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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee E

Thursday 24 January 2002

[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]

Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

9.30 am

The Chairman: Before we begin, I remind the Committee to ensure that mobiles and pagers are functioning silently, or not at all.



    (1) during proceedings on the Office of Communications Bill [Lords] the Standing Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past Nine o'clock and half-past Two o'clock; and

    (2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely, Clause 1, Schedule, Clauses 2 to 7, new Clauses, new Schedules;

    (3) the proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, 5th February 2002.—[Dr. Howells.]

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill. Copies of the resolution are available on the tables. At this stage, adequate notice of amendments must be given. As a rule, neither I nor my co-Chairmen will call starred amendments, which includes starred amendments reached during the afternoon sitting of the Committee.

Clause 1

The Office of Communications

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 2, leave out from 'the' to end of line 3 and insert 'Communications Regulation Commission.'.

The Chairman: With this it be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 1, line 4, leave out 'OFCOM' and insert 'The Communications Regulation Commission'.

No. 1, in clause 7, page 6, line 6, leave out 'Office of Communications' and insert 'Communications Regulation Commission'.

No. 2, in title, line 1, leave out 'Office of Communications' and insert 'Communications Regulation Commission'.

Miss McIntosh: Miss Widdecombe, welcome to the chairmanship of this Committee; I look forward to serving under you.

The amendments would replace the original title, ''Office of Communications'', with a new title, ''Communications Regulation Commission''. The proposed changes reflect the fact that the Government intend to replace five regulators—the Office of Telecommunications, the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards

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Commission, the Radio Authority and the Radiocommunications Agency—with one overall regulator. Hon. Members will notice that amendment No. 2 seeks to leave out ''Office of Communications'' in the title and replace it with the new wording, ''Communications Regulation Commission''.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Is my hon. Friend aware that the new title is excellent, not just because she has suggested it, but because it was the very title suggested by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in its report, the ''Multimedia Revolution''? We should give credit not only to that Committee, but its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who came up with so many proposals that were a precursor to the White Paper.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pre-empting comments I was about to make. I want to record my enthusiasm for his remarks.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): On behalf of Labour Members, will the hon. Lady thank her hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for getting that out of the way before we start?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the Minister and, in the spirit of co-operation, I look forward to congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield on future such occasions.

Amendment No. 1 addresses clause 7, page 6, line 6 and seeks to take out ''Office of Communications'' and insert ''Communications Regulation Commission''. Amendment No. 4 addresses clause 1, page 1, line 4 and again would insert the proposed new title, as would amendment No. 3.

I have not read the report to which my hon. Friend referred, but in another of its reports, on the communications White Paper, the Select Committee concluded that the internal structure would be better reflected if the new regulator were called the ''Commissions Regulation Commission''.

That report, as I am sure my hon. Friend will recall, went further in 1998 and called for a separate Department of Communications to be established, with its own Secretary of State, assuming the broadcast media responsibilities of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the telecommunications and internet responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry and the responsibility for electronic delivery of government services of the Cabinet Office. I did not think it appropriate, and I was not brave enough, to go so far as to suggest an amendment to that effect here, but I give notice that, given the opportunity on another occasion, the Government might see fit to reconstruct the relevant Departments. I think that it is the preserve of the House, once the Bill has been passed and received Royal Assent, to reconstruct the Select Committees.

The question facing us today is why the Government argue that the time is right for a converged regulator, Ofcom, but not a converged Department, as the Select Committee and I have suggested, to provide a coherent strategic direction for

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the regulator and for the sector as a whole. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield pre-empted my comments: I find myself in complete agreement with, and admire, the conclusions of the Select Committee. However, one reason why I proposed a new title is that if we remain with the title Ofcom, the Office of Communications, for the new regulator, one public body, Ofcom, will be responsible to two Government Departments.

