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9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) for his constructive approach and I am glad that he talked about timing. He warns us of the risks of introducing this paving Bill before the details of the main communications Bill are finalised, but I have to tell him that we are aware of those dangers. We remember, for example, that in 1992 the Conservative Government introduced the British Coal and Rail Transport paving Bill before even a White Paper had been published. What was the legislation about? It effectively paved the way for rail privatisation. We do not need any warnings, as we have been dealing with that disaster ever since.

I have listened with interest to the wide range of views expressed by right hon. and hon. Members throughout the debate. We heard a great deal about broadcasting and the part played by one broadcaster in particular—the BBC. As many hon. Members reminded the House, Ofcom's responsibilities will range much wider than what appears on our screens or is heard over our airwaves. A range of complex economic and technological issues relating to telecoms and the spectrum will also play a vital part in Ofcom's remit. We shall expect it to treat all its duties, be it safeguarding consumers and citizens, promoting competitiveness or ensuring access to high-quality services, in a balanced and transparent way.

Much of what has been said today does not relate directly to the Ofcom paving Bill. In fact, very little of it does, as the main communications Bill will deal with those matters. The debate on them will, quite properly, continue to evolve over the coming months and, as we have promised, Parliament will have the opportunity to revisit them when the communications Bill is published next spring. None the less, I am grateful for the comments made today, and in the few minutes available I shall try to deal with some matters that have arisen. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me if I do not get to their point, as so many have been made. We have been debating the Bill for a long time.

First, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) for his most vivid comments. He said that the governance of the BBC is wildly out of date and run by a group of amateurs. There were sentences in between those remarks, but that is essentially what he said. The BBC, of course, retains the broadest and most obvious public service remit, although, as many hon. Members said, it is by no means the only broadcaster with such a remit.

That historic role and the fact that the BBC receives the benefits of a unique tax—the licence fee—have made its relationship with successive Governments very special.

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For those reasons, the form and extent of self-regulation will differ and it is being proposed that the BBC governors retain their core responsibilities. As it stands, they serve to protect the BBC's political and editorial independence and they will be expected to call BBC management to account. Under the proposals, which will go out for consultation, the governors' internal role will be unchanged, but the BBC will, in addition, be subject to new external requirements policed by Ofcom.

Broadly speaking, the BBC will be subject to the same external standard setting and monitoring as all other public service broadcasters for each of the three tiers regulated by Ofcom. In addition, the introduction of self-regulatory measures for commercial broadcasters, which will require them to review their own performance, will also help to create a common framework for all broadcasters. Broadly the same balance of self-regulation and external regulation will be struck for the BBC and other broadcasters. That is an important difference.

The overall result will be that the BBC will be subject to greater external regulation, and its position will be brought much closer to that of other broadcasters.

The debate has been a good start to a profoundly important and much larger debate. It will not be ignored. I have great sympathy with the views that have been expressed about the relationship between the BBC and Ofcom, and I hope that the BBC gets the message on that front. I still believe that we must be careful when it comes to ditching a form of regulation that has served this country well for a long time.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) asked about the costs of setting up Ofcom and then winding it up if the whole project were to fail. That is dealt with in the Bill. I assure the House that those costs would not fall on industry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton emphasised the huge importance of the communications industry. It is instructive that the great bulk of the debate has been about what we see on our screens, and not about the vital issues of broad-band access and the need to make that technological change. Ofcom must have a duty to get on with that agenda.

My right hon. Friend said that when it comes to picking people for Ofcom we should not choose from the usual suspects. One of the most dismal features of going into a Department as a new Minister is being confronted with books of usual suspects for placing on quangos. It really is appalling, and we must do something about it. We must ensure that we get fresh people with ideas, and not just the great and the good and the recently retired. That is not entirely unheard of—I have appointed some good people recently—but it is almost unheard of.

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for his usual thoughtful contribution, and tonight it was exceptionally good. He emphasised how important it is to ensure that the debate focuses not merely on what is on the screen, but considers the much larger picture. I endorse his argument that Ofcom must be independent. The Competition Act 1980, the enterprise Bill and the independence given to the Bank of England are proof that we have been moving in that direction over the past five years, and I see no sign that that will not continue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Ofcom must be accountable to Parliament.

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The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) asked about the Joint Committee of the two Houses. I was fascinated, because I did not know how its membership is chosen, and I doubt whether many hon. Members in the Chamber know. Apparently, the usual channels—

Mr. Allan: Digital or analogue?

Dr. Howells: I wish we could switch the usual channels off. I am told that a pre-legislative Committee comprises members nominated in the same way as members of a Standing Committee. Members of a pre-legislative Committee can be from all parts of the House, and membership of a Select Committee does not preclude any Member from serving on such a body. That is good news. I hope that the very best Members are nominated, and chosen, for the Joint Committee, because we need them.

The hon. Member for Twickenham, to whom I have devoted much time, mentioned the importance of getting the competition issue right. I entirely agree: we must make certain that whatever Committee is established ensures that the concurrent powers operate properly and responsibly.

Call me old-fashioned, but I do not think we will ever achieve the digital switchover if people do not consider the content offered by digital broadcasting to be better than that currently offered by analogue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) pointed out, that is true regardless of the number of technological anoraks working on the system. I am sure that I speak for every hon. Member present when I say that what our constituents want is the best television and radio possible. That does not mean turning it over to the "techies", and it does not mean figuring out how to turn up the juice on the transmitters. We must do all that; but, much more important, we must ensure that the content is the best that can be offered. That is the way in which we continue to nurture the creative industries that are such an important part of our economy—and let me add, returning to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, that we cannot do it by appointing the usual suspects to quangos and committees, wherever they are.

The Bill provides for three to six board members, because we think that a small board is appropriate for the preparatory stage. I know we have not talked much about the Bill, but that is what it is about. The Secretary of State has power, subject to negative resolution, to vary the number. As the time approaches when Ofcom will be regulating, it may be necessary to increase the board's size and expand its range of expertise, but we want to keep it fairly small so that it remains effective. It should be remembered that it is essentially a substitute for one regulator, although five or six may be involved in this instance.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that we might be able to approach the whole question of the relationship between the BBC and Ofcom by looking at the backstop powers in the tier 3 regulation. We will take that suggestion very seriously, and I am sure it will be debated when we discuss the main Bill—the communications Bill.

My right hon. Friend also said that we must protect the remit for public-service broadcasting, wherever it is on the spectrum—whether it happens to be with the BBC at

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one end, or with Channel 5 at the other. Channel 5 has been vilified for not having much of a public service remit, but it is currently transmitting a very good arts series, which is more than I can say for the other end of the spectrum.

My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, North-West (Mr. White), for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and many others spoke of the importance of bringing together the content and infrastructure providers. That is indeed enormously important if we are to achieve our ambition of "broad-band Britain". I acknowledge the challenge, as do the Government. Only last month, my hon. Friend the Minister for E–Commerce and Competitiveness convened a summit entitled "Broad-band Britain: the content challenge" specifically to advance the important dialogue between the providers. That was an important step, and I sense that the message is getting through everywhere.

I think this is an excellent Bill, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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