Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Does the hon. Gentleman share my belief that the way in which ITV Digital is trying to wrap up sports rights and the negotiations that are going on with Sky are among the most significant challenges that we face?

Mr. Allan: I agree. The Committee will not be delving into cross-media ownership, but the issue has been raised in the context of the position of the BBC. I perceive a certain logic: economists like Galbraith point towards our tendency towards oligopolies, and broadcasting oligopolies seem now to be taking shape. In that market, the logic of maintaining an independent broadcaster is stronger now than it was when the BBC was set up.

The logic of maintaining a public service broadcaster that controls channels, not only content; the fact that the charter review is coming up; the fact that the amendments would create an unbalanced structure; and the fact that, whether or not the charter renewal comes up with a different structure, large elements of the BBC can be incorporated within Ofcom—for all those reasons, I suggest, with due respect to my Yorkshire colleague, the hon. Member for Vale of York, that the Bill is not the appropriate place in which to make changes in respect of the BBC. It will be far better to wait until charter renewal. I hope that, on the basis that we should return to the matter in a big public debate in 2004–5, she will be persuaded to withdraw the amendments.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Before I underwhelm the hon. Member for Vale of York, perhaps I could come down the M1 from Yorkshire, skip across the A50 and add my constituency in Newcastle-under-Lyme to the queue of complainants about digital terrestrial reception signals. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tweak the transmitters for all of us.

It is indisputable that the BBC is the Goliath of the British broadcasting scene. Last year's report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee raised pertinent concerns about the commercial power of the BBC and its ability to influence or inhibit the development of the rest of the broadcasting and information market, including the internet. As a new Member of

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Parliament, I should like to congratulate that Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and including the colourful hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), on the report. It is a very insightful commentary on the communications White paper.

In an ideal world, the report rightly says, the BBC should fall within Ofcom's remit to level the regulatory playing field. It is absurd to say that the BBC's status and editorial independence would be diminished if regulatory responsibilities of the governors were transferred to Ofcom. I am concerned that the launch of Ofcom, which is about much more than broadcasting regulation, is being overshadowed by debate substantially about the BBC—so much so that one of its most vital duties and responsibilities, the promotion of a national broadband infrastructure for the digital age, is being lost in communication with the outside world about what Ofcom is to be about.

The Committee's report recommended that a concurrent review of the BBC take place early in this Parliamentary Session. That has not happened and is unlikely to happen. The Minister has already made it clear that, in the meantime, steps will be taken so that the BBC in practice operates on a level playing field as the regulatory structure changes. Aspects of the BBC's broadcasting functions can be considered during debate on the main communications Bill.

Pragmatically, I see little objection to the proposal of the Independent Television Commission. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) that the constitutional regulatory position of the BBC governors can be reviewed after Ofcom has been set up and has settled down, and in the run-up to charter renewal from 2004. To do otherwise would be to legislate on the hop.

I declare a non-interest as a former print journalist. I was the City editor of The Observer. I never thought that I would say it, but I am with the techies. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) might have my babies for that, as my assistant, who used to work for him, said yesterday. Broadband and better access to the digital highway are vital, as is the promotion of those objectives by Ofcom.

Let us not overshadow the Bill with a controversy about the BBC. ITV and Sky will jump up and down about it, but it is a distraction. For similar reasons—we will discuss them when we come to the substance of the communications Bill—I have grave concerns about overloading Ofcom with too many additional responsibilities, so that it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare and loses any agility or focus.

11.15 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): When considering this group of amendments, it is important to ask what the Bill is supposed to do. The White Paper begins by stating that it is supposed to

    safeguard the interests of . . . consumers.

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I understood also that the Bill was designed to provide a united regulatory body. If so, it seems odd that paragraph 1(4) of the schedule, in effect, bars anyone who is or has been a governor of the BBC from sitting on Ofcom. It lists several people who would not be barred, but past or present governors of the BBC are not included. Our amendment would simply add such people to that provision, which seems sensible.

