Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Michael Fabricant: With respect to taste and decency, I note that the Broadcasting Standards Commission would be included in Ofcom.

If the Minister were to say, ''We disagree with the clause because of its length and detail, and with the question of whether it should be 18 months or two years'' it would be a reasonable response. However, as I said, if the Minister says, ''No, we object to the sunset clause in principle'', we must ask what his motives are.

We learned earlier that it is the regulated themselves who will ultimately have to pay for the shell Ofcom. The Minister said that his Department or the Treasury would pay to set it up, and that his Department or the Treasury would then have to be repaid with interest—we do not know at what rate, but he promised to write to us about that—for the time in which Ofcom was operating in its shell form. If that goes on for two or three years, a similar time to the delay that occurred in the freedom of information measures, that amount could be very large sum of money. I look forward with considerable interest to the Minister's reasoned reply, although I do not expect him to talk about blood-letting.

Miss McIntosh: I do apologise to the Minister for my absence. I am sure that it will not happen again, but I crave his indulgence.

I wish to add some supplementary remarks about new clause 2 to the excellent and eloquent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury on amendment No. 14. I would be most grateful if the Minister were to take this opportunity to say how long the transitional period will last. I invited him to tell us during our debate on the previous amendment, but the moment passed without a reply.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Lady was unavoidably detained in another place, but I said that I envisaged a quick transition period. I cannot be much more precise than that, nor could any other living being on the face of the earth.

The Chairman: Order. That is an important point. I know where the hon. Lady was, and other members of the Committee might also have been there, but we have to make a choice. I am sure that the Committee would not want me to allow issues and questions that had been raised and answered while the hon. Lady was absent to be raised again.

Mr. Robertson: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. The statement that the Bill will come forward as soon as possible is not particularly precise.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful, Mr. Stevenson, but perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to

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tell us what he means by quick. It could be a week, a month or a year. I asked whether it would be one year or two, but that is not quick.

Michael Fabricant: Would it help my hon. Friend if I said that the amendment teased out the answer to that question, in a way? If ''very quick'' is under a year, there should be no concern about accepting the amendment.

11.15 am

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that pertinent comment. The amendment states:

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

That means that the Government, effectively, would be allowed the option to impose a sunset clause. As we considered when discussing the previous amendment, it has been suggested that the period to facilitate and prepare for assuming functions at a later stage will be timetabled. I suggest that only one year be allowed from the date of commencement.

The Government's manifesto at the general election was clearly committed to sunset regulations when appropriate, which was welcomed by the better regulation taskforce. In its view, sunsetting is a way to allow legislation to lapse when it has served its purpose or if, as may happen in this case, the Secretary of State fails to introduce the communications Bill. I pray in aid the conclusions that the staff of the Library have helpfully prepared.

Mr. Robertson: I hope that you will allow me a small analogy, Mr. Stevenson. Is my hon. Friend aware of a promise made to the horse-racing industry that regulations would be introduced on the Tote and the Levy Board? The absence of that legislation has thrown the industry into chaos. The Home Office made the original promise when racing fell under its remit, but it now falls under that of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Miss McIntosh: I should have been more aware of that than I was, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He illustrates the chaos that may ensue for industries affected by the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield will recall our enjoyable time with representatives of Carlton yesterday. They were extremely honest with us. Only Conservative Members were present, but I am sure that Labour Members will have an opportunity to be looked after in a similarly hospitable manner. I do not believe that that should be recorded in the Register; I simply throw it in for good measure.

The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Lady does not want some of her comments to be recorded in Hansard, the guarantee of that is for her not to make them.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for that. What I meant, in case I have excited Labour Members, is that I do not believe that the hospitality was of such value that it needed to be added to the Register of Members' Interests. There are clear guidelines on the subject.

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Michael Fabricant: Clive Jones, the chief executive of Carlton, said that he had been through three recessions as a chief executive in television and that the present one was the deepest.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is stretching my patience to the limit. I know him well, and he knows that my patience is almost endless. It is in my gift whether we get into an economic argument, and we will not do so.

