Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Angela Watkinson: One point that I did not raise earlier concerns the vast audiences gained by a few programmes such as the soaps, which have the highest ratings on television, and ''The Archers'' on the radio. Those large audiences provide opportunities for political interference and social comment.

The Chairman: Order. I hesitate to interject on the hon. Lady, but if we are not careful we shall get back to subjective judgments, rather than the issue.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Lady will make those points many times in the debates on the communications Bill.

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Amendment No. 44 would remove Ofcom's capacity to secure the modification of any relevant proposals for the regulation of communications. Allowing Ofcom to secure the modification of relevant proposals will be vital in ensuring that an effective new regulatory regime can be put in place quickly and smoothly. Clause 2(3) describes relevant proposals, which are any proposals by the Secretary of State for conferring on Ofcom any functions relating to telecommunications, wireless telegraphy, broadcasting, radio and television services or other activities connected with the communications industry. Those functions are, for the most part, carried out by the existing regulators.

In order to ensure that Ofcom can fully prepare for the implementation of the Secretary of State's proposals regarding such functions, it should be given an opportunity to express its views and, where it considers it to be appropriate, to seek to secure their modification. Amendment No. 44 would prevent Ofcom from doing that, and clause 2(1) should remain as it is.

Mr. Thomas: On that point, will the Minister elaborate on the meaning of ''securing modifications''? Will the shell Ofcom have the last word on those modifications? Surely the last word will lie with the Secretary of State.

Dr. Howells: Indeed; I am happy to confirm that the last word will lie with the Secretary of State. That is linked to the point that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier about whether Ofcom will dominate.

During the preparatory stage we expect Ofcom to have not only a small board, but a small staff. The existing regulators will have larger staffs to maintain because they will retain their regulatory powers until Parliament says otherwise. Many outside bodies will offer views, as will Parliament. For example, the hon. Member for Upminster will want to raise her views about how taste and decency might best be regulated or monitored in the future. After the publication of the draft communications Bill, I hope that there will be a vigorous debate during the consultative period about the substantive nature of what Ofcom should do, and on the system itself. That returns us to the point raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about cost and size.

At the moment, the number of employees we are talking about is 1,111, which leads to a big bill; £118 million. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton did much to liberalise and lighten the touch of regulations, and that is my aim also.

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I do not want a bolted-together model of existing regulators. That would be a great tragedy and a missed opportunity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East and the hon. Member for Ceredigion pointed out, it would prevent us from creating the flexibility to accommodate technological change. That will be a necessity in the future.

Mr. Robertson: I do not mean to trip the Minister up, but he and his hon. Friends talk about a lighter regulatory touch. He was kind enough to say that he

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agreed with me, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, about the promotion of decency and good taste. How will those objectives be achieved? They seem to be slightly contradictory.

Dr. Howells: The regulators currently do a very good job when one considers the avalanche of new platforms; the broadcasting channels and the internet services. We must learn from best practice and ensure that Ofcom understands why the best parts of the existing system work so well, and we must apply them in the best possible way to ensure that those areas are properly regulated. The Government will resist the amendments.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining his position. He will forgive me if I suggest that he was slightly vague on some areas, particularly on the point that I raised a moment ago. I would also have liked to hear him detail the size of staff that he envisages Ofcom having in its shell form. I have some concerns about the transfer of staff from the existing regulators to Ofcom. He seemed to suggest that the setting up of Ofcom and the publication of the draft Bill might be synchronised. Would there be a gradual or a sudden transfer of staff or duties?

We have given these matters a strong airing. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Chairman: Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is not entitled to do that. He did not move the amendment and the hon. Member for Vale of York, who did, is not in her place.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Robertson: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 2, line 24, at end insert—

    '(1A) The functions conferred upon OFCOM under this section shall have effect only for a period of one year following its commencement'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss New clause 2—Duration—

    'The Act shall cease to have effect at the end of a period of one year after its commencement.'.

Mr. Robertson: I must apologise for my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, whose absence is unavoidable due to her Select Committee duties. I envisage her return soon, so I do not intend to speak for long. We are concerned about how long Ofcom is likely to exist in its present form. The Government gave a commitment that there would be some form of sunset clause so that Ofcom could not run on for ever.

The Minister has mentioned the new communications Bill, and there has been some debate about when spring actually is. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said that sometimes spring does not arrive in North Yorkshire till August whereas, in some parts of the country, it arrives a little earlier. We are very vague and unsure about when the new Bill will be introduced. The Minister said a moment ago that he might not wish to work on the main Bill. I hope that he does; he deserves it. I hope that I, too, will be fortunate enough to retain my position and be on the main Bill, because I have greatly enjoyed our debates on this Bill, of which there are more to come.

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Miss McIntosh: I apologise for momentarily disappearing. I hope that my hon. Friend, who is in a position of some influence, will ensure that I, too, serve on the main Bill.

Mr. Robertson: Perhaps it will benefit the Committee if I say that the power and influence of the Whips Office is not what it is assumed to be, nor what it was.

As there are no guarantees about costs or staff size, we want to ensure that the shell Ofcom does not run on for too long and that it does not become confused about its role. As earlier debates made clear, we are not sure whether it is to have any regulatory role. We know that it will not regulate, but clause 2(1) suggests that it will have some involvement in regulation, especially in discussing modification of proposals. How long will that run on for? As my hon. Friend said, we have five regulators at the moment and it might be said that, when the Bill is enacted, we will have six. We have proposed a sunset clause to ensure that spring does not extend beyond this spring or, indeed, spring next year. I do not want to say any more about the amendment. I am sure that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will have a lot to say.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I apologise for not being able to be present in the Committee first thing this morning. Along with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), I was along the Corridor, fighting for the rights of Select Committees in the Liaison Committee. I was torn between being here and being there.

I support the amendment. I recall the Government's proposals on freedom of information, which had been long promised by the Government and took three or four years to appear, rather like the opposite of a premature baby. Would that be a posture baby? Anyway, it was a long time before that overdue baby finally emerged. I fear that the communications Bill will be very complex. Can the Minister guide us on whether the draft Bill will appear on time? I can see that he is very keen to comment on that.

The Minister should have no concern whatsoever about the amendment because he has told the Committee time and time again that not only should the draft Bill appear in the spring, but that the main Bill should appear a few months later. If that is the case, in effect it makes the amendment, in that the provision that Ofcom would collapse one year after the Bill was enacted would not apply were the main Bill already going through Parliament.

Of course, the Minister might say, ''Hang on, because of the length of time it might take to debate the communications Bill, we need a little more time.'' It might be reasonable for him to suggest that the period be extended to 18 months. However, if he opposes the idea of a sunset clause as a matter of principle, serious questions must be asked. We must ask, as we did with the freedom of information proposals, whether this is yet another example of two or three factions within Government being at each other's throats, their jugular veins exposed and blood pouring out.

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman can ask as many questions as he wishes, provided that he concentrates on the amendment.

Michael Fabricant: They were rhetorical questions, but I am grateful to you, Mr. Stevenson, for your guidance.

Mr. Taylor: Would my hon. Friend at all times observe taste and decency?

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