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7.57 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Like all other hon. Members who have spoken this evening, I welcome the Bill—or at least what we have been given so far. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said that it was something of a thin gruel, which was to my mind a tad ungenerous. I think that this point will bear being made again: the devil will come in the detail of the later legislation. Briefly, I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on the establishment of a Joint Committee to consider that legislation. The point that he made was extremely valuable. I hope that, although such a proposal will ultimately be a matter for Parliament, the Minister will give it serious consideration.

My concern is that there is a great deal in the current regulatory framework that works very well. Although I applaud the Government for the general thrust of bringing together the framework under one umbrella, I must ask whether the specific position of regional broadcasting can be considered at a later stage. It is very important that we provide an exact definition of such broadcasting. I know that many hon. Members and people in southern England would regard Scotland as a broadcasting region. We view things rather differently in the northern isles.

We have been very well served by BBC local radio and in terms of the BBC television output north of the border. We have also been well served by the local ITV companies that operate in Scotland: Border, Scottish Television and Grampian. The latter is a very good example of the way in which the current regulatory framework has been made to work. The Minister will no doubt recall that not that long ago, the company was taken over by the Scottish Media Group. The very fine practice of providing strong news and local affairs coverage, based in Aberdeen and Inverness, which Grampian had built up over many years, covering north-eastern Scotland, the highlands and islands and the northern isles in particular, came under threat. It is as a result of a strike by journalists at Grampian and subsequent intervention by the ITC that the threat has been removed and the Scottish Media Group has been unable to pursue its agenda of insisting that those outwith the central belt must suffer hearing what is going on in Glasgow, Edinburgh and even, dare I say it, Paisley, when we have much more local and direct concerns.

The other point that I wished to make was raised by the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). I gave a silent cheer when he mentioned the most neglected aspect of the debate: broad-band access. The right hon. Gentleman said that the focus and purpose

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of Ofcom would be to bring together infrastructure and content. I am delighted to hear that, but I shall be even more delighted if current Front-Bench Members express that view. That important aspect of broad-band regulation is currently in the hands of Oftel. I am mindful of the presence of that body's chief executive in the Chamber, and I therefore say gently that regulation of broad-band access has not been the greatest advert for regulation by Oftel.

Broad-band access and its regulation marks the Bill as being more than a measure for broadcasting wonks. It is a significant social inclusion measure from the point of view of my constituency and many others. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) indicates that the Welsh valleys are in a similar position. Access for people in remote and island communities is crucial. We are told that we should move towards teleworking and telecrofting. I invite the Minister to visit Foula in Shetland and tell the people that. They ask simply for a microwave, digital link to replace the current analogue link, which is useless for access to the internet and broad-band communications.

As I have said previously, the Shetland Islands council charitable trust is pursuing a scheme to lay a fibre-optic cable from Shetland through Orkney to the Scottish mainland to allow us to have proper broad-band access. We have long resigned ourselves to the fact that we shall be at the end of the queue for help from anyone else to gain broad-band access. We have therefore taken the initiative.

We are putting in money that the Government might arguably invest. Yet they are threatening to take no less than £64,000 a year out of the scheme to pay rates to the Crown Estate Commissioners. When will they get to grips with the conduct of the Crown Estate in dealing with such projects? It presents a good opportunity for the Government to show that joined-up government, about which we have heard much in the past, has some practical application.

I could speak about other aspects, but other hon. Members wish to speak, and they are probably better qualified than me. I shall therefore end simply by saying that Liberal Democrat Members support the Bill and wish it well.

8.4 pm

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): I support the Bill, which will bring about much needed reform in regulating our broadcasting and communications industry. It may not provide the detail of regulation—several hon. Members have mentioned that—but that will come in the future. I hope that it is the near future. The measure will allow a newly formed Ofcom to prepare for a difficult but none the less exciting task of regulating the fast-moving broadcasting and communications industry.

