Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: Bearing in mind that Ofcom and the OFT will have a dual role, is the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I am that the Bill is silent about competition?

Brian White: That prejudges what will be in the communications Bill. The relationship between Ofcom and the OFT and that between Ofcom and existing regulators must be considered. How will Ofcom deal with self-regulation? How will it deal with various forms of co-regulation? What is its relationship with TrustUK?

It worries me that Oftel is trying to get its grubby fingers on the internet. At a recent seminar, it produced a grid showing that there is no regulation of that aspect of the internet, yet the regulators were sitting in the audience. I am worried that Oftel and other regulators will try to present Ofcom with a fait accompli, and that Ofcom will be bound by decisions taken before it was set up. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. I do not expect him to respond immediately, but we must ensure that the existing regulators do not screw up Ofcom with their current decisions.

The hon. Member for Vale of York referred to regional television. It is not a question of ownership but of how to protect regional access, regional

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programme-making and regional news. One of the Conservative Government's fundamental failings on privatisation was to concentrate on ownership, not liberalisation. It was also one of Labour's fundamental mistakes. However, we recognised belatedly that liberalisation drives the market, and that questions of ownership are irrelevant.

The hon. Member for Vale of York spoke about mobile telephone communications. Oftel, which is currently investigating the mobile telephone industry, said that many aspects do not require regulation, but then stated that international dialling and SIM card control will need to be regulated. Ofcom's experience and its relationship to the industry will be crucial, but I emphasise that a number of vested interests are involved. If Ofcom is treated as a representative body that should take note of all those who lobby it, it will not succeed. The existing regulators all have the failing of being dominated by the idiosyncrasies of those who head them. The regulators must be open and transparent, and should not allow particular issues to dominate.

Another question is how Ofcom should act in relation to anti-terrorist legislation. Again, that is not covered in the Bill, but decisions that are being taken now could determine Ofcom's relationship with the Home Office. The Minister may say that that is right, which I would accept, but those appointed to the shadow board need to be aware of it.

The hon. Member for Vale of York was right in one respect. We need to learn from the experience of the Radio Authority, under the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Now that the hon. Member for Lichfield is here—he is more competent than I am to talk about this—I can tell him that those lessons apply not only to radio, but to the whole of broadcasting. We must ensure that the smaller but equally important aspects of the communications industry are not ignored in the setting up of Ofcom simply because the Government are interested in something else; for instance, the privatisation of the BBC. Ofcom should be constructed so that it can take account of such dangers.

One of the problems is that we tend always to look back. We should be looking to the challenges that lie over the horizon: how we make the markets work; how we continue to get the skills and development needed in the new technologies in this country; how to exploit broadband technology.

Use of the internet has its dangers. The Minister may have heard me say before that about 25 per cent. of the revenue of California comes from sales tax. The authorities there reckon that most of that—a quarter of its income—will disappear in the next decade because of the impact of the internet. There are fundamental questions about how the European Union and British Government would operate without a substantial part of the revenue from sales tax, or value added tax, in Europe.

The Chairman: Order. I have been extremely tolerant. However, it has been suggested that a stand part debate is required, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks back to order.

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Brian White: I apologise, Miss Widdecombe. I was trying to make the point that we should consider the effect of issues that are not mentioned in the amendment. It is critical that, in the establishment of Ofcom, we bear in mind other regulators, the Competition Commission, issues of self-regulation and the myriad bodies that go unmentioned. We should look to the future, rather than to such historical lists.

Nick Harvey (North Devon): The amendment is well-intentioned but ill-conceived. All members of the Committee have received representations from a wide variety of bodies, all of which tried to point out that people with expertise in their specific subjects ought to be on the board of Ofcom. The amendment is a slight watering-down of that. It suggests not that one person should have specific expertise in each subject, but that a body of between three and six should miraculously try to encompass them all. That is impossible. On most previous occasions on which Parliament has set up regulators, one individual has been the regulator. No one could rationally expect any one person to bring to the post expertise in all such subjects. It seems no more reasonable to expect a small board of three to six people to do so.

