Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: I agree with every word that that the hon. Gentleman says. His words are important. The great problem is that, until now, the regulators have often had different views about the protection of intellectual property, despite the fact that it is the lifeblood of so many creative industries, including the new industries. The most important point about Ofcom is that it will have a single view on how we should deal with intellectual property once the Bill is enacted.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Member for Esher and Walton is tempted to reply to that in detail, I draw the Committee back to the scope of the clause, which certainly does not include the matters now under discussion. Whereas it is perfectly possible for an intervention to include the giving of information, it is not proper for interventions to lead the Committee down paths that are not under consideration. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, take that carefully into account.

Mr. Taylor: Waving your glasses at me like that, Miss Widdecombe, means that I am very apprised of the dangers. Another reason why I must not attempt to answer the Minister is that it would be a slight role reversal. I shall not be tempted further.

Miss McIntosh: I would hate to tempt my hon. Friend down any path that was not strictly within order. Does he not believe that the Minister has the opportunity to specify the relationships between Ofcom and Oftel and between the DTI and the DCMS on competition policy without going down the specific route of intellectual property?

The Chairman: Order. The issue of the relationship between Ofcom and other bodies has been thoroughly debated on earlier clauses, including debates on some of the hon. Lady's amendments. It will not be debated again.

Mr. Taylor: I will not be tempted by my hon. Friend. However, the debates to which she refers go to the heart of our debate on management, which is the subject of clause 3.

It is crucial that Ofcom is able to conduct its affairs properly. We need to get it right because if we are merely bolting together the existing agencies with a supervisory board, I doubt that we shall ever make the

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progress that the country needs in this modern digital communications era. The culture must change. We must get rid of the old demarcations and mould the agencies together. How that might affect ministerial influence and power and answerability is the subject for another debate. It is crucial that we tackle the management issue early. I hope that the Minister will respond positively.

Dr. Howells: I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Vale of York for her comprehensive recitation—page after page of it—of the lobbying material sent to her by private companies that may or may not have treated her to sumptuous lunches. For example, we heard that she was prepared to snatch from the starving lips of Mr. Clive Jones and Mr. Michael Green of cash-strapped Carlton the very last crumbs that they had to offer.

I assure the hon. Lady that we made it clear in the communications White Paper that Ofcom would be expected to operate under the best principles of good governance. Clause 3 places Ofcom under a duty to have regard to such guidance on the management of the affairs of public bodies as appropriate. I emphasise that when we refer to good governance, we are thinking of the commercial principles of good corporate governance as far as they are relevant to a statutory corporation such as Ofcom, but also, and perhaps more important, to guidance on the conduct of public bodies, again in so far as they are relevant to Ofcom. It seems to us that the guidance on the management of public bodies is more likely to be relevant to Ofcom. Hence, it takes precedence in the clause.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Does the Minister consider that the final words, ''as Ofcom considers appropriate'' weaken the clause? I know that the research paper is not an official document, but it says that the clause does not appear to limit Ofcom very much, since it has only to follow the general guidance on public bodies as it considers appropriate.

Dr. Howells: No, I do not, and I shall try to make my case. The main source of guidance to which Ofcom will need to have regard is that issued by the Cabinet Office for the use of public bodies; in particular the guidance on codes of practice for board members of public bodies. That guidance sets out the need for board members of public bodies such as Ofcom to follow the seven principles of public life, which I shall not rehearse again.

Miss McIntosh: We have spent some time discussing the principles. We need to know how they apply to the Bill and how, in particular, clause 3 encapsulates them. I have asked about the number of staff, whether they will be seconded, whether they will be sought on the open market and whether there should be a framework document. We need an answer to those questions.

Dr. Howells: If we look at the guidance on codes of practice for board members of public bodies, we shall see the answers clearly. The guidance states the need

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for board members of public bodies, such as Ofcom, to follow the seven principles of public life, which many Conservative Members are keen to see applied.

As Ofcom will be a statutory corporation, clause 3 also places it under a duty to have regard to generally accepted principles of good governance, to the extent that such principles could reasonably be regarded as applicable to a statutory corporation. Those principles are currently set out in the combined code, published by the Committee of Corporate Governance, which combines the Cadbury and the Greenbury codes with the Committee's guidance.

The clause will require Ofcom to operate in a responsible and transparent way. The hon. Member for Vale of York laid a great deal of stress on the need for that. I made it clear earlier that we expect that to include ensuring that a publicly available register of members' interests is kept. That, too, is a requirement of the Cabinet Office guidance. The Committee will have noticed that the schedule contains provisions about the governance of Ofcom, including those regarding conflicts of interest, recording decisions and the publication of procedural amendments.

Clause 3 provides that Ofcom will operate in accordance with the highest principles of good management and public service.

Miss McIntosh: It is not good that we have heard the Minister repeat what I said the principles were without relating how the principles of the better regulation taskforce and the rules of the Cabinet Office should apply here. I stand by the questions that I have asked. The Government, whether in the person of the Minister or of one of his colleagues, did better in their response to Select Committee report, which said that the Government considered it vital, not least on grounds of public accountability, for the internal structure of the new regulator to be set out in the legislation giving effect to the proposals in the White Paper, rather than being left to the governing body of the new regulator to determine. That is precisely what the Minister seems to be saying he wants to do. The Select Committee recommended that the legislation establish a mechanism to provide for greater lay involvement in content regulation than in competition regulation and create a distinct body, within the new regulator, responsible for radio.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. She mentioned the Select Committee. May I draw to her attention that, in written evidence, Sir Christopher Bland, the new chairman of BT, has said that he is concerned that the main provisions of the Ofcom Bill should not be developed in the closed environment of Whitehall, as they might look good on paper but fail in practice? Is this not an example of that very issue?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The purpose of the short time that we have spent scrutinising the Bill is to define what mechanism there should be—in particular for the governing body and the new regulator, Ofcom—to manage itself. It is

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deeply disappointing that while we have had a lively debate, the Minister fails to respond. The Government response to the conclusions in the report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee stated:

    ''The Government is creating in OFCOM a convergent regulator to deal with fast-changing markets. It will operate within a clear framework of duties''.

We still do not know, after the Minister's derisory and disappointing summing up, whether there is to be a framework agreement or whether what is proposed will be subject to parliamentary approval. He is being very coy.

11.30 am

We are also told by the Government that the powers will be ''agreed by Parliament'', but this is the last chance that Parliament will have to agree on the management structure. Similarly, with regard to the underpinning

    ''by a framework of general duties''

we still do not know what those general duties will be. According to the Government,

    ''OFCOM as an organisation will need substantial flexibility in the way in which it implements these statutory functions, if it is to be well placed to respond to rapid changes in the market and in the public interest issues which arise from these.''

We still do not know what level of flexibility is envisaged. We are being asked to give a blank cheque with respect to its managerial role, its structure and its staffing numbers. That is not just disappointing; it is unacceptable.

The Government response continues:

    ''These are strong arguments for leaving the details of the internal structure of OFCOM to its Board, and avoiding unnecessary rigidity.''

How does the Minister respond to the real concerns raised by BT, NTL and ITV that I have raised today?

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Is the hon. Lady really praying in aid that same BT whose share price—like that of its most recently-formed offshoot, mmO2—we have seen consistently falling? The hon. Member for Lichfield also prayed in aid BT, and the hon. Lady prayed in aid ITV, although I understand from an earlier discussion that her party was concerned that regional ITV was losing not only its advertising share, but its audience. Perhaps the hon. Lady is looking in the wrong direction for support.

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