|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): The Bill is about more than broadcasting, which is what the hon. Gentleman has referred to. He argues that the board should be representative. Will he explain why? What vested interests should it represent? Should only Scotland and Wales be represented or should every other vested interest, legitimate or otherwise, also be represented?
Mr. Thomas: I have a sense of deja vu from the Committee proceedings. I have been very careful in referring to communications throughout the debate, and although broadcasting is an important part of the Welsh fabric, communications are very important, as I hope I shall shortly demonstrate. The hon. Gentleman asked a serious question about why there should be representation. I promise to answer it, although he might not be happy with my answer. First, let me finish exploring why there is no representation in any shape or form for Wales and Scotland on the proposed Ofcom.
The amendment differs slightly from that which I tabled in Committee. It would simply ensure that, whoever the five or six members of Ofcom to be appointed by the Secretary of State are, and whatever the interests, such as broadband, that they bring with themthey are unlikely to be geographical interests, as the Government have made clear; I do not accept that, but I do accept realitya member of Ofcom should have the specific additional interest of ensuring that Welsh and Scottish interests are looked after.
That is the minimum that we can expect within a devolution settlement. Anything less begs the questions how on earth devolution is to work, and how the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament are supposed to relate to Ofcom given that progress and evolution are occurring within devolution.
I hope that the Minister will carefully consider my fairly new suggestion. I am encouraged by some of the responses received after our debate in Committee from commercial companies such as Vodafone. They see no problem in my suggestion. They want a small, concentratednon-dilute, if one likesOfcom comprising a small but powerful body of people who know exactly what they are about, but those companies foresee no problems arising if, in addition, some of the individual members of Ofcom have a responsibility to look after Welsh broadcasting interests, or Scottish communications interests, or the disability interests covered by a later amendment.
It is important that the Government explain how, if there is to be no dedicated person, those aims are to be achieved within Ofcomor are Welsh and Scottish interests merely to be subsumed in the overriding UK-wide interests? Any such subsumptionif that is the right wordof Welsh and Scottish needs in a UK-wide body would be damaging to Wales and Scotland.
Amendment No. 19 would ensure that every committee established by Ofcom contains at least one representative for Wales and one for Scotland, and that in appointing those representatives, Ofcom should consult with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. If we are to have a small concentrated Ofcom, I see no reason why the various interests should not be represented on the consultative committees that it sets up.
I remain to be convinced, but if the Government are right that Ofcom can work with a role that is not representative but relates to the communications sector as a whole, they have to accept that Ofcom will need rootsit will need information and some means of consulting surrounding bodies and the wider public. Six people cannot do that. They may be experts in their field and the ideal people to advise and inform the Government and to regulate the industry, but they cannot undertake the wider accountability role.
Let us think about what we are doing. We heard in the point of order about the role of Parliament. We are abdicating our regulatory roleit is right that we do so, because we in Parliament cannot control everything, but it is rightly our roleto a quango, a non-departmental public body, a new body called Ofcom. There is nothing new in that because we have already ceded that role to the bodies that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) mentioned. However, in doing that, we should have one eye on wider accountability.
We know how much say we as individual Members of Parliament will have in the workings of Ofcom and how few opportunities we will have to debate the matter. Perhaps there will be an annual debate, or a debate in Westminster Hall, or the occasional parliamentary question, but our day-to-day ability to hold Ofcom to account for its actions in the name of our constituents and our nations will be extremely limited. It is therefore incumbent on us to say now that Ofcom should have a good working relationship with the industries, with the people of the UK as a whole, and with the people of Wales and Scotland. It is valuable to think of the advisory bodies for Ofcom playing that important role. I have no doubt that the Minister will say, as he said in Committee, that this is only a paving Bill and that we should not bother the Government with details as they are about to set up this lovely little body. However, the devil is in the detail and the details show whether Ofcom can deliver communications needs in Wales and Scotland.
I hope that the Minister will accept that whatever else the advisory committees might do for Ofcom and whatever other subject they might cover, there should be geographical representation for Wales and Scotland. I hope that he will put that on the record tonight, even if he is not prepared to accept the amendment.
What is different about Wales and Scotland? What sort of matters need to be addressed by Ofcom? Why do we need, if not representation, at least an avenuethe triangle of office, individual and advisory bodyso that the average person in Wales, or anybody involved in any of these industries in Wales, knows where to go and who is accountable for decisions that will impact on the communications industry in Wales?
