Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Taylor: I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that point. Has he seen the article in a recent issue of The House Magazine concerning the Federation of the Electronics Industries? The article states:

    Ofcom must ensure that long-term infrastructure is not stifled by unbalanced consumer-driven legislation.

During the period of setting Ofcom up, what consideration will be given to that? No guidance has been given with regard to the main Bill in terms of directing the coverage of the wider sphere for which Ofcom will be responsible.

Mr. Robertson: I had not seen that article, but my hon. Friend raises a good point. We are uncertain as to the role of Ofcom, because we do not know what will be in the main Bill. Although the White Paper is an interesting and comprehensive document, it does not make up the main Bill; nor does it go into detail about what the Bill will state.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, who has had to leave the Committee for a few minutes to attend a Select Committee, referred to uncertainty about staffing. The Committee has accepted that it is important for Ofcom to attract the best staff—every organisation wants to do so—and it may expect to attract the best staff from existing regulators. However, there is uncertainty because we do not know what Ofcom will do. I do not know whether my hon. Friends share my concern, but it seems uncertain whether staff would be persuaded to leave existing regulators to join a body when they do not know what that body will be doing.

My hon. Friend also referred to costs. The amendments would require Ofcom to identify opportunities for cost savings, and it is fair to put that in the Bill.

We have heard a lot about taste and decency—you would call me to order, Mr. Stevenson—if I went too far into that, but the matter concerns me. I fully accept that, with the proliferation of channels and the advent of the internet, it is difficult to control what is available. In addition, what is decent is a matter of opinion; what is tasteful is even more a matter of opinion. We have a duty to protect young people and children, particularly.

We do not live in a totally libertarian society. I believe in a free society in which individual freedom is important, but I do not believe in total libertarianism in which, for example, people take drugs. I do not accept that drug-taking should be part of society, even when it is people's personal choice, because they can become caught up in a culture that is undesirable. People can be unduly influenced by what they see on television. Many believe that what they see on television is real life; that ''Coronation Street'' exists and that they can go to the Rover's Return. Although it is difficult, we should make an attempt to control bad taste and indecency on television screens.

Mr. Bryant: I accept the hon. Gentleman's broad point that free-to-air television channels should be more heavily regulated and that programming that is put out to consumers should be more heavily regulated than material that consumers must pull down. However, I am confused by the amendment, which

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calls for cost savings and heavier regulation. It is impossible to do both at the same time, because they are surely mutually exclusive.

The Chairman: Order. I understand that this amendment is important, as I said earlier, but I am becoming concerned about the repetitious arguments. I ask hon. Members to resist the temptation.

Mr. Robertson: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Stevenson. I am grateful for the helpful intervention from the hon. Member for Rhondda and for his sympathy with the broad thrust of my comments.

It is incumbent on any organisation to ensure that its services provide good value for money, which is what we are driving at in the amendment. We are also concerned with taste and decency. We live in a free society and I would always argue for the retention of that, but we must always be concerned about the way in which people are influenced by the media. I suggest that that influence is increasing. With more channels and the internet, there is greater potential influence over people by the communications industry. I accept that regulation is difficult, but that is no reason to shy away from it. Most of the things that are worth achieving in life are difficult to achieve. We are worried about the vagueness of clause 2, which seems to be open-ended without specifying what Ofcom should do. The amendment, whether perfectly drafted or not, seeks to bring a little more discipline to Ofcom. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will respond not just to my comments, but to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York.

10.45 am

Dr. Howells: I shall address the questions that have been raised during our long debate. Clause 2 confers a single function on Ofcom; to assume functions at a later stage. Ofcom will do that by preparing transitional arrangements for the transfer of staff, property and other assets and liabilities from the existing regulators and the Secretary of State. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton was right to refer to the Radiocommunications Agency. It is part of the Department of Trade and Industry, which is why it is not listed, and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has responsibility for that.

The transfer of staff, assets and liabilities will take place only when the communications Bill comes into force. Ofcom will have no other powers, regulatory or otherwise. All it can do is prepare. It will not be able to become involved in any other activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) asked about international negotiations. Ofcom will have no formal role in international negotiations until it assumes its regulatory functions. However, on spectrum management, for example, I would expect informal discussions between the shell Ofcom and the Radiocommunications Agency, if that were helpful to the agency; I imagine that the agency would find that helpful.

