Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: I am willing to concede that to the hon. Lady. It is in the White Paper and I made a statement in response to the hon. Member for North Devon. I am very much in favour of consumer panels.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for the Minister's support. The relationship between the consumer panel and Ofcom will be important, particularly in view of Ofcom's small size and, as was said this morning, the possibly limited range of interests that would prevail if Ofcom had only three members, or even six. This is an opportunity to widen its expertise and interests on behalf of consumers, which will be of great value.

5.45 pm

Mr. Robertson: Much that I meant to say has been said, so I shall be brief. If it is important for Ofcom to exist before the main Bill has been considered and we know what it will do, it is important to establish the consumer panel alongside it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said, through this Bill we are establishing the structure of Ofcom, which will deal with as yet unknown matters. The structure is important. I have said many times that the main interests to be looked after by Ofcom are those of the consumers. We need to protect the interests of industry because it employs many people and is important, but the impact of Ofcom on consumers is even more important. The influence of the media on children, young people and even older people cannot be underestimated, so we need to achieve, as the White Paper says, a balance between

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freedom, decency and quality. However, who decides how, and whether, that balance is achieved? We need a strong consumer panel for that.

A consumer panel could consider the standards of programmes and the decency on television screens, but it could also look at the proliferation of the internet, telephone masts and mobile telephones, at safety aspects and at a great many other elements. To convince hon. Members that a useful service is being served by considering the Bill, I ask the Minister not to wait for the main Bill. We are setting up something that is important, and, to their credit, the Government give great coverage in the White Paper to the importance of setting up a consumer council:

    We will establish a new consumer panel to advise the regulator.

That seems clear, so let us have the details now.

Dr. Howells: It is good to hear from my old friends on the National Consumer Council, albeit through the lovely lips of the hon. Lady—[Interruption.] There is so much talk of seduction.

As a former Consumer Affairs Minister, I am mindful of the need to ensure that the consumer voice is clearly heard. However, the Bill is not the place to set up a blueprint for how best to do that, and I will not attempt to make it so. Hon. Members must bear it in mind that the Bill confers just a single function on Ofcom. [Interruption.] I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) does not fall asleep. The Bill will prepare Ofcom to take on other functions.

Ofcom will not be regulating at this stage and, although advice to the consumer panel may be valuable in future, it is not particularly relevant now in assisting Ofcom to prepare for the transfer of its staff and other assets and liabilities from the existing regulators. It is therefore not appropriate to place Ofcom under a duty to have regard for the work of the panel, as proposed by amendment No. 27. I oppose the amendment.

Miss McIntosh: Having championed consumer affairs to the Minister, I am extremely disappointed by his remarks, in spite of his complimentary remarks earlier in debate. I cannot understand why he feels that this is not the appropriate place for the amendment. I want to amend the part of the Bill that deals with committees of Ofcom and advisory committees that may be set up to advise Ofcom. The Minister is clearly deeply embarrassed by the failure of the Government to refer to that subject. He looks stunned; I am sorry, but the two of us will get to know each other well during this debate. He is clearly embarrassed by the Government's failure to refer to consumer panels in the Bill. Opposition Members have spoken eloquently to amendment No. 32, but I am deeply disappointed—rather shamefully, because my married name is Mrs. Harvey—at the failure of the hon. Member for North Devon to persist with his support, which was most welcome.

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend share my view that the Government are giving all the wrong signals? Not including consumer panels in the Bill

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suggests that the Government, despite the White Paper and the promises made by the Minister today, are not committed to the introduction of consumer panels.

Miss McIntosh: Indeed. I could not agree more. It is deeply disappointing that the Government have led us up the garden path, particularly in the context of the White Paper. I put a lot of work into the amendment, as I am sure the Minister and the Committee appreciate. We set out precisely the role that the consumer panels should play: researching consumer views and dealing with concerns and issues affecting Ofcom's functions; publishing advice, conclusions and reports to Ofcom; taking account of the views of consumers with special needs, including those on low incomes or with disabilities—we debated at length the issue of disabilities—and even how the panels should be funded. I could not have been more helpful to the Minister. I responded warmly when my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield suggested that my intention was for consumer panels to present the annual report of their proceedings and financial position to each House of Parliament.

