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Nick Harvey: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the impact of new BBC services will not be quite so predictable as in the past, because of the speed of technological change. That is the basis on which creating a single regulator has been proposed, but we have not, as yet, thrashed out very clearly what Ofcom's character will be.
There is a slight culture clash between the regulation that the Department of Trade and Industry has traditionally sponsored and that which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or, before it, the Home Office has tended to favour. I am concerned that Ofcom may be very much more a creature of regulation as the DTI understands it than of regulation as the DCMS or, before it, the Home Office has understood it. If that were to prove correct and if Ofcom were much more concerned with economic considerations, with theoretical models of competition policing and with a narrow definition of the consumer interest, I would have grave misgivings about it being responsible for taking some of the decisions now under discussion.
There is a difference between the consumer interest and the public interest. It can be argued that the consumer interest is served by things that are popular with consumers being on offer at all times, whereas, to return to the point that was being made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), the public interest might be better served by having more religious broadcasting. Those interests are simply not one and the same thing. If Ofcom is to have wide responsibilities for determining what constitutes the public interest, that needs to be written into the legislation that establishes Ofcom far more explicitly than anything in the White Paper led me to believe the Government envisaged or intended.
The development of broadband internet services is an example of the consumer interest and the public interest diverging. Oftel has got the regulation of that issue horribly wrong and has completely lost sight of the public interest because it has taken a very narrow economic view of what constitutes the consumer interest. It has been so concerned to get the economic model of competition theory precisely right that it has significantly held back the development of broadband internet communications in the United Kingdom.
If Ofcom is to get deeply into matters of public interest, that needs to be stipulated not only in terms of what powers it might have over the BBC, but how it will ensure that ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5or channels 6, 7 and 8 if they are establishedperform under whatever remit they are given. I will not decide whether Ofcom is the right body to have backstop powers for the BBC until we have hammered out some of the arguments and know much more about the colour of Ofcom.
I am not saying that I will die in the ditch to defend the status quo. The BBC is far from perfect. Some of the regulatory mechanisms that govern the BBC are self-evidently flawed, and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton gave examples of that. The BBC is more inclined to be impervious to criticism than commercial broadcasters because their regulators have had the power to instruct more remedies. In the new regime that we anticipate, the BBC must be more susceptible to instructions from external regulation.
Mr. Wyatt: Indeed, and there are many women in Holloway who have not paid the licence fee. However, to return to my substantive point, convergence means just that. We need to consider how the licence fee gets collected and the fact that under the current regulatory system there is no one to whom the BBC can complain. It needs to be covered by Ofcom. Its funding needs to change because it cannot collect the fee if people can receive its transmissions through broadband. It is an issue.
Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The BBC will be covered by Ofcom in a considerable sense. The material issue of concern relates to the backstop powers that determine whether it fulfils the statement of programming that it proposes as part of the tier 3 regulation. The issues to which the hon. Gentleman refers can be taken to Ofcom under the proposals as laid out in the White Paper.
If the BBC and its regulation is far from perfect, so is the system of the BBC governors. I found myself agreeing with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, who spoke for longer than I expected. However, it makes no sense to put all that right in a paving Bill. I am not even convinced it would make sense to crack open that nut in the communications Bill, although I am open to persuasion. It would probably make more sense to hammer out who has the backstop powers and get Ofcom up and running for two or three years before we resolve the problems to which the right hon. Gentleman rightly referred when we deal with the charter renewal in 2006.
The BBC has a proud heritage and a strong position in the world. Of course the rest of the broadcasting sector wants the BBC regulated by Ofcomyou bet they do! It is delighted at the thought that the BBC, unique though its history and position are, will be put into the hands of a regulator whose views may be fashioned entirely by economic rather than public interest considerations.
Mr. Kaufman: The hon. Gentleman exposes one of the hypocrisies of the commercial sector, but there is another. The one aspect of the market in which commercial broadcasters do not want the BBC to be involved is advertising. They fear that the BBC, which is a popular broadcaster even now with its dwindled and dwindling audience, will take advertising away from them. Apart from the hon. Gentleman, myself and a few others, no one else who is engaged in the debate is totally objective.
Nick Harvey: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about advertising. In addition, commercial broadcasters would take exception to my suggestion that Ofcom should have written into its remit more explicit public interest powers than the White Paper anticipates. The last thing the commercial sector wants is for its activities to be regulated by Ofcom with reference to a more widely defined public interest consideration. It cannot have it both ways. If the BBC is not going to invade its advertising market but remain essentially a public service broadcaster with a public interest objective and a public service remit, it cannot be treated and regulated in the same way as the commercial sector.
There are big issues to resolve before it makes sense to do what the amendments suggest and set the cart before the horse. Let us hammer out what Ofcom is going to be and determine that it will be fit to take on the powers. Let us not prejudge the issue and throw the BBC to the wolves.
I tried to make it clear in Committee that this is a communications Bill, not a broadcasting Bill, but we are none the less falling into the same trap on this occasion. I fear that the amendment could perpetuate the argument about the BBC to the detriment of the communications industry and the establishment of Ofcom. That would do major damage. Ofcom would become dominated by arguments about the BBC and the role of the board of governors. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) may be right about the deterioration of the BBC's standards in its terrestrial news broadcasts, he should recognise the innovative and
Ofcom's role is a real issue in this paving Bill, but it should not become dominated by arguments about regulation of the BBC. The key issuesOfcom's relevance to the European Union framework directive; how it will interact with existing regulators and the European regulatory group; and market dominance, to which the hon. Member for North Devon referredwill be subsumed by arguments about the BBC.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) who argued that the way to kill the argument is to cover the BBC in the Ofcom paving Bill. It is important that consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny identify that as a key issue for public consultation as part of the communications Bill, but to address it now will cause the problems that the hon. Gentleman wants to avoid. We must not deal with that problem at the expense of the rest of the communications industry.
Michael Fabricant: The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) has been a powerful advocate for the other elements to which Ofcom will have regard. As he rightly says, broadcasting is not the only one to consider. However, I disagree with him and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) when they say that now is not the time to debate whether we include the BBC under the auspices of Ofcom.