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Session 2009 - 10
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General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Cairns, David (Inverclyde) (Lab)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
Fallon, Mr. Michael (Sevenoaks) (Con)
Foster, Mr. Don (Bath) (LD)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
Prentice, Mr. Gordon (Pendle) (Lab)
Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport)
Stanley, Sir John (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)
Truswell, Mr. Paul (Pudsey) (Lab)
Vaizey, Mr. Edward (Wantage) (Con)
Viggers, Sir Peter (Gosport) (Con)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Younger-Ross, Richard (Teignbridge) (LD)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 27 January 2010

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Draft Communications Act 2003 (Disclosure of Information) Order 2010
2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Siôn Simon): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Communications Act 2003 (Disclosure of Information) Order 2010.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, for what I think is my first time—I intend to enjoy it.
The order is a small but important part of the arrangements that we are putting in place to ensure the effective implementation of the European Union’s audiovisual media services directive in the United Kingdom. Regulations made last autumn to implement the directive in the UK gave Ofcom responsibility for ensuring that on-demand programme services meet the minimum standards and requirements for such services. They also allow Ofcom to designate other bodies to act as co-regulatory authorities for the services and to carry out some of the regulatory functions. Ofcom has already consulted on proposals to designate co-regulatory bodies, and we hope that it will be in a position to make an announcement about designation shortly.
Co-regulatory bodies are defined in those regulations as “appropriate regulatory authorities”. The draft order will bring them within the disclosure of information provisions in the Communications Act 2003. Section 393 of the Act places restrictions on how information about particular businesses may be shared. There are some exceptions to the restrictions, and the order makes use of one of them by designating any co-regulatory body as a “relevant person” for the purposes of information sharing. That will allow Ofcom to share relevant information with the co-regulatory bodies, and allow those bodies to share information with each other without them having to go back to the businesses concerned. That process will ensure that the bodies may carry out their functions effectively and efficiently, and it will also mean that businesses and service providers will not have to provide the information on multiple occasions. Moreover, it will help to reduce the scope for delays in investigating and resolving complaints about on-demand programme services.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am following the Minister’s argument so far—it all seems logical and straightforward. However, will he explain one thing? He talks about the sharing of information, which is understandable, but will the co-regulation mean that on-demand services will get instructions from bodies other than Ofcom that could be in conflict with Ofcom’s regulations, or that could place an additional burden on a broadcaster that is also providing on-demand services?
Mr. Simon: No, in short. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of the co-regulators as devolved regulators. For instance, one of them is likely to be the Advertising Standards Authority, whose competencies and duties are distinct from those of Ofcom. The order means that the information that Ofcom requests from a business could be transmitted directly to the ASA without the authority having to re-request the information from a business, which would therefore not have to resubmit to the co-regulator.
As I said, the order is a small but important part of our arrangements to ensure the effective implementation of the audiovisual media services directive, and I commend it to the Committee.
2.33 pm
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I echo the Minister’s warm comments in welcoming you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. We are both delighted to be serving under your benign chairmanship for the first time. It has been an education to shadow the Minister and watch him grow and flourish in his position. The previous time we debated a statutory instrument in Committee, he forgot to welcome the Chairman, so I am glad that doing so is now a matter of course for him.
We welcome the statutory instrument as a necessary technical measure, given that the audiovisual media services directive, which is being implemented into UK law, will regulate video-on-demand services. We agree with the Government that a technical measure is therefore welcome to allow Ofcom, the main statutory regulator, to share information with self-regulatory bodies covering both the broadcast and advertising aspects of the regulation of video on demand.
I find it extraordinary, however, that the Minister can come to the Committee without being able to say what those co-regulatory bodies will be. He said that one was likely to be the Advertising Standards Authority, but the Committee is no more informed than that, so I hope that other hon. Members will press the Minister on the specifics. It is astonishing to learn, given the length of the consultation on this important measure, that the Minister does not yet know which body is likely to co-regulate the broadcasting environment with Ofcom. I am unaware of any relevant self-regulatory body that would be appropriate in those circumstances, so I would welcome the Minister’s guidance on which bodies his Department is looking at on the broadcasting issue. I would also like specific guidance on when, and under what