Concluding the discussion on amendment No. 14, the Minister was about to explain the difference between quick and brief. I am being brief and he is being quick. We expect a commitment from the Government that the transitional period—I want a precise answer—will not last more than one year. To give the Minister his due, that would be quick. Anything more than that would be deeply regrettable. New clause 2 states that the Act should cease to have effect after one year, which links to amendment No. 14. I want the whole Bill, not least clause 2(1), to qualify for sunset clauses similar to those previously specified.
I am grateful to the Minister for drawing my attention to the Towers Perrin report and the regulators' steering group. It is appropriate to consider the clauses that should be subject to sunset provisions. The Towers Perrin report sets out several transitional principles. On page 40, paragraph 10.6, it specifies:
In a merger of this kind, when the outcome is to create a new organisation, it is important to define the principles by which the transition will be managed. This will provide consistency to the thinking and will give positive early signals to employees about the future management style of OFCOM.
I would go further than that: it would give positive early signals not only to employees of Ofcom, but to the industry as a whole, which Ofcom will regulate.
The report states that
The principles have been developed in consultation with the Regulators' Steering Group and drawing from our own experience of best practice.
They are described as statements of intent. Assuming that the new clause is accepted and that the Bill will cease to have effect one year after its commencement, we shall judge its success according to how the statements of intent measure up against best practice.
The existing organisations will be merged during the transitional period to create, we are told, ''a world-class regulator''—the Government have held that out as the pearl in the heart of the oyster—subject to the advent of the communications Bill. If we create one regulator to replace five, the one should be a world-class regulator that will carry out a truly integrated regulatory role beyond that conducted by the existing organisations. It is appropriate that we specify precisely what the Bill is to achieve during the transitional period; if the Government fail to achieve those intentions, the legislation should fall. That is the purpose of new clause 2.
There is also a need, as the Towers Perrin report states categorically, to deliver ''business as usual'' in parallel with delivering a new Ofcom. That is why it is extremely important Tthat the legislation should be in force for only one year. For reasons that we stated at some length this morning, we should not be creating a sixth regulator. The aim is to achieve one regulator—a merged regulator, not a mega-regulator or behemoth. Within one year of the Bill receiving Royal Assent and reaching the statute book, it should have been replaced by the communications Bill. The explanatory notes say that the substantive Bill should receive Royal Assent and reach the statute book by mid–2003.
That is a tall order, but I believe that that statement of intent goes to the heart of new clause 2. The legislation before us must have the objective of delivering business as usual and of delivering the new Ofcom by the end of one year after its commencement. I hope that the Minister can put our minds at rest that that is the timetable and the objective towards which the Government are working. It would be totally unacceptable for the legislation to remain in situ and on the statute book for longer than one year if that meant that Ofcom existed in parallel with the original five regulators for longer than one year. It is necessary to recognise the need to deliver business as usual.
Ofcom must also be required to communicate frequently, consistently, openly and honestly, sharing information with the present regulators when possible. I am concerned that the Bill makes no reference to how the existing regulators will communicate with the new regulator. The report says that, as a principle for the transitional period, it is desirable that all employees of the existing regulators be treated with respect and dignity, and that recognition be given to the difficulties presented by the length of the transition period. That is a key point. We all sincerely hope that the transitional period will be short.
My hon. Friend knows that I know some of the regulators personally. One very senior regulator in one of the organisations to be included in Ofcom says that because of the uncertainty, he does not think that he will stay in the industry. If the Department for Culture, Media and Sport knew of that individual's intentions, it would be very concerned.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that appropriate intervention. I, too, have met a number of the current regulators, but they are not leaving the scene; they hope to become part of the new regulator. It would be inappropriate for me to support their application at this stage, and I am sure that the Minister would not want me to make representations on their behalf in Committee.
That strengthens the argument for new clause 2. The Minister has not yet provided the Committee with the timetable for the transition. I am sure that he has had a good lunch and has not had enough time to consider the matter, but we must have a commitment from the Government that the transition period will be time limited. The 1,111 current employees will be deeply concerned about their future. It is incumbent on the Committee to recognise the uncertainty facing the industry, those employees and the regulators. I therefore seek the Minister's approval for the new clause.
The Towers Perrin report—the Minister can see that I am warming to my theme—goes on to say that the plan for the transition period, which we say should last one year, should plan for implementation from the start of the design phase. He may not accept the amendment or new clause 2 because the Government do not have the time they need in the space of one year. He has given us no indication of, for example, where the new Ofcom is to be housed—although I might have missed something in debate. We are on the third day of our sittings and our proceedings have moved rapidly; it may be that I have not been alert, as Miss Widdecombe would have said. However, the Government will not be alert enough and competent enough to reach the timetable of best practice commissioned by the regulators' steering group in the Towers Perrin report.
Moving on rapidly, the transition principle to which that report refers is that the existing regulators want to ensure that the way in which Ofcom is built and designed sends clear signals and gives people positive experiences of Ofcom's future ways of working. To enable the Minister to find a quick response to these questions, pages 40 and 41 of the report are relevant. It will be apparent to the Committee that this is a probing amendment that provides an opportunity for the Minister to state the extent to which the Government are prepared on matters such as where Ofcom is to be housed.
Then let me elaborate on the amendment. The purpose of the transition is to identify Ofcom's size, its staff and where it should be located. Both the Bill and the Minister are silent on that point. If the transition phase is to be successful and staff morale boosted, good management principles, such as those in pages 40 and 41 of the Towers Perrin report, must be observed.
With the Bill, Government seek to empower Ofcom to act as sole regulator. It is therefore important that during the course of the year after the Bill is enacted, the public, the industry and viewers and listeners can see that the new regulator is making good progress towards fitting itself for the functions that the Bill bestows upon it. Were the communications Bill not to be brought before the House before the spring of this year and to achieve Royal Assent before mid–2003, it would be totally unacceptable for Office of Communications Act, as it will be, to remain on the statute book in its present form or amended. If the Government fail to act and do not introduce the communications Bill in Parliament within one year, the paving legislation should fall. Anything less than that would be totally unacceptable.
First, let me deal with amendment No. 14. I can see no purpose in the functions that the Bill confers upon Ofcom expiring one year after commencement. The communications Bill, when enacted, will confer functions on Ofcom that supersede those in the Bill. However, with the best will in the world, I cannot imagine that the communications Bill will be in a position to achieve Royal Assent—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was saying that with the best will in the world I cannot imagine that the communications Bill will achieve Royal Assent within one year of the commencement of the paving Bill. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said that she has not even started yet, but if we ever get off this group of amendments, Ofcom will exist by summer 2002—this year. If the Opposition are reasonable when the main Bill is discussed, it should receive Royal Assent by summer 2003 at the earliest.
Yes. I see that the hon. Gentleman still bears the scars.
If all goes well, Ofcom will be regulating by the end of 2003, less than six months after Royal Assent to the main Bill. The total time taken will be approximately 18 months. The communications Bill will be larger and more complex than this small paving Bill, but even if
parliamentary time is found for it early in the next Session, it will be far from surprising if it takes less than the best part of the parliamentary Session to pass through Parliament.
With a paving Bill we recognise the danger that the substantive proposals might, for unforeseen reasons, not be introduced. That is covered by clause 5, which gives the Secretary of State the power to wind up Ofcom if it seems to her that its continued existence is no longer necessary—God forbid. She will retain the duty to do so in such circumstances at any time after the end of 2003. That provides a clear cut-off date if no substantive proposals have been introduced
No—while providing the flexibility necessary when dealing with parliamentary timetables. I shall not give way because the hon. Gentleman was not here at the start of my substantive contribution, so he does not know what I am talking about.