I hesitate in pressing the amendment to a vote at this stage, but I firmly believe that such a provision should be included in this part of the Bill and I am determined not to leave the Bill without pressing the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 57, in page 12, line 25, at end insert—

    '14C It shall be a duty of OFCOM to establish a Radio Committee to provide advice to OFCOM about, and, carry out functions in relation to, the radio sector.'

I had rather forgotten about amendment No. 57 and was about to discuss other matters. I have sought to identify what I believe is the right place for the amendment; no doubt the Minister will not share my enthusiasm.

A number of consultations in the context of the White Paper were devoted to radio. When we considered this morning what expertise Ofcom members should have, I said that regard should be given to someone from the radio sector. To pursue that more vigorously, it would be entirely appropriate to reflect the wealth of consultation evidence to the Select Committee and in the Government's response to the White Paper that there should be a radio committee to provide advice to Ofcom.

Mr. Bryant: I am a little perplexed. If we are to have a radio committee, why should we not have an internet committee, a telecommunications committee and a television committee? In that case, we might as well keep the Radio Authority, Oftel and all the other bodies and not bother with Ofcom in the first place.

Miss McIntosh: I fear that the hon. Gentleman was not with us for much of this morning, when we debated at some length my concern about this matter. I am happy to rehearse that for his benefit this afternoon—[Interruption.] I hold the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) in great affection, respect and esteem; so his career is probably dead in the water.

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Having read a number of the consultations, I expressed concern this morning because there is so much emphasis—as the Minister has said, the debate on Second Reading focused almost entirely on this—on the inclusion of the BBC. That is the wish of consumers. The National Consumers Council has said eloquently and strongly that the BBC should be included in the entire remit of Ofcom, including the regulation of programme content and economic regulation. I welcome the opportunity to rehearse again, although perhaps not at the same length as this morning, my fear that radio will be left behind.

I want to do the radio sector justice. I am sure that the hon. Member for Rhondda will agree that the internet sector and the television sector might appear more sexy than the radio, although one hesitates to use that term. I repeat that I am an avid radio listener, particularly BBC and independent news broadcasts. I believe that it is entirely appropriate to consider the establishment of a radio committee. It was not that I had not thought to establish committees for other sectors; I had hoped that the hon. Member for Rhondda and his hon. Friends would support amendment No. 21, which we discussed this morning. Had he been here, he might have wished to do so. I hope that the Minister will support the amendment.

Michael Fabricant: The amendment is very close to my heart. When I was 18 or 19, I put together a radio consortium to apply to run an independent radio station in Brighton. Then, the Labour Government came in and decided that there could not be independent radio, so that was put on hold and I went to university instead. In fact, I must have been younger than 19, because I went to university at 17.

I remember—this is relevant to the discussion, Mr. Stevenson—what it was like dealing with the IBA in those days, when radio was such a small part of the whole operation. We have just learned that there might be 1,111 people—what a marvellous number to remember—in this new giant Ofcom. I stand to be corrected on this, but I doubt whether there are more than 20 or 30 people in the current Radio Authority. I would be interested to know the number, but I understand that that might be the case.

The Radio Authority, for which I have nothing but praise, is a very tight ship. I have concern that there will be 20 or 30 people for radio in this behemoth—I love that word—of 1,111. Radio will once again be swamped, although it is a very important medium. As I have said, one can listen to it when one is on the move, something one cannot do with the internet or television; at least, one does so at one's peril. It has a different operation technically from other media. Digital radio on the move is not currently a goer because there are so few digital radio sets.

Consequently, the problems with radio are the same as they were some years ago, and they concern available spectrum. I remember in the 1960s, when I was not being Mickey Fabb on a certain pirate radio station, listening to Labour Ministers saying, ''There aren't the frequencies for independent radio. Planes will be falling out of the sky if Radio Caroline continues broadcasting.''

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The growth of radio has been thanks to the work of the IBA, and especially the Radio Authority, which found available frequencies. Since the establishment of the Radio Authority, radio in this country has grown at a rate exceeding that of any other country in the world. It has been not only a regulator, but a good advocate, both in the United Kingdom and at international conferences, for finding available frequencies.

6 pm

The amendment says that there should be a radio committee to press home the arguments for radio in this huge organisation. The hon. Member for Rhondda asked why there should not be other committees as well. It is up to him to table those amendments.

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Prepared 29 January 2002