment, and that there will be problems for Ofcom to deal with. It was wise of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York to include religious broadcasting in the list, because of the issues that I have mentioned.
However, let us rapidly move on to paragraph 5(c); the competition aspects of media ownership. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East rightly pointed out that ownership is not really an issue with regard to the provision of programming. On the other hand, we would not want the situation in this country to be like that in Italy, where Berlusconi enjoys incredible power because of the extent to which he owns the media. Similarly, Ofcom may well take the view that the number of people owning the media in the United Kingdom should be controlled.
However, I must ask my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York whether such issues would not be better dealt with by the Office of Fair Trading and the other existing competition bodies. Is this really an issue for Ofcom?
That issue must be tackled and I sincerely hope that the Government will have tackled it by the time they publish the draft communications Bill. Clearly, the Government must address the matter, because if media ownership were too diverse, ITV would be damaged, as would the expansion of media interests in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, it would be unwise to permit any one organisation or individual to control 90 per cent. of the media.
Let us move briefly on to paragraph 5(d); mobile phones. There are many issues, about which I could talk at inordinate length, relating to mobile phones and why they should be included in the amendment. However, I will just quickly outline those issues that immediately come to mind. First, during the past few days, the issue of mobile phones as a health hazard has been dealt with on television. A load of twaddle is
talked about that subject, particularly with regard to the siting of masts. However, as I do not want to receive hundreds of letters—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straining my patience very considerably. Would he please note that the amendment does not deal with mobile phone masts or his opinion of mobile phones? It deals specifically with the Secretary of State's appointments. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is clever enough to bring his remarks into order.
Thank you, Miss Widdecombe. I take that as a compliment.
The Secretary of State should indeed take into account the need to appoint people with experience of mobile phones, because mobile phone growth in the United Kingdom is a major influence on this country's long-term economy and its phone companies. It could be argued that with their huge investment in G3, some telephone companies have, with hindsight, not shown themselves to be as clever as was originally thought.
Ofcom will have to address such issues, particularly because, as the Select Committee report pointed out, the rate of convergence is increasing. In the future, mobile phone technology may be used to transmit television pictures, and television technology, such as video compression, may give us better mobile phone coverage. Although we currently think of the mobile phone as primarily an audio device, in the future it may be not be like that at all.
That brings us on to paragraph 5(e); broadband technology. This concerns not only the delivery of broadband through the use of cable or low satellite constellations, which enable us to use mobile phones anywhere in the world, including the north pole, where there are no phone masts—
Not yet. If the technology were to be properly exploited, it would enable us to have an internet link anywhere in the world. The technology is there now, but it has not, in my opinion, been exploited adequately. I hope that Ofcom will not just be a light regulator, but will promote technology in the United Kingdom for the betterment of the individuals who use such technology and for the good of the British economy. I will not make myself out of order by asking why Nokia is a Scandinavian company. Ofcom should encourage the establishment of many more such manufacturers in the United Kingdom.
I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He has got it the wrong way round and I will talk to him later about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York talked about regulation of the internet. On that, I must disagree with her. I do not believe that there is a way to regulate the internet.
I apologise if I misled my hon. Friend. I was trying to say not that the internet should be regulated, but that the Government should use the creation of Ofcom, and its subsequent role as set out in the communications Bill, to encourage people to get online and to enhance digital television. That might enable the Government to bring forward the analogue switch-off.
My hon. Friend has reassured me. I knew her judgment to be perfect and total, and she is right in what she says. In any event, one could not regulate the internet; a load of twaddle is talked about that as well. When one has access to the internet, one has access to websites from all over the world. I do not know how a website provider from outside the United Kingdom of the European Union could be regulated. I gather that commercial websites are being set up in Costa Rica, primarily aimed at English-speaking countries. Again, I feel that someone on the board of Ofcom should have expertise in the internet; that they should know not only how to promote the medium, but what they can and cannot do about regulating it.
Finally, I would like to talk about paragraph 5(g); the radio sector. I feel strongly that a person with expertise in that sector should be appointed. As I have said before, I used to work in radio and I was conscious of how the medium was sidelined in the old IBA by the dominant force of television. That is why—as I have said before, so I will not go on about it—the ITC and the Radio Authority were conceived as two separate organisations to replace the IBA. There is a real concern that radio will again be sidelined if it becomes part of a giant Ofcom.
The radio spectrum is a limited resource and that is an important issue. That is not so much the case with television now, because of the development of digital television, for which the signal can be compressed so that many more programmes can be broadcast within a particular frequency. Besides, with cable television, the radio spectrum is not even used. The strength of radio is that one can hear it while on the move; radio is best listened to in those circumstances.