The proposed new clause presents wider problems. The timing implications that I mentioned apply, but there are additional reasons why I am not inclined to consider the new clause. The Bill sets out the basic structure of Ofcom. Our intention is that it will remain in place even when the communications Bill is in force.
We would not have included them had we not been aware of them or had we not wanted them to have meaning. Of course we do not want any delays in transition. The entire period in question is 18 months, six months of which are after Royal Assent to the communications Bill. That is a short time. We could re-enact the relevant provisions in the communications Bill, but I wonder whether that would be good use of Parliament's time when we are spending so much effort considering them now. For that reason, I oppose the amendments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) was accused of not knowing what the Minister was talking about. That could be applied to all of us, because although the Minister started to specify time scales, they still seem uncertain.
I gave an analogy when Mr. Stevenson was in the Chair, which I hope you will allow me to repeat, Mr. Gale. I declared an interest in the horse racing industry. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), gave an assurance two or three years ago that the status of the Tote and the levy system would be changed. Responsibilities have been transferred to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the industry still awaits legislation, even though we are now in a different Parliament.
That industry has been thrown into chaos because of delay. The last thing we want is the communications industry to be thrown into similar chaos. The Minister said that that will depend on the parliamentary
timetable, but we have been told that matters raised by Opposition Members are irrelevant because they will be in the main Bill, which will begin in spring—a debate followed about what spring meant. I am not entirely satisfied by the Minister's considerate response so I will press the amendment to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 11.
I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 2, line 36, at end insert—
'(2A) In carrying out its functions under this section, OFCOM shall take into account the need to ensure continued effective ITV regional programming and news editions.'.
The amendment speaks for itself. I shall refer to the Government's response to the excellent report on the communications White Paper by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Paragraph 34 of the report recommends that:
notwithstanding the proposed removal of specific legislative bias to further ITV consolidation above and beyond the general provisions of competition law, separate licences should be retained for each ITV region, including provisions relating to regional production and the contribution of each region to network programming. We further recommend that there be a legislative obligation upon the new regulator to maintain a network of offices in the nations—
that may be of interest to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas)—
and regions of the United Kingdom to facilitate effective monitoring of compliance with regional obligations by broadcasters.
The Government's response is illuminating. Paragraph (viii) states:
The retention and strengthening of the regional dimension to public service broadcasting is an important strand of White Paper policy . . . and the Government does not propose to alter the present statutory requirement for Channel 3 services to be separately licensed on a regional basis.
Requirements for regional programming and production by public service broadcasters will be included in tier two of the proposed new regulatory structure and we agree with the Committee that effective monitoring of compliance with regional obligations by OFCOM will be important. The detailed organisational and administrative arrangements to achieve this will, however, be a matter for OFCOM to determine.
My disappointment with the Bill in its present form is that, despite the amendment that we tried so hard to get on to the amendment paper, paragraph 7 of the schedule makes no reference to the presence on the Ofcom board of a member who has knowledge of and expertise in regional television.
Will the hon. Lady tell the Committee whether she considers that one person on the board should be responsible for the regions of England,
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or should each have a representative?
I do not want to go over the ground that was covered extensively and eloquently by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but that is a moot point that we could debate at some length. One of the reasons why he felt moved to table the amendment, which we debated fully, is because the Bill is silent on the matter, even though the White Paper specifically stated that there was to be some relationship between Ofcom and Committees of the devolved assemblies.
Given the backdrop of that enthusiastic and positive Government response, it is deeply regrettable that the Bill fails to deal with regional programming. I am particularly disappointed because ITV is under huge pressure. As we learned yesterday in our discussions with Carlton Television, that company faces great uncertainty. Its chief executive, Mr. Clive Jones, said that this is the worst and the deepest recession that he can recall. The Committee will be aware of the extensive interest that Carlton Television—
My memory has not lapsed. I recall that the previous recessions turned the corner quickly. This is a deep and long recession and, in his view, the worst that Mr. Jones can remember. I shall advise him to contact the hon. Lady directly, to ensure that she is equally aware—[Interruption.]
Notwithstanding the general climate for ITV stations, I am trying to understand the amendment. As Ofcom functions in its shadow form, the Independent Television Commission will still be responsible for ITV. In its shadow form, Ofcom will not have powers to do anything about ITV regional programming, even if it wanted to.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to explain that the
function of the Bill is to prepare Ofcom for its functions, which is why it is so important to get it right.
To some extent the moment has passed, but recession is relevant to the discussion. The problem for companies such as Carlton is that the diffusion of different distribution platforms has diluted their ability to attract advertising. Regional television may attract more localised advertising which will assist them to continue broadcasting.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who puts the point more eloquently and accurately than I did. Perhaps I may use that as a building block. I tried, in my humble and inimitable way, to make a point about the current deep recession, about which many of us agree. I did so precisely because of the point made by my hon. Friend. Independent stations' revenue from advertising and other commercial ventures has fallen considerably.
The fall in advertising revenue is causing the greatest problem. Curiously, the impact of 11 September has a bearing on that fall. I declare an interest because my husband is sales director for an American company, Delta Air Lines. Airlines and television companies are suffering from a common problem. At this time of year—31 January—most of the advertising revenue on television and other media should come from holiday advertising. It speaks volumes that that market has collapsed so dramatically.
Not only will I join the hon. Gentleman, but I will express a tinge of envy. If the English Tourism Council had even a modest marketing role, it might advertise north Yorkshire in that way.
Advertising revenue has fallen in this quarter; from January to March, revenues will simply not be the same as usual. The main British Airways advert being carried at the moment simply asks people to go and do the business by travelling to get the business. It is a very powerful advert.
Against the background of falling advertising revenues, independent television stations face unprecedented competition. That is true of radio stations too, but the amendment refers specifically to independent regional programming and news editions. I pay tribute to Independent Radio News, which covers London. For hon. Members who might not know about it, it is a great alternative to BBC Radio 5. The unprecedented collapse of advertising revenue and falling audience shares because of unprecedented competition, especially from such alternatives as BBC News 24 and satellite television, have exerted pressures that we must acknowledge. Bearing in mind that the Bill is preparatory to the main communications Bill, we must recognise that a function of Ofcom at this stage should be to ensure continued effective ITV regional programming and news editions.
I pay tribute, Mr. Gale, to your many years' experience in broadcasting and media, on which we in the Committee are hoping to draw. When you speak to your local broadcast media, as I am sure all Committee members do regularly, you will hear the deep concern at the impact such problems are having, and not only on regional programming. We do not only want to see more ''Countdown'' and ''Coronation Street''—now the subject of an all-party parliamentary group; we want to see ITV take regional programming seriously, especially regional news editions. We are all interested in accessing through regional television news broadcasts the wider audience that we could not meet, for example, by standing on Thirsk marketplace on the two days a week that the market meets.
ITV performs public service broadcasting extremely well. It must take its regional programming and news editions seriously against the background of intense competition from the BBC and others, and falling advertising revenue. I commend the amendment to the Committee, against the background of the Government response that was enthusiastic and eloquent about regional television programming and news editions. I recognise that Ministers other than the Under-Secretary of State might have been responsible for that—I accept that the appointment of the Secretary of State and Ministers in each Department is in the Prime Minister's gift. However, as the response is dated November 2001, the Under-Secretary of State might have been responsible for the reply. I hope that he will see fit to support the amendment.
Surprisingly, I support the amendment, which is well thought out and appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York was jeered by Government Members when she talked about the strains being suffered by independent television. I was shocked that the Minister seemed to find it amusing when she quoted figures from Carlton Television. I will not quote such figures, because I do not want to be jeered, but perhaps the Minister will take more seriously figures from the Independent Television Commission—after all, it reports directly to him.
