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9.30 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas: I, too, served on the Committee that considered the Bill, and its proceedings were very interesting and informative. On the whole, it considered the Bill at a reasonable pace and discussed issues that were worthy of debate. There were one or two examples of certain hon. Members perhaps taking up time in a dilatory way, but on the whole it was a model of how a Committee should work and the right amount of time was devoted to a Bill of this length.

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I cannot accept that we have discussed any issue that should not rightly have been considered in Committee or even on Report. It was right and proper for hon. Members to try to explore the Bill's paving element and its less welcome elements. Paving is a useful substance when it is put down to walk on—it opens the way—but it becomes a barrier if it is stacked up. When we started to consider the Bill, we were not quite sure whether we were looking at paving that would provide a nice, flat way forward or at an obstacle, and I am still not convinced which of those this Bill represents.

On the whole, this is a genuine paving Bill, but it has always had a slightly worrying aspect: clause 2, which relates to Ofcom's initial function, states that

That clause gives powers to Ofcom very early in its existence, and we were right to explore in Committee how those powers may be used and to consider Ofcom's membership because it will set the tone for the forthcoming, fully fledged Ofcom, to which we now look forward.

We await with interest the draft communications Bill that the Minister said he would introduce. In Committee, he clearly said that it would come in the spring. When he was pressed to say when spring time was, he said that it was a time of flowers and warm air. I have to tell him that the snowdrops are out, even in Ceredigion; that the daffodils are out in London; and that I saw frogspawn on my walk up the Nedd Fechan in Pontneddfechan on Sunday, so it is important to recognise that spring is on its way.

I agree with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North–East (Brian White) that we now need to see that draft communications Bill. It does not matter whether it is complete because we have been promised pre-legislative scrutiny in both Houses, so we shall have plenty of time to consider it. I fear that, if we do not see that Bill early enough to continue some of our arguments, the suspicion will grow that the Government have sought to establish Ofcom as a nice, tidy way to deal with these things while further distancing themselves from accountability and responsibility for them.

The matters of most interest to me are representation not only for Wales and Scotland, to give us a voice in Ofcom in whatever way that is arranged, but for disabled people, as well as the interesting issues raised about the number of people at Ofcom and the length of their service and how the body will be constituted. All those valid and valuable issues were raised in Committee, and, on the whole, the Minister dealt with them reasonably effectively, but one issue remains outstanding.

Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party are concerned that there is still no representation for Wales or Scotland or a method to consult them, as promised in the White Paper. There is no mention of having a member for Wales. We have extracted a promise that Ofcom will have an office in Wales, but we must be aware that it replaces five regulatory bodies, most of which already have in place a method for representing Wales as well as contacting and consulting the National Assembly on such matters. That is why the Assembly Cabinet made it clear that it wanted to choose a Welsh member of Ofcom.

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It has long been my party's policy that we should have a regulatory body for communications in Wales—Ofcom Cymru, or Ofcom Wales if hon. Members prefer. I accept that that was never on the agenda and have not pursued it. It is perhaps better addressed in a bigger political fight. Nevertheless, we are extremely disappointed that the Bill has fallen so far short of reflecting Welsh and Scottish needs.

Despite the powers not being devolved to the National Assembly, it has a huge interest in communications, and in broadband in particular, because they do relate to the economic development of Wales. It funds broadband expansion in Wales and is a partner with the European Union in much of what is best in broadband in Wales. That is obvious to anyone who has ever pressed the fourth button on a television in Wales and seen the Welsh language channel, SpedwarC. The Assembly is charged by the Government of Wales Act 1998 to discuss such matters. They do not have to be devolved for it to have an interest and want to have a say.

Unfortunately, it is not clear how discussions in the Assembly or thoughts in Wales on how the communications revolution should continue will be taken up by Ofcom and fed through to the decision-making processes in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and, to an extent, in the Department of Trade and Industry. That is a disappointing aspect of the Bill. We will of course explore such issues more thoroughly when we debate the communications Bill, and I look forward to advancing the case for Welsh and Scottish communications needs to be taken into account by the Government.

