Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Michael Fabricant: I had not intended to speak in this debate until the Minister churlishly rejected my request to intervene, even though he could have answered my question quite quickly.

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When the Minister summed up the earlier debate, he said that the point of subsection (1) is to give the existing regulators extra powers and duties to co-operate with the so-called shell Ofcom—which may be not such a shell as we had thought. Extra powers and duties mean extra work: who will do that extra work? Will it be the 1,111 people currently employed by the existing regulators, in which case there will either be a lot of overtime or a lot of work undone in the promotion and regulation of the industries to which they are attached? If not them, there will be real difficulties in carrying out the functions in clause 4. How much extra work does the Minister think will be imposed on the existing regulators to carry out those functions?

Dr. Howells: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Fabricant: I will give way to the Minister happily, in contrast to his churlish rebuttal of my attempted intervention on him.

Dr. Howells: There will be as much work as is required.

Michael Fabricant: Will there therefore be as many extra people as are required, and does that mean that additional charges will be levied on independent television, Channel 4, Channel 5, the communications companies and so on? The Minister's brief answer raises a series of questions. Not only does an endless length of string have to unravel before the final enactment of the main communications Bill, we now see that the existing regulators face another endless length of string, or rather an endless amount of red tape, in undertaking all the work required to co-operate with the shell Ofcom.

Where among the existing regulators will the additional people be found? Where is the additional funding for extra people or for overtime? The Minister takes a relaxed attitude, saying that there will be as much additional work as required and it is as simple as that. I suspect, although I do not know his background, that there speaks a man who has never run an organisation in his life; otherwise, he would not be so relaxed when making such a comment. The amount of work required must be predictable, and if it is a large amount, who will do it?

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport was well described by a recently departed Minister as a dysfunctional ministry. We can see why. The Minister's answer is typical of the sort of thinking and hands-off approach that the DCMS so often adopts. We understand why it is so often castigated by the Select Committee. It seems unable to make predictions about anything.

We have just debated a whole series of probing amendments, hoping to elicit answers about the operations of the shell Ofcom, but there have been no answers. Every time a probing amendment is tabled, every time a question is asked, the Minister gives an answer such as we have just heard: there will be as much work as it takes—take it or leave it. I do not know why I put on an east end accent then, it should have been a Welsh accent, but the point is made.

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That is the central point of clause 4. It places a burden on existing regulators but there is no idea, and no concern, about the practical difficulties involved. I do not think that the Minister means anything other than to encourage the existing regulators; it is just that he is completely unaware of the import of his response. If the existing regulators were in any way relaxed before this morning's debate, I suspect that they are now very concerned.

I know that there is concern. There is a steering group of the existing regulators, and I understand, because there are leaks, that when it puts questions to the DCMS, nothing is received from Department or Ministers. There is no feedback. The Minister seems unable to control his Department. Are we surprised to hear that when we get answers such as the one he just gave? I was hoping for a helpful response, but instead his answer was: there will be as much work as is required.

Clause 4(2) has not yet been debated. I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who pointed out the interesting use of ''duty'' instead of ''power''. It says:

    ''It shall be the duty of each of the existing regulators to comply with any direction by the Secretary of State''.

Is that not worrying? What sort of directions will the Secretary of State give? We are told that the directions will be

    ''in relation to the carrying out''—

an interesting use of English there—

    ''of that regulator's functions under this Act''.

Those functions are to include the preparation of draft schemes, consultation of Ofcom about proposals, and submission of further draft schemes

    ''in such a form as he may require, to the Secretary of State.''.

That rather is an open obligation. What sort of draft scheme might the Secretary of State come up with to create additional burdens?

I am rarely speechless, but I am on this occasion because the Minister is unable to give any comfort to the existing regulators. He has not said what resources will be given to them. In earlier debates, we have covered the resources that will be given to the Ofcom shell, but it turns out that those resources will ultimately derive from the bodies that are to be regulated.

A loan will be given, either directly by DCMS or by the Treasury, which must be paid back with interest. We do not know what the interest rate will be, but the Minister has promised me a letter—although it has not yet appeared on my desk. Perhaps he can tell me whether he has signed off the letter, or whether there is big question mark over the interest that will be chargeable to companies such as ITV and the individual independent television companies. It is an open issue.

We now know that burdens will put on the existing regulators. How will those burdens be funded—through a loan that must be repaid, or a charge of additional levies on ITV companies, BT and NTL, all of whom are experiencing difficulties? We do not know

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and, I fear the Minister has no clue; that is worrying. When he gives an answer, it will be one prepared for him by his officials; it will not address the problem, which I do not believe has been properly discussed in the DCMS. More worryingly, the existing regulators do not think that it has been discussed in the DCMS—the dysfunctional Department, as the Minister put it so well only a few weeks ago.

Dr. Howells: On a point of order, Miss Widdecombe. I have never referred to the DCMS as a dysfunctional Department. The hon. Gentleman's fevered brain might want it to be that way, but that is not my view.

Michael Fabricant: I have never said that the Minister referred to it in that way—he would not keep his job for long if he had. I am referring to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), as he knows, unless he pays little attention to events on the Floor of the House. I make it absolutely clear that I am referring to that hon. Lady who did the Minister's job.

Dr. Howells: She did not.

Michael Fabricant: Well, she worked in his Department—indeed, she was an important Minister in his Department. I could go through the details, but it would be pointless because it is well known how effective the DCMS has been—one need only ask the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).

The Chairman: Order. Would the hon. Gentleman exercise ingenuity and try to relate his comments to clause 4?

Michael Fabricant: I will now switch on the ingenuity section of my mind, and move to subsection (3). It states:

    ''each of the existing regulators shall have the power,''—

we see the use of the word ''power'', rather than duty—

    ''for the purpose of carrying out that regulator's functions under this section, to do such things as appear to that regulator to be incidental or conducive''—

the word ''incidental'' means still more burdens; how long is a piece of string? Perhaps the Minister can give us a global view of what might be

    ''incidental or conducive to the carrying out of those functions including''—

this is not an exhaustive list because it is ''including''—

    ''(without prejudice to the generality of that power) power''—

''power'' appears twice—

    ''to make payments to OFCOM, to second staff to OFCOM and to provide OFCOM with any information that they may request.''

12.45 pm

So, the clause states that there are to be burdens on the existing regulators to provide whatever work Ofcom thinks fit, which means that they will be less able to do their current work regulating businesses that, for example, the Radio Authority, the ITC and the other two organisations regulate. Far from the Minister saying, ''Yes, we shall provide the resources for extra staff'', or ''Yes, we shall provide extra money to pay overtime'', we find that the existing regulators must second staff to the shell Ofcom.

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Whether the Minister likes it or not, his Department must answer the question of how people will do that work. How will Ofcom be run in practice? The track record of the DCMS reveals it to be incapable of running anything, but if he does not want to face before the end of this Parliament a purge similar to the one that the Prime Minister applied to his Department at the beginning of this Parliament, his Department must address those practical problems; it is time it did so. It is no good waffling: he must say what the burden will be, from where the resources will be provided to carry out that work, and who will pay for it. Those are three questions that he must answer, and if he does not answer them it will show that his Department will deliver Ofcom like it delivered good management of the millennium dome, and everything else that it has touched with its minus-Midas touch.

Dr. Howells: I have nothing to add.

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