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3 Dec 2002 : Column 825—continued

7.57 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I beg to move,

I am pleased to speak to the reasoned amendment tabled in my name and in that of colleagues from the Scottish National party. We oppose giving the Bill a Second Reading on principle, but I acknowledge the value of the pre-legislative scrutiny procedure through which the Bill has gone. The Bill has been improved by that process and I welcome that, even though my party cannot support the Bill at this stage.

We have two principal concerns about the Bill. First, we consider that it still enables the broadcasting and IT industries to serve the needs of business more than the needs of the public. I am glad that the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) recognised the need for regulation in the sector, although we believe that the Bill does not go far enough. Secondly, we oppose the lack of Scottish and Welsh representation in the proposed Ofcom set-up. The regulator thereby lacks democratic representation.

We believe that the proposed regulatory system is centralist in its approach to Scotland and Wales, and to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Before devolution, Wales and Scotland were represented at the highest level on the Radio Authority, the ITC, the BBC and the telecommunications advisory committee. Under Ofcom, Wales and Scotland will be represented only on the advisory bodies—the content body and the consumer panel.

That is further forward than where we were a year ago when it was not guaranteed that even that would happen. However, it is ironic that we have less representation now, post-devolution—albeit on a non-devolved issue—than we had pre-devolution. There is a democratic deficit for the people of Wales and Scotland. All we have left is a seat on the BBC Wales board of governors.

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Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): Ofcom will have a board of nine; it will then appoint a contents board and a consumer panel. The Bill states that it will set those up with a representative from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; Ofcom will then set up offices in each country. Given that there is a board of nine, that there is direct contact in each country and that broadcasting is a UK-retained issue, surely that set-up will be much better than the current one.

Mr. Thomas: I cannot agree with the hon. Lady that the situation will be better than at present. At least we currently have representation on the ITC and the Radio Authority, but we will not have representation on Ofcom.

In the Committee considering the Office of Communications Bill, I moved an amendment to provide that the board should consist not of nine members but 15, which would have allowed representation from all areas of the United Kingdom. That was one way forward.

The hon. Lady says that Ofcom will appoint a consumer panel and a content panel. That is even worse—a body with no democratic representation from Wales or Scotland appoints bodies to look after Wales and Scotland. The decision-making and advisory powers will be delegated to Ofcom. Nothing in the Bill says that, in making those appointments, Ofcom has to negotiate, discuss or even take advice from the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales. That is a scandal in terms of the relationship between Westminster and other democratic bodies. The Labour-Liberal Democrat Cabinet of the National Assembly for Wales and the Cabinet and Executive of the Scottish Parliament both asked for this level of representation in the Bill. That is a problem.

There is an alternative way forward. If we are not to get direct representation, we can consider representative bodies for Wales and Scotland. I have advocated an overall Wales or Scotland advisory committee to advise Ofcom. It is vital that Ofcom make an annual report to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales on its activities in broadcasting and IT within Wales. Again, that is not provided for in the Bill. The other suggestion is to have a separate consumer panel for Wales and Scotland.

Miss Begg: I am sure that Ofcom will reflect all the constituent parts and regions of the UK. What would be the purpose of a separate report to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly when they can read the national report that covers everybody? The relevant section will be in the report for them to read.

Mr. Thomas: I do not know what the situation is like in Scotland, but when I want to find out what is happening about Wales I have to read the footnotes of UK reports.

Wales has a Welsh language broadcasting channel, which has not been mentioned tonight. S4C is the fourth channel in Wales, and we need to know what Ofcom is doing to support Welsh language broadcasting in Wales as well as digital English language broadcasting in Wales. That is a specific requirement that my party would like to see.

Pete Wishart: Does not my hon. Friend find it incredible that Scottish Members are arguing for a

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solution to a situation that will be worse than the present one? Even Jack McConnell, the First Minister, was brave enough to make representations to ensure that we had a place on the Ofcom board. Surely Labour Members would agree to our having a place at Ofcom's top table.