I presume that the ITC reported to him that between 1994 and 2000 the annual growth in net advertising receipts was 8.6 per cent. I point out to those, including the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), who are oblivious to the reality of the world, the ITC's report that independent television—that is the whole of the network, not just Carlton Television—suffered losses in net advertising receipts that were larger than the average loss for the whole industry. Moreover Carlton Television's advertising revenues were down by 13 per cent. and Granada's by 12 per cent. for the year ending September 2001—
Order. I have now listened carefully to that argument on several occasions. This Chairman happens to know a little about broadcasting, and unless the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Ofcom should take responsibility for advertising sales, which I
do not think he is suggesting, I fail to see that his remarks have anything to do with the amendment.
I take your direction, Mr. Gale. My point is that this is a difficult time for broadcasters. Of course, Ofcom's role will not be that of an advertising sales house, but it is important to recognise that economic pressures will tempt broadcasters to centralise.
In a previous sitting the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) pointed out that the ownership of independent television is unimportant as far as the provision of its contract is concerned. What is important is its current contract, which is with the ITC. Although in recent years we have seen consolidation in ownership in independent television, we have also seen a broadening of independent television's regional presence. There are now 48 regional news broadcasts going out simultaneously from the ITV network throughout the United Kingdom, which is a major expansion.
You will know, Mr. Gale, that thanks to changes in technology such as the introduction of electronic newsgathering, large numbers of staff are no longer necessary. Nevertheless, the Bill will have an economic impact on independent television companies at, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York pointed out, a financially stressful time for independent television.
Although the ITC can be commended on ensuring that independent television, and the other organisations to which it applies, maintain their regional structures, that may not be the case with Ofcom—all bets are off. The Minister has said that he wants to see a light regulatory touch, for which I applaud him, but how light will that touch be? Will we see the end of regional broadcasting in the United Kingdom?
As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether she will press the amendment to a vote, but this is an issue that must be discussed. The Minister, rather than reading the information given to him by his officials, should respond properly to the debate. What is the Government's commitment to ensure that Ofcom will carry on the regional broadcasting tradition currently managed by the ITC? I shall happily give way to the hon. Member for Ceredigion.
I thank the hon. Member for Lichfield for giving way—it is a delight that Ceredigion is being pronounced correctly after several sittings of this Committee. I do not doubt his sincerity about regional broadcasting and the amendment, but I am at a loss to understand why the amendment is only about broadcasting, given that Ofcom is about much more than broadcasting. The internet carries a plethora of news sites relating to Wales, Scotland and all the different parts of England, and the BBC
investing heavily in regional internet provision. Surely the amendment should be wider. Is it not flawed because it does not address those issues?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the amendment could be wider. However, the capital required to set up an internet site is considerably less than that required to provide regional television. The Welsh Development Agency—I shall probably now receive a letter from it—maintains an excellent site at no huge cost as a percentage of its overall budget. If it received a new remit to set up some sort of independent television station or to provide local news, it would face a high cost. I think that that was in the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York when she tabled the amendment. There must be a clear commitment from Government that regional television will be maintained under Ofcom.
I know that the Minister will read out his response that Ofcom is only a shell organisation. However, he said at the very opening of the Committee that the reason for establishing that shell is to maintain liaison with the existing regulators and to form the structure of the future Ofcom. We need to discuss and understand now the very spirit of where the Government are coming from, and to hear their commitment to regional television.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleague the hon. Member for Vale of York have argued for the amendment on the basis that independent television regional companies are not only losing revenue from advertising, but losing audiences. Would it be Conservative party policy to subsidise such regional broadcasting?
I do not speak on behalf of the Government or of the Opposition—but, equally, the hon. Lady, who sneers at me from a sedentary position, is not in a position to commit the Government, given that she was clearly unable to maintain her position on the Government Front Bench. She knows the rules. I cannot commit my party. Personally, I do not think that we should subsidise commercial broadcasters; however, the Committee should establish a framework that demonstrates that there is to be a continued commitment. I am not asking for any more than that Ofcom continues the existing commitment provided by the ITC.
My hon. Friend, as ever, hits the nail firmly on the head.
The Independent Television Companies Association also argues for the continuance of regional television. My hon. Friend mentioned ''Coronation Street'', although I am not sure whether that can be regarded as regional television. I think—in a way I look to you on this, Mr. Gale—that
in the United Kingdom there are something like four or five major television production centres owned by ITV companies. We have also seen growth in independent television production houses. As I mentioned earlier, just as there have been technological changes in newsgathering, there have been many changes in television programme production. Although successful programmes such as ''Inspector Morse'' have used traditional filming on Super–16 and 35 mm, programmes such as ''The Bill'' use videotape production. It does that on a regional basis, because it is based in London.
OFCOM shall take into account the need to ensure continued effective ITV regional programming and news editions.
Without that commitment, I am not sure that the new organisation with the light regulatory touch—and 1,111 employees in a building that does not exist but might be the millennium dome—will ensure that programmes such as ''The Bill'', ''Inspector Morse'' and ITV news bulletins continue.
Hon. Members will recall the debate when Carlton Television acquired Central Television, and when Granada acquired Meridian Television. Lord Hollick lost Meridian when he pulled out of ITV. After that takeover, many in the Meridian region feared that regional news programming would end. It has not: it has burgeoned. When the original ITV franchise began in 1958, the first franchisee was Southern Television, which later became TVS and then Meridian. Originally, it had two regional centres, one based in Northam in Southampton and the other in Maidstone. Today, there are more regional centres, including Brighton, because of new technology. It is cheaper and easier to present regional news programming in smaller areas. The ITC and NTL, which provide ITV transmission facilities, have co-operated in localising the transmission of ITV news. Programmes originate in smaller regions and transmit from them, too.
Does my hon. Friend agree that regional broadcasting could be enhanced by a commitment to more local transmissions? I refer particularly to the London borough of Havering, which has a schizophrenic attitude about the region to which it belongs. Some elements in the community believe that they belong to London, whereas others believe that they ought to belong to Essex. That would be fertile ground for local programming.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. There is currently only one regional news service for London; it is based not far from here, on the other side of the Thames. That is because there is only one London transmitter, which is in Croydon. Because transmission technology is also changing, ITV companies could have regional news for north, south, east or west London—or, indeed, for Havering. Will they be encouraged to do so, or will Ofcom take a neutral stance? Will it be such a light regulator that it is content to allow consolidation in both ownership and programming?
I will not be too upset if instead of reading his script the Minister responds with some original thought and disagrees with the clause because it is redundant. However, he might want to assure us that Ofcom's commitment to regional broadcasting will be as strong as the ITC's existing commitment.
I shall invite him to do so. The amendment refers to the continuation of effective ITV regional programming and news editions. We are not asking for anything more than the ITC currently enforces, but a clear steer is needed not only for the Committee, but for ITV companies, for those who will might work for Ofcom, for those who are currently working for the ITC, and for those who might join Ofcom from the ITC—even though, as I said earlier, some individual regulators are saying that the process is taking so long they would rather retire now and not join Ofcom.
Although a steering group of regulators is currently meeting, they are disturbed that, yet again, this ''dysfunctional'' Department—that was said a couple of months ago by a former Culture, Media and Sport Minister—does not appear, even at this late stage in the game, to know precisely what Ofcom will do. The regulators are saying that about the Department and its Ministers—the Minister is right to look down with furrowed brow. I hope that he will respond, otherwise we shall witness another wholesale slaughter of the innocents by the Prime Minister, as happened a few months ago.