Since the previous broadcasting measure, the industry has changed almost beyond recognition. The latest Independent Television Commission figures show that investment in programming increased from £4.5 billion in 1994 to £7 billion in 2000 as the number of channels has grown. We have access to a plethora of channels, and more than 40 per cent. of United Kingdom homes have multi-channel TV. If we turn on our televisions, we can watch almost anything at any time of night and day, although we cannot guarantee its quality. Expansion has even allowed for the proceedings of the House and its

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Committees to be broadcast, although I am not sure that viewing figures could compete with one episode of "EastEnders" or "Coronation Street", despite some of the characters in the House.

Michael Fabricant: Speaking of characters, will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Ward: I shall.

Michael Fabricant: Is she aware that the Parliamentary Communications Directorate started a webcasting experiment only yesterday? It is therefore possible that people in New Zealand are currently watching our debate on the beach or elsewhere.

Ms Ward: I applaud the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for making such a leap forward. However, if members of the public in New Zealand are watching the debate in such beautiful weather, they need their heads examined.

It is interesting that 60 per cent. of those with access to multi channels prefer public service, free-to-air channels.

The convergence of broadcasting and other media has become commonplace. Mobile phones carry radio, and text messages have become the most popular form of communication among the young. We can gain access to the internet through our television sets, and we can see almost any film that we want at almost any time through video on demand. Internet access opens the door to all forms of media and communications. A revolution has occurred, and if we are to support the industry, we must recognise the changes and provide a framework for even greater support.

I am sure that in a future debate, we shall have more views to express about the detail of the regulatory powers. However, the principle of a single regulator, taking on powers currently held by the ITC, Oftel, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Radio Authority and the Radio Communications Agency, has received widespread support throughout the industry and among viewers and consumers. The five regulatory agencies already collaborate, but the Bill will make a statutory duty of assisting Ofcom in preparing for its new powers.

I support the establishment of Ofcom, and I want to say a little about what I believe it should do. I appreciate that we are considering a two-stage process, and that the draft communications Bill will be available for debate here and in the other place in due course. However, we are debating the establishment of a body, and it is important to have some thoughts about what it should do. I am pleased that many hon. Members attempted to do that in the early part of the debate.

The scope of Ofcom as it stands is not as wide as I would wish. I believe that the BBC should be included in Ofcom if the body is to be the single source of regulation of the industry. It is not fair and it does not make sense to consider establishing a single regulator and leave out our most important public sector broadcaster.

I served on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport during the whole of the previous Parliament. I was a member when it produced the report in 1998 under the chairmanship and, in my case, under the wing of my

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hero and right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). Despite that, I still support the BBC and wish it well. However, its unique role should not mean that it continues to be maintained at great public expense—more than £2.5 billion of guaranteed funding a year—outside the regulatory regime. It is not the only public sector broadcaster. As we have heard, ITV and Channel 4 also have statutory roles.

The BBC is a public sector broadcaster with not only a proud past but the potential for as great a future. It should have the confidence to welcome regulation with its competitors, rather than shy away from it. If we are to make these major reforms to the industry, we must do it right, and I hope that, when we come to the fuller discussions on the details of the communications Bill, the Government will reconsider this issue.

The direction that Ofcom receives in the year before it gains its regulatory powers will be essential. It will not be an easy task to appoint a chairman—or chairwoman—and executive directors of the new board. I know that the Nolan procedures will be in place, but we need someone who can command the confidence of consumers and the industry, and be independent of political influence. Will the directors have security of tenure and, if so, for how long? What will we know about the chairman's role? Whoever is appointed will have an important dual role. They will be responsible for protecting the interests of citizens as well as for ensuring that the industry receives the support that it needs to flourish.

We must not forget that the ultimate purpose of regulation is to ensure that the consumer benefits, and is protected. That will be tested in many ways in due course—for example, through the role currently held by the Broadcasting Standards Commission in relation to the content of programmes. That will be controversial, to say the least. I hope that Ofcom will ensure that the balance of representation on any committee that it establishes reflects the broad range of views that exist not only in the House but throughout the rest of the country.

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