Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Michael Fabricant: Oh, do.

Mr. Thomas: No, I will not. However, I should like to explain the reasoning behind the amendments. Amendment No. 46 was not inspired by my party's policy, which is to have an Ofcom for Wales, to cover broadcasting, telecommunications and regulation there, although I shall not bore the Committee and bring down the quality of debate by going into that now. That debate is for another day; hon. Members will have to wait.

Today, I seek to do what the Government would have done if devolution worked. A year ago today, the Cabinet in the Welsh Assembly, which is run by the Labour party, with assistance, reported to the Assembly's Culture Committee. The Minister for Culture, Sport and Welsh Language in the Assembly is a Liberal Democrat, Jenny Randerson, which shows that both parties have been associated with this work. In its report of 24 January 2001, the Cabinet said:

    ''We recommend that the Board of Ofcom should likewise include a member representing the interests of Wales. We suggest that that Member for Wales''—

in heavy print—

    ''should be appointed by the National Assembly.''

In other words, the Assembly requested one year ago in its formal response to the communications White Paper that the aims set out in amendment No. 46 be realised. I would have assumed that the Labour party—and the Liberal Democrats, but especially Labour—would support a member of Ofcom to represent Wales being appointed not by the Secretary of State, but by the Assembly. I have not sought that in my amendment: the Secretary of State would retain the power to appoint the person to represent Wales, and that person would be recommended by the Assembly.

Something has gone wrong in the process of devolution. The likely scenario is that the Welsh Cabinet has been told that it cannot have what it wants, and that it should go away and forget about it. It is unlikely that the Cabinet had a rethink, given the way in which things are going in Wales at the moment.

Increasingly, those working in broadcast media and communications in Wales who lobby me raise the Welsh failure to access broadband communications and take up internet connections. Internet connection has been taken up by 20 per cent. of people in Wales, whereas the figure for the UK as a whole is 30 per cent. Many people feel that those issues need a distinct role in Ofcom. Similar arguments pertain to Scotland, although I do not claim to be an expert outside my boundaries—I do not claim to be an expert inside my boundaries, but I can try.

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The second aspect that I want to bring to the Committee's attention reinforces the reasons why we need the amendments. It comes from my constituency and my experience, and it involves an aspect of media that is often overlooked—radio. I do not really have an interest to declare because the events occurred more than 10 years ago, and I no longer have an interest in the radio station, but about 10 years ago I was the secretary of a community radio station, Radio Ceredigion. I cannot remember whether the hon. Member for Lichfield was involved in the sector at that stage; I think not.

I was heavily involved with the Radio Authority in putting in a bid to gain a community radio station for the Ceredigion area. I am glad to say that we were successful in the teeth of opposition from commercial radio stations, and that we established the first community bilingual radio station in an area in which 60 per cent. of people are Welsh speaking.

Michael Fabricant: I fear that the hon. Gentleman may be wrong. Was Radio Maldwyn not the first such station in Wales?

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me about Radio Maldwyn, which was established at the same time. We went through the application process together, and if he was involved in Radio Maldwyn he will remember the time frame. Indeed, my rudimentary broadcasting skills with reel-to-reel tape were learned with Radio Maldwyn. Although Radio Maldwyn had Welsh language broadcasting, as do other commercial stations in Wales such as Champion FM in the north and Swansea Sound in the south, it was not a truly bilingual station.

A bilingual radio station was innovative at the time, and it lasted for eight or nine years. It had English and Welsh side by side in the same programme, which was a new way of broadcasting which was more commonly used by minority Asian language stations in England. Radio Ceredigion has the highest radio uptake in Ceredigion, which means that more people listen to it than any other station in the broadcast area, and that is something to be proud of for any community radio station.

Like anything that comes from the community, finance is a problem. Radio Ceredigion has recently been taken over by North Wales Newspapers, forming a media magnate for Wales. One result has been a diminution of the Welsh language content on Radio Ceredigion. There has never been any evidence that Welsh language content must decline in order to increase audience share. The audience share was already there and the advertising has remained much the same. Commercial interests think that if one is to be commercial one must do it in English, and that one cannot do it Welsh. We were trying to be commercial in Welsh, and to a certain extent we succeeded.