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend has made my point for me. I shall certainly not go any further down that road.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that at a time when the S4C budget has been slashed there should be no representation on this body?

Mr. Thomas: I do share my hon. Friend's concern and will mention the S4C budget in a moment.

Issues of broadband and IT infrastructure are also of vital interest to Wales. Access to digital broadcasting and broadband is different in Wales because its population—and that of Scotland—is unevenly distributed. There is physical geography to take into account, such as the problems of mountains. That means that the television spectrum is much fuller. We need many more transmitters to achieve transmission throughout Wales. In that context, broadband is lagging behind. Wales is at the bottom of UK broadband connectivity. I do not know where Scotland is, but I think that it is in the same position.

We are told that broadband access will be achieved at the south pole by 2011 but not in rural Wales or Scotland. I met BT yesterday to discuss issues in my constituency. I have one exchange in my constituency that can take ADSL, and that is only because of public subsidy—in other words, the project has been funded by Europe. We must move more quickly on these matters. I would like the Government to look again at the 95 per cent. threshold for the switch-off from an analogue to a digital signal and bear in mind that although that figure could be reached at a UK level, about 70 per cent. of the population of Wales and 70 per cent. of the population of Scotland might not have access to digital transmissions. Members representing seats in both countries would have a problem if their constituents were to opt to turn off their signal when there was no access to digital transmissions.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas: I regret that I cannot now; I have taken several interventions.

The other aspect of the Bill that is worthy of mention is the public service commitment within Ofcom. There is a series of regional quotas, and I use the word Xregional" advisedly. However, I remind the House that Xregional" in Wales, as in Scotland, is national. In Wales, HTV is a national television channel, and it sees itself as such, particularly post-devolution. I welcome that.

The Bill states that the channel 3 programmes made in the United Kingdom outside the M25 area—a very patronising way to look at things—constitute what appears to Ofcom to be a suitable range. Once again, a body that has no Welsh or Scottish representation decides what sort of regional production is suitable for

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Wales and Scotland. That is not good enough. We would like the Bill to be amended to take into account the need to protect and encourage radio and television programming from Wales but also to Wales, and in both the languages of Wales.

That brings me to S4C and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). S4C celebrates its 20th anniversary this year; it has been one of the great success stories of broadcasting in Wales. It has created a whole creative industry in Wales, not only in Cardiff but in the west, towards Swansea and towards the north. This rolling-out of a creative industry has encouraged other industries into the area. The final scene of the recently released Bond film, for example, was shot in my constituency, and I look forward to seeing that beach in the film.

The Bill says that S4C will continue to need to provide a substantial amount of Welsh language programming. There is no definition of Xsubstantial", and we need to know what it means in this context. Eighty or 90 per cent. will mean nothing if we do not have funding to enable S4C to meet the digital challenge. S4C recently approached the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with a £3.5 million bid. That sounds like a lot of money, but, given the threat to language programming, it is not. The money would have enabled S4C to deliver a wider range of digital programmes. It is the only public service broadcaster that has not received a penny for digital programmes. The BBC has been able to negotiate a significant rise in its licence fee to pay for digital programmes, some of which—on the net, for example—are available in Welsh, curiously enough, thus apparently taking away some of the audience for S4C. That is an interesting perspective and we will need to explore it further. I want the Government to take on board the recommendation and acknowledgement in the Joint Committee's report that S4C's funding should be looked at again in the light of the digital revolution.

We are concerned that the situation outlined by Labour Members regarding cross-media ownership will arise, leading to a lack of accountability in Wales. We shall see not a plethora of owners, but the centralisation of ownership in the hands of a few companies or individuals.

We do not consider that regulation will necessarily be burdensome. In our view, it can protect the public interest. Parliament is giving up control over citizenship and over regulation of the broadcasting industry to a regulator. I accept that in principle, but we must be sure that the regulator will take fully democratic principles into account. Until that is achieved in the measure and until the Bill recognises the different circumstances that apply to the broadcasting and communications industries in Wales and Scotland, we shall continue to oppose some of its principles.

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