Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: I am fascinated by the hon. Lady's line of thinking. Perhaps she could explain why the Government have decided that the public should no longer have the right to a full examination of major infrastructure projects through public inquiry and in-depth examinations in consultation, yet parliamentarians are to be asked to play the role that the Secretary of State would normally have played, or the role of the public in the public inquiry. Why is that more appropriate for major infrastructure projects? I know of a line of pylons, the largest the country has ever seen. In future, such lines of pylons will not be subject to a public inquiry.

Glenda Jackson rose-

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The Chairman: Order. I remind the Committee that we should debate the amendments, not wider issues.

Glenda Jackson: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I must admit that at first I thought that the hon. Lady was referring to the disaster of Railtrack. I now understand that she was talking about pylons. However, I accept your guidelines and shall not discuss that.

Setting aside the popular-albeit misconceived-disquiet about the ability of parliamentarians, I am deeply doubtful of scrutiny that occurs before an individual does anything. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East made a pertinent point about variable approaches on environmental matters between gas and electricity regulators. Parliament should be able to give detail more finely on regulations to ensure that such incompatibility on the basic essentials of life cannot occur.

A point was made by an hon. Member whose name I cannot remember-I am sorry, my mind is developing the capacity of a sieve-that it is absolutely essential that a person who is appointed to a regulatory body with such vast importance should be scrutinised by a Select Committee or combination of Select Committees. However, that should occur after the person has actually done something. It is entirely improper to scrutinise a person on his or her past record and to relate that to a situation that has not occurred, especially if the scrutineers are perceived by the electorate to fail consistently in their own professional responsibilities.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady makes assumptions about why the electorate do not have faith in politicians. The turnout in the last general election may have been because people did not think that it was worth voting. That trend will continue if we invest more power in the Executive or smaller groups of people.

Glenda Jackson: That is the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of why people did not turn out in the election. I thought that it was because the majority of people in this country were more than content with the Labour Government and knew that there was hardly any possibility of the return of an alternative Government. That is why Labour is in government today.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam missed the point about appointments. We have argued passionately against appointments to the House of Lords, and I shall continue to argue passionately against that. Are we to go down the path whereby every person in an independent position must be scrutinised in the suggested way before getting his or her appointment and a chance in a new position and a new light? We would create a belief among the electorate that if a person wants the job badly enough, he or she will say anything that politicians want to hear. We would be in danger of creating as much disbelief as reassurance among the electorate.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Lady accuses the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam of coming up with something new, and she suggests that the new and radical idea would not work. Does she not accept that the same system has operated in the United States

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since before the second world war? Sadly, the general public hold Congressmen and Senators in even more contempt than Members of Parliament. However, the general public take more comfort from the fact that such pre-scrutiny is undertaken before people are appointed.

Glenda Jackson: If there was an element of public participation in that scrutiny, I might agree with the hon. Gentleman. He knows as well as I do that the positions are so powerful that if one part of the political spectrum does not find the appointee to its favour, the bottoms of the barrels are scraped away to damage whoever is examined. Nine times out of 10 he is stuck on the horns of party political approaches. If the Democrats appoint someone, there is an absolute requirement on all Republicans to oppose the appointment, whether or not justification for that exists. If the proposition of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was introduced by this House, that could become a danger.

4.30 pm

Mr. Thomas: Will the hon. Lady look at a more optimistic example of how the amendment could work? She talked about the tensions in America of the two main political parties tearing the system apart and scraping the barrel by discovering scandals on potential appointees. However, there is no one majority party in the Welsh Assembly, and there we have seen the appointment of Peter Clarke as the Children's Commissioner for Wales. Young people and children were part of the appointments panel; they interviewed Peter Clarke and took the decision alongside the committee. Surely, the amendment of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam points us to that more modern and radical approach with people and politicians getting involved.

Glenda Jackson: I did not think that there were ever any scandals in Wales, so the situation is simpler there. I take the hon. Gentleman's point on board, but one can go too far down that path.

I am prepared to listen to what children have to say-they invariably cut straight to the bottom line and have a more direct and honest assessment of issues-but they should not be overburdened with responsibility before their time. There should be the most minute scrutiny by the House, separate Select Committees and combinations of them, and there is nothing to prevent a Select Committee, when convening a sitting on a matter that relates to people with disabilities or children, from calling them to give evidence and answer questions. However, the idea that we adopt the non-productive American approach that has been described would not enhance the necessary individuality-as perceived by the public-of the positions of importance and authority proposed in the Bill.

Dr. Howells: Amendment No. 34 would require the Secretary of State to consult a Joint Committee on all appointments that she makes to Ofcom. Amendment No. 41 would require a vote of approval from a

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designated Select Committee to be given to such appointments.

We have made it clear that the Secretary of State will follow guidance set out by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments when appointing the chairman and non-executive members of Ofcom. That will ensure that appointments are made objectively on merit and that Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, are accountable for the appointments that they make. There is therefore no reason why an extra hurdle should be put in place in the case of appointments made to Ofcom. That is not required for existing regulators, or for bodies such as Ofgem or the Financial Services Authority. As hon. Members are aware, the appointments process can already be lengthy. As one who has appeared before uniformly hostile Select Committees, I know what they feel like. One is a great deal warmer after sitting in one than before.

The first report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life resolved that ministerial accountability was the best way of ensuring that appointments are properly made and that the right people are subsequently responsible for them. In addition to that important constitutional principle, practical considerations exist. The introduction of an additional element into the process of making public appointments would add a stage to a process that can already be lengthy.

The Government will fully co-operate with the Select Committee on Public Administration and any inquiry into patronage and public appointments announced in December. All hon. Members can be sure that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Support will call in whomever we care to appoint to a position; I have no doubt of that.

Miss McIntosh: I want the Minister to respond to my points about the pre-legislative scrutiny committee-or the Joint Committee, as I have referred to it. The amendments provide a modest role for it. Does he agree that it should be consulted before the chairman and the deputy chairman take up their responsibilities-especially as that will be the last opportunity that it will have to do so, before they take up their duties?

Dr. Howells: No, I do not agree.

I am confused about the hon. Lady's worries about the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee of both Houses is appointed through the usual channels, which none of us is allowed to discuss. We tried to address the matter on Second Reading, and it is clear that the Committee did a good job with regard to examining financial services.

I made it clear in the Chamber that I am confident that Parliament is capable of appointing the best people to sit on the Joint Committee. The people whom it will appoint will have the ability and the interests to be able to examine carefully the draft legislation that we will place before them for consultation.

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The existing arrangements are adequate. An extra stage would add nothing. Responsibility for making appointments to Ofcom should remain with the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 36 would require the Secretary of State to consult a Joint Committee before appointing a non-executive member of Ofcom as deputy chairman. Again, there is no reason why that should not be left entirely to the Secretary of State. She will have appointed the non-executive members to Ofcom fully in accordance with OCPA guidance. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable that, should it be necessary for Ofcom to have a deputy chairman, the Secretary of State should have the ability to make that appointment. As I said earlier, consulting a Joint Committee on such a matter would add inordinately to the time taken to make the appointment.

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Prepared 24 January 2002