9.37 pm

Michael Fabricant: We have come to the end of a long period of deliberation on what is a fairly small Bill. However, it was right to spend that time establishing the structures and, where possible, to discuss what needs to be put into place when the communications Bill is introduced.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) is often right on technological matters. He was certainly right to say that what might be possible technically need not necessarily dictate the future. Studies in the United States show that people operate personal computers differently from the way in which they watch television. Convergence might mean that the PC and the television use the same screen, but in practice, as the hon. Gentleman said, that will probably not be the case because we watch television at a distance and operate a PC close up.

Nevertheless, as I said when I argued that the BBC should be involved in Ofcom, time has moved on. There is greater convergence. Technology means that the BBC's position cannot be sustained. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) rightly explained that we are in a sustained period of recession, certainly as far as advertising revenue is concerned. The Independent Television Commission recently sent me some information. Between 1994 and 2000, the annual growth in independent television net advertising receipts was 8.6 per cent. That is a massive annual growth. Yet during 2001, ITV suffered losses in net advertising revenue that were larger than the average for the industry as a whole. Carlton reported its advertising revenue down by 13 per cent. for the year ending September 2001. Granada posted similar losses of 12 per cent.

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Those losses are partly due to the fact that the BBC has shown itself to be an excellent and competitive broadcaster. Since the birth of independent television in 1955, the BBC has managed to capture a larger audience share than ITV. However, the real reason for net advertising receipts falling is the fragility, as people see it, rightly or wrongly, of the economy in the future. That is even more reason to set up an Office of Communications, and that is why my Front-Bench colleagues and I welcome its introduction.

However, we do not want Ofcom at any cost. We do not want a body that is flawed. I am not convinced that the shell organisation set up by the Bill will be flawed: it will exist only until a communications Bill goes through Parliament and is enacted. Incidentally, over the years the Government have promised to introduce legislation in many areas, but the legislation never appeared, so I want to be convinced that a communications Bill will be announced in the next Queen's Speech. It is important for the sake of the industry that a communications authority be established. It is terribly important that we get that right so that the BBC is not seen to be its own judge and jury, as I said earlier. Furthermore, it must be seen to be controlled in the best interests of the viewers and listeners, who after all pay for it.

It is important also for the industry as a whole that we get this right. I do not want news corporations such as Berlusconi or Bertelsmann to take over the media in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Britain has so much to be proud of, including not only the BBC, which is the largest individual producer of radio and television programmes in the world, but stations such as Granada and Carlton, which have sales worldwide. British broadcasting has to be promoted, and we must have a structure that enables us to do that.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East would chide us with the fact that this is not only a question of controlling broadcasting bodies: we must also ensure that there is an expansion in digital technology in this country. It is a sad indictment of this Government that despite all the boasts made in the White Paper a year ago and in earlier White Papers, broadband has failed to expand in the UK, to such an extent that we are now 22nd in the world league.

I hope that when the communications body is established it will manage to speed up that expansion; otherwise we will see a digital deficit, not only in regard to disabled people, as I said earlier, but in the nation as a whole, and that will cost us dear. I have no doubt that the will of the Government is to see that everyone becomes computer literate and has access to a PC on a broadband network so that they can apply their literacy. However, that requires a great deal more than the Prime Minister visiting a school and playing on a computer; a structure needs to be established.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas)—I call him my hon. Friend because we became great allies in Committee—is right to call for interests in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to be represented in Ofcom, and not only because of the question of languages that exists in Wales. Incidentally, I had to smile wryly when he talked about the work of S4C, because while many people enjoy watching S4C, plenty

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of other people build tall aerials on their roof so that they can pick up Channel 4 from England—but that is not to say that I want to deprive Welsh viewers of S4C. I would like viewers in Wales to receive both S4C and Channel 4, and that may well be possible in future.

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