Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Glenda Jackson: The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing eloquently against the hon. Member for Vale of York in respect of lawyers. He argued that the lack of clarity in Bills affords lawyers a good living. His hon. Friend argued that the lack of clarity caused lawyers in the wider world considerable confusion, heartache and—I may be paraphrasing—despair. Is that not another example, as seen so often Opposition amendments, of a glaring failure to plan ahead?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Lady was clearly not listening to the travails of my hon. Friend, who spoke about how she was tragically and deceitfully treated by the European Union, on which my hon. Friend has such strong views. I simply maintain the obvious; that most lawyers will interpret most clauses of most Acts of Parliament in different ways because flexibility is built in.

Hon. Members will want me to curtail my remarks. I was planning to speak to amendments Nos. 61 and 62, and not to amendment No. 39, but I was happy to be drawn on amendment No. 39 by the intervention of two Opposition Members.

The Bill is born of changes in technology. We already have three digital platforms and microwave local transmission might become a fourth. Experiments with laser technology are also taking

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place with the aim of producing an even wider spectrum on a local basis. Whatever Ofcom or communications Bill is finally produced, it must be flexible enough to enable Ofcom to adapt without having to return to this place because of further technological changes. Thus, equal access to different platforms must be dealt with here and now in clause 2, which is about the initial function of Ofcom.

Without that, we will end up with an asymmetric provision of digital broadcasting and a lack of clarity on the question of cross-media ownership, and there will be confusion about the responsibilities of different bodies in charge of public policy for the same area.

At the very least, I hope that the Minister will provide clarity so that people in the industry can plan ahead. That would benefit employees in the industry, as well as viewers and listeners, and it would help strengthen the media business in this country, which faces grave threats from Italian, German and American media groups that view our broadcasters and independent producers hungrily.

Angela Watkinson: The recurring theme throughout the debate on Tuesday and today has been wide representation. We discussed that in respect of the membership of the board and the structure of Ofcom, and it applies just as much to the clauses that we are discussing now. Open competition will deliver diverse media ownership that also embraces regional broadcasting, which we discussed earlier; it will provide more opportunities for local broadcasting. We are a long way off local television provision, but we already have a wide range of local radio stations.

Community radio has not yet been mentioned. It is important that schools, hospitals and other small owners of long-term restricted licences have equal protection in an open, competitive market. They make a valuable contribution to the diversity of broadcasting.

Mr. Robertson: I wish to speak briefly to amendments Nos. 61 and 62. The objectives for setting up Ofcom are simplification, which I will come back to in a moment, standards in broadcasting and protection of the public. We discussed standards at some length earlier today when we talked about decency and good taste. I would be called to order if I restarted the discussion.

However, we must consider the influence that the media has on the public. It influences perceptions of good or bad taste and decency or indecency, but it also has an overall influence, perhaps of a political or religious nature. That is one reason why we need regulation, and rules and laws on competition.

I speak from bitter personal experience—perhaps all hon. Members can—of undue media influence, which can damage one's career. One part of the media may pursue someone who they have something against, or someone who belongs to a group that they wish to embarrass. Let us say that a newspaper is pursuing an individual. If several newspapers are under the same ownership, they can network and use local bases. They can snoop into every article that the individual has written for the local press and publicise them in the national press. We must be conscious of

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the great power held by such media groups and examine it closely. I am pleased that the White Paper discusses the issue in some detail.

However, we must also be fair to the industry. The White Paper says that this Bill and the next one will have to strike a balance between creating a free and open society and protecting the public from undue influence, bad taste and indecency. I hope that we will be able to shape the legislation into that form. As I have often said, I believe in a free society, but not necessarily in a libertarian one. There is a difference.

In talking about regulation, we must be conscious of a point that I have raised many times, although I fear that I will be called to order if I go too deeply into it. We need to look at the position of the BBC with regard to regulation and competition. I do not understand how the BBC can be considered a fair competitor in the marketplace when non-consumers have to pay the licence fee. How can that be considered fair, free or competitive?

Michael Fabricant: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Robertson: I have touched on one of the many subjects close to my hon. Friend's heart.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point that is pertinent to the amendment; namely, the control of competition policy. The BBC has a policy of open trading—fair trading is the term it uses—and has produced published guidelines. Yet, as my hon. Friend will know, several complaints have been made by commercial organisations that the BBC—

The Chairman: Order. Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, the BBC has been debated by the Committee and is not included in the provisions of the Bill. Further discussion on the subject would therefore be out of order.

Mr. Robertson: I said that I was fearful of being called to order; in the event, my hon. Friend was called to order. I led him down the wrong path and I apologise to him. He can perhaps tell me later the point that he was going to make. I shall move on, but I want to emphasise before doing so that if we are to have competition, it is important that all members of the media are treated in the same way.

I had thought that simplification was an objective of the Bill. The White Paper describes what it terms a concurrency between regulators in other industries, but we are concerned that, under the Bill, Ofcom will seem to be responsible to two Departments. It is true that we are privileged to have two Government Whips from different Departments; the Opposition do not have sufficient numbers to provide two Whips. This particular Whip—I refer of course to myself—has to work particularly hard, as hon. Members will have noted. We are concerned that Ofcom will have to report to two different Departments. We are supposed to be simplifying the process.

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was right to argue the case for one Department for communications, just as he is right to be arguing for one body to control competition policy?

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Mr. Robertson: I agree. It is important to have clarity on that, and I thought that we were trying to clear up confusion. It seems uncertain and confusing to have two organisations that, in effect, have responsibility for competition and deciding between themselves which one will look at which individual case. The White Paper states:

    OFCOM and the OFT will consult each other in any particular case which falls within this concurrent jurisdiction, and will agree which is best placed to act.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York did not exactly copy the White Paper in drafting the amendments, but the wording of amendment No. 62:

    including co-operating with the Office of Fair Trading on matters relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets

in effect quotes the objective of that part of the White Paper. I am sure that the Minister will not resist the amendment.

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend believe that is right that Ofcom rather than the OFT should consider aspects that come under the Competition Act 1998?

5 pm

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a good point, as he has several times today. If Ofcom is to take the lead in regulation, it is not clear in the Bill. I am not entirely sure who should regulate—[Laughter.] Labour Members laugh at that, but from the White Paper and the Bill it seems that the Government are not sure who should regulate: they say that the two organisations should discuss it. The laughter is a little unkind.

Paul Farrelly: Although I am not a lawyer, I have some experience of competition issues as I was City editor of a national newspaper for some years. To take a concrete example, it could hardly have been predicted that a craze for buying ostriches would sweep Britain. When that mad craze swept Britain, the competition authorities—the OFT and the Financial Services Authority—concurred that the FSA had the most appropriate powers to tackle it. Likewise, in a future of fast-moving technology, it will not possible to predict every instance in which it will be necessary to put on a competition hat. It is logical that competition regulators should put their heads together to decide which has the best powers and the best expertise to deal with each circumstance as it arises. There is nothing conflicting about that.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point that the regulatory authority with the expertise in a particular industry should be the one to regulate, but I am not entirely sure that that is the case. Do we want to protect the industry or the consumer? If the consumer, perhaps people from the industry should not regulate competition.

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