The new title recognises that dichotomy and more accurately reflects the internal organisation and working structure of the new unified regulator which the Government are introducing, and which we support. The new regulator represents the merging of elements from current competition regulation and current broadcasting regulation. The competition regulation tends to be dominated in its structure by a single statutory regulator, such as the Director General of Telecommunications. It might be appropriate to declare my interest, albeit from 20-something years ago. As a stagiaire, I served as a trainee administrator in Directorate-General IV of the European Commission. I learned, as I thought at the time, quite a lot about competition regulation in the European Union. One of the first acts of the new Labour Government in 1997 was to incorporate article 85 and 86 into our competition law, so I hope that it was appropriate to declare that interest at this stage.

In contrast to competition regulation, broadcasting regulation tends to have a more collegiate structural approach. As so accurately described in the Select Committee's report on the White Paper on communications, in a collegiate approach—I have tabled further amendments on this, which I think have been selected—in which decisions might be taken by a majority, just as in a Cabinet or shadow Cabinet, the whole college of members is bound by those decisions. I believe that a collegiate approach is more appropriate here than regulation by a single individual.

I believe that the amendments reflect what we are aiming to achieve: the merging of five separate, distinct bodies, with five different structures and roles, into one regulator. They are complemented by amendments further down the amendment paper. I hope that the Government are minded to agree to change the title to one that is more appropriate and reflective of the new regulator that they wish to introduce.

Michael Fabricant: May I say what a pleasure it is to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe? I hope that the Clerk will not have too much difficulty in telling the difference between us nowadays.

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) in arguing that the name of the organisation be changed from ''Office of Communications'' to ''Communications Regulations Commission''. Despite the possible wishes of my hon. Friend, I shall not speak at length, but I will point out two reasons why the name should be changed, the first of which relates to the Federal Communications Commission, in the United States. In some ways, the Office of Communications will be a similar

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organisation, and I hope that it will follow the FCC's example. As I said on Second Reading, the FCC is ably chaired in Washington DC by Michael Powell. He happens to be the son of Colin Powell, but there has been no nepotism—Michael Powell has a good background in this area. The FCC has a light touch, and I hope that the Office of Communications, once established, will also have one.

Britain leads the world in communications technology. It is not often realised that the Swedish or Norwegian satellite programmes that one watches—I do not often do that—in Stockholm or Oslo originate from such exotic locations as Battersea. The same is also true of middle eastern broadcasts in the Gulf.

Miss McIntosh: In the spirit of helpfulness, if my hon. Friend likes I could assist with the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian programmes.

Michael Fabricant: That is an intriguing offer which I may well take up after our proceedings have finished. Perhaps we can arrange a date and place to meet to discuss—or do—just that.

The Office of Communications should be called a commission, because such a name would suggest its being based on the structures of the FCC. The FCC is not over-staffed and is a light regulator, and I hope that the Minister can assure me that he does not want heavy-handed regulation to impede the work of the independent companies that deal with satellite broadcasting, telecommunications and the provision of broadband. I am glad to see in his place the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), who is a keen and good advocate not only of his constituency but of broadband distribution in rural areas—a cause that the Office of Communications will promote.

My second concern relates to the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said, the Office of Communications will incorporate a number of existing agencies, including the ITC and the Radio Authority. As I said on Second Reading, before becoming a Member of Parliament my career in part involved the setting up of independent radio stations in the UK. In the early days, the radio directorate of the Independent Broadcasting Authority was very much overshadowed as a result of the emphasis that the IBA placed on television transmissions. The radio division, as it was then known, operated in a very small part of the Brompton road headquarters, and was under-resourced and often neglected by the old authority itself.

As a result, the Conservative Government rightly said that radio should have its own authority. The Radio Authority and the Independent Television Commission were therefore separated out, and I congratulate Tony Stoller, director-general of the Radio Authority, on the consequent rapid expansion of independent radio. I would not like to see that good trend reversed by the Radio Authority's and the Independent Television Commission's being absorbed into another super-behemoth, which would mean that radio would, once again, become neglected. I also seek reassurance from the Minister about the way in which

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the communications office will be structured to ensure that radio maintains its rightful and important place in broadcasting.

9.45 am


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Prepared 24 January 2002