That problem is coming to a head in a dispute between the community arm and commercial arm of Radio Ceredigion—the shares are mainly owned by the commercial arm—that goes to the heart of the licence given to the station in the first place. That is the

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kind of dispute that might well come to Ofcom's attention. The minutiae of what happens in rural west Wales demands that Ofcom has some understanding of Wales, of broadcasting in other languages and of what it is like to try to access broadcasting in west Wales. For example, I cannot get any form of digital in my area except satellite from just one platform.

Those issues are not specific to Wales, but with the advent of the National Assembly we have a format to work within. If, for example, we need additional work on broadband communications in Wales, we would have the regulatory body, Ofcom; we would have the Assembly as a potential funding and investment body; and, hopefully, we would have either a member of Ofcom who would be responsible for Wales or some form of advisory committee with Welsh representatives.

In a nutshell, the purpose of the amendments is to enshrine in this early stage of the Bill what the Minister will argue might come later, but I feel strongly that it should be put down as a ground rule now.

Miss McIntosh: I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. I must declare that on my many visits to Wales I did not do Welsh radio the service that, having listened to him, it deserved.

I shall declare an interest: I was born in Scotland and subsequently qualified as a Scottish advocate. I should like to use the amendments to elicit some information from the Minister about the representation that he would seek from Wales and Scotland. I am sure that he will have read the second report from the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport on the communications White Paper, to which we referred earlier. In particular, he will be mindful of the fact that his Department's White Paper refers to the need for the regulator

    ''to develop good links with the relevant policy committees...of the devolved assemblies''.

However, it does not refer to the new regulator's accountability to Parliament with which we have dealt. The amendments to which the hon. Gentleman spoke so eloquently remind me that the Bill is silent on that point.

11.15 am

I should prefer an undertaking from the Minister, and the Bill gives him an opportunity to give one. Our sittings are yet young and a number of hours lie ahead of us, but he might like to table an amendment that introduces some kind of formal consultation with the committees of the devolved assemblies. I hate to disappoint the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but I would prefer a formal reference to such consultation to his amendments. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity, having spent some time in the White Paper on the need, and presumably the wish, for the regulator to develop good links with the relevant policy committees of the devolved assemblies, to say why the Bill is silent on this point. Perhaps he will also help us by saying whether he recognises that there is an omission, and is therefore willing to table an amendment, or whether he will support the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

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Michael Fabricant: We are all in the mood of declaring interests, so I shall declare my interests that my mother is Welsh and that I am a frequent visitor to Llanfanogfach, not a million miles away from Abergynolwyn.

Miss McIntosh: I did not catch that.

Michael Fabricant: Llanfanogfach.

There is great importance in the points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. National interests must be represented. It was revealing that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East asked why the English regions were not represented. I hope that it is because many people realise what nonsense the concept of English regions is. It is clear from the fact that the hon. Gentleman omitted to table an amendment that he agrees with that point of view. That is sound and sensible of him.

Wales has a specific reason to be represented, and that is the language. Although Gaelic is spoken in the islands and some of the highlands of Scotland, clearly it is a minority language, whereas a reasonable proportion—I seek guidance on this—

Mr. Thomas: Twenty per cent.

Michael Fabricant: About 20 per cent. of the population of Wales speak Welsh as their mother tongue. That raises all sorts of problems. I have been in the Chamber and in Committee on a number of occasions with the hon. Member for Rhondda, who rightly says that in his constituency there are those who want to listen to programmes in Welsh, but there are also those who want to watch and listen to programmes in English. There is a real problem in the Rhondda, as in other parts of south Wales in particular, in that people want to be able to view Channel 4 television and cannot do so, whereas they can watch S4C. That problem will be partly overcome in due course with the introduction of digital television, but it will take time.

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