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3 Dec 2002 : Column 821—continued

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): It is? What is XTaggart"?

Mr. Cameron: My hon. Friend tries to distract me from a sedentary position.

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There are scare stories about foreign ownership. The main such story that we read is that, if a US company takes over Channel Five or ITV, we will suddenly be flooded with cheap programmes from America that will be dumped on to our market. That is nonsense. The figures and the schedules show that domestic production beats imports every time. Mercifully, the days of the BBC showing XDallas" or XDynasty" at peak time have gone, because everybody in television knows that domestic production—home-made programmes—is what wins. If ITV or the BBC wanted to buy reams of American programmes and dump them into the schedule, they could do so now. One simply goes to one of these well-upholstered television festivals in Los Angeles or Cannes, and buys them. However, I do not believe that that would happen.

On reading commentators on such matters, one sometimes gets the feeling that, if only the BBC or ITV had had the foresight to buy XThe West Wing" or XFriends", all their problems would be over. That is nonsense. Much better to have programmes such as XThe Bill", XCoronation Street" or XEastEnders", because it is domestic production that delivers the audience. The scare story about foreign ownership is simply not right. Deregulating ownership is a good thing—it will allow investment to flow, exactly as the Secretary of State described.

My second point concerns ITN, to which Members on both sides of the House have referred. The case has not been made for ownership restrictions on ITN. Every major television channel in the world owns its own news supplier. ABC owns ABC News, and NBC owns NBC News. Why would having outside shareholders suddenly make such a news supplier stronger? If that were the case, we should tell the BBC, XYou cannot own BBC News—it must have outside shareholders." As the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) said, there would be a real benefit in having strong shareholders who care about ITN. In fact, there is a very good example of that. ITN's 24-hour news channel is now owned exclusively by the two ITV companies, because the other ITN shareholders did not want to continue to fund a loss-making channel. That is good evidence that having strong shareholders who get behind the news supplier is a very good thing. I hope that we can change the Bill in that respect.

My third point concerns content regulation. Everyone talks about this big Bill as having a light touch, but I wonder about that. Some have even expressed the concern that it is not tough enough, and that there should be more regulations, but I am not sure that I agree. As I said, television companies do not make great programmes because of the content of a Bill, or what a regulator says. The Bill still provides for statements of programme policy, based on existing licences, that every television company will have to produce. Clause 256 includes a very full description of what public service broadcasting actually means in the multi-channel world. According to clause 259, one cannot change a programme policy statement without permission from Ofcom. It could be argued that, in a multi-channel world with many competing channels, the Bill constitutes active regulation, rather than a light touch.

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I turn to my fourth and final point. There is no point in criticising a Bill for being too long unless one can think of something to remove from it, and I suggest removing the part concerning the consumer panel. What are consumer panels for? The creation of a giant bureaucracy is being suggested. They just might be suitable for telecoms—for which we have had such panels in the past—but please do not extend them to television. As I said, if people do not like what is on television, they switch off or switch over. The Xoff" button is often the best regulator that there is.

This is a good Bill, but it still imposes too much control. If we set the media industry free, we will be able to watch it grow. The Secretary of State's name appears very frequently in the Bill, and I hope that, during its passage, the ministerial team will consider what further regulations they can get rid of, what powers they can cede, and what controls they can give up. If they do that, they will produce a very good Bill, and the industry will be thankful.

7.48 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): I welcome the Bill, and the Government are to be congratulated on the way in which it has been handled. The pre-legislative scrutiny and the extent to which the recommendations were accepted provided a model for such matters, and in the light of that I hope that proceedings in Committee will not be unnecessarily long. Although the Bill is very big, many of the arguments have already been rehearsed, so repeating them might be unduly tedious.

Most of today's debate has, understandably, been content-driven. That is primarily because this issue is of concern to the chattering classes; indeed, we have all been subjected to lobbying on a massive scale in that regard. Some have expressed concern about the role of the BBC, and I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who pointed out that we will be able to address the charter issue in a couple of years' time.