Let us first consider the analogue switch-off and the move to digital. The Government have said that that will happen when we have achieved 95 per cent. digital television coverage. There is a danger that Wales and Scotland will lose out because that is a UK figure. If one thinks about the natural geography of Wales and Scotland, it becomes clear why a UK figure of 95 per cent. coverage could easily mean a figure of 80 per cent. in Wales and 85 per cent. in Scotland. That would be hugely disadvantageous.
The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): The hon. Gentleman is kind to give way. As the Member for Pontypridd, unable to receive anything beyond four channels, let me tell him that over my dead body will my constituents and I not be able to receive everything through terrestrial, digital or some other platform.
Mr. Thomas: I accept that. Unfortunately, I am not concerned about the hon. Gentleman's constituents but about mine. My constituents, who live in a rather more remote area, may be the last on the line. I am pleased that the Minister makes that promise, but I would like Wales and Scotland to reach that target of 95 per cent. coverage as well before switch-off. That would be Ofcom's job. At present, the Government promise only a UK figure. Ofcom could change that and ensure that the figure was 95 per cent. in the constituent parts of the UK. Would it do that, however, if it did not contain sufficient Welsh or Scottish representatives?
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The hon. Gentleman triggered my intervention by talking about being "on the line". Of course, his constituents could receive satellite distribution of digital television. Admittedly, that is a subscription service, but it carries the free-to-air broadcast. In my judgment, the rural areas will have to depend on satellite distribution if we are ever to have switch-off.
Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of these matters informed the Committee. I do not quite agree with him, however, although I agree that it is de facto. For anyone living in Aberystwyth or anywhere along the west Wales coast, the choice if they want digital, de facto, is satellite. [Interruption.] Indeed, perhaps even in Pontypridd.
The 28 gigahertz broadband fixed wireless access did not get sold off in Wales. I shall return to that shortly, as there is an opportunity to make more of it.
Michael Fabricant: There will not necessarily be universal access by satellite. On the north side of a steep incline, the satellite angle of elevation is quite low. If a geostationary satellite over the equator cannot be looked at, it will not be possible to pick up satellite television. The topology of Waleseven that of Pontypriddis known for its north faces, so I suspect that satellite distribution will not be universally available.
Mr. Thomas: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been for a walk up the Graig recently, but he might have seen the topography of Pontypridd if he had. My notes refer to a mountainous area with intense interference, which I think is what he was referring to in a more technical and understandable way.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. These are matters that must be ironed out. Whether we can get to 100 per cent. take-up is a moot point, but the 95 per cent. target should apply to Wales as well as to the UK as a whole. In fact, take-up in Wales has been a little faster than in the rest of the UK, which might seem to underline my argument. The take-up has been faster, up to a point. That point is reached when the choice is not available and take-up is not possible.
My contention is that full potential take-up of digital services and the digital communication revolution will not be possible in Wales until we have an adequate broadband network in Wales. The issues of technical interference, satellite, and take-up from analogue are all related to the overriding need for the economy of Wales to create a broadband network. One answer would be to create a range of local transmitters. Such an experiment is taking place in my area with the Maran broadband network, which Ceredigion county council, Powys and, I think, Carmarthenshire have worked together to achieve.
That points the way, but there are drawbacks to local transmitters. There is much local opposition to radio transmitters. People worry that they are dangerous, the Stewart report has raised concerns about them, and of course the transmitters are visually intrusive. Nevertheless, in the short term that is one of the best ways of delivering broadband to rural areas.
The National Assembly for Wales recently invested in ensuring digital take-up for every school throughout Wales. That will bring a broadband link, in theory at least, into virtually every village and community in many parts of rural Wales. The question is whether we can get the short hop from those transmitters to businesses to bring about the potential economic growth that can follow from broadband communication.
I do not want any area of Wales to miss out on the revolution in digital communications that broadband promisesfor example, the ability to sell directly and to interact over broadband. That is available in only a limited way through satellite. Selling through satellite has largely been a failure. I understand that several companies are pulling back from direct marketing in that way, as it simply does not work. Scrolling through an Argos catalogue by satellite takes far too long and no one is interested, now that the internet is available. The challenge is to link the two, and broadband is that link.