|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
3 Dec 2002 : Column 788continued
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I have every sympathy with the point that the Secretary of State makes about wishing to maintain the ban on political advertising on television and radio. Can she tell us whether there are any current court cases concerning this issueeither in the UK under the Human Rights Act 1998, or continuing through the European Court of Human Rights processor is the Swiss judgment the only one on the books?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but by now he should be using the appropriate parliamentary language. He is addressing the Chair, not the Minister, by using the second person.
Tessa Jowell: On the second point, as I said in response to an intervention a few minutes ago, we are not seeking to regulate the internet. The ban applies to licensed broadcastingthat is the distinction. On my hon. Friend's very fair request, I will certainly ensure that an explanatory note is placed in the Library for Members' information.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): I want to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). My understanding is that the current restriction on religious broadcasters owning licences is being challenged under
Tessa Jowell: I shall confirm my previous answer for the hon. Gentleman's benefit: I am not aware of other current challenges, but in preparing a note for the Library, I shall ensure that our intelligence on this matter is complete.
The Government apply testing standards to the consideration of the compatibility of their legislation with the convention and, given the existence of the Swiss precedent, I must ask the House to consider this Bill with a section 19(l)(b) of the Human Rights Act 1998 statement attached to it. That does not mean that we believe the Bill to be incompatible with the ECHR, and we would mount a robust defence if it were legally challenged. Of course, if that defence subsequently failed before the domestic courts, we would need to reconsider our position. Beyond that, we take our international obligations extremely seriously and we would seek to amend the ban in accordance with any judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that ruled against the UK legislation. As things stand, however, the Government believe that it is right to ask the House to continue the ban on political advertising.
I turn now to the substance of the Bill, which essentially has four themes: giving functions to Ofcom, implementing four European communications directives, ensuring the most effective management of the radio spectrum, and putting in place a framework for broadcasting and media.
Part 1 of the Bill contains details of the functions that will be transferred or assigned to Ofcom, bringing together the functions currently exercised by the five regulatorsthe Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the Director General of Telecommunications, the Radiocommunications Agency, and the Radio Authority.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): My right hon. Friend had an excellent record of involvement in disability matters before she came to the House. Is she aware that many organisations, including Mencap, are worried that Ofcom's duties do not include conducting research into whether people with disabilities are marginalised or embraced by the electronic revolution?
Tessa Jowell: I assure my right hon. Friend that the Bill contains strong safeguards for the interests of disabled people. He is right to point out that the consumer panel's scope and terms of reference give ample opportunity for the sort of consultation that he has described.
Part 1 of the Bill sets out the general duties of Ofcom and the establishment of the content board and the consumer panel. It also sets out more clearly how self-regulation fits in the new framework. We are giving a clear signal to the industry that, where self-regulation is effective, Ofcom can remove or reduce its regulations.
Part 2 of the Bill implements the Government's policy on spectrum management and four European directives concerned with electronic communications. It also deals with a number of other matters relating to electronic communications, such as the persistent misuse of electronic communications networks and services, and the regulation of premium-rate services.
The implementation of the four directives will remove the need for 400 telecommunications licences. They will be replaced with a system of general authorisation and specific obligations to protect consumers and guarantee competition. That is a major deregulatory step. As many hon. Members are aware, the directives mean the UK cannot maintain telecommunications licences beyond 24 July next year.
Although we can implement part of our proposals in respect of electronic communications by making regulations under the European Communities Act 1972, the limitation in that Act means that such regulation would be adequate only for an interim period. The Government hope, therefore, that in the interests of consumers and the industry, Members of this House and another place will consider the Bill in such a way that it may be able to secure Royal Assent before the summer recess next year.
Part 3 covers television and radio services. This is where we outline our policy on the protection of content standards and the remit for public service broadcasters. Part 3 also covers Ofcom's relationship with the BBC, and I am aware of the degree of contention that still surrounds that issue.
The Bill will extend the public service broadcasting remit to the BBC as well as commercial public service broadcasters. It is very important that the House understand clearly how this works. Except for the regulation of accuracy and impartiality, which will remain the responsibility of the governors, Ofcom will regulate the BBC under regulatory tiers 1 and 2 and will also have the power to fine the BBC for any breaches under tiers one or two. Under tier 3, the BBC will be required to publish an annual statement of programme policy, as will the other public service broadcasters, report on performance against policy and consider Ofcom's guidance. Ofcom will also report on the fulfilment of the public service broadcasting remit, including the performance of the BBC, at least every five years.
Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I understand her point about regulation under tier 3. However, does she accept that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done? Does she understand that when a complaint is made against the BBC under the conditions of tier 3programme content, in other wordsand the governors decide that the complaint is not valid, many people outside Parliament will say that, even if the governors are correct, the BBC is its own judge and jury? For that reason, justice will not be seen to be done, and for that reason it will be wrong.
Tessa Jowell: That is why I welcome the moves made by the chairman of the governors, in recognition of much of the criticism similar to that described by the hon. Gentleman, to increase transparency and distinguish between the governors' executive and regulatory role.
I say to the House, the BBC and the other public service broadcasters that most of us on the Labour BenchesI hopebelieve that the proposition strikes the right balance. The onus is very much on the BBC governors to show that they are able to discharge that rigorous and independent role that the House clearly wishes to see.
Mr. MacDonald: I warmly welcome the provisions in part 3 that deal with minority language broadcasting, especially the setting up of a Gaelic media service, which is an important breakthrough. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the new service will be able to deliver content throughout the whole UK, not only in Scotland, provided of course that she finds a cost-effective and sensible way of doing so?