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Standing Committee Debates
Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Standing Committee E

Thursday 24 January 2002


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

2.30 pm

The Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Hon. Members who have not already presumed my consent may remove their jackets if they want to, for their comfort. I cannot speak for Mr. Stevenson or Miss Widdecombe, but the Committee can take that as read while I am in the Chair.

Before we recommence the debate on amendment No. 46, I should say that I have taken a briefing from my co-Chairman this morning and the Clerks. I understand that once subsequent amendments to the clause have been discussed, the clause will have been thoroughly debated. I shall therefore not be minded to allow a clause stand part debate. I tell hon. Members that for their convenience, in case they want to raise any issues. I shall be reasonably but not ludicrously flexible in what I consider to be in order.

Clause 1

The Office of Communications

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 46, in page 1, line 6, at end insert-

    '( ) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the membership of OFCOM includes a representative for Wales and a representative for Scotland, and in appointing these national representatives the Secretary of State shall consult with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.'.-[Mr. Simon Thomas.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 55, in page 1, line 6, and end insert-

    '( ) In appointing members of OFCOM, the Secretary of State shall consult with the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting needs are considered.'.

No. 54, in page 2, line 18, at end insert-

    '( ) OFCOM shall establish an office in Wales and an office in Scotland in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting needs are considered.'.

No. 53, in schedule, page 11, line 32, at end insert-

    '(2A) As soon as possible after the end of each financial year, OFCOM shall also prepare and send to the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament a report of how OFCOM are ensuring that Welsh and Scottish interests are being adequately met.'.

No. 49, in schedule, page 12, line 9, at end insert-

    '(c) for ensuring that the membership of every committee established by OFCOM contains at least one representative for Wales, and one representative for Scotland;

    (d) for consulting the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament in appointing the representatives referred to in sub-paragraph (1)(c).'.

No. 51, in schedule, page 12, line 22, at end insert-

    '( ) OFCOM shall establish-

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    (a) a Welsh Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Wales; and

    (b) a Scottish Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Scotland

    and shall, in appointing these Committees, consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.'.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Thank you, Mr. Gale, and welcome to the Committee.

As colleagues will recall, the amendment was moved by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), who represents Plaid Cymru. It has my support, and we might see whether my hon. Friends share my view. Someone on the main board of Ofcom should understand the problems of the language interests in Wales and the differences between its environment and that of England. The same goes for Scotland.

It is clear that there will be problems with small radio stations. We have already discussed Radio Maldwyn and Radio Ceredigion. I was involved in the establishment in Gowerton and Gorseinon of Swansea Sound, which could not be described as a dual language radio station although it has a Welsh language remit.

I hope that officers of Ofcom will include current officers of the Radio Authority, especially Mr. Tony Stoller and Mr. David Vick, who do an excellent job. I must declare an interest in that respect: the other day, we worked out that I had known the two of them for more than 50 years-combined, I hasten to add. At times, the officers of Ofcom will make decisions that have to go before the Ofcom board as a whole. If it transpires that the board contains only English men and women, the problems encountered by small, rural Welsh language radio stations will not be understood.

When I first came to the House, the first Standing Committee on which I served considered what became the Welsh Language Act 1993. I learned much about the culture of Wales from that Bill. I also learned from my mother, who briefed me incessantly and sang the Welsh national anthem to me in Welsh. I would sing it now, but I know that you would rule that out of order, Mr. Gale.

The Chairman: Yes, I would.

Michael Fabricant: I expounded on the subject this morning, Mr. Gale, so I shall not try your or the Committee's patience now.

Because of the language and the peculiar conditions in rural Wales compared to those in rural England-the spread of internet provision was mentioned this morning-representatives from Wales and to lesser extent Scotland are needed on the authority. If the Minister does not support the making of provision for that, many people in Pontypridd will write to him tomorrow asking why he takes an opposing view.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): It seemed to me that in speaking to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and supported by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), both hon. Gentlemen spent a great deal of time demonstrating not only their ability to pronounce the Welsh language, but their passionate commitment to it. Their arguments were in essence

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about proper regard being accorded to community radio, but were specifically slanted towards the Welsh and Gaelic languages. They tended to ignore, for example, my constituents and people in Greater London. If we took into account community and other radio stations broadcast in London, would there have to be representatives for Greek, for Turkish and for other languages and dialects spoken on the Asian sub-continent?

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): That may be a valid point. However, alongside English, the Welsh language is an official language of the United Kingdom. The languages that the hon. Lady mentions do not have that status.

Glenda Jackson: I appreciate that point. Radio and television stations that one could deem to be the official broadcasting arms of the UK in Wales, albeit they are not, have to broadcast a proportion of programmes in the Welsh language. I understood both hon. Gentlemen to have said that the issue affected small community radio stations. The hon. Member for Ceredigion may shake his head, but the basis of his initial argument was that one small community station-

Mr. Thomas: It was an example.

Glenda Jackson: An example to which the hon. Gentleman devoted a great deal of time. The basis of his initial argument was that there should be some way to protect such stations, especially those in rural areas, against the threat of commercial interests from a wider media base. He said that that was especially true for Wales, where picking up mainstream programmes can be difficult.

To return to my argument, I mentioned some languages represented by community radio stations in the Greater London area. There are pockets in that area where people have extreme difficulty in receiving all mainstream broadcasting, be it radio or television. The problem is not exclusive to Wales, although the percentages may be higher there.

We are considering a period in which there will be an increase in what one might call community television broadcasting. In the Greater London area, there are several small community television outlets, most of which are linked to local authorities. Should all such interests be represented in Ofcom, which is a regulatory, not representative, body?

No one would deny that community broadcasting is important, whether on radio or television. However, if we approached the issue on the basis of languages spoken, and if the Government accepted the amendment, Ofcom would need more than one boardroom. It would probably need two large office blocks.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I rise to speak briefly because I heard something different from the hon. Member for Ceredigion. As well as community radio, for which he obviously has a passion, he mentioned internet access, broadband access and a range of other issues in Wales. The hon.

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Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) was right to suggest that the debate was not about language. If it were, it would not make sense.

The Liberal Democrats' sympathy lies with the amendment because of our feeling that the United Kingdom comprises constituent countries. We have always taken a strong line on the subject. The hon. Member for Ceredigion referred to the views of ''our'' Liberal Democrat member who is part of the Administration in Cardiff. We have always held the view that UK bodies should, so far as possible, respect the fact that the UK is a federation of different countries. It is appropriate to raise the question of the extent to which the different countries should be represented because of their power base rather than their language. Power has, quite properly, been devolved, and whenever possible we would like to see United Kingdom bodies respect the fact that we are a federation.

I would be interested to hear the Minister's response to amendment No. 55, which is about the need to consult. If he is not sympathetic to appointments being made by the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales-one could include the Northern Ireland Assembly as well-it would help to know what sort of consultation will take place. The Government are responsible for having set up those legislative bodies, and we hope that they will be properly respected in the creation of a new UK-wide body.


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