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3 Dec 2002 : Column 801—continued

6.18 pm

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury): I begin by reminding the House of the interests that I have declared in the Register of Members' Interests.

We have travelled a long road—almost two years to the day—since the White Paper was published that set this process in motion. Much has happened in terms of consultative processes, pre-legislative scrutiny and a draft Bill being published in advance. That process of consultation has been immensely valuable in producing this Bill. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the way in which they have approached the Bill, and I hope that that will act as a model for future detailed legislation of this kind.

I also want to welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. It seeks to achieve three major things. First, it seeks to converge the regulators of broadcasting and telecommunications in a way that matches the convergence of the technologies governing the way in which we receive material as viewers, listeners and consumers. Secondly, it seeks to bring in a lighter touch of regulation generally. Out go the number crunching, the minute counting and the detailed specific regulation that act as a barrier to creativity in our broadcasting environment. In come sensible self-regulation and co-regulation that will give a certain degree of trust to our public service broadcasters but with reserve powers for the regulator to intervene if that is necessary. That is a sensible approach. Thirdly, throughout the Bill, there is the intention to safeguard the values of public service broadcasting and of high-quality broadcasting, which are essential if we are to have a good broadcasting environment into the future.

The Bill seeks to get right the balance between the competition that will promote choice and the protection of public service and quality broadcasting for the viewer and the listener. I believe that it gets that balance broadly right.

I also want to welcome two recent decisions by the Government. The first is the decision on local commercial radio ownership. It has made absolute sense to move from the draft Bill's three-plus-one formula to

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the two-plus-one formula now before us. I welcome that primarily because it will allow greater investment in local programme making, local events and local news coverage in local radio stations around the country.

Secondly, the Government's decision to embark on the programme supply review, which has now been published, is also extremely welcome. The recommendations of the review are remarkably radical. They present the possibility that the contractual relationship between independent producers and broadcasters could change much to the independent producers' benefit. That could ensure that the strong ecology of a mixture of independent and broadcaster-led material can benefit the viewing public into the future. I hope that the Government will introduce proposals during the debates on the Bill that will enable the recommendations of the supply review to be implemented.

However, there are several issues where I hope that the Government can go a little further than they have in the Bill. The first of those issues was referred to by the Opposition spokesman when he completed his remarks. I refer to the relationship between Ofcom and the BBC. Although the Opposition spokesman was technically wrong in what he said about the handling of complaints by the BBC and Ofcom, he had a fundamental point. The regulations of tiers 1and 2 in relation to the BBC will be very much in the hands and under the purview of Ofcom, but the regulatory backstop powers, which Ofcom has for all the other public service broadcasters under tier 3, will remain in the hands of the BBC's board of governors.

The Government will probably argue—indeed, they have argued—that the Secretary of State has reserve powers in relation to the BBC. For example, if the board of governors goes completely off the regulatory rails and fails to fulfil the public service remit that Parliament has placed on the BBC, the Secretary of State can always step in and can, ultimately, sack the board of governors. However, that is a nuclear-button option that would never be exercised. I therefore suggest that it would not only be in the interests of fairness between the different public service broadcasters, but in the interests of the BBC to place a backstop power in the hands of Ofcom to intervene if the governors fail in their broad duty to fulfil the remit. By all means, let us leave the governors in charge of their day-to-day responsibility to fulfil the remit and to manage the BBC as an organisation, and let us give the BBC the self-regulatory powers that the Bill gives to all other public service broadcasters in tier 3, but let us reserve a power for the independent regulator, Ofcom—rather than the Secretary of State—to intervene.

The overall review of broadcasting is flagged up in clause 256. It contains the provision for the once-in-every-five-years exercise that Ofcom will undertake to consider the whole public service broadcasting landscape and the trends, difficulties and balances between the different public service broadcasters that emerge. The review is one of the most important things that Ofcom will do. The original Bill said that the review should take place every three years, but this Bill says that it is up to Ofcom to decide when to carry it out but that it should take place at least once every five years. Whether it is three years or five years, the interval

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between the reviews that Ofcom will undertake is too long. I hope that the Committee will examine that point in greater detail as the Bill receives further scrutiny.

The developing problem of piracy of moving image material is extremely worrying. Piracy and counterfeiting are already crucifying the music industry. They pose a danger to television and film in almost equal measure. Ofcom cannot have a power to intervene directly to prevent piracy, but it can have the duty to bring together all parts of the industry to agree common standards that will provide the best possible barrier against piracy in future. I hope that that point will also be considered as the Bill goes through its proceedings in the House.

As those debates take place, I hope that the Government will take some of these points on board. My right hon. and hon. Friends deserve the thanks of the House for introducing the Bill in the way and in the condition that they have. It will not take very much for them to make it even better.

6.27 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon): We also welcome the Bill and will support its Second Reading. We very much hope that it will form the basis for the regulation of a new generation of communication technologies. Therefore, it is vital that we get the regulations absolutely right.

I applaud the Government for their attitude towards the consultation that they have allowed on the Bill. I served on the scrutiny Committee, and that process was entered into by Members of both Houses and from all political parties with a positive mindset. The Committee was deftly chaired by Lord Puttnam. The Government's acceptance of many of the Committee's suggestions has been helpful. We approach the Bill's passage through Parliament with a number of the major issues resolved between the parties.Of course, I wish that the Government had gone further towards meeting one or two of the Committee's other recommendations, and I will refer to them.

The underlying principle should be to retain a serious broadcasting and production industry in the UK and to create the conditions by which creativity and freedom of expression can flourish. We must therefore guarantee plurality, with a range of providers in the public service and the private commercial sector. The choice is not simply between public service broadcasters and other channels.

We must also guarantee access. The new regime will have to ensure that not only is there a choice between providers but that consumers have the ability to access all the services and make a choice between them. That means making sure that consumers are not left behind by technological advances.

We need to guarantee diversity in broadcasting and telecommunications. To achieve that, all consumers must be able to exercise choice. We also have to maintain quality and standards in broadcasting and all material produced.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): My hon. Friend talks of maintaining production capacity and standards. That is most under threat in children's broadcasting. The production of quality children's

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drama is increasingly under attack by commercial forces, such as cartoons that are produced in the far east. Is there anything in the Bill to reverse that process?

Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I intend to deal with material from abroad. I welcome the new BBC services in that sector and hope that they will provide a counterbalance to those forces.

It is important that Ofcom have a strong requirement to consider the interests of citizens and not only the consumer of services. We need sector-specific regulations on top of general competition regulations because the communication sector is special and unique. Broadcasting in particular is not just a commodity to be traded like any other. Although such regulation is implicit in the Bill, we need to be more explicit to ensure that we promote and protect the interests of citizens. Much of that work should take place in the content board.

Pete Wishart: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that no creators are on the content board of Ofcom is an omission? Does he think that the board would be enhanced by having someone who is involved in the creative side of the industry at the heart of the decision-making process?

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