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3 Dec 2002 : Column 849—continued

9.32 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): At this stage of our proceedings, it is often said that we have had a good debate. Having sat through almost all of it, I can say that it has been genuinely well informed. We have heard speeches in which Members expressed a range of views and reflected their knowledge and experience.

The debate has been interesting—as the Committee, too, will be interesting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) pointed out, the Bill is a leviathan: 395 clauses and 19 schedules. I pay tribute to anyone who has tried to read the whole thing in one go, because it is hard going.

The Joint Committee made 148 recommendations and the Government accepted 120. I am sure that we all agree that the work of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill was extremely valuable. We have heard from several of its members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), and we have benefited from that. The Government were wise to set up that Joint Committee.

As we proceed to the Standing Committee, I suspect that the Government will propose yet more amendments—[Hon. Members: XNo."] It is possible. I was told this morning that the team working on the Bill was happy and did not expect to table amendments.

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However, I am willing to make a small wager with anyone in the Chamber that the number of Government amendments will reach three figures before the Bill is enacted.

I was surprised to hear the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry say that we needed little more scrutiny. This is an enormous Bill and it is important that the House and its Committees take a proper look at what will be extremely important legislation. Indeed, when we have explanatory notes that run to 268 pages, which is longer than most novels, we know that this is a complicated Bill. It is hugely complex and very technical.

I should like to highlight some issues. I wrote this little speech before the debate, so I am interested to note that several hon. Members have mentioned these subjects. First, I want to discuss the position of the BBC. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that it is not logical that the BBC should not be entirely subject to Ofcom. We shall certainly want to examine the reasoning behind that in Committee. We shall also wish to examine broadband access, which has been mentioned by hon. Members, especially those representing more distant parts of the United Kingdom. The lack of access to a speedy internet connection may be a major barrier to company growth, economic growth and, indeed, prosperity in future.

We should like to look at the scrutiny of Ofcom itself, and how it should report to Parliament. It should report to Parliament and its decisions should be scrutinised by Parliament. We are interested in the appointments to Ofcom. I wish to make no comment on Lord Currie, whom I do not know, except to quote from The Guardian—hardly my favourite reading. Its headline on 25 July was, XThe lord Labour loves". The article said:

a big word for the Chairman of the Select Committee, I know—

I believe that Lord Currie has a very good reputation, and I have no personal criticism of him whatsoever, but I consider it a very great pity that so many key appointments in the Government's gift go to known Government supporters. It is no surprise that there is an issue of Tony's cronies, in which connection we might just mention the BBC, where the chairman, the director-general and the political editor are all known Government supporters. This is a very serious issue about impartiality, but Labour Members just sit there and laugh.

Mr. Joyce: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman recalls this, but the chair of the BBC under the last Conservative Administration was the brother-in-law of the then Cabinet Minister responsible for the BBC.

Mr. Robathan: Of course I do. I also recall that the former director-general, Lord Birt, now works for the

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Prime Minister in a very close capacity, so I think that shows that we were genuinely impartial. [Interruption.] The cheap seats are a little rowdy as we discuss broadcasting and media.

I should like to turn to a few of the comments that have been made. The Secretary of State spoke of the Bill's economic importance and of its values. She said that it covers every one of the Government's wider aspirations for Britain. That was rather over-stating the case, if I may say so. She said that these were ambitious aims, as the Bill was ambitious. Well, I think that these are ambitious claims for the Bill because I do not think that the Government can claim the credit for everything in it. I suggest that it will be private companies and private enterprise and innovation that will bring the benefits, not the Bill itself. The Bill should set up the structure and allow others to get on and deliver.

Mr. Wyatt: That is what government is for.

Mr. Robathan: Indeed, but obviously the hon. Gentleman should pay attention and read in Hansard what the Secretary of State claimed.