Miss McIntosh: I assure you that that is not my intention, Mr. Stevenson. I want to record the uncertainty felt by the industry, which would end if the Government were minded to let the Committee agree to the amendment.

The Government's manifesto included the sunsetting of legislation. We have an example of the chaos, uncertainty, apprehension and anxiety that can be caused to an industry when legislation does not include a sunset clause or the Government fail to introduce it. I simply remind the Minister of the Government's obligation and invite him to confirm to the Committee that the Government stand by their manifesto commitment.

Indeed, the conclusions of the taskforce, which have been researched formally by the House of Commons Library, suggest that a law is automatically removed after a fixed period unless something happens to keep it in place. In this case, the something that would keep this law in place would be the mother of all Bills, which we look forward to with increasing anticipation. But I am sure that the Minister will agree that if that something does not happen, this Bill should not remain law.

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree—I do not believe that this has been mentioned so far in Committee—that there has been no indication of the cost of operating the shell Ofcom? That, too, will be of concern to the regulated, in relation to the length of time that Ofcom exists before it becomes the primary body.

Miss McIntosh: That is a valid point. I was explaining why I believed that the amendment should apply in this case. I pray in aid again the better regulation taskforce, which gives a list of regulations that might have the sunset procedure applied. The list includes reserve powers that may never be used or bodies that are set up but never given powers to do anything. I would have been convinced that Ofcom were such a body, but the report helpfully confirms that it will be until such time as the main Bill is set up. The report also says that appeals to the Secretary of State for the proposals to establish those regulatory functions have been abandoned and that she has a duty to wind Ofcom up.

I understand that this matter is close to the Government's heart and something that they would

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perhaps have usually included in the Bill, but for an oversight. This is their opportunity to do so.

Michael Fabricant: I now understand—I was absent for the reasons I gave earlier—that the Minister said that the cost of the shell organisation would be about £5 million. But surely that depends on the length of time for which the shell organisation is in operation. While people are being paid wages, there will be continuing costs, and I hope that the Minister will clarify what the monthly or annual running costs will be.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Lady responds, I want to repeat that there has been considerable debate on those issues this morning.

Miss McIntosh: I will not rehearse them again. I am about to move from amendment No. 40 to a detailed analysis of new clause 2. Would this be a good moment for the Committee to pause?

The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Lady pauses, I shall assume that she has finished her speech and I shall act accordingly.

Miss McIntosh: I shall proceed.

Mr. Bryant: The hon. Lady asked the Minister earlier how quick was quick, but said that she would speak briefly to the amendment. How brief is brief?

Miss McIntosh: Brief is briefer than quick. We still look forward to hearing a definition of quick.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. During the best part of the past two hours, we have heard some lengthy and repetitious contributions during the debate on amendments to a narrow clause. Bearing that in mind, I wonder whether you would be minded to allow a stand part debate and whether you would communicate your view on that to whoever chairs this afternoon's sitting.

The Chairman: That is a matter that the Chair will consider, subject to the debate. Whatever consideration the Chair comes to will be communicated to whoever takes the Chair this afternoon.

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I wonder whether you would clarify something for me. If an hon. Member in the Committee were to be repetitious, would that not be out of order? Would you not have pointed that out and drawn him or her to order?

The Chairman: Yes. I will clarify that, and then we shall be out of time. I made that very point this morning, while the hon. Gentleman was elsewhere.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Allan, Mr.
Bailey, Mr.
Bryant, Mr.
Fabricant, Mr.
Farrelly, Paul
Grogan, Mr.
Harvey, Nick
Howells, Dr.
Linton, Martin

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McIntosh, Miss
Miller, Mr.
Pearson, Mr.
Picking, Anne
Rammell, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Thomas, Mr. Simon
Watkinson, Angela
White, Brian

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