Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: I also welcome you, Miss Widdecombe, to the chairmanship of this Committee. It is a great pleasure to serve on the Committee with you.

The communications White Paper set out the Government's proposal to create a new, unitary regulatory body for the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors and the intention that it would be called the Office of Communications. Hon. Members will recall that the second report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which was published in March 2001, made a recommendation that the new regulator's name should be the ''Communications Regulation Commission'', which is a bit of a mouthful, and the amendments echo that recommendation. The Government's response to the Select Committee noted that the nature of the governing body, Ofcom, had been made clear and confirmed the intention to retain the title ''Office of Communications''. That remains the case.

We must move away from the old-fashioned concept of regulation being purely about stopping people doing certain things and towards a more facilitating approach. Ofcom will be involved in more than regulating in the old sense. It will have positive obligations such as promoting the interests of consumers and citizens and media literacy and in relation to various matters concerning public service broadcasting. It will also facilitate the effective use of spectrum and access to a wide range of high-quality services. The use of the word ''regulation'' in the title of the new organisation would therefore set wholly the wrong tone for many of the things that Ofcom will do.

The Office of Communications and the acronym Ofcom are already familiar to many in the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors. Indeed, they have gained currency through use in the media, by the existing regulators and by Government, and are therefore becoming better recognised by the wider public. There is little to be gained at this late stage by altering the name as the amendments propose.

Michael Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: Yes, to that lightning-like intervention.

Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way and I am somewhat reassured by his point on regulation. However, he did not address the second point. He spoke about the light touch, by implication, when he said that he did not wish to see the word ''regulation'', but he has not addressed the point about the size of the organisation. How many employees does he imagine it will have?

Dr. Howells: That matter is not dealt with in this part of the Bill or in the amendment, and I do not intend to discuss it.

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Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for the Minister's comments and his explanatory words. I believe that the Committee is handicapped by having to consider the structure of the new body without knowing precisely what its remit will be. The Minister has a distinct advantage over us, because he has probably had sight of the draft broadcasting Bill.

Even though the long title of the Bill contains the term ''regulation'', the Minister has not responded to my point that we are replacing five organisations with one organisation. The desire to call it the ''Communications Regulation Commission'' reflects the Select Committee's concept of it as more of a collegiate commission: the chairman will share the commission with the members of Ofcom—we shall discuss this in more detail later—but it will not be the chairman on a frolic of his own, as would be the case, for example, with a director general of communications. Will the Minister respond to those points?

Dr. Howells: I shall, very briefly. During the Committee's proceedings we will have many discussions about the make-up of the Ofcom board and its committees, and that is the right time to deal with the matter. Every page of the Bill gives a sense, which I hope we have communicated, that we strongly favour the collegiate approach. Nevertheless, we believe that we have arrived at the best title for the body that we aim to establish.

The Chairman: May I ask hon. Members to be alert? When we reach the end of a debate I need to be told whether an hon. Member seeks to withdraw the amendment, otherwise I shall put the Question on it later.

Miss McIntosh: Thank you, Miss Widdecombe. I was not sure whether to expect the procedure of knives to be used in the Committee, but I have been given to understand that it will not.

Mindful of the Minister's comments, and with the proviso that we may wish to return to the matter at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 25, in page 1, line 5, after first 'determine', insert

    'in consultation with and following consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 26, in page 1, line 5, leave out from 'of' to end of line 6 and insert

    'more than 10 in addition to the Chairman and Chief Executive'.

No. 47, in page 1, line 6, leave out from 'three' to end.

No. 8, in page 2, line 3, after 'OFCOM', insert

    'after consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament'.

No. 9, in page 2, line 7, leave out subsection (7).

No. 10, in page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (8).

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Miss McIntosh: Taking the amendments in the order in which they were tabled, amendment No. 25 deals with a new procedure that we have been led to believe the Government intend to introduce: a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. I understand that we are not allowed to refer formally to it by any other name than a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.

Conservative Members believe that it is appropriate for the Government to consider setting up such a Committee, and we welcome it. It is particularly appropriate that it should be consulted on the body established by the Bill, bearing in mind that the main broadcasting Bill will not be published until the spring, probably will not be considered in Standing Committee until the autumn and will not reach the statute book until this time next year at the earliest. That is why we want the Minister to agree to consult the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament and to allow it to consider and report on the matter.

