Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.16 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): Like my colleagues, I shall be brief. I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) in that this should be a debate not about the BBC, but about a whole manner of issues. They include the role of Ofcom, the way in which it will work, digital television and broad band.

I will restrict my comments to the consumer and to the needs of the consumer. However, I must declare an interest as a former employee of Connect—the union for professionals in communications—where I was assistant national organiser and to whom I am grateful for ongoing assistance in research on issues relating to the communications industry.

With Connect, I have witnessed at first hand the impact that an increasingly expanding and developing industry has on not just the consumer, but the business as well. Some businesses have grasped the importance of the new technology and individual customers enjoy the wealth of information and entertainment that it provides.

Many Members—I include myself among them—were brought up in a world where there were very few television channels to choose from and where mobile phones and, bless them, pagers, e-mail and the internet were in scarce supply. However, the way in which we communicate with our constituents is changing. My website had 800 hits in December, twice the number that it had the month before, which was twice the number in the month before that. If I do nothing else in my speech, I shall give a plug, because I anticipate something like 10,000 hits. One in fifty of my constituents who make a hit on the website invariably leave an e-mail message as well.

We now have more than 250 television channels in the UK. In 1980, the British viewer could chose from 300 hours of television; today, we can choose from more than 40,000 hours. More than 30 million people in the UK now have a mobile phone, which is more than double the number who had one just two years ago. Two thirds of British households have more than one television and most of them have a land line and a mobile telephone line.

We live in a world in which hand-held computers can operate as mobile phones, as music players and as digital cameras. Laptop computers can be used to play film and television footage. The new computer game consoles allow people to access the internet through televisions. We are surrounded by new technologies that have brought all these different forms of media together in a way that we never thought possible.

The communications industry is increasingly intertwined. With broadcasters moving into e-commerce and internet service providers offering television channels, there is a need for a regulatory body that can cover all such activities. Nine separate regulators cover the communications industry, with different regulators dealing with issues such as decency in content, and economics and competition. That system of regulation dates from the last century. Back then, telecommunications, television and radio developed more or less independently and could be monitored individually. The question is how the separate regulators can continue to cover an industry that is converging. The answer is that they cannot.

The existing framework for regulation is immensely complex and technology is moving too quickly for current regulations to keep up with it. The pace of convergence

14 Jan 2002 : Column 110

is accelerating and unless regulation is simplified the complexity of new technology will cause more confusion and uncertainty within the industry and, in particular, for the consumer. We are starting to see that, which is why the Bill is welcome.

The creation of a unified regulatory body is essential to keep the industry alive, to allow it to thrive and to encourage innovation. However, a complete overhaul of the system of regulation is not the way forward either. I am glad that the Government do not intend to do that with the creation of Ofcom because we need the balance between current methods of regulation to continue, with some co-regulation and self-regulation for print media and external regulation for broadcast media, as well as the obvious continuation of the legal aspects that cover all media, such as libel law and the use of obscene publications.

The consumer is interested in the new opportunities that new technology offers them, such as choice, accessibility and quality television. They are also interested in cheap telephone calls and free internet access. I welcome the Bill and hope that the creation of Ofcom will iron out some of the complexities and enhance some of the opportunities for the consumer.

9.22 pm

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): I want to begin by thinking about my constituents' expectations of communications policy. Above all, they want programmes that reflect their lives, interests and passions rather than television and radio programmes that were bought off the shelf from the United States of America, Canada or Australia. My constituents want Channel 4 and S4C, not Channel 4 rather than S4C or S4C rather than Channel 4. I hope that the Government will ensure that my election pledge in my constituency will become a reality and that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport appeases me on that in the near future.

My constituents also want affordable sports channels that are not bundled together in such a way that they have to fork out £35 or £40 a month for them. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, they also want access to the broadband economy. My hon. Friend will know that that is a phenomenal problem in my constituency. It seems impossible to get BT to address it, and I hope that we will make progress on it soon. In addition, my constituents want telephone bills that they can understand. If an hon. Member is present who can understand his bill, perhaps he could explain mine to me.

