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3 Dec 2002 : Column 814—continued

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that production quota of 25 per cent. is often confined to the London area, and not scattered across the nation as a whole? Does he also accept that it is important to start spreading it?

Mr. Wyatt: I well remember the regional director of the BBC getting on the train at Euston, finishing up in Manchester for the week, and coming back on Friday. I agree entirely that there should be some regional perspective in the production quota, too.

Something that has struck a raw nerve with me is a matter over which Ofcom has reserved powers in relation to the public interest, which I would like to see

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toughened. The provisions are too prescriptive at the moment, and I would like to see a law protecting minors from spamming. For hon. Members who are not sure what spamming is, I shall explain. Last year 8 per cent. of all e-mails contained pornography or child pornography. This year that number has increased to 38 per cent., and it is rising daily. That is totally unacceptable, and the Ofcom rules on it are too weak. We are not addressing the issue, and I want to see a much tougher power for Ofcom included in the Bill. We must tell the internet service providers that they must either accept a charter given to them by Ofcom, or be charged a licence fee. They would choose a charter pretty quickly. If they were not prepared to, Ofcom should be allowed to require the installation of screening software to ensure that all ISPs screen for pornography, especially child pornography, which is appalling and disgusting.

Hon. Members have mentioned broadband. The sad thing is that we have lost that thing called universality. We had it for television; we built the transmitters. We had it for electricity; we built the national grid. We need to charge Ofcom with introducing regulations to find the funding for rural communities—the 35 per cent. who do not have and never will get broadband. That funding may have to come from part of the licence fee or from a levy on advertising, but there must be a way of coming up with an intelligent solution so that the rural and semi-rural communities are not downgraded. That is something that Ofcom must do.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): The hon. Gentleman is making some extremely important points. May I take him back to his point about pornographic spam—if that is what we should call it? We agree that it is undesirable, but how does he intend it to be regulated?

Mr. Wyatt: I am not an advertising man, but there are several outstanding pieces of software on the market that I could name. I have seen them working, and they are between 95 and 98 per cent. successful. We will never be able to screen out such spam completely, but we should insist that screening software be installed. Furthermore, we can test that software, so there is a solution to this problem.

I shall return to my starting point—the BBC. It is currently streaming video on a channel, and I would love to know whether it has permission to do so. Is it a television channel, a broadcast channel or a broadband channel? I think that it is a broadcast channel, and that it does not have permission. Who regulates that channel? I would like that question cleared up. This is one of the fundamental reasons why we must put the BBC inside Ofcom. I commend the Bill to the House.

7.19 pm

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): Like everyone else in the House, I welcome the Bill, which was brought about by a number of pressures, including the need to comply with European directives. Although there is some gold plating, I am still in favour of the Bill and what it brings before us tonight.

I have served in the House for a number of years, and I have been a member of Committees that scrutinised Bills that created XOfthis", XOfthat" and XOf-the-

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other"—I have not regretted scrutinising any of those Bills, particularly the one on XOf-the other". The particular matters that came before us encountered resistance from the Labour party, but as time has gone on, all those bodies have been welcomed and have come to be regarded as good things. They have gone from strength to strength.

Greater scrutiny of such Bills would have been valuable on occasion, however, and the Government have a poor record of timetabling legislation without allowing adequate time for proper examination. I have in mind the Enterprise Act 2002; not only clauses but rafts of clauses went undebated because of the timetable motion, yet still became law. We must hope that they work properly.

John Robertson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the pre-legislative scrutiny will make the Bill successful? As it has already been considered, it will also be easier to amend in Committee.

Mr. Page: The hon. Gentleman not only gives me another minute or two, but brings me to my next point. I commend the pre-legislative scrutiny, which has been immensely valuable, and the Government are to be congratulated on introducing the process—not only for this Bill but, I sincerely hope, for others. If the pre-legislative scrutiny had not taken place, I shudder to think how many clauses of this 543-page Bill would have gone undebated.

Even so, the Bill could be further improved by spending more time in Committee, so the programme motion disappoints me. Again, there is insufficient time for us to do the legislation justice, so if my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), who is leading for the Opposition, wishes to object on that point he will find me in the Lobby beside him, supporting more time for scrutinising the Bill. Indeed, as we have broad and general agreement, I hope that Ministers will not be too upset, and officials will not feel that their virility has been tested, if they agree to the odd amendment to improve the Bill.

Integrating the work of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority to achieve a coherent, common and consistent policy on licensing broadcasters, maintaining standards and considering complaints is a desirable objective. Making it all work smoothly and seamlessly is a major undertaking in itself. Of course there will be difficulties over the details of the role and procedures that Ofcom will adopt, the extent of its powers to regulate, access to services, and the composition of the authority. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) will be very interested in its membership.

Despite all the support for Ofcom, it is nevertheless important to say at this point that fundamental issues are at stake. I am not sure how the Bill will clarify the position of the BBC. Obviously, many Members in the House are not clear about that either. Even the previous Secretary of State has seen the light, and I hope that Ministers can bring themselves to support the idea of Ofcom covering the BBC.

Under clause 3, Ofcom has a general duty

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By almost any definition, there are sections of the television and broadcasting market in which the BBC has a strong, entrenched position, but, as the satellite and broadcasting groups rightly point out, the BBC will fall outside Ofcom's remit. Independent companies operating in the terrestrial cable and satellite market as well as the radio sector will be subject to the full impact of regulation, but the dominant player will lie beyond Ofcom's reach.

I made a careful note of the Secretary of State's opening remarks. She said that there was to be full rigour of competition law, covering, as it will, the BBC. Fine, but what does that mean? Will the penalties imposed by Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading be the same? Will the speed of implementation be the same for both? Will the legal defences available to businesses against both bodies be the same? Will a judgment by one body on significant market power be accepted by the other? What will be done to prevent a business from facing two rulings, which may be conflicting, from two bodies?

If the Minister's answer to those questions is, XIt will all be seamless and it will all be the same," I shall argue, XWhy shouldn't the BBC come under the control of Ofcom?" I support the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), because there should be a free vote on the issue. It should not be a matter for party discipline and Whips. This is a moral issue, just like foxhunting or something like that. That may seem a bridge too far, Madam Deputy Speaker, but there we are.

May I flag up another concern? Members on both sides of the House are fully aware of the importance of broadband services, and our foreign competitors are aware of it as well. Deutsche Telecom, with German federal Government support, has 90 per cent. of that country covered, France has invested the equivalent of $25 per head and Japan a massive $90. We are on $5. According to BT, coverage is some 66 per cent., but it will be another five years before 90 per cent. of our population have access to broadband services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield plugged a place in his constituency, so I shall plug one in mine. The town of Chorleywood is full of keen internet and broadband users, but they are still waiting for connections so that they can start to use the service. Some rural areas will never have—

Pete Wishart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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