I hope that the charter will be dealt with in the same way as the Bill. We need a sensible debate. It would be appropriate to revisit the matter if shortcomings are found in the BBC's structure, but not before.

However, I want to make a nod in the direction of the telecommunications sector. Understandably, and for the reasons that I have given, we have tended to lose sight of the importance of that sector, and especially of the role of the regulator in challenging BT's power and strength.

I am not an opponent of BT, but it is understandable that it should protect its position. Some of its financial calls have caused it difficulties, but by the same token it is making a remarkable recovery. It retains great power and influence, and dominates the market. Its fixed infrastructure has the capacity to exclude potential players. It has the strength to embrace and adopt technological change in ways that can influence market development. For those reasons, regulation is necessary for some time to come.

Initially, it was suggested that regulation might be like Lenin's concept of the state—that the need for it would wither away. However, very much like Lenin's state, regulation has persisted for a considerable period, although it is probably regarded more benignly than the governance of the former Soviet Union.

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It is clear that Oftel, in what might be called its dying days, has been quite effective and has addressed a number of issues. The package produced in August that provided protection for the poorest 80 per cent. of customers has been very useful. I am Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, and we have had our moments with Oftel. Occasionally, we have felt that its director general, David Edmonds, has not properly understood the nature of competition. For example, he has said that four mobile phone companies are somehow competitive, even though they each account for some 18 to 22 per cent. of the market, or a little more. Also, he sometimes seemed to ignore the concept of complex monopoly, which occurs when players of roughly similar size behave in exactly the same way—albeit independently—and come to fairly convenient conclusions about their market situation.

Regulation must have a continuing role. It must not restrict progress or be too prescriptive, but it should promote the market and at the same time protect consumers. Some consumers remain vulnerable. For example, they buy the wrong mobile system with the wrong pricing arrangements. Young people do not always appreciate the costs involved, and anyone who has had teenage children going through the mobile phase will have been presented with bills or demands for additional pocket money because mobile cards have become exhausted more quickly than anticipated. Such considerations must be borne in mind.

It has been suggested of late that the regulator has been captured by BT. Some have felt that, when we were talking about unbundling the local loop, Oftel's director general was unduly understanding of BT. Instead of going in with a bludgeon, he wanted to continue talking. As a result, we lost valuable time, and the unbundling process has never recovered. We started seriously on the process too late in the day. By the time the process really got under way, the telecoms bubble had burst—fortunately, one might say. The director general took the view that it was better to negotiate than to act by diktat. I think that it is sometimes better to go in hard and quickly than to try to achieve something through protracted negotiation.

However, I want to take Ministers to task about the proposed consumer panel. In our brief regulatory experience, there have been several examples of how a so-called consumer council has become largely a creature of the regulator. Under the old electricity regulatory system, the relevant body depended on the regulator for secretarial assistance; it had little independence and few resources. I would like to think that that will not be repeated, and that the regulatory process adopted by Ofcom will have integrity and independence. I hope that the consumer panel will represent the Secretary of State, and that there will be a clear separation of powers.

It is fair to say that Energywatch, the body responsible for protecting energy consumers, has, after a rather slow start, become an extremely effective voice in defence of some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our society who depend on gas and electricity supplies. Its strength lies in its physical, financial and political independence from Ofgem. I think that that model, which exists already in the Government's regulatory system, is worth consideration.

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On the whole, the Bill is worth while and ambitious. I have not gone into its effects on media such as television and the like; I shall leave that to others. However, in the past couple of years, the telecoms sector has been effective and robust. We should ensure that the new set-up is not concerned only with market power and how that is controlled. We should also give proper consideration to the needs of consumers. With a bit of tweaking and care and attention, the Bill will provide a more independent and effective way to deal with such matters.

That is my only misgiving about the Bill, but it is relatively minor and not too serious. I wish the Bill well, and I also wish success to those who serve on the Standing Committee.


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