As I approach my conclusion I emphasise that Ofcom is to deal with changes in ownership rules for the media in general, which will be exciting. If I can attract the attention of the Whips, I look forward to being on the Committee that considers the main communications Bill—I hope that you will be its Chairman, Mr. Gale—because ownership of the media, including print media, is an interesting subject. It goes hand in hand with the individual contracts that broadcasting providers—the ITV companies with which we are specifically dealing in amendment No. 12—will have with the regulator.
I thank the Minister for his helpful remark. Those companies must plan ahead—they must have a business plan. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate has never run a business, but I tell her that people must plan ahead. Indeed, Government Departments must plan ahead. There must be certainty.
If there is to be certainty, ITV companies need to know whether Ofcom will make the same demands of them as the ITC makes. I hope that it will. The companies are not getting a steer from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and its joint steering
group, so I hope that the Minister will stand up and say whether the Government will commit themselves to regional television in this country. If he simply spouts the standard line from his officials and says that the provision need not apply in this instance because the Bill creates only a shell organisation, he will be doing a grave disservice to broadcasting in this country in general and independent television in particular.
I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss whether the British Broadcasting Corporation comes under the Bill and under tier 3, in which case it will need a similar steer from the Government. Now, there is nothing but vacuum.
I am delighted to participate in this enthralling debate, and, as always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York for explaining what the amendment means. It would be helpful if the Committee understood what is intended for the embryonic Ofcom committee that is being set up for regional television.
I shall put a slightly different twist on the amendment. The emerging Ofcom should consider not only regional television's concerns, but how it might safeguard national programming. In a multi-platform, multi-network environment, we shall not expect or want to see a particular national programme at any given moment.
Indeed, digital television does not need a particular schedule, and that will transform the pattern of television. The Minister should ask the emerging Ofcom whether the extended public service concept is relevant to the way in which it establishes itself. The details will come in the communications Bill when it is brought forward for consideration. I have been struck for some years by the thought that a traditional understanding of television—for example, that there is national news followed by regional news—is no longer the order of the day, and that television will not necessarily be the distribution mechanism.
If that is the case, will Ofcom be charged with responsibilities relating to regional television? The amendment urges that it should, but I shall ask the question in reverse; what do the Government think Ofcom's likely responsibility will be, subject to the substantive Bill, in extending the public service concept to demanding that a multiplicity of channels should have a regional content? How would Ofcom deliver that? It would be easy to do, and localised—the word ''regional'' is too large—television and internet distribution would be an effective way in which to increase audience interest.
For example, in the cable industry, it is already possible—and not technologically difficult—to split advertising so that it relates to a particular street. That might not be a good basis for a particular advertisement, but the local fish and chip shop might decide to advertise within one square mile of its premises. With satellite, which seems to have a big footprint, it is possible, through the access system, to take a particular stream that is not necessarily the stream that is taken by everyone else. The signal will
give one a breakout advertisement because of where one lives or because of one's choice of programmes to which one wants to be alerted. The same is true of push technology on the internet. I raised those technical questions because they go to the heart of some things that we should consider when we are setting up Ofcom. I am confident that the Minister has those things at the forefront of his mind in the drafting of the substantive Bill.
The remit of the embryonic Ofcom must be thought through carefully. If it is to be light regulation, does that mean that the public service concepts of a certain number of hours of a particular type of programming should be maintained? In this context, we cannot discuss the BBC, but it is not irrelevant. If that programming is to be set out, is it to be on any particular channel? For example, ITV Digital is now taking programmes that may not be available on ITV1. Is that an acceptable matter for the consideration of Ofcom and the current ITC as it turns itself into Ofcom as part of the regulatory process?
The amendment is timely and was well put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, and I seek to look at it from a different angle. What are the technological implications of what Ofcom will deal with in a multiplatform-convergent environment? And how can what has traditionally been seen as a Government interest in encouraging regional broadcasting and programming be maintained in that context, where the public have a multiplicity of choice not only of channels, but of delivery mechanisms: cable; cellphones, as we move to third generation video streaming; satellite; and digital terrestrial television, on the assumption that analogue will be switched off sooner rather than later.
By no means could I attempt to speak as eloquently or in as much detail as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who has taught me an awful lot in the space of just a few minutes.
I want to emphasise the importance to television of the independent sector. Thinking back to when I was young, I remember all sorts of programmes being broadcast through that sector in different regions. ''Emmerdale'', ''Coronation Street'' and ''EastEnders''; they are all household names. Despite my earlier comments about good taste and decency, it is important that at least some of those programmes continue.
I am concerned about the future of the independent sector in the sense that it seems that the BBC will be regulated somewhat differently from ITV. We have heard a great deal from my hon. Friends about the difficulties faced by independent companies. We must remember that they are not funded by the anonymous taxpayer; they have to generate their own income, which puts them on a very different footing. That is a serious consideration in terms of regulation.
The White Paper contains a great deal about the future of independent broadcasting. On the one hand,
that makes me feel confident about its future. On the other, it seems a little woolly and vague. Will the Minister add a little more certainty?
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield made his points far more colourfully than I could hope to do. If I am in a position to do so, I shall ensure that he serves on the Committee that considers the main communications Bill, because it would not be the same without him. I am sure that members of the Committee will agree about that, if nothing else.
Independent companies need to be able to plan ahead, but the White Paper has a lot to say about the ownership of different media in the future. For that ragbag of reasons, I support the amendment.
''Intelligent'', as my hon. Friend says; that is such a joy. The hon. Gentleman raised matters that will properly be discussed and dealt with in the drafting of the substantive communications Bill. But we are not discussing that Bill and I want to return to the business in hand.
If I hear another account of this lavish lunch at which poverty-stricken Mr. Clive Jones and poverty-stricken Carlton Communications brainwashed poor vulnerable Conservative Members, I might throw up.
I doubt whether a single member of the Committee does not share a desire to ensure that high-quality regional programming, including news, continues to be an important part of ITV's public service offering. The White Paper outlined our commitment to retaining and strengthening the regional dimension of public service broadcasting, and to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of different communities and cultural interests. I reaffirm that aim now.
Those matters are not relevant to the single function that is conferred by the Bill on Ofcom; to prepare itself to take on other functions at a later date. As Ofcom will not be exercising regulatory functions at this stage, it will not be in a position to ensure continued, effective ITV regional programming, so it will remain the responsibility of the ITC. The communications Bill will set out the detail of Ofcom's central regulatory objectives, and no more. I oppose the amendments.
I thank and congratulate all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I hear what the Minister says, but it is not an adequate response because we are finding it difficult to divorce the function of Ofcom and the content of the communications Bill from its setting up. The one purpose of Ofcom, and of our being here, is to enable Ofcom to prepare for functions about which we know not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield was helpful, given his vast knowledge of Radio Caroline and other stations. Yesterday, I discovered that I might have been listening to that station when he was performing, although not under the name of Mickey Fab; I would have remembered that.
I am afraid that although I was born in Scotland, I went to Harrogate ladies college. We were not supposed to have radios in our dormitories—it was a boarding school—after hours. I hate to say this on record, but I brought a radio in and listened to it, although I did so quietly, so as not to disturb other residents. So far as I recall, it was Radio Caroline, not Radio Scotland.
Reference has been made to the problems that face ITV programming and news editions. The Committee will be delighted, or appalled, to learn that when my husband took me out for our wedding anniversary two years ago, I was accosted upon leaving the restaurant by someone who thought I was the star of ''The Bill''. I do not know how I might have been confused with the main players of ''The Bill'', but I am grateful to Tyne Tees Television and Yorkshire Television for giving me such coverage. The amendment is necessary because if the Government do not accept it, I may not get such exposure in future.
Importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has put on record the pressures that individual programme makers and news editors are under; we have benefited from that. In my introductory remarks, I said that all hon. Members—whether Front Benchers or Back Benchers—benefit almost disproportionately more from regional news programmes than from national news programmes. The importance of using every opportunity here or in constituency must be close to your heart, Mr. Gale. What a shame that the Committee is not being recorded and broadcast.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton who has Front-Bench experience of the kind that none of us elected in 1997 has yet tasted. He was not simply driven away in a ministerial car; he carried home the red box each night and did the business. As the Minister said, my hon. Friend still bears the scars, as I am sure he would agree. Posing the question in reverse, as my hon. Friend did, was helpful. The Minister must respond to his plea and say what would happen if Ofcom had no role in preserving regional programming. My hon. Friend was almost apologetic in explaining that he was raising technical points. We must accept that it is a joint departmental responsibility.
We are the poorer in the Committee for not having a Minister or a Front Bench spokesman from the Department of Trade and Industry present. We are focusing exclusively on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport aspects. Many of the issues that we will consider fall under the remit of the DTI.
However, I am mindful of the Minister's comments, and I may return to the subject later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 61, in page 2, line 45, after 'industry;', insert—
No. 62, in page 3, line 5, at end insert
', including co-operating with the Office of Fair Trading on matters relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets'.
I start by referring quickly to amendment No. 39, which would add a beneficial proposal regarding those appointed to the board and those regulated by it. The steering group considered that in a limited way in the Towers Perrin report. We may consider it at a later stage. Employees of the present regulatory authorities are concerned about the transfer of assets, pension rights, and their financial and pecuniary interests. The Minister may consider that in his response.
I hope that we can discuss, and then move formally, amendments Nos. 61 and 62. The Select Committee report refers briefly to competition, access and economic regulation. Paragraph 27 of the report recommends that
the new regulator be given distinct objectives relating to consumer protection and to the promotion of open and competitive markets. We further recommend that the Government prepare policy guidelines for the new regulator on matters affecting the priority of its different objectives to be debated as part of the legislation giving effect to the proposals in the White Paper.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield will remember the deliberations only too clearly and may even be able to say whether the Select Committee has had time to consider the Government response.
Responding to that recommendation and to paragraph 27, the Government say that they agree that
the consumer protection and the promotion of competition deserve to be stated as distinct objectives and the Communications Bill will provide for that. These and the other objectives set out in the White Paper will all be important for OFCOM, however, and we do not consider that it would help OFCOM to strike the right balance between them if one objective were to be given priority over the others.
The key point is:
Where there is a conflict between them, it will be for OFCOM to resolve it case by case.
That is on page 3 of the Government's response.
Therein lies the problem. Perhaps this is the most worrying aspect of all the deliberations that we have so far had on the Bill. The Government's response has confirmed—perhaps the Minister will do so again—that they intend Ofcom to have a role as a competition authority. We alluded to that under an earlier amendment that I moved unsuccessfully. The problem is that that will not be a unique role. It is fully intended—unless the Government's position has changed, in which case today is an opportunity to inform us of that—that Ofcom will have a joint role in
competition matters as a competition authority with the Office of Fair Trading.
I find that an impossible situation. I earlier rehearsed my interest in competition matters and referred to the brief period that I spent in DG IV as an administrative trainee, otherwise known as a stagiaire. That is a traineeship. It is called a practikophold in Danish. I then went on to practise in two separate law firms, one before and one after I was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. On the basis of that, I decided that I would like to be a competition lawyer. I sat the concours, the open examination. I then sat—this is quite an admission, especially with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, the Whip, present—the open competition as a British lawyer for the European Commission, although I forget in which year.
I passed the competition but, regrettably, and to my utmost disappointment, the invigilating authorities wrote to me saying that they had raised the pass mark. That was a scandal for which I believe I could have successfully prosecuted them before the European Court of Justice, but I assumed that I was destined for other things. I had obtained 51.05 per cent. on the written paper, but they raised the pass mark to 55 per cent. halfway through. They then had the gall to say that I would not be invited to the next stage; that is why I am here today. I thank the Committee for its interest in my background in competition affairs. The point is that many failed and thwarted competition lawyers may end up as Members of Parliament. There is a moral there.
I assume that I am not the only person to have had several representations from outside bodies. Perhaps the most pertinent came from NTL, which examined Ofcom's role as a competition authority. It shares my concern that if there are to be two competition authorities, a joint responsibility between Ofcom and the OFT, this Bill should say what the relationship between them will be and which will have the ultimate word and be the ultimate arbiter. It is intended that Ofcom will inherit the concurrent powers granted to Oftel under the Competition Act 1998, and that those powers will be extended to cover the entire communications waterfront, ecology or whatever we want to call it. At present, cases involving broadcasting would be considered by the OFT, not the ITC. Ofcom may therefore end up handling some of the most strategically important competition cases in the UK, not only in telecoms, but in broadcasting.
I have listened fascinated to the hon. Lady's life story. I wonder what she had for lunch on the day that she failed her exams.
There is no change to the White Paper proposals. The OFT and Ofcom will both have powers and individual cases will be handled by one or the other, which is what happens in every single regulatory regime. There will be administrative arrangements to ensure that the best-placed authority handles a case, as there are now between the OFT and Oftel. I hope that that resolves the hon. Lady's dilemma.
No, it does not. I imagine that by Tuesday I will have a plethora of further correspondence on this matter. When the Competition Act 1998 was passed, many hon. Members expressed concern about the granting of concurrent powers. I am not sure whether the Minister is saying that the position that he described arose as a result of the 1998 Act, because one of its purposes was to inscribe and introduce into UK law articles 85 and 86 and others of the treaty of Rome. Many hon. Members were concerned about the granting of concurrent powers in terms of whether the sector regulators were equipped to apply the powers and of the dangers of fragmentation of interpretation.
Many people take the view that concurrent powers are a good idea in theory, and I am sure that the Minister could wax lyrical for hours about that. However, in practice they are good only if they are granted to a body that is established and equipped to act as a competition authority. From what we have heard today, Ofcom is neither equipped nor destined to be primarily a competition authority. It is a regulator in many areas, but competition should not be its primary responsibility. Working within a closely defined legal framework and under the overall strategic direction of the OFT is unacceptable.
Despite the various merits of the structure that is being proposed for Ofcom for other purposes, NTL, for one, has grave doubts about whether it is appropriate as a competition authority. It is also perplexed that the Towers Perrin report does not appear to have considered the basic template, at least in respect Ofcom's economic regulation functions, for the structure of a successful competition authority. It is appropriate to ask some searching questions, and amendments Nos. 61 and 62 are probing amendments about the extent to which, given the proposed structure, concurrent powers are appropriate.
I am sure that the hon. Lady, as an experienced competition lawyer, agrees that there is a great distinction between a duty of promoting a competitive environment and one of deciding specific questions of ownership. When Ofcom is considered in the light of the main communications Bill, I hope that the questions of cross-media ownership will remain with the OFT, so that Ofcom is not burdened or diluted by scoundrels from the print media like myself. That would stray Ofcom from its purpose.
I hope that the hon. Lady will not only make that distinction, but correct the hon. Member for Lichfield, who said that Ofcom would necessarily have responsibility for questions of cross-media ownership. If the hon. Lady will not correct him, perhaps she should send him for correction.
I am not going to intervene on the private grief between two hon. Members.