Order. I have now twice called to the hon. Gentleman's attention his persistent irrelevance. I draw his attention to Standing Order No. 42, which would enable me to ask him to discontinue his speech. I do not want to have to do that. More generally, if hon. Members persist in very wide debates on narrow amendments, it will prejudice my decisions on stand part debates.
Well, Miss Widdecombe, I stand duly warned. Fortunately, I have reached paragraph 5(g), so I am about to finish.
I make the cri du coeur to the Minister that radio should be taken into account in the drafting of the structure of communications commission, as it is different from television in how it is transmitted, and has its own peculiar problems.
I commend the amendment to the Committee.
I am tempted to open my remarks by saying, ''Follow that!'' If anyone says in future that Committee work is boring, I shall refer them to my hon. Friend. In spite of being called to order three times—although you thought it was only twice, Miss Widdecombe—he made some valuable points, as did the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East.
The amendment has value, because it addresses the confusion that seems to surround regulation, which might be cleared up if the people appointed to Ofcom had the expertise as listed. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield mentioned religious broadcasting, for example. I do not have his experience—nor do I have a house in America, as he does—so I bow to his greater knowledge. It is odd that some things can be broadcast in this country that cause great offence to many people when, under the Broadcasting Act 1990, it is illegal for a religious organisation to own a national radio licence. In their White Paper, the Government say that religious content has a capacity to offend. That may be so, but many other things on television and radio have an enormous capacity to offend, so I do not know why the distinction is made. I do not blame the Government for that distinction, as the Act in question was passed in 1990. However, they seem reluctant to address the issue, if we take the White Paper as a guide.
Confusion also surrounds regional broadcasting. The White Paper says that, under the Belfast Agreement, there is an obligation to achieve in Northern Ireland more widespread availability of a television company known as TG4, which is based in the Irish Republic. If the White Paper sees fit to draw attention to that regional aspect—the need to introduce a foreign broadcasting company to the viewers and listeners of the United Kingdom—there must surely be a need to consider regional television in general.
I shall not add to what has been said on mobile phones, although a great deal of confusion exists as to the effects on health of phones and phone masts. That confusion needs addressing, and I am glad that the Government have set up a further investigation, as I and other hon. Members have asked questions on that subject. Confusion surrounds that issue, too, and I would welcome any input that members of Ofcom might be able to give.
As for the internet, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield suggested that it would be impossible to regulate it. I hope that I am not paraphrasing him too much, but I believe that that was what he said. I accept that there will be difficulties but, if the internet grows and takes over from television, as it may do—although I do not have the expertise to know whether that is likely—we must find a way in which to regulate it. If it is as easily accessible to 10-year-old children as television is, there may be a need to regulate it.
It would be out of order to go into the technical side, but does not my hon. Friend accept that programmes and internet sites that originate from outside the United Kingdom cannot be controlled by Ofcom, as it will have jurisdiction only within the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am not sure what the rules and regulations are about television programmes made abroad. Again, there seems to be some confusion in that respect. I base that statement on advice that I have taken from the House of Commons Library and on parliamentary questions that I have tabled.
The inclusion of the amendment would be helpful. Other hon. Members have said why that would be the case; my point is that it would help to clear up some confusions and irregularities.
I understand why the hon. Lady and other members of the Committee have identified the specific areas of expertise mentioned in the amendment. Of course, it will be essential that Ofcom draws from experience in many, if not all, of those areas. I recognise, too, that the list in the amendment is probably not intended to represent an exhaustive list, although it has been an exhausting list. One might identify many other areas of specific interest or experience that the Secretary of State should take into account when considering making appointments to Ofcom.
That being the case, it would not be practical or sensible to try to list all the different interests and experience that should be taken into account. The hon. Member for North Devon made that point. The Secretary of State will be able to take into account a whole range of possible requirements to ensure that the board has the relevant skills and experience that it will need. We also made clear, during a debate in another place, that the chairman of Ofcom will play an essential role in the appointments process in identifying the specific requirements of the board and of the Secretary of State.
The Minister might like to alert his noble Friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey that we share an almost identical e-mail address. I hope that he is not receiving my e-mails; on the two occasions when I have received his, I have forwarded them post haste.
The Bill will establish Ofcom. That is all that it does, without specifying any form of regulation. There will be ample time in which to discuss concomitant powers between the various agencies that oversee competition law, including the OFT, the Competition Commission and Ofcom. The reference to competition is not missing from the Bill, which simply establishes Ofcom.
