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Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am sorry to interrupt, but the Minister said that he would refer to the BBC and it seems to me that the time has come. He says that the Bill does not prejudge the communications Bill, but does not its structure prejudge whether the responsibilities of BBC governors will fall under the remit of Ofcom? If they were to do so, the Bill would pave the way for such a possibility, but it clearly does not.

Mr. Alexander: I fear that the hon. Gentleman does not fully comprehend the Bill's purpose in that the

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structure envisaged does not prejudge the relationship between the BBC and Ofcom. Indeed, it is of no structural importance to Ofcom whether it does or does not regulate.

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It may help you and the Minister if I refer the House to clause 6(1), which specifically states which areas—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. That is a matter for debate, not a point of order.

Mr. Alexander: It is of no structural interest to Ofcom whether it does or does not regulate the BBC, and the Bill deals with the structure of Ofcom in its preparatory stages. On the basis of the White Paper, however, I point out that the BBC will be subject to greater external regulation and its position brought much closer to that of other broadcasters.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I should declare an interest as I am a consultant to Carlton Communications, where I worked for seven years before being elected to this place. Is not the Minister offering us an empty shell of a Bill? He is saying, "I shall not tell you whether Ofcom will regulate the BBC," but people want to know that those who produce content, whether commercial companies or the BBC, will be treated fairly and be regulated and fined by Ofcom if they do wrong. Is not that the point?

Mr. Alexander: We are certainly confident that there will be fairness. The paving Bill strikes the appropriate balance between maintaining momentum behind proposals that have wide—indeed, all-party—support and recognising that serious issues need to be debated. There will be pre-legislative scrutiny and a draft Bill is to be published, so the House will have the opportunity to consider all the proposals in the main communications Bill. That should give the hon. Gentleman comfort.

Michael Fabricant: Will the Minister give way a third time?

Mr. Alexander: I give way one last time.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister is more than generous in giving way for a third time. I had hoped that he would pick up on my point of order, but he chose not to do so. In an attempt to be helpful, may I refer him to clause 6, which interprets the term "existing regulator" under the Bill? It lists four regulators, and does not include the BBC board of governors. Was not the Minister inadvertently wrong when he said that the issue is not covered by this paving Bill? It is.

Mr. Alexander: I merely make the point that clause 6 reflects the fact that the BBC is not only a regulator, but a broadcaster. The regulators listed in that clause have exclusive regulatory functions. It is common sense to acknowledge the fact that, although the board of governors has responsibilities, the BBC is also a principal public service broadcaster for the whole of the United Kingdom.

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There is great scope for the House to discuss these matters.

Mr. Kaufman: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but I am something of an authority on interpretation clauses. As the kind of Back Bencher such as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), I have spent hours disrupting parliamentary business on interpretation clauses. My hon. Friend is right to say that the British Broadcasting Corporation is a broadcaster, but its board of governors is, among other things, a regulator.

Mr. Alexander: I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend makes, and I respect his expertise in this area. I merely point out that, as presently drafted, the White Paper recognises the fact that the BBC will fall within the scope of the functions undertaken by Ofcom. Some of the changes to the work of the BBC governors, not least the increase in transparency, is entirely consistent with the work that the Bill has set out for the BBC and other broadcasters.

I shall try to make some progress, because I have been generous in giving way.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Alexander: As I say, I must make some progress.

The Government remain committed to having Ofcom operational by the end of 2003. In order to achieve that, work has already started on the initial planning stages for establishing this new regulator. A steering group has been set up, comprising representatives of the existing regulators and the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The results of an initial scoping study have recently been published in the Towers Perrin report, which was undertaken by independent consultants. It considers the type of organisation Ofcom could be and how the complex task of transition could be managed. Further work will be necessary to begin to create that new organisation. Once the chairman and other board members are in place, they will need to be able to take speedy decisions on the new structure of staff appointments, human resource policies, the vision, the organisational culture and many other important issues.

The existing regulators, the DCMS and the DTI will continue to work closely together to provide a sound basis for the Ofcom board to consider these issues and to take the key decisions necessary.

The Bill will enable us to start work on establishing Ofcom. That will include beginning the process of making appointments to the Ofcom board. It will be important to ensure that the chairman and other board members are in place, and are able to contribute fully to that process. In making the appointments of the chairman and other non-executive members, we will of course follow the full public appointments procedure. The appointment of the chairman of Ofcom will take place in the spring. Subsequently, we hope to have the full Ofcom board in place by the autumn of this year.

We hope to publish the draft communications Bill in the spring. That will be followed by a full period of consultation on the draft Bill, and pre-legislative scrutiny should Parliament so wish. Thereafter, we will aim to introduce the Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.

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The Office of Communications Bill will allow Ofcom to begin to prepare itself so that it will be in a good position to assume its regulatory functions once Parliament has determined, through consideration of the main communications Bill, precisely what those functions should be.

Mr. Lansley: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Alexander: I will not give way this time, as I have already been generous to the hon. Gentleman.

The Bill will allow us to begin the essential work needed to create a modern, forward-looking regulator who is able to operate a flexible, effective and proportionate regime, which is crucial to creating the conditions in which a vigorous communications sector can flourish.

Mr. Lansley: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Alexander: I have already said that I will not give way.

The Bill lets us make a start on this important work, and I commend it to the House.

5.54 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Those of us who came to the House this afternoon with some background residual concerns about the Bill will have had them profoundly deepened by the Minister's speech. I say that not just because of the hon. Gentleman's failure, for whatever reason, to deal with most of the points raised by my hon. Friends, but because the whole debate has emphasised the Alice in Wonderland nature of the proposal.

The Bill takes the preparatory steps to establishing Ofcom. We are told that the chairman of Ofcom will be appointed quite soon, and its members not long thereafter. The functions of Ofcom remain to be debated by the House. The Minister declined to answer points raised by my hon. Friends on the basis that Parliament will have its say. That presumably leaves open the possibility, in theory at least, that, as a result of what Parliament says, the functions will change from what is currently in the Government's mind—although we do not know what that is—to something else. However, it is proposed that members of Ofcom will be appointed before we even know what that body will do. That is an extraordinary sequence of events.

The Bill is jointly sponsored by two Departments. The Government claim that it fulfils a promise made in their election manifesto in 1997 and in the White Paper. However, neither of the Cabinet Ministers responsible for these proposals will be taking part in this debate. Ministers are not usually so coy, and there will be astonishment inside and outside Parliament at their reluctance to speak. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was not present at the start of the debate. Are Ministers' hearts not in the Bill, or are the proposals so complex that they have not been able to master them? [Interruption.] Yes, possibly. I am grateful to the Under–Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for saying that I have put my finger on it. No doubt that is why the hon. Gentleman has been entrusted with the task of winding up the debate. This is the only substantial Bill in which the DCMS is involved this

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Session, so it can scarcely be a heavy work load that prevents the Secretary of State from taking part in this debate.

I believe that if a Bill is important a Cabinet Minister should come to the House to explain it. If it is not important, the Government have no business asking Parliament to spend time considering it. Perhaps the silence of Cabinet Ministers is not so hard to fathom given that, on examination, the Bill turns out to be an extraordinarily timid measure. It is a mouse of a Bill. It fails to recognise the scale of changes to the regulatory framework that are required, or the urgency of the need for those changes.

The industries that are affected by the proposals are immensely important to the British economy. The changes that are taking place in those industries are equally great, but the Government are sitting on their hands, unable or unwilling to move with the speed that is required.

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