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9.5 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I declare my interest. I am a consultant at Carlton Communications where I worked for seven years before becoming a Member.

As many Members have said, the Bill is quite empty. It has been described as a paving measure and many Members have put the key question, "What happens next?" Many people in the industry are asking, "Will one body with a board of only six people be able to do the job?"

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My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) asked whether radio would suffer from regulation by this megalith. The answer is that we do not know because we do not know exactly what job the body will be asked to do. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, the cart has been well and truly put before the horse.

The answer from Ministers on the Treasury Bench is that everything is in the White Paper—that what comes next is in the White Paper, so we know what is coming. However, in many ways, we do not. That is the point I want to emphasise. What will be the exact format for regulating the BBC? We do not know exactly.

The right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that he had changed his mind. Many other people will probably also change their mind. It is wholly illogical for the BBC to be regulated differently. The BBC, Channel 4 and ITV do the same things: they make programmes and broadcast the news, so they should be regulated in the same way.

When there is only one regulator—as Ofcom will be—that regulator will be doing different things, such as economic regulation, competition regulation and content regulation; yet although the BBC, Channel 4 or Channel 5 are doing many of the same things, they will not be regulated in the same way. That makes little sense.

We do not know what the rules will be for cross-media ownership. By and large, they were not covered by the White Paper. The Government are holding consultations about them, so we do not know exactly what the rules will be.

What about the big question? Do we actually want one regulatory body? The standard industry view, which I broadly share, is a strong yes. There are too many bodies. When I worked at Carlton, I frequently dealt with regulators. We had the BSC, the BCC, the ITC, the board of governors of the BBC, Oftel, the OFT and then of course the DG IV of the EC. That is enough regulatory bodies to put anybody into a spin, although as they will not all be amalgamated under the Bill there will still be a certain amount of alphabet soup to deal with.

Some people in the industry hold a second view. They are concerned about pluralism and think that just as we need a variety of media companies and media outlets, so we should also have some pluralism among regulators. The creation of Ofcom will place a great deal of power and responsibility in one pair of hands, so I offer this cautionary note. Let us imagine that a broadcaster has a disagreement with Ofcom about the content of a programme that has been broadcast. The broadcaster is having a row with Ofcom and will be worried that that will affect Ofcom's judgment about something else—a competition issue or a future regulatory issue. That is important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield referred to radio broadcasters. Let us imagine that a small radio station wants Ofcom to deal with an urgent problem. How high up the organisation will that radio broadcaster be able to go? Will they be dealt with by a regulator in a small room on the 12th floor of a 25-storey megalith? Some people in the industry are concerned about how quickly they will obtain a decision. That is why, when we discussed the issue when I worked in the industry, the body was often described as "Offyawn"—

Dr. Howells: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way as I know that he does not have much time, but I am

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fascinated by the point he is making. No one has raised it and it is important. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's experience, how does he assess the performance of the existing regulators? Can they respond to a small company when it needs help or guidance at present?

Mr. Cameron: That depends on the issue, but companies at least know which body to approach with content or advertising issues. The Office of Fair Trading deals with competition issues and the ITC deals with content issues, but I am concerned about smaller companies worried about dealing with this megalith.

The key point—this is my conclusion—is that what matters is not that a single body will be set up, but that we must have light-touch regulation, as many hon. Members have said. If we try to make Ofcom do too many things, with just six people on its board, it will have a queue of decisions stacked up like jumbo jets outside Heathrow and media companies that need decisions will not get them, so we must have light-touch regulation.

I am proud of the fact that I worked in the media industry for many years. It is a great industry in this country, and we need to set it free. We must try to allow the people who work in that industry to make decisions without always having a copy of one of many broadcasting Acts by their side.

I finish by referring to what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said when he made his food analogy. Broadcasting Acts are sometimes like Chinese meals—when people have just finished one, they become pretty hungry for the next. We must try to ensure that the regulatory system that we set up endures for longer.

9.11 pm

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): I declare an interest as chairman of EURIM—the European Informatics Market group—an organisation that brings together parliamentarians, the industry and civil servants in talking about forthcoming draft Bills.

I welcome the Bill, and several of my comments follow on from those of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). I share several of the same concerns, but my experience comes from Oftel, rather than from the media industry. I am concerned that several of the problems with the way that Oftel operated may be carried forward into Ofcom, and it is important that we do not do that. I have cut out a large amount of my speech because of the length of time that Privy Councillors took earlier, so I shall be brief.

We need to recognise that convergence is happening, but not universally or at the same speed. We also need to recognise that divergence is happening in the marketplace and that new products are distorting the current market. We need to be aware that the situation is far more complex than simply one in which everything is converging.

As the hon. Member for Witney said, the proposed Ofcom will have to deal with myriad interests—economic, social, content, the protection of new entrants to the market and the creation of new markets. The way that Ofcom is set up must allow it to react quickly to those issues. One of the problems with Oftel was that it did not react to broad band quickly enough, and my fear is that that could be repeated with Ofcom.

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The assumption is that a regulator independent of Government represents the way to proceed. If I had more time, I would have challenged that assumption and begun to talk about some of the issues. I wish to make the point that it is important to consider that assumption very carefully.

Ofcom will have to deal with a number of issues. It needs to take on competition, but competition is not a panacea. It needs to take on consumer interests, but there is no single consumer interest. It also needs to support the industry, and I was interested to hear the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the shadow Secretary of State, argue for a British champion along the lines of Deutsche Telecom, as that would completely undermine the Conservative party's original privatisation proposals.

How will Ofcom respond to Government policy and the leadership role that the Government will play, which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) talked about? There is a role for each of those, but there are conflicts of interest. How will Ofcom be set up? How will it deal with those conflicts of interest? Will it be a neutral umpire, a catalyst, an arbiter or a restrainer? What will its exact role be? All those questions must be addressed.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have talked about light-touch regulation, but there are as many definitions of that as there are vested interests, and we need to be careful.

There is not much competition between the different platforms—between satellite, cable and terrestrial—nor is there much competition within them. The area where I live has cable, satellite and digital television, but there is no competition between the companies. I cannot get an ASDL line from BT or cable from NTL because the places that lose out do so to all the organisations, and we need to address that issue.

Ofcom also needs to examine differences, because differences enhance competition and innovation. If my Darwinian analysis is correct, is a single regulator—albeit a board—the right body to deal with the matter? Will it be able to recognise diversity or will it seek bland conformity? Will there be a level playing field and the promotion of opportunity? The answers to such key questions about the way in which Ofcom will operate will determine whether it is successful. At present, there are myriad appeal processes. How they come together to recognise the interests that I mentioned earlier is critical.

Much of the legislation relates to the United Kingdom only, but there is a wider debate. The European debate and the global aspects of the internet have not been touched on in this debate because it has been dominated by an archaic, if interesting, debate about the BBC. We must talk about structures and some of the other serious issues. If Ofcom is involved only in an argument about the BBC and commercial television, it will fail. It must have far wider horizons than that and it must deal with the issues of broad band that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) mentioned.

Many analogies have been used in the debate and I would use the analogy of a jigsaw. It is the interrelationship of the pieces, and not necessarily the picture, that is important. The Bill is welcome and I support it. However, a number of key issues will be debated in the spring and they will be fundamental to the setting up of the shadow Ofcom and to the way in which it relates to the existing regulators and the new Bill.

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