Turning to the points raised by the hon. Member for Esher—and Walton. I always forget about Walton.

Mr. Taylor: I do not. [Laughter.]

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Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman asked what Ofcom will do to influence the Bill, which is another aspect of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. Ofcom will not be formed until the summer or autumn of this year, by which time the draft Bill will have been published. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton has a long history as a Minister and knows that spring can sometimes be endless, but I am determined that the Bill will be published in what most of us know as the spring, when it becomes warmer and the flowers come out.

Mr. Taylor: To titillate the Committee, will the Minister confirm that relations between his Department and the Department of Trade and Industry are wonderful and constructive, and that everyone is talking to one another?

Dr. Howells: Relations could not be warmer. The hon. Gentleman knows that I was a trade Minister before moving to new pastures in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Ofcom will be able to offer views on the draft Bill when it has been published and on the outcome of the public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. That input will help the Government to finalise the Bill and, more formally, Ofcom will be able to comment on the Government's proposals for its role. That is sensible. I shall come to the points raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion in a moment because they are important.

The second element of amendment No. 11 concerns cost savings. Amendment No. 58 seeks something similar, and that Ofcom should secure the implementation of any savings identified. I shall try to deal with those two proposals together. I see no sense in Ofcom being the five existing regulators bolted together, and if we do that, it will fail. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton is right to say that we must aim to be radical in creating the creature.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East has pointed out on many occasions, the discussions in Committee, on the Floor of the House and in the other place have been obsessed with broadcasting. However, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion has pointed out, the implementation of everyone's dreams and schemes about broadband could hold the future of our economy in its thrall. If we do not manage to do all the things that the Government and previous Governments have dreamt of in terms of wiring up the country, we could be in big trouble. Although I would not underrate the importance of taste and decency, if we do not get broadband right, we shall have problems with our economic future, in which Ofcom has an important role to play.

Work has already begun on ways in which Ofcom might be structured to bring together the existing regulators' responsibilities together in the most effective way. My Department and the Department of Trade and Industry are part of a steering group that has been established with the existing regulators to examine the transition process and the most efficient way in which to bring it about. Government and Opposition Members have raised the issue of the way

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in which transition will work and the length of time that it will take. I envisage the transition period as being relatively short. I hope that the costs associated with transition will be modest. I am sorry that it is impossible for the hon. Member for Vale of York to be with us because she raised that matter on several occasions. I am keen to keep down the costs of transition, which include the cost of the formation of Ofcom and the costs of the transition.

Members of the Committee will know that the Secretary of State will be responsible for making any loans to Ofcom, and will be best placed to decide how much will be appropriate. The Secretary of State in my Department will not want to lend more than she has to. With Ministers such as me nagging her for money for other projects, she will want to ensure that bills are as low as possible. In addition, the National Audit Office will be able to examine the loan, and the Bill provides for the NAO also to consider Ofcom's finances. That set of measures will ensure that waste or profligacy will not be an option, and it will not be necessary to add those references to the Bill.

The inclusion of the wording that Ofcom should reflect standards of good taste of decency goes beyond what we are trying to achieve with the Bill. We have specifically included provisions to prevent Ofcom from interfering in the work of existing regulators. Hon. Members have raised that matter because it is good to have a bite at such issues at any stage in the reform of our regulatory system, but, as far as the Bill is concerned, we want to keep the body as lean as possible to allow the transition to take place. Taste and decency are separate matters that will be considered in the main communications Bill; I have had premonitions of the debates that will take place on that Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) told me that I would be wise to apply for a transfer, but I shall not do so in these days of uncertainty.

Turning to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), the communications Bill will set out the role that we envisage for Ofcom in terms of safeguarding standards, and that will go beyond taste and decency. She will be aware—many hon. Members have made this clear—that we will have all sorts of platforms for presenting material that many of us would find offensive, which means that we shall have to examine other forms of regulation that we currently cannot begin to envisage.

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