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Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance notice he provided--albeit somewhat truncated by a fire alarm and evacuation in his Department; I hope that all is now well. In fact, we have had more advance notice than usual, as much of the statement seems to have appeared in the Financial Times this morning.
In other respects, the White Paper has been slow in coming. A pledge to reform the regulation of media and broadcasting was contained in the Labour party manifesto for the current Parliament; it is another pledge that will not be kept. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the planned legislative changes that he has announced today stand no chance of taking effect until 2002 at the earliest? The media and communications industries are moving fast; the Government are moving painfully slowly. Industry often complains that the Government try to do too much, but here we have an unusual example of the Government getting in the way by doing too little.
Progress toward today's announcement has been helped neither by an undignified turf war between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry nor by the confusion and incompetence that is the hallmark of Labour in office.
I had always thought of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport as having the last word in dither and incompetence, but I now realise that I have led a rather sheltered life all these years. In this case at least, the right hon. Gentleman has nothing on the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, which is probably why the former has come to the House to make today's statement.
The technical and regulatory aspects of media and communications are often regarded as subjects fit only for anoraks, but they are vital, dynamic, growing industries--powerhouses of new employment and investment with the capacity to enhance or to damage the quality of all our lives. There is an urgent need to update the regulatory framework to reflect the dramatic changes, such as the development of the internet, that have occurred since the Broadcasting Act 1996 was passed. What the Government have announced today, after all the consultation and debate, takes us a little further forward, but not far enough.
This is a White Paper with a heavy hint of green about it. It is very general indeed, and it has one major failing. The Secretary of State referred several times in his statement to public service broadcasting, but he has failed to define it. Until we define what public sector broadcasting means in the digital age, we shall continue to fail the industry.
Conservative Members support in principle--and, indeed, have argued for--a new single regulatory body capable of taking a balanced view across converging media. It is essential, however, that the new body has a clear and unequivocal remit with stated priorities. A tension exists between competition and content issues. How does the Secretary of State intend that tension to be addressed within the new regulatory body? Whether the system will work at all will depend on getting that right.
We welcome the proposal for a new consumer panel, but will that have muscle or will it be another focus group? Will the new regulator be a panel or a person? Who will pay for the new regulatory body? To what will Ofcom be accountable--the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or the Department of Trade and Industry? Who will make appointments to it and what sanctions will it have? Will there be financial sanctions, and will those apply to the BBC?
Given the pace of change in the industry, the only way to avoid having to come back to the cumbersome process of legislation will be to ensure that the new regulator has sufficient flexibility to meet changing needs. How does the Secretary of State intend to deal with that? How will the new regulator be affected by any finalised EU directives on
We welcome the proposal to bring the activities of the BBC into the new regulatory framework, but will the Secretary of State confirm, as his statement implied, that, as regards complaints about political bias, the BBC will cease to act as judge and jury in its own case?
What powers will Ofcom have to ensure fair competition between the BBC and other broadcasters, and, just as important, between other internet publishers? Does the Secretary of State recognise the need to prevent the BBC from using the licence fee to crowd out commercial competition? Will that issue be dealt with by Ofcom under the Competition Acts or is new legislation envisaged?
Will Ofcom take on responsibility for ensuring wider industry access to local telephone lines? What measures does the White Paper contain to ensure that we do not continue to fall behind Germany and other major economies in developing internet access? What will the White Paper do to encourage the take-up of digital television?
I note that the Secretary of State has paved the way for the creation of a single ITV, but his statement is particularly vague about the reform of radio. Many people in the radio industry will be extremely disappointed that, after so long, they are going to have only further delay and consultation.
The Government have completely ducked any specific reform of the cross-media ownership rules. The Secretary of State will be aware that there is a powerful case for change here. Has his timidity on that point anything to do with the fact that there is a general election on the way--an election that the Government do not deserve to win?
We welcome the general thrust of today's statement, but we do not trust the Government's meddling instincts. Where there is a need to be radical, the Government have been timid. The vital need to balance the interests of commerce and culture will not be met by a Government who understand neither.
Mr. Smith: I note that the hon. Gentleman was, as one might put it, "falling each over" his vocabulary while he made that contribution. I might well describe his contribution as an infrastructure lacking content: perhaps we should send in Ofcom to regulate the Tory Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman came up with the old chestnut about there supposedly being a turf war between two Departments. That is a gross slur on the good and constructive work that the DTI and the DCMS have done together on producing the White Paper. The team has worked extremely well together and the White Paper has been agreed at every stage, both between the two Departments and across government.
The hon. Gentleman eventually got round to some specific questions. He said that nowhere in the White Paper was public service broadcasting defined. I suggest that he reads pages 48 to 51, where it is comprehensively defined. He asked whether the consumer panel would have muscle. I suggest to him that the White Paper's
The hon. Gentleman asked about the role of the BBC. As chapter 5 of the White Paper spells out, the BBC governors will retain a specific role for upholding the remit of the BBC, just as the board of Channel 4 will have a role for upholding the remit of Channel 4, and the managers of ITV will likewise have a role for ITV. However, there will be a role for Ofcom in ensuring that the general economic and competition provisions that apply to all broadcasters apply also to the BBC. It will also have a role in ensuring that the measurable, quantifiable aspects of public service broadcasting--aspects such as independent production quotas and ensuring news and current affairs in peak time, and that regional targets are met--are regulated across the broadcasting landscape, including the BBC.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the proposals mean that we are moving towards a single ITV. The sector-specific provisions that currently prevent such a move from occurring--the 15 per cent. rule and the two London licences rule--are due to be lifted. However, any proposal to move towards a single ITV would have to be subject to competition law, competition policy and, ultimately, to the decisions of the competition authorities. The hon. Gentleman asked about the future of radio. We spell out in the White Paper the way in which we want to move away from the current radio points system for the calculation of ownership requirements, and make it very clear that we want to do that.
In all those respects, the White Paper is very clear. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman has more time to consider the detail--obviously, he has had the White Paper for less time than I have--he will find that his concerns are readily addressed. The key message from the White Paper is that it is about giving responsible freedom to the broadcasters. Yes, it will be a greater freedom than many of them have had until now, but it comes with the expectation that they will exercise it responsibly and that measures will be in place to ensure that they do so.