The Bill will help to provide all those things to my constituents. Ofcom will be robust, resilient, strategic and simplify the system. To use a valleys word, it will be "tidy". Some specific issues, however, should be examined. First and foremost, I want to congratulate the Government on making the board of Ofcom small. It should have a membership of no more than six individuals and I urge the Government to resist the entreaties of the Scottish National party, which called for national members to sit on the board. I do not want a board that grows to 10, 11 or 12 members because it would be too difficult for it to do its business swiftly and expeditiously.

As always happens in any debate about communications anywhere in the United Kingdom, we have ended up talking about the BBC, even though the BBC is not mentioned in the Bill, as several hon.

14 Jan 2002 : Column 111

Members observed. I do not believe that the issue is the BBC, in or out. In answer to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who ungenerously refused to take an intervention from me—

Michael Fabricant: I took two.

Mr. Bryant: The hon. Gentleman took two interventions from me, but he would not take a third, which was by far the most important. Every regulator mentioned in clause 6, which the hon. Gentleman said does not affect the BBC, already regulates the BBC in some shape or form. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, it is unfortunate if we believe in that dichotomy—the BBC, in or out.

The Consumers Association is wholly wrong when it calls for the abolition of the governors of the BBC. Even if the entire BBC were under the remit of Ofcom, there would still have to be governors to play the shareholder function within the organisation. With regard to state aid and the nonsense spouted by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who I notice is not in the Chamber, the issue of state aid and the BBC licence fee has been addressed on numerous occasions by the European Commission, which rightly found that the licence fee in this country and in every other country in Europe bar Spain and Portugal does not constitute a state aid; it is a service of general economic interest. It provides something which the market cannot, and that is right and proper.

Pulling in a slightly different direction, I offer some comments about the BBC. Having said that the issue is not the BBC, in or out, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Selby that it is time that the BBC governors were separated to some degree from the BBC management. It is wholly inappropriate that the secretary to the governors is the secretary to the board of management. The governors should be housed separately and funded separately. Only then can they provide the shareholder function within the BBC that stands up for the rights of my constituents. That recommendation is hardly news. It was first made in the Dearing report in 1948.

Regulation of the BBC might change in another respect. It is my experience that the BBC tends to hoard its radio spectrum. It is time that the whole radio spectrum was managed by Ofcom, rather than the BBC managing parts of the radio spectrum for itself. That would be wiser and more efficient.

I end my remarks on the point made by several hon. Members today about the nature of public service broadcasting. Whether one believes that public service broadcasting is performed solely by the BBC or also encompasses ITV or, heaven forfend, Channel 5 and Sky, as was mentioned earlier, the point that I would make fiercely is that when politicians speak about public service broadcasting, they start with Shakespeare, Schiller and Shostakovich and work down, whereas when my constituents think about public service broadcasting and what their licence fee buys, they start with "EastEnders" and work their way upwards.

In the political debate about broadcasting, we must understand that the British people have had a profound love affair with the BBC throughout its history, and that

14 Jan 2002 : Column 112

that love affair is probably at its strongest now. We can make pious and sententious remarks about the BBC, but it is delivering against that remit, and I would oppose any attempt to make the BBC licence fee solely a fee that should be paid for something that is not available anywhere else in the market.

There are many issues that we will face in the debate over the next few months. In the pre-legislative scrutiny of the full Bill, we will consider whether it is possible to legislate to create a single ITV, without letting other broadcasters take over the entire communications sector. We will consider whether gateway regulation should be left to competition law, or whether, as I believe, we will need robust gateway regulation, which should be maintained by Ofcom as a means of making sure that consumers have access to the programmes that they want, and that broadcasters have access to the audiences that they need.

We will be considering many issues in relation to regulation of the internet. I know that some hon. Members will believe that it is physically and morally impossible to regulate the internet. A few years ago, it was suggested that all spam should have the prefix "zz". For hon. Members who do not know what spam is, I should say that it is all those unsolicited e-mails that we get, which are sent out in large numbers and directed to thousands of names gathered from the internet. Unfortunately, the proposal bit the dust, but it would have allowed people to edit spam from their inbox. It would be good if we could consider still further issues relating to regulation of the internet. Many people will say that we should have light-touch regulation, but we also need regulation in every part of the converged communications sector where it is necessary for our constituents' needs to be met.

Next Section

IndexHome Page