Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Thomas: I accept the hon. Lady's point, but it does not resonate with me. Although she was right to have tabled the amendments, which deal with an important aspect of Ofcom's activities in its first year or so—the next group of Opposition amendments, proposing a sunset clause, is also important—they do not quite work. However, they give the Minister the opportunity to say more about the initial Ofcom board, which will be giving important advice to Government and influencing debates. Clause 2 states that the regulatory bodies will have to give way to Ofcom, and respect what it says. They know that their lives are coming to an end, and that Ofcom will take over. Ofcom will be the big player, not the existing regulatory bodies.

The hon. Member for Esher and Walton made a point about broadband access. On Friday, I met my local authority to discuss that matter. We in west Wales have established an exciting joint venture between Powys, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion county councils; The MARAN project will allow broadband access in rural areas. Making the last jump has proved difficult. We have provided broadband access for the public sector, but the National Assembly has demanded that all schools have broadband access, which it has provided funding for. How does one connect broadband access in Aberystwyth to Ponterwyd, 15 miles up a rural valley? That last jump is extremely costly. The school cannot pay for it, and rural businesses that would like to use broadband cannot pay for it. Will Ofcom address that in the public sector, or through a public-private partnership?

Miss McIntosh: I was aware of how disappointed the hon. Gentleman was that his amendments on

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setting up a Welsh office were not carried. Has he considered the implications? Will there be dedicated members of staff to keep in touch with the devolved Assembly? He has an opportunity to probe the Minister on that point.

Mr. Thomas: That is a good point, although the Minister has said that there will be an office or staff dedicated to Wales and the devolved Administration.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I know that it is not usual for someone in my position to intervene, but I rise to offer guidance to the hon. Gentleman, who has raised an important point. Much work is being carried out on the aggregation of rural services in rural areas, and many countries are examining what we are doing because it is a worldwide problem. Some of the experiments conducted in Cornwall and other rural communities will help to solve the hon. Gentleman's problems.

Mr. Thomas: I hope that the hon. Gentleman's optimism will be justified. Those matters may be peripheral, but they are central to our success in providing access to everyone, so I would like to see them reflected in Ofcom's initial work.

Clause 2(1) is crucial. Ofcom will be carrying out important work and influencing legislation. Will the Minister explain how that work will be carried out, how he will ensure that everyone's views are heard, and how we can be sure that the first Ofcom does not become domineering? Respect must be given to the views of the current regulators and the devolved Administrations. The amendments have allowed us to debate the issues, but I will not support them if they are pressed to a vote.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York referred to ''taste and decency''. It is important that there is provision in the substructure of the Ofcom board to ensure that good taste and decency are not compromised. I am tempted to say ''not compromised further''. She referred to existing high standards, but I am tempted to challenge whether standards are as high as they used to be.

Brian White: Will the hon. Lady explain how she would regulate taste and decency on the internet?

Angela Watkinson: My first thoughts were of television and radio. I am deeply sceptical about the ability to regulate the internet and world wide web. As far as television and radio are concerned, which is where I concentrate my remarks, I am not aware that I have lived an unusually sheltered life, but I view some things on television with surprise—''Eurotrash'' springs to mind. I shall not stray into the realms of censorship and the possible conflict between the freedom of a competitive industry, but it is important that the customer is protected.

10.30 am

During Tuesday's debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said that he did not want gratuitous violence, sex and swearing on programmes that his family watch. There is a question about the timing of broadcasts, and about warning customers of the content of programmes so they know what they will see and will be able to make

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a judgment on whether it is suitable for their viewing or listening. We have star ratings for films, which range from ''boring'' to ''unmissable'', so we could consider a similar system.

Mr. Taylor: The question of how taste and decency can be regulated in a multi-channel world, which includes the internet and mobile phones on which television pictures are increasingly conveyed, would take longer to decide than the Committee has. Most of it would have to be done voluntarily. Does my hon. Friend agree that technology that can block out access to programmes not considered suitable can provide answers, so that the individual can make choices about what he or she watches, or parents can make choices about what their children watch?