It is desirable that the body as a whole should have expertise in all the subjects and a great deal more besides. The problem with a long shopping list such as that in the amendment is that it cannot be exhaustive. The hon. Member for Lichfield invited other members of the Committee to suggest further subjects that should be included. We could all do that and end up with a list as long as the Bill of the expertise desirable for the board, but that is not practical. There are creative and economic omissions. The technical suggestions made by the hon. Member for Vale of York in the amendment could soon become overtaken by events and start to look relatively obsolete.

The danger of making such a long list is that it cannot be exhaustive, but might be regarded as such. Other considerations would be disregarded simply because those in the list happened to be specified. The honest truth is that it is a pointless exercise to draw up such lists. The desirable expertise of a body's board members must be relatively self-evident from what it tries to do.

The hon. Member for Vale of York made some good points. Regional television is important, as is religious broadcasting. For reasons that have been given, the radio sector was the poor relation in the previous regulatory regime. However, one cannot tackle all the issues by drawing up lists. It is an ill-conceived endeavour, and the Committee would do better not to try to write such lists into the Bill.

Michael Fabricant: When my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said that I was in a different place, I was not in the other place. I was down the corridor, listening to evidence from Stuart Prebble, chief executive of ITV, Clive Jones, chief executive of Carlton channels, and Mick Desmond, managing director of Granada Enterprises. What they said relates to much of what is contained in the amendment.

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The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that debating the amendment—perhaps he meant tabling it in the first place—was a pointless exercise. I am not sure that it was. In our Committee, it is right and proper to debate what Ofcom should concern itself with. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East rightly pointed out my concern about the possible sidelining of radio. He will have been pleased that considerations such as broadband technology and the internet were included as areas of expertise. He appears to disagree, but I do not mean that individuals should necessarily be responsible for them, but that Ofcom should address the issues. In previous sittings, he made the point that Ofcom would be concerned not only with broadcasting, but with new technologies.

I shall stick completely to order and quickly make some observations—perhaps not so quickly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York has just looked at me rather nervously—on paragraph 5(a) to (g) of the schedule, which is proposed in the amendment.

Paul Farrelly: Will the tactical withdrawal of the amendment be lengthy or short and succinct?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman should not be so ready to rush out of the Committee, as I am not sure that there will be a tactical withdrawal, or any other kind. I shall be greatly interested to see whether my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York presses the amendment to a vote.

Paragraph 5(a) is concerned with regional television. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East made a powerful point when he said that the ownership of independent television and other television organisations was an irrelevance. He was right. The framework of broadcasting in this country means that regional and other aspects of television can be preserved, whatever the ownership. Various hon. Members, including the then Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, made a huge hue and cry in the previous Parliament about Carlton's acquisition of Central TV. It was felt that regional production in Nottingham and Birmingham would suffer as a result. It has not.

No matter what the ownership of individual companies, they have separate contracts with the Independent Television Commission. Those force them to maintain certain minimum standards. Stuart Prebble, the chief executive of ITV, mentioned a little earlier this morning that there were about 28 regional ITV news centres in the independent television network yet, as we all know, there are only four or five different owners. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East is right in that ownership is not the issue so far as Ofcom is concerned. What is important is maintenance and quality of standards.

We can be proud of the tradition of regional television. We should not neglect the role that the BBC plays in that, although BBC1 and BBC2 are networks. When I worked for the BBC many years ago, we used the term ''regional opt-outs'', of which there were many on the BBC. I do not know whether that term is still in use. Such opt-outs are for not only regional news programmes but the Westminster opt-out, as my

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hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York has so powerfully said. Whenever I have been on the Westminster opt-out on local television in the west midlands, only a few rather sad people have mentioned that they watched. Perhaps I should not say that, as one of those people is my association chairman.

I shall move rapidly to paragraph 5(b), which mentions ''religious broadcasting''. Its inclusion is somewhat prescient. Many members of the Committee will have been contacted by an organisation—I cannot remember its name—that wants Christian broadcasting.

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Prepared 29 January 2002