Amendment No. 26 deals with the total number of members on the body. It will not have escaped your alert and astute attention, Miss Widdecombe, that that is left completely open. Close observers of the drafting of the Bill—Conservative Members are not unique in that regard—have received a mountain of representations, most of which do not relate to the Bill but are in anxious and excited anticipation of the broadcasting Bill. That makes the Committee's work easier, because we do not have to consider those points. There is huge concern among the wider public, especially in the existing bodies that the Government intend to replace with Ofcom and will be subject to its regulation, that we should have a compact Ofcom—one might call it a lean, mean fighting machine—which will not be so unwieldy as to be incapable of taking decisions and that its members should be finite in number. We cannot return to the Bill either at the next stage, a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee that the Government are minded to set up, or in the context of the big Bill.

Once we have left this baby Bill, which is a paving Bill, behind, it will be impossible to return. I seek assurance and agreement from the Minister that, rather than leaving the Bill with its loose and inadequate drafting stating that Ofcom shall not have a membership

    ''of less than three and more than six'',

we should say that, in addition to the chairman and chief executive, the total membership of Ofcom at any stage will be 10, and I hope that he will respond positively to that.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the Secretary of State has so much power in appointing people, to be able to get away with appointing only three effectively gives her total control over the new body?

Miss McIntosh: Indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point.

I must declare an interest: I am a minor shareholder in Railtrack. I have therefore had some experience of the manner in which the Government work, although I must say that that does not include the Minister,

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whom I find agreeable to work with—I would hate to stop his career in its tracks and I shall not proceed further down that dangerous path. In several Bills that either are before or have recently passed through the House, the Government have set up an independent regulator whose independence and power have been dispensed with by introducing a power of direction from the Secretary of State. Opposition Members are anxious to ensure that there will be no such power in this Bill.

We support the Government's intention to set up an independent regulator, and we are mindful that that regulator's powers, which we shall consider in the next Bill, should be clear. We want the structure to be right from the beginning with regard to numbers and assistance to the Secretary of State during the appointment of such a Joint Committee. I would hate to pre-empt anything that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is going to say, but I endorse his amendment and I like its thrust.

Amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 10 reflect the same theme—the Secretary of State setting up Ofcom. I want an undertaking from the Minister that that process will not just pay lip service to the concept of independent regulation, and that appointments to the regulator will be processed in an open and public manner. Members of both Houses of Parliament must have an opportunity to be consulted, which will strengthen the independent nature of Ofcom.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I rise to speak to amendment No. 47, which has been grouped, and fits well, with amendment No. 26 on which the hon. Member for Vale of York has spoken. I have tried twice to ask the Minister a parliamentary question on the composition of Ofcom and each time I have been thwarted, which must have disappointed him. He has, however, been good enough to give me an idea of the Government's understanding of the need for a small and focused regulatory body that will have the right expertise, and that will not be overburdened with the large governorships that we have seen in other bodies.

10 am

In Wales, the national library has a court of governors and an executive committee, and such bodies are also in place in the universities. There are many overarching regulatory bodies that are overburdened with the great and the good, and the Government's intention is to get rid of the great and simply leave the good. People who know the business of communications can take over the five regulators' jobs to ensure that there is a seamless transition from the present system to the new system, which will mean that broadcasting is balanced correctly among different areas and needs in the United Kingdom. I understand and appreciate that, and the Government are right.

However, the Bill is fettering the Government's discretion. It states that Ofcom will consist of between three and six members; it cannot be fewer than three or more than six. The Conservative amendment would allow us to go up to 10, which would be a considerable

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improvement, if only because it would allow national representatives from Wales and Scotland to join Ofcom. I shall return to that in a moment.

Having heard the Minister's thoughts, read the paper that he kindly sent to all members of the Committee and reflected on the matter, I think that he has got it wrong. An Ofcom containing between three and six members will not have the necessary breadth to show the public that they can have confidence in it to hold together national interest groups, disabled interest groups and minority language interest groups from cities and towns in England, Wales and Scotland. Those interests cannot be held together by a membership of between three and six.

The Minister needs greater discretion, and I am surprised that he has not given himself that discretion. For example, he could set a minimum standard membership, which my amendment would do, and take control of the upper membership limit. Some members might not like it, but it would allow the Minister to pick and choose, to have his focused body and, in time, to add or take away from the membership as needs dictate. We do not know what the regulatory process in the communications Bill will be, but in preparing the way for Ofcom, we are going too far down the road of strictures; there should be greater flexibility.

We are amalgamating five regulatory bodies and we must consider where radio interests, communications interests, broadband interests, Welsh interests, Scottish interests, Irish interests and English regional interests will come in. I am speaking for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party in this Committee; Northern Ireland can speak for itself. Other interest groups such as Christian radio broadcasting and disability interest groups will also need to contribute to Ofcom.

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