The Government have told us several times that we must wait and see what is in the communications Bill; that will set the scene. If that Bill is so important and this one so unimportant, why are we taking up parliamentary time debating it when we ought to be attending to many other matters? It is important that we discuss the paving Bill and get the framework right. That framework should include the BBC. There is in this country a mish-mash of regulation; one of the reasons for the Bill is to bring that regulation together.

The BBC is given a licence fee; someone who wants to watch another channel still has to pay for the licence. That is an extremely peculiar arrangement. I cannot think of another example.

Mr. Allan: May I suggest one? All forms of local tax are required to be paid by households whether or not those households use local services. There are other examples, although I am not sure that we are keen on them.

Mr. Robertson: I used to think that the hon. Gentleman was a friend of mine, yet he devastates my argument, just like that. He makes a powerful point about the acceptance of state-controlled broadcasting, although there are several differences between paying local taxes and the paying BBC's licence fee, one of which relates to ability to pay.

We are trying to create an environment in which competition is all important. The White Paper states:

    Competition is vital to dynamic markets.

I therefore do not see how the licence fee can be justified. I am aware of a court case—it was not widely reported—in which someone said that she did not watch the BBC and so would not pay the licence. The case went to court but was dropped because it was difficult to prove that the woman had an obligation to pay for the licence. I am saying not that the result would be the same in the High Court, but simply that a case was dropped in court against someone who said, ''I do not watch the BBC, so you cannot require me to pay the licence fee.''

It would be interesting if someone brought another case using the Human Rights Act 1998, although I do not intend to be the person who says that he does not watch the BBC and therefore will not pay the licence. I am not suggesting that the BBC licence fee should be scrapped and the system reorganised—you would rule me out of order, Miss Widdecombe, if I went too far down that road. However, I see no reason not to take this opportunity to regulate the BBC in the same way as all the other channels.

The argument that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam advanced on media ownership was interesting and raised some relevant points, although it went slightly wide of the issue. It is dangerous for the

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Government to own media. Although some would argue that they do not own the BBC, leaving aside the board of governors, it is the Secretary of State who is responsible for the BBC. It could be said, therefore, that the Government exercise strong control over the BBC whichever party is in power. If we are to preserve the BBC's independence, we must bring the BBC under independent control.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I have followed my hon. Friend's argument with interest, but I must disagree with his observations about the ownership of the BBC. Does he not agree that, although it would be beneficial for the BBC to come under tier 3 regulation, it is misleading to say that the Government own the corporation? The BBC has editorial independence, and many of its journalists take great pains to resist whatever party is in government.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for yet another helpful intervention—perhaps I should have left him in the Select Committee.

In another place, Lord Lipsey argued:

    The only outfit outside the BBC which has any powers over it is the Secretary of State, an elected politician. He . . . determines its charter, the level of its licence fee, what new channels it may launch and who chairs it. There is no accountability other than to a politician. I do not see why the BBC is so adamant that Ofcom should be kept at bay as a way of preserving its independence while apparently accepting that a party politician should have so much power over what it does.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 October 2001; Vol. 627, c. 426.]

That puts it rather neatly. Lord Eatwell said:

    We do not want state radio in this county, yet that is exactly the slippery slope down which the absence of independent regulation is pushing the BBC. The creation of Ofcom by the Bill provides the Government and the BBC with a means of escaping from that dilemma.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 October 2001; Vol. 627, c. 445.]

The White Paper says that we should create competition, but it must be fair. The argument is a little like that about free trade and fair trade, which are two different things. If we are to have competition, it must be fair competition. It was said in another place that it would be rather strange if Ofcom had the power to fine recalcitrant commercial broadcasters, but not the BBC. That would indeed be odd.

Our amendments will not tie the Secretary of State's hands when designing the main Bill. We are simply making the reasonable suggestion that anyone who is or has been a BBC governor should not be excluded from sitting on Ofcom.

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