The first point that the hon. Gentleman made was valid. If I were a competition lawyer, I would not know who was the competition authority: Ofcom or the Office of Fair Trading. I question the extent to which concurrent powers are appropriate for the proposed structure. How will the powers be shared,
and who will have the last word? As a minimum, this paving Bill should create a duty to liaise with the Director General of Fair Trading in order to ensure that a coherent structure to deal with competition law is high on the list of priorities. The Bill will not do that without the amendments.
To be an effective competition authority, Ofcom must work with the OFT to develop proposals for the exercise of concurrent powers under the Competition Act 1998, for the reasons cited by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). During the passage of the 1998 Act, questions were not answered. There was debate on the granting of concurrent powers to sector regulators. Ultimately, those powers were granted, but concern was raised that that should not lead to forum shopping or fragmentation of the regime for enforcing competition law.
Ofcom's primary function should not be that of a competition authority. Of those who will serve on the board, or as chair, deputy chair or chief executive, no one has agreed with our proposal that one of them should be a lawyer or an economist, or should have experience of competition matters. The hon. Gentleman also failed to support the amendment that would ensure that someone should have knowledge of competition policy in relation to media ownership.
Concurrent powers strengthen the hand of competition. Forum shopping is not a necessary result of two bodies having powers. The body best placed to determine a particular question would do so.
I was listening to the interesting remarks made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who has already, in his short parliamentary career, made an important impact in Staffordshire and his constituency. He may have misunderstood the intention of the White Paper. From page 41 onwards, it details the role of Ofcom in cross-media ownership. Whether that is part of Ofcom's role is another matter, but the Government clearly feel that it is.
That supports my argument. Competition policy must be clearly recognised as primus inter pares if it is going to be effectively discharged by multiple bodies. That logic is followed by the Competition Act 1998, which reserves key policy-making functions to the Office of Fair Trading. We need to know that the Government have that in mind, that they will specify that Ofcom will be responsible only for certain competition aspects and that others will be remain with the OFT.
My amendments follow that logic, and seek to strengthen the commitment to establishing Ofcom as a viable competition authority in its own right. The Director General of Fair Trading will also be able to put his input and experience into organising the OFT following the introduction of the Competition Act
1998. We cannot let the Ofcom go through as it is without that point taken on board.
Amendment No. 61 refers to
That was the wish that was so forcefully expressed by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and enthusiastically endorsed by the Government in their official response.
Amendment No. 62 refers to
including co-operating with the Office of Fair Trading on matters relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets.
I have some difficulty in understanding why the Government have backed down on specifying, as I believe they should, where there is a conflict. It should not be Ofcom that resolves things case by case, but the OFT.
Competition policy has the specific aim of preserving the long-term interest of consumers, viewers, citizens and the whole industry. That can be done by promoting open and competitive markets that deliver choice, low prices, quality of service, a wide variety of content and content of good taste and decency. Where competition is not fully effective, adopting appropriate regulatory measures to ensure a high level of consumer protection, competition and a wide variety of content, including content of high quality, should be the preserve of the competition authority. It should also maintain a variety of public expression and maintain accepted community standards and content that balance freedom of speech against the need to protect from harmful or offensive material, and ensuring appropriate protection of fairness and privacy.
The Bill should include a specific task that states that Ofcom's duty is to promote open and competitive markets for broadband services, including broadband access. The Bill should not be allowed to remain silent on the relationship between Ofcom and the OFT, particular on matters that relate to the promotion of open and competitive markets. The Bill cannot remain silent because it is not helpful to competition lawyers and other advisers out there who want to ensure that the industry follows best practice.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Her comment is extremely helpful, emphasises what we are seeking to do and adds power to the arguments behind the amendments. It shows that there is little daylight between us and the Select Committee with its distinguished Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). We are all in the same boat, paddling in the same direction
and we are getting no support or prevailing wind from the Government.
Deregulation activity flowing from market and non-market reviews following new EU Communications Directives.
Presumably, that will be a good thing. It is less regulation so will pass the principle of light touch. Examples of activities expected to start under Ofcom are in precisely that area that forms the context for the amendments. The first involves:
Competition Act (and certain sections of Fair Trading Act) concurrent powers extension to broadcasting.
I am not seeking to blame the responsible Department—it might not be the Minister's Department, but the DTI—but there is a gap here that we must plug. The general understanding is that the Bill will introduce concurrent powers that will be extended to broadcasting, and we are informed of that in the report. It cannot do that if we do not know precisely where Ofcom will be applying the Competition Act 1998 and—news to me—certain sections of the Fair Trading Act 1973 and where the OFT will have that responsibility. It is an impossible position in which to place practising lawyers and economic advisors, if the Government do not take the opportunity to advise us of what they intend.
A second example of an activity expected to start under Ofcom is
Competition work associated with spectrum trading operations.
Again, that is a new ball game, a whole new area opening up, and we still do not know precisely how Ofcom and its structure will serve that activity. A third activity expected to start under Ofcom is
Completing implementation of EU Communications Directives and carrying out ongoing regulatory work . . . on market reviews.
Those three activities are expected to start under Ofcom. We are told that the sole function of this Bill is to prepare Ofcom for those new activities and for its regulatory role, but we are not told what competition role it is to play nor how its structure will equip it to play that role. I believe that we cannot let the Bill go through without accepting amendments Nos. 61 and 62.
I urge the Minister to use this opportunity to confer on Ofcom any functions relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets, as I and various outside bodies have urged him to do. There was a groundswell of support to that effect from both sides of the House when the Competition Act 1998 was enacted. The very distinguished, highly regarded, well-informed, well-respected Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport also urge that. The gap might be an oversight, but we must plug it. There must be a specific reference to co-operation between Ofcom and the OFT on matters relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets.
Knowing how open-minded, independent-minded and free-spirited this particular Minister is, I see no problem in his acquiescing with my generous invitation to support amendments Nos. 61 and 62, if not amendment No. 39 as well.
Let us remind ourselves precisely why we are engaging in the formation of Ofcom. This is being driven by the emergence of new technologies such as different ways of analogue broadcasting, which still has a life and which we should not write off, and the introduction of digital broadcasting. We can take pride in the United Kingdom that 35 per cent. of homes have access to digital television, which is the highest percentage rate of penetration in any country in the world. It is certainly better than any continental country despite the best efforts of Directorates-General IV, with or without my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York being a solicitor there.
I should regret it if I misled the Committee. I am not a solicitor. I am a member of the Faculty of Advocates. I am a Scottish advocate, which is different from being a solicitor.
The Bill's introduction is due to the emergence of new technologies and the possibilities that they provide. There are several platforms on which digital broadcasting can be provided. There is digital terrestrial television, the ITV box, satellite television and cable television. There are other forms, which are not well used in this country, using microwave links. There are many ways in which to deliver digital television. We still have the more conventional forms such as newsprint, although it is interesting to note that most broadsheets in this country provide excellent and free website access to their newspapers. Again, we see a convergence between the traditional forms of delivery of media and digital television.
It is strange that, in clause 2—the heading of which is ''Initial function of OFCOM''—no recognition is made that the raison d'etre of the Bill comes through the development of new forms of delivery of the internet, broadcasting and the print media through the use of websites. There will be multi-access to those media without having to duplicate in one's home the means by which those media are received. It would be extraordinary if, through lack of control of competition, one found that in order to receive all digital channels, one must have a digital set-top box receiving digital terrestrial broadcasts, a satellite dish and cable. That would be the obvious extension of the argument if there were no controls.
