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9.17 pm

Nick Harvey: On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) asked what Ofcom is actually for and what the regulation of the communications industry is supposed to be all about. Do we need to have a specialist regulator for the communications industry, or could it just be regulated by the OFT and the other bodies that regulate industry and competition within industry?

I believe that there is a justification for the communications industry having a specialist regulator and that Ofcom, in the shape proposed, is more or less the right way to go forward and certainly is the basis on which we can debate what this regulatory body ought to be.

It is essential that Ofcom is allowed to take a view on what constitutes the public interest. The OFT is explicitly prevented from introducing into its considerations aspects of what constitutes the public interest. As I understand the Government's reforms, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's ability to enter into the chain of decision

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making in competition issues is forced back. The regulator—set up without a brief to take account of the public interest—makes competition decisions against what I referred to earlier as very dry economic criteria.

If Ofcom, which is obviously going to need technical expertise relevant to this sector—and will also, rightly, have to consider competition issues—is not allowed to go beyond that and consider public interest issues, it will not achieve some of the purposes that are being envisaged for it. It certainly will not be fit to be the sole and total regulator of the BBC. I have misgivings about some of its other anticipated roles.

When the communications Bill is published and we debate what Ofcom is for, we must decide either to give it explicit public interest powers or to retain for Parliament or the Secretary of State some ability to introduce considerations of public interest; otherwise, it would be virtually pointless to set the body up. All that it would add to the existing regulatory framework would be some specialist technical know-how. The question of what the body is for is so fundamental that we have probably expended too much time and endeavour on the paving Bill, which contains just seven clauses and a schedule and merely empowers the setting up of Ofcom and the hiring of offices and staff. The sooner we get on with the real debate, which publication of the draft Bill will begin, the better it will be.

9.20 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I, too, was a member of the Standing Committee that met for the many happy hours referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) to discuss the establishment of an Office of Communications. Our debates centred on the size and composition of the new body and its initial functions in preparing for the regulatory duties across the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors that will be imposed on it by the communications Bill soon to come before the House. We also debated the vexed question of the relationship between Ofcom and the BBC, to which I shall return later.

Clause 1 proposes that the membership of Ofcom should be determined by the Secretary of State and should be not fewer than three people and not more than six. Ofcom is to become an umbrella organisation replacing the existing regulators—the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Oftel, the Radio Authority and the Radiocommunications Agency. Concern remains that a body that may be comprised of as few as three people will be able to ensure that the interests of so many different services, groups and organisations are represented fully. I have received from a wide range of those organisations representations that certainly echo those concerns.

Inclusion of the necessary range of professional expertise and divergence of experience and view will be extremely challenging. The appointment of a chairman and the members of Ofcom will rest with the Secretary of State. There should also be a chief executive and other executive members, but there is a question about that. Clause 1(5) states:


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That will be an interesting exercise. Given that the maximum and minimum numbers for membership allow little flexibility, an Ofcom of three members would include a chairman, one member and a chief executive. Even an Ofcom of six members would include only a chairman, between one and four members and a chief executive. Clause 1(7) states:

I hope that that opportunity will be taken.

Much debate in Committee concentrated on whether the Bill should be concerned with Ofcom's future functions—it is, after all, only a paving Bill. I submit that the establishment of Ofcom cannot be readily separated from those functions or from the existing functions of the five regulators that it will replace. Representations have been received from a wide range of interest groups, all expressing individual concerns. For example, the Royal National Institute for the Blind is particularly concerned about the special requirements and circumstances of individuals who are disabled and those of pensionable age. It has requested that an advisory committee be set up for disabled people.

As my own mother was blind, I am aware from personal experience of the importance of both radio and television to blind people. Very few sight-impaired people are totally blind, and they often watch television in the company of sighted people. For those viewers, audio description is an important new technology. It adds to the existing soundtrack and enables blind people to build a better mental picture and understanding of the action. Currently, fewer than 50 people are receiving digital terrestrial television audio description—I apologise for that long title—as part of a trial. I hope that Ofcom will give high priority to supporting the development of that service, to enable a large number of people to benefit.

There are 8.7 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, including 2 million with serious sight problems, who are more dependent on radio and television than most people, and many of whom have unsuitable equipment. That is an area where Ofcom could take the lead and ensure that the future needs of disabled people were met, but it will need specific expertise to do so.

There is currently an obstacle to Christian and other religious broadcasters in applying for a UK broadcasting licence in the same way as their secular competitors. There is a call to remove the ban against religious persons and bodies applying for licences for national and regional analogue and digital terrestrial TV services and national analogue and digital and local digital radio services. I would urge Ofcom to look sympathetically at that area of demand.

Even those already in possession of a licence are not without their problems. Premier Radio, London's Christian radio station, has been given a yellow card by the Radio Authority. That means that if the station does not mend its ways it could lose its licence. Premier Radio had 14 programming complaints and one advertising complaint lodged against it, which is far more than any other station listed. Every single complaint was from the Mysticism and Occultism Federation. Its website states that it has five part-time unpaid volunteers who monitor the media. Irony of ironies, the pretext for the group's

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monitoring and complaining is in fact pluralism. The group that seems determined to remove Premier Radio from the airwaves claims that it is actually committed to valuing and respecting the beliefs of others.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Lady is saying. I do not see why the radio frequencies should not be opened up more to a diverse range of stations, as long as they can remain within the law and the regulation that Ofcom might seek to lay down, but that may well lead to the establishment of radio occult. Would the hon. Lady welcome that?

Angela Watkinson: I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), if only because it gives me the opportunity to try to pronounce the name of his constituency. I just wonder how large an audience such a station would attract.

One is surprised to learn just how seriously those complaints were taken by the Radio Authority. The authority, or its future incarnation Ofcom, must be kept more accountable by the Secretary of State to expose vexatious complaints. Specific expertise is needed to overcome such problems.

I shall now discuss the future status of the BBC. Currently, the BBC answers only to itself or to the Secretary of State. It would be far better for any future regulatory dispute to be decided between Ofcom and the BBC rather than with an elected politician.

The BBC's public service remit will be largely self-regulation but with back stop powers resting with the Secretary of State. If the governors fail in that task, the Secretary of State may act to remedy the situation. The Secretary of State would also retain the power to approve new BBC licenced fee-funded services and material changes to existing services, although Ofcom will give formal advice on the market impact of such proposals. It is essential that the BBC retains public confidence and credibility in its editorial independence as an impartial public broadcaster, and that role would be more appropriately carried out by an independent Ofcom.

A huge responsibility will rest on Ofcom in having control of the nation's communications—those conveyors of ideas, information and culture. The Orwellian opportunities are obvious. We must ensure that this new all-encompassing regulatory body has a light touch and transparent procedures, which will meet the continuing fast-moving developments and challenges facing the communications sector and take a balanced and fair view across the spectrum of media platforms. To succeed, it will need to be efficient and innovative and have an explicit commitment to providing first-class services to all sections of the viewing, listening and communicating public.

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