The Secretary of State will have to pay regard to the skills and experience required by the Ofcom board. To begin with, Ofcom will have only one function; to prepare itself to take on its regulatory functions at a later stage. Members may call me prejudiced, but I am not surprised if the hon. Member for Vale of York has been bombarded with lobby material from her learned friends who, as she said, are horrified that the Government have not specified that lawyers should be appointed to the board of Ofcom. Of course lawyers want lawyers to be included on the board, but,
in my experience, it is a mistake to appoint lawyers to any body. That is probably a bit extreme, but it will be unnecessary for the board to have such a wide a range of skills and expertise available to it at the start. Experience in the areas identified in the amendment may be useful once Ofcom begins to regulate, but it is unnecessary to provide for that in the Bill.
I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the debate. It has not been in the least exhausting. In fact, I have found it most stimulating; I could continue for hours, but I shall not.
I regret the Minister's prejudice, which I take personally. In spite of my having said that I am a non-practising Scottish advocate and that I spent six months in the Directorate-General dealing with competition, he did not even pay token tribute to the expertise that I bring to the Committee.
I would be extraordinarily foolish to include among those bodies to which I referred the great body of politics in this country. I would not keep my ministerial car for long if I castigated all lawyers who have positions in the House of Commons.
I have not yet set my sights on the hon. Gentleman's ministerial car, although it might be an attractive proposition. However, there is a serious point in the amendment, which includes a more comprehensive list than the straitjacket provision in the Bill that was identified by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The Minister said today that the Bill was concerned with the structure of Ofcom. He will bitterly regret not taking this opportunity to emphasise the role of competition policy, because there will be a problem at the next stage when we come to the mother of all Bills, which seems to be getting bigger by the moment with all the issues that we hope are to be included in it. The fact that the Bill is silent on that very important issue will return to haunt the Minister and the Committee, but we can discuss that at a later stage.
I will not invite my hon. Friend to go over that ground again, for reasons that you have already explained, Miss Widdecombe. Perhaps we can discuss the matter during lunch.
One part of our discussion that I found especially fruitful was the contribution and expertise of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East—backed up by that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield—on the technology of the industry and the fast-moving feast that will meet us when we discuss the communications Bill. There are serious issues relating to religious broadcasting, regional television, competition and mobile phones. Some 30 million people in Britain now have mobile phones, double the figure for two years ago. Those developments must be watched closely and someone on the board of Ofcom should have expertise in that area.
I also want to record my regret that the Government have missed an opportunity, as was
eloquently set out in the report of the Select Committee of which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield is a member. The Select Committee recorded its disappointment that the Government's broadband strategy appeared to be developing in virtual isolation from the public, consumer needs and the opportunities created by the analogue switch-off. It said that the strategy largely neglected the role of consumer services such as digital TV and internet-based broadcasting in driving broadband take-up.
The list makes no direct reference to the essential experience and expertise that we want board members to have. The Government had an opportunity to support the amendment and, although I am deeply disappointed that they could not do so, I reserve the right to return to the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 7, line 35, leave out from 'shall' to end of line 36 and insert—
'serve a maximum of two consecutive four year terms'.
With this we may discuss amendment No. 30, in page 9, line 18, at end insert—
'provided that no executive member serves for more than two consecutive four year terms'.
And now for something completely different. The amendments would give the Secretary of State some direction when setting up the board. It is important to specify the length of service for board members, and a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms is entirely appropriate. Amendment No. 30 would extend the provision to executive members, who would also be able to serve no more than two consecutive four-year terms.
The Government are considering reforming the upper House to introduce an elected period of 15 years for 20 per cent. of our noble Friends, so the period in the amendments might seem short. The official Opposition tried to help the Government by referring to the seven principles of public life, but the Government were not prepared to write those principles into the Bill or, even more regrettably, to agree to a public register. We could, however, assist the Government to amend the Bill if we agreed to a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. That would be appropriate.
I rise in partial support—if that is possible—of the amendments. I am not so convinced by the argument for amendment No. 30, which applies to executive officers, but I certainly support amendment No. 29, which refers to the chairman and the board.
I spoke of my non-lived-in home in the United States of America, and Ofcom seems to be an all-powerful institution, like the office of President of the United States. Following Roosevelt's multi-term presidency, the United States Congress introduced a rule to limit the number of terms to two, and I rather suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of
York had that in mind when she drafted the amendment.
I think that people get stale. Perhaps even Members of Parliament should be in office for a maximum of only two terms, although I do not know whether we would want to vote ourselves out of office. The chairman of Ofcom should, however, have experience of the real world, particularly given the changing nature of technology. On the previous group of amendments, we discussed what that experience should be, but it can be gained only in the real world. Many people say that Members of Parliament live in an ivory tower, but they are absolutely wrong. Equally, people might say that the chairman of Ofcom lived in an ivory tower and had lost touch with reality at the coal face; nay, at the television camera. Two terms, or eight years, is an adequate time, after which someone should stand down.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Lichfield on the question of some hon. Members standing down after two terms; I shall not name those whom I think are ripe for such curtailment of their parliamentary careers. In relation to the previous amendment, the Opposition argued strongly that appointment to Ofcom, in the particular categories named, should be based on the expertise and knowledge of those individuals within their limited areas of the communications industry. Would they also require that those experts should have been experts within their particular field for only eight years, and were duty bound at the end of that time—to concur with the hon. Member for Lichfield's point about living in the real world—to move into another industry or another area of exploration, and out of the communications industry entirely? It seems to be an utterly absurd amendment. We are talking about a new regulatory commission in an industry that is rapidly expanding and becoming infinitely more complex, not only in what it is discovering, but in interlinking what are at the moment separate areas of communication.
