Clause 5 - Winding up of OFCOM on abandonment etc.of proposals

Office of Communications Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 5th February 2002.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 12:45 pm, 5th February 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 59, in page 4, line 34, at end insert

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

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

I remind the Committee of my warning about departures from the scope of the amendment prejudicing the clause stand part debate.

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

The purpose of amendment No. 59 is to add to subsection (1) a provision that before the Secretary of State can decide that it is necessary to wind up Ofcom there should be

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

Such an abandonment or modification of relevant proposals on the regulation of communications would be due to the Government failing to produce the main communications Bill either before or after 14 April, or whatever date they choose. Should the circumstances in which the Secretary of State deems it unnecessary for Ofcom to continue to exist arise, the Government may by order wind up and dissolve Ofcom.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport believed most fervently that Ofcom, even in its transitional phase, should be fully accountable to both Houses of Parliament. What the best vehicle for such accountability would be is debatable, and we have debated it elsewhere. The reason why the Opposition believe that it is right and proper that there should be an alternative to a Select Committee of either this House or the other place is that we were told by the Minister that there would be a pre-legislative scrutiny committee, which would be a Joint Committee of both

Houses of Parliament. The duty of a Joint Committee on pre-legislative scrutiny should be to monitor the way in which Ofcom is set up.

Perhaps clause 5 could be described as a sunset clause. Our attempt to insert a sunset provision failed miserably through lack of support, even though I moved it vigorously--

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

Thank you.

If the communications Bill does not appear before the House this spring, or by the autumn, or even by spring next year, it would be a right and proper for the matter to be considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. The composition of such a Joint Committee would be determined not by the Government, but by both Houses of Parliament, although I am not sure which House would have seniority. I had the privilege of serving on a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament and was told that if another similar Joint Committee was set up it would be the turn of the House of Commons to provide the Chairman. However, the Joint Committee would, no doubt, make a joint decision, so seniority would be of no consequence.

It should be for the Secretary of State to deem that it is no longer necessary for Ofcom to continue to exist. It may be necessary to prompt the Secretary of State to reach a decision, but that is not apparent in the Bill, so amendment No. 59 is necessary. Without it, primary legislation would not come before Parliament, although there is another procedure that we shall discuss in connection with clause 5 stand part, whereby a statutory instrument can be laid and prayed against. That is an unsatisfactory procedure and depends on

the vigilance of an active official Opposition in monitoring statutory instruments to ensure that they do not slip through unannounced.

Our purpose today—or on Report, or even on Third Reading—is to ensure that once Ofcom has been brought into existence, it does not continue longer than absolutely necessary. Our sunset provision—we have overcome our disappointment—would have introduced a time scale that would have helped the Minister to concentrate his Department's mind on whether Ofcom should continue for one year or 18 months, although the Opposition believe that one year would have been sufficient, from the date of the Bill's enactment.

The Bill fails to provide for the Department, having strung us along and promised a communications Bill, leaving us with only the little baby paving legislation--

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that.

Even the Government envisage in the clause that the act or failure to act, or the abandonment or modification of any relevant proposals about the regulation of communications, may obviate the necessity of Ofcom continuing to exist, in which case the Secretary of State may by order provide for its winding up and dissolution. The purpose of our concise but appropriate amendment is that that should happen only after consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. We could have gone further and suggested that that should be subject to the approval of a Joint Committee, but the Minister may think that that would be a step too far--

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.