The Government recognise that there must be controls, and these have been covered in depth in a good White Paper, ''A New Future for Communications'', which has a picture of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the
The Minister says that the Bill is born out of the White Paper, so it is incongruous that, although the White Paper contains considerable discussion about how cross-media ownership should be regulated, clause 2, entitled ''Initial function of OFCOM'', does not refer to that. Again, surely there should be a clear direction to existing regulators and broadcasters as to the Government's intentions.
The Minister and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme correctly pointed out that the concept of two regulators was not unusual. Oftel and the Office of Fair Trading are jointly responsible for competition control in the media. However, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee argues that there should be one communications Ministry, because sharing responsibility between two Departments is not the best way to proceed. Given that argument, surely we can equally argue that having one competition agency, whether Ofcom or the OFT, is more logical than two organisations, even though there are two at present.
My hon. Friend asks an interesting question, but I do not know the answer. I hope that the Minister will provide an explanation, because the 1998 Act is yet another factor in a complex equation. The question of competition is interesting because technology does not stand still. If we are not careful, we shall end up with an Ofcom Bill—I do not mean the one that we are debating now—that defines structures that will be wholly inappropriate, possibly by the time that it is enacted, and certainly within two, three or four years. The reason is simply the pace of change. We cannot blame the Government for that, because no Government can predict accurately what technological changes might occur, but we can certainly try to make provision for them. One way of doing that is to get people to start thinking about the issues sooner rather than later. To do that, we need to give a steer, which is why I commend my hon. Friend for tabling the amendments. At least we have an opportunity to discuss these matters now.
I hope that the Minister will talk about how the Government intend to address cross-media ownership, but of course that is not the only issue. It is not just a question of balancing the ownership of apples and pears, because the two are very different. How it is argued that one newspaper is equal to two small radio stations or one large television station, I do not know. It is not easy.
I commend the authors of the White Paper, because page 43 gives a brief and interesting analysis of how France, Germany, the Netherlands and my beloved Australia regard cross-media ownership and how they deal with the problem. Surprisingly, the United States, which has particularly interesting ownership rules, is omitted. The Select Committee hopes shortly to visit
the Federal Communications Commission, which governs the ownership of commercial television and commercial radio as well as other media in the USA. That omission is worrying, because there is no clear guidance on the Government's thinking on cross-media ownership for those who hope to be future regulators.
There is another factor. I mentioned the three platforms earlier and it is worth referring to the memorandum submitted by Sky to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into the future of communications, which is being undertaken concurrently with this Committee. Sky argues that despite the ''digital dividend'' from broadcasting on satellite, ITV withheld ITV1 from the Sky platform for three years in order to boost the take up of ONdigital, which is now ITV Digital; the pay TV operator that is jointly owned by Carlton and Granada. Those issues are addressed by amendment No. 62, which talks about the promotion of open and competitive markets. The market primarily involves not only the viewers and the listeners; it is also the platform to enable those programmes to be delivered.
Amendment No. 61 also refers to the need of the Secretary of State to make proposals conferring on Ofcom any functions relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets. That applies not only to the market, as in those who will listen to, view or operate the internet, but the market to transmit these programmes, which brings us to the issues of having free and open access to all three digital platforms by programme providers. There is a problem with digital terrestrial television in that the number of channels available is limited by the frequency spectrum. That is less the case with satellite and cable. It is beholden on owners of satellite and cable networks to provide that access at a market rate.
At the moment, the rules are in place and they are controlled primarily by the ITC and the OFT. But there is confusion in the industry about whether Ofcom will continue to maintain those rules. The Minister says—I welcome it—that Ofcom will be a light-touch regulator, yet he gives no clear guidance as to whether the rules currently maintained by the ITC will be maintained by Ofcom. Indeed, some Labour Members—including the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who made some intelligent remarks—questioned whether it should be the role of Ofcom to set those rules.
That is a valid point. First, it is dangerous when two organisations have overlapping responsibilities for competition policy. Secondly, if the OFT has a remit to ensure that cross-media ownership does not create monopolies or that monopolies do not deny programme producers access to any particular digital platform, why do we need Ofcom to have that function? That point was put so well by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would do us another service by explaining the meaning of amendment No. 39, which conjures up images of Slickergate and dodgy dealings by financial journalists. Does he agree with the suggestion to bring some
As far as the latter is concerned, the Broadcasting Standards Commission will fall within the orbit of Ofcom. I have often said that the Press Complaints Commission is, in some respects, redundant. My personal view is that the BSC should be included in Ofcom's remit, but that is not the main issue in amendment No. 39.
Surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman does not understand what amendment No. 39 means. It is designed to ensure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York eloquently said, that pension and other schemes operated for the benefit of employees in the media are regulated by Ofcom.
If Bills or Acts were not open to interpretation, lawyers would have no job to do. If the hon. Gentleman were arguing that a clause that is open to interpretation is badly drafted, I would have to say that the draftsmen of all Bills were doing a bad job. All Bills and Acts of Parliament are open to interpretation, which is good. If it were otherwise and everything were rigid, as in the French Napoleonic code, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, a non-practising lawyer, and others would be out of business and the law could not progress. We all know that it takes much longer for laws to be changed in Assemblies and Parliaments than it takes for judges to make judgments under changed circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing eloquently against the hon. Member for Vale of York in respect of lawyers. He argued that the lack of clarity in Bills affords lawyers a good living. His hon. Friend argued that the lack of clarity caused lawyers in the wider world considerable confusion, heartache and—I may be paraphrasing—despair. Is that not another example, as seen so often Opposition amendments, of a glaring failure to plan ahead?
The hon. Lady was clearly not listening to the travails of my hon. Friend, who spoke about how she was tragically and deceitfully treated by the European Union, on which my hon. Friend has such strong views. I simply maintain the obvious; that most lawyers will interpret most clauses of most Acts of Parliament in different ways because flexibility is built in.
Hon. Members will want me to curtail my remarks. I was planning to speak to amendments Nos. 61 and 62, and not to amendment No. 39, but I was happy to be drawn on amendment No. 39 by the intervention of two Opposition Members.
The Bill is born of changes in technology. We already have three digital platforms and microwave local transmission might become a fourth. Experiments with laser technology are also taking
place with the aim of producing an even wider spectrum on a local basis. Whatever Ofcom or communications Bill is finally produced, it must be flexible enough to enable Ofcom to adapt without having to return to this place because of further technological changes. Thus, equal access to different platforms must be dealt with here and now in clause 2, which is about the initial function of Ofcom.
Without that, we will end up with an asymmetric provision of digital broadcasting and a lack of clarity on the question of cross-media ownership, and there will be confusion about the responsibilities of different bodies in charge of public policy for the same area.
At the very least, I hope that the Minister will provide clarity so that people in the industry can plan ahead. That would benefit employees in the industry, as well as viewers and listeners, and it would help strengthen the media business in this country, which faces grave threats from Italian, German and American media groups that view our broadcasters and independent producers hungrily.
The recurring theme throughout the debate on Tuesday and today has been wide representation. We discussed that in respect of the membership of the board and the structure of Ofcom, and it applies just as much to the clauses that we are discussing now. Open competition will deliver diverse media ownership that also embraces regional broadcasting, which we discussed earlier; it will provide more opportunities for local broadcasting. We are a long way off local television provision, but we already have a wide range of local radio stations.
Community radio has not yet been mentioned. It is important that schools, hospitals and other small owners of long-term restricted licences have equal protection in an open, competitive market. They make a valuable contribution to the diversity of broadcasting.
I wish to speak briefly to amendments Nos. 61 and 62. The objectives for setting up Ofcom are simplification, which I will come back to in a moment, standards in broadcasting and protection of the public. We discussed standards at some length earlier today when we talked about decency and good taste. I would be called to order if I restarted the discussion.