I was glad that the Minister mentioned the licence fee, about which we may have something to say in Committee. We shall discuss the human rights issues, which she mentioned, especially those affecting religious broadcasters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) made an excellent speech. He raised many issues in detail, particularly religious broadcasting and cross-media ownership. I was particularly interested that he reminded us of the comments that the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), now the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, made during the passage of the Broadcasting Act 1996, because although I was there I had forgotten them. I look forward to hearing him explain how he has managed to change his position by 180 degrees.

My hon. Friend also discussed newspaper ownership and referred to the statutory regulation of newspapers through the back door.

The right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) brought his own expertise to the debate. That was particularly useful, but I think he was wrong about the Government sacking the BBC's governors. He wants the BBC to be properly regulated, as we do, under tier 3 by Ofcom, but I do not think that the Secretary of State can sack the governors. He referred to that as the nuclear option, but I doubt whether she can sack them—perhaps she can, and perhaps the Minister will mention that as well. He also mentioned piracy—a very important issue—and suggested that Ofcom should have responsibility for it, which is in interesting idea.

I wanted to say that the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, sat on the fence and agreed with both sides at once, but he actually made some good points: he agreed with us, for example, about religious broadcasting and broadband services. I look forward to hearing his very long and fascinating contributions in Committee.

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I shall just skip through a few other hon. Members and refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), whom I trust I can look forward to seeing on the Committee. He took us back to the Maastricht treaty. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford voted against Maastricht treaty Bill on Third Reading. I am not sure that we want to dwell on that, but he was very sensible about the BBC not being seen to be properly regulated and being its own judge and jury.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), who also served on the Joint Committee, made some very sensible points about the BBC. I was interested to hear how we control pornographic spam. I am not entirely sure about the software to which he referred, but he revealed a depth of knowledge, some experience—[Interruption]—not of pornography but from his past as well as the Joint Committee and some thoughtful ideas. I should like to see him on the Committee, but I am afraid to say that with his knowledge, experience and sensible ideas there is absolutely no chance of that happening.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) particularly wanted me to refer to him because he made both the points that I made earlier, and I agree with him. Of course he is absolutely right to point out that there will be a tremendous failure of scrutiny in Committee because the debates will be guillotined.

The hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Ochil is not pronounced like that.

Mr. Robathan: I am sorry. We have the Communications Bill so that we can communicate better across the border. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on one or two things, but it was nice to know that a Labour Member of Parliament is still allowed to refer to Lenin. [Interruption.] I think that it was Lenin, not Lennon.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), who spoke for the Welsh nationalists, and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) referred to the importance of broadband services. That reinforces exactly what we are saying—broadband must be mentioned.

Although I was absent at the time, I have a note from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who sat in for me, to the effect that Lord Thurso—my apologises, Madam Deputy Speaker; the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)—said that a lot of people fishing on his river in Caithness will not be able to get digital television. He raised a very important point about the analogue switch-off.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who, I hope, will serve on the Standing Committee, has a tremendous contribution to make. He gave a thoughtful, well informed and incisive speech, particularly about Ofcom's priorities in relation to competition and protecting the interests of consumers and citizens.

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Lastly, I should like to refer to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who honestly admitted to feeling technically challenged when studying the tome that is the Communications Bill, and I suspect that many hon. Members will have felt the same. That is certainly not unique, but I suggest that he should study more, rather than listening so much to Wythenshawe FM, to which he referred at length.

In conclusion, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford and I served on the Committee that considered the Broadcasting Bill in 1996, as indeed did the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, who is about to reply to the debate.

I sat in silence throughout the Bill, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of National Heritage. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford sat as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, but, halfway through, rebelled against the Conservative Government and resigned his position. Six years on, we look forward to revisiting the issues in Committee, and to giving this very important Bill as much detailed scrutiny as the guillotine will allow. I doubt whether all 395 clauses and 19 schedules will be examined, which is a matter of regret. I hope that there will be a spirit of co-operation, however, as we do not disagree with the principles of the Bill. I hope that we will try to achieve the best possible result for all those who are involved in, or who are consumers of, broadcasting and communications in this country.

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