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend makes an important point, particularly about the internet and children, which is a worry for parents as so many children have computers in their bedrooms.

Mr. Bryant: I am a little lost. I am not sure to which amendment the hon. Lady refers.

Angela Watkinson: Perhaps I can assist the hon. Gentleman. It is amendment No. 11, and I direct him to the last line that refers to

    standards of good taste and decency.

I had strayed somewhat from my original point and I apologise. I was referring to the importance of enabling customers to be warned of the content of programmes, particularly on television and radio, so that they can make a choice.

Nick Harvey: The amendment was referred to, I think by the hon. Member for Vale of York, as the Mary Whitehouse memorial amendment. Does the hon. Lady accept that in Mary Whitehouse's prime, there were only one or two stations so detailed scrutiny of content was possible? In an era of 300, 400 or 500 stations, it will not be possible for any authority to do what the hon. Lady suggests, and certainly not if we want to keep the number of staff employed down to levels that people would want.

Angela Watkinson: I am suggesting that some sort of code would enable customers to judge what they are going to see. Smaller stations often target the audience that they want, and that could be incorporated in a star rating or code.

Paul Farrelly: Does the hon. Lady agree that what I prefer to call the Kenny Everett memorial amendment—it is all in the best possible taste—would make for heavy-touch regulation?

The Chairman: Order. I get the impression that the important points about good taste and decency has been well rehearsed. We are talking about that principle being incorporated in the Bill, which is perfectly in order because it is part of the amendment, but I hope that hon. Members will take my comments to heart.

Angela Watkinson: I appreciate that we have moved on considerably since the days of Mary Whitehouse, but the same principle can be applied to modern technology, and to viewing and listening. The protection of customers so that they know what they will see and hear should be part of the system.

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Mr. Bryant: The hon. Lady mentioned ''Eurotrash''. She is arguing for signals to tell people what they are about to see, but the programme is called ''Eurotrash'' and is on after 10 o'clock at night on Channel 4. Is that not plenty of notice that the programme is unlikely to be one that the hon. Lady would want to watch?

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman makes a frivolous point; the programme could have been about waste management in Europe. [Laughter.] There is a serious point about customer protection and warning.

Mr. Thomas: The television channel that does most of what the hon. Lady suggests as regards voluntary warnings is Channel 5; warnings are often shown to announce the unsuitability of the programme to come. It is also the channel that probably has the most programmes that the hon. Lady would find unacceptable. Were she to suggest a voluntary code of warning, it need not be in the Bill because Ofcom could address it in voluntary discussions with broadcasters.

Angela Watkinson: I regret that the delights of Channel 5 are unknown to me because they come across as a snowstorm on my television. I live in a small valley and reception is poor.

Mr. Taylor: Purely for my education, will my hon. Friend explain whether ''Eurotrash'' is a party political broadcast by the United Kingdom Independence party?

The Chairman: Order. I perceive that the purpose of the amendment is to get the principle of good taste and decency across in debate. If we start down the line of itemising individual and subjective judgments about which programmes fit into which category, we shall be here all day. I plead with hon. Members to get back to the principle of the amendment.

Angela Watkinson: Thank you for that guidance, Mr. Stevenson. I return to my point that, through the substructure of Ofcom, it should be possible to have regard to public taste and decency and to ensure that, within the structure, there is a responsibility to give notice.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I rise briefly to address points that may already have been covered. I want to return to a point that I made earlier, but I will not test hon. Members' patience. I can make my point at Third Reading if I catch the Speaker's eye.

I have expressed concern that there are two Bills, when everything could have been put into one. Ofcom could have been set up on 1 March, with its regulatory powers to be taken on 1 August. That would have been better and clearer. However, Ofcom is being set up without anyone knowing what it will do, or what powers it will assume. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton touched on some important issues when he said that clause 2(1) referred to the regulation of communications and

    the implementation of, or for securing the modification of, any relevant proposals about the regulation of communications.

That leaves the role of Ofcom potentially wide, and certainly vague.

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