Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Tessa Jowell: Yes, we are working across Government on smart procurement. Prices are falling and, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, that is precisely the way in which to encourage further penetration and take-up.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): My right hon. Friend has twice referred to the inadequacy of the

7 May 2002 : Column 42

previous legislation, including the Broadcasting Act 1996. One of the problems with that Act was that it was out of date before it even reached the statute book. Does my right hon. Friend accept that she is legislating not for an Act for May 2002 but for an Act that will have to last until the end of this decade or the beginning of the next one? That is the perspective that she should adopt, with regard not only to cross-media ownership—in which I think that she is mistaken in imposing these pretty arbitrary percentages, which are comparable to those in the 1996 Act—but to the way in which Ofcom conducts itself.

Will my right hon. Friend take seriously into account the proposals, published in the Select Committee's report last week, that both Ofcom and the BBC board of governors should meet in public in the way that the Federal Communications Commission does? Will she also assure the House that, when she speaks about the need for different voices, that will include giving a proper position to community radio, which she has not referred to today?

Tessa Jowell: I studied the Select Committee report at the weekend and was particularly taken by the proposals concerning the governance of Ofcom and the BBC. Ofcom will clearly operate on the Nolan principles. It will be a matter for the bodies themselves whether they meet in public; clearly, there will be occasions on which matters of commercial sensitivity will need to be considered. I entirely share my right hon. Friend's view, however, that, as an operating principle, public bodies such as these should meet in public, and provide specific reasons as to why it might be necessary to meet in camera from time to time.

I know that the Select Committee has been very interested in the position of community and access radio, and in the present uncertainty over restricted service licences. I hope that both spectrum planning and the results of the current access radio pilots will be able to inform future policy in this area. In principle, we see great opportunities for the development of community radio and considerable opportunity for the extension of the restricted service licences.

The answer to my right hon. Friend's final question is yes, it is our ambition to view this as legislation that will last, certainly through the analogue switch-off. We are talking about legislation that should stand the test of time for eight to 10 years. It is important that it should be subject to the degree of scrutiny that we are proposing, to ensure that it is fit for that very demanding future.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Does the Secretary of State realise that, in the course of answering questions this afternoon, she has twice suggested that competition rules will be relied on to deliver plurality and diversity where media ownership rules have disappeared? If she wishes to say that the British broadcasting and communications industries are open for investment and will be flexible in the future, with the least possible regulation consistent with efficiency, does she not realise that competition is the mechanism by which that can be achieved? Will she at least acknowledge that, in the course of the coming scrutiny, she will be open to the argument that competition might be a more efficient and lighter-touch way of delivering this objective?

Tessa Jowell: It is important that the House takes account of the extent to which this is a deregulatory Bill

7 May 2002 : Column 43

in relation to cross-media ownership and media ownership. We have scrapped at least 12 of the existing media ownership and cross-media ownership rules, keeping only a minimum of three rules that we believe are necessary for the preservation of plurality and diversity. There will certainly be plenty of opportunity during the passage of the Bill, and in the Government's response to the Select Committee report, to reflect on why a degree of regulation is important to secure the essential place of the media in our democracy.

I should add that it is clear from the regimes operating in other European countries, and indeed throughout the world, that those countries are trying increasingly to use a system underpinned by competition, while recognising—just as we do—that a plurality of voices and a diversity of content cannot be guaranteed by competition alone.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): Can my right hon. Friend give us any idea of the protection, if any, that will be offered to those who are subjected to extremely spurious allegations through the internet, which are offensive to both friends and family? What options will the Bill provide to enable those responsible to be dealt with?

Tessa Jowell: As my hon. Friend will know, we do not propose any specific regulation of the internet, but I understand that the libel laws apply to internet use, as does other legislation such as the Obscene Publications Act 1959. We are working with the Internet Watch Foundation to encourage and promote more self-regulation through the introduction of codes, and although Ofcom will have no regulatory role in that context, it will have an interest.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party look forward to getting their teeth into the meat of the Bill.

May I suggest that the Secretary of State add a third principle to her twin principles of regulation—or at least that the House add a third? I refer to democratic accountability. Many people in Scotland and Wales feel that Ofcom, in its present form, represents a step backwards from that principle.

Will the Secretary of State tell us a little more about how Ofcom will work with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, and indeed in Northern Ireland, where there are unique communications issues? For example, will her tests for the digital switch-on apply to the United Kingdom as a whole, or can they be applied to its constituent nations?

Tessa Jowell: We take those points very seriously. Ofcom must be seen, and trusted, as a body with the capacity to represent the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. That is why—as I hope I have made clear—each devolved nation will be represented on both the content board and the consumers panel. There will also

7 May 2002 : Column 44

be an Ofcom office in each devolved nation. Moreover, Ofcom's terms of reference—the principles that will guide its operations—will include the need to take account of the needs and interests of the regions.

Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles): Does my right hon. Friend agree that broadcasting policy must reflect the full cultural diversity of the United Kingdom, particularly the indigenous minority languages of Gaelic and, of course, Welsh? I am glad that Gaelic broadcasting will continue to be part of the Government's overall responsibility. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me, and representatives of the Gaelic broadcasting community, to discuss these matters further in the spirit of consultation of which she has spoken?

Tessa Jowell: I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I have already discussed the matter with the Secretary of State for Scotland, in the light of recommendations in the Milne report. It is clear that much can be done to improve the range and quality of Gaelic broadcasting, and that Ofcom should and will have a role in that.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the broadcasting obligations set out in the Belfast agreement of 1998. Do the Government intend to implement those obligations in the Bill? If so, what discussions has the right hon. Lady had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?

Tessa Jowell: It is important to be clear that broadcasting is a reserved not a devolved matter. As the hon. Lady noted, provisions in the Belfast agreement give certain powers to Ministers in the Assembly. In recognition of the fact that broadcasting is a reserved matter, it is not our intention that those powers should be represented in the main Bill. I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposals will mean much tougher external regulation for the BBC under tier one and tier two than was the case under any of her predecessors? Ofcom is essentially an economic regulator, which imposes a light-touch regulation over the commercial companies' public service broadcasting role. The ultimate backstop powers need to be heavy touch to ensure that the BBC maintains its public service roles. Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving Ofcom such powers would exclude the roles of the governors, Parliament and even the Secretary of State?

Tessa Jowell: Yes, the BBC will face tougher regulation than the other public service broadcasters. However, as I said in my opening remarks, I think that that should be the case. I also believe that the backstop powers should remain with the Secretary of State, as the BBC spends licence payers' money, and that requires a particular accountability.

7 May 2002 : Column 43

7 May 2002 : Column 45

Next Section

IndexHome Page