However, we must consider the influence that the media has on the public. It influences perceptions of good or bad taste and decency or indecency, but it also has an overall influence, perhaps of a political or religious nature. That is one reason why we need regulation, and rules and laws on competition.
I speak from bitter personal experience—perhaps all hon. Members can—of undue media influence, which can damage one's career. One part of the media may pursue someone who they have something against, or someone who belongs to a group that they wish to embarrass. Let us say that a newspaper is pursuing an individual. If several newspapers are under the same ownership, they can network and use local bases. They can snoop into every article that the individual has written for the local press and publicise them in the national press. We must be conscious of
the great power held by such media groups and examine it closely. I am pleased that the White Paper discusses the issue in some detail.
However, we must also be fair to the industry. The White Paper says that this Bill and the next one will have to strike a balance between creating a free and open society and protecting the public from undue influence, bad taste and indecency. I hope that we will be able to shape the legislation into that form. As I have often said, I believe in a free society, but not necessarily in a libertarian one. There is a difference.
In talking about regulation, we must be conscious of a point that I have raised many times, although I fear that I will be called to order if I go too deeply into it. We need to look at the position of the BBC with regard to regulation and competition. I do not understand how the BBC can be considered a fair competitor in the marketplace when non-consumers have to pay the licence fee. How can that be considered fair, free or competitive?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point that is pertinent to the amendment; namely, the control of competition policy. The BBC has a policy of open trading—fair trading is the term it uses—and has produced published guidelines. Yet, as my hon. Friend will know, several complaints have been made by commercial organisations that the BBC—
Order. Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, the BBC has been debated by the Committee and is not included in the provisions of the Bill. Further discussion on the subject would therefore be out of order.
I said that I was fearful of being called to order; in the event, my hon. Friend was called to order. I led him down the wrong path and I apologise to him. He can perhaps tell me later the point that he was going to make. I shall move on, but I want to emphasise before doing so that if we are to have competition, it is important that all members of the media are treated in the same way.
I had thought that simplification was an objective of the Bill. The White Paper describes what it terms a concurrency between regulators in other industries, but we are concerned that, under the Bill, Ofcom will seem to be responsible to two Departments. It is true that we are privileged to have two Government Whips from different Departments; the Opposition do not have sufficient numbers to provide two Whips. This particular Whip—I refer of course to myself—has to work particularly hard, as hon. Members will have noted. We are concerned that Ofcom will have to report to two different Departments. We are supposed to be simplifying the process.
I agree. It is important to have clarity on that, and I thought that we were trying to clear up confusion. It seems uncertain and confusing to have two organisations that, in effect, have responsibility for competition and deciding between themselves which one will look at which individual case. The White Paper states:
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York did not exactly copy the White Paper in drafting the amendments, but the wording of amendment No. 62:
including co-operating with the Office of Fair Trading on matters relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets
in effect quotes the objective of that part of the White Paper. I am sure that the Minister will not resist the amendment.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, as he has several times today. If Ofcom is to take the lead in regulation, it is not clear in the Bill. I am not entirely sure who should regulate—[Laughter.] Labour Members laugh at that, but from the White Paper and the Bill it seems that the Government are not sure who should regulate: they say that the two organisations should discuss it. The laughter is a little unkind.
Although I am not a lawyer, I have some experience of competition issues as I was City editor of a national newspaper for some years. To take a concrete example, it could hardly have been predicted that a craze for buying ostriches would sweep Britain. When that mad craze swept Britain, the competition authorities—the OFT and the Financial Services Authority—concurred that the FSA had the most appropriate powers to tackle it. Likewise, in a future of fast-moving technology, it will not possible to predict every instance in which it will be necessary to put on a competition hat. It is logical that competition regulators should put their heads together to decide which has the best powers and the best expertise to deal with each circumstance as it arises. There is nothing conflicting about that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point that the regulatory authority with the expertise in a particular industry should be the one to regulate, but I am not entirely sure that that is the case. Do we want to protect the industry or the consumer? If the consumer, perhaps people from the industry should not regulate competition.
Surely the question arises from the lack of clarity. Does my hon. Friend agree that because Ofcom naturally has expertise in the broadcasting industry and other digital media, it should deal with issues relating to cross-media ownership and other aspects of competition policy? Although some issues may relate to shares and would
therefore be embraced by the FSA, such cases would be the exception rather than the rule. Questions are being asked today because of the lack of clarity and guidance from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
I agree. The lack of clarity is the reason why the amendments were tabled. Unfortunately, I must be here tomorrow, although I know that other hon. Members may not have to be. I therefore conclude my remarks.
The hon. Member for Vale of York appears to be concerned about conflicts of interest among media employers, although the exact focus of her concern is unclear—and that is being charitable. The Secretary of State has not yet made any proposals that Ofcom should concern itself with such matters. Should my right hon. Friend choose to do so, however, Ofcom's interests in that area in so far as they relate to the regulation of communications would be adequately covered by clause 2(3)(a) and (b), which allow the Secretary of State to make proposals to confer on Ofcom any function relating to telecommunications, wireless telegraphy, broadcasting, radio and television services, or other services connected to the communications industry; and any matters that are incidental or supplemental to those proposals. Those proposals will be set out in the draft communications Bill and debated fully when the Bill enters Parliament.
I can deal with amendments Nos. 61 and 62 briefly. They are unnecessary and add nothing to the Bill. Anything that they would make permissible for Ofcom is already permissible. I ask the Committee to reject the amendments.
The Minister started well but has gone downhill rapidly. I understand what he said about the clause as it stands. Amendment No. 39 was a probing amendment, and he has gone some way towards answering our concerns and specifying the precise role of Ofcom. The Minister says from a sedentary position that that is unnecessary, but that is not true. The Bill is not as clear as it should be, but I am grateful to him for clarifying at least part of it. I accept that that amendment may not be the best drafted, but we do not have two Departments at our disposal, as the Minister will remember only too well from his time in opposition.
The Minister's response on amendments Nos. 61 and 62 was derisory and unacceptable. I set out the position under the Competition Act 1998 and remarkably, it appears that the Minister may feel inadequate or incompetent because the Department of Trade and Industry is the lead Department in that respect.
The hon. Lady may not know this, but for three and a half years, I did the job of Competition Minister. I may not have failed my exams in Brussels, but I assure her that I know competition law in this country and will debate it with her at any time.
I am most disappointed that the Minister will not debate it with me here and now on these two amendments. I may have omitted to say this
morning—I thank the Minister giving me the opportunity to set the record straight—but I was told that I had passed the competition paper: to get through the written stage and to the oral stage, all that was required was 50 per cent, and I got 51.05 per cent. However, the pass mark was raised to 55 per cent. That was unacceptable, and I could have pursued the matter through the courts, but I chose not to do so because I imagined that another life beckoned, and here I am getting on with it.
Indeed, I thank the Minister for that kind remark.
I do not know where the Minister was in 1998—perhaps he was at the DTI and responsible for taking the Competition Act through Parliament—but he must be aware that concern was expressed then by not only Members on both sides of the House, but outside bodies such as NTL.
I have gone through the activities that are expected to stop under Ofcom, and only one relates to competition—even that is stretching it a bit. However, three activities are expected to start under Ofcom, and all relate to competition. I will make it really simple for the Minister and ask the question that sums up the purpose of the two amendments. Which one will be the ultimate arbiter, the primus inter pares—the Office of Fair Trading or Ofcom? That is why his response is unacceptable.
Given our strategy and tactics, and that we want to return to the matter at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question agreed to.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.