To presuppose that, within eight years, the regulatory body would have learned everything that was needed to know—which would preclude its stepping aside and leaving warm seats that required new people to do nothing other than sit in them—is absurd. Ofcom members will, in many instances, have to develop their capacity for learning; they will be regulating an industry that is in the process of massive and rapid expansion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East said, we should be looking to the future. To attempt to preclude some of the best and most effective people in the industry who could serve on a regulatory board by saying, even before they walk into the boardroom, that they will only be there for eight years is patently absurd.
I was going to rise anyway, but I should like to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate. The experience—mentioned in amendment No. 21—that we ask of the people who sit on Ofcom is drawn not from sitting on the Ofcom board but, as my hon.
Friend the Member for Lichfield said, from working in the real world. It is important to represent not necessarily the regional television companies but the regional television consumers. There is logic in listing the areas from which people should draw expertise and in saying that they should not serve on Ofcom for too long.
The fact that it is a rapidly changing world, particularly in communications and the media, reinforces the point. If people serve on Ofcom for too long—certainly if they do so full time—they are effectively out of the industry, and not in it. They will be regulating it, but they will not be involved in it. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield if he is suggesting that Members of Parliament should be restricted to two terms; the electorate can, if they like, restrict us to one term.
Countries such as the United States, of which my hon. Friend has far greater experience than I, limit their presidents to two terms. Surely that is up to the electorate to decide, and I notice that one or two countries are moving away from that constitutional arrangement. However, it is appropriate in this case; there are no elections to the board and the appointments will be made by the Secretary of State. The amendment and the previous one that we tabled are quite consistent.
We made it clear on Second Reading that it was intended that, in making appointments to Ofcom, the Secretary of State would follow the guidelines set by the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In that guidance, the commissioner has recommended that terms of appointment to bodies such as Ofcom should normally total a maximum of ten years.
We see no good reason for restricting appointments to Ofcom to a shorter period, as proposed by the amendment. Nor is it entirely clear if the amendment is intended to limit the appointment of the chairman and non-executives to terms of four years. I am sure that hon. Members will know that, in a previous set of guidelines, the commissioner recommended terms of appointment of between three and five years. That seems perfectly reasonable with regard to Ofcom. It is important to allow the Secretary of State a degree of flexibility in making the appointments, and the Bill should not set out maximum and minimum terms of appointment.
There may be circumstances, especially when making the initial group of appointments to the board, when the lengths of terms should be varied to stagger their dates of expiry. In addition, the Commissioner for Public Appointments has always recognised that there might also be exceptional circumstances in which a third term of appointment would be appropriate. That could well be the case with Ofcom at some point in the future and the Secretary of State should be allowed the discretion to make those decisions.
As to amendment No. 30, it is important to remember that executive members of Ofcom will not be public appointees. The appointment of executive members will be for the chairman and non-executive
members, with the approval of the Secretary of State in the case of the chief executive, and after consulting the chief executive in all other cases.
Absolutely. It is not often that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I certainly do on this occasion. The great weaknesses of public bodies are that it is so difficult to persuade would-be candidates that they should take places on them, that there will be some security of tenure and that they will be able to see projects through. If that is not possible, their confidence and their belief in the job are undermined.
It will be for the chairman and other non-executive members to determine the terms under which executive appointments are made. The board will be in the best position to decide what executive experience would be of most value to it and for how long that expertise might be required. I oppose the amendments.
This has been a brief but interesting debate. I was moved by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who failed to endorse amendment No. 30. I confirm that in the European Parliament and in certain European
national parliaments—for example, that of Holland—members can serve a maximum of three terms, in the same way that only two US presidential terms are allowed.
The apparent problem in the industry—I want to speak about it on another group of amendments—is a fast turnover of staff. That applies particularly to the executive posts rather than the chairman. I intended to show that there would be some continuity by proposing a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate, who described the amendment as absurd, she contradicted herself. The industry is so fast moving and the technology is developing so fast that there are many arguments for bringing in fresh blood after eight years. That is a long time in any post. However, I bow to the overwhelming view of the Committee—both sides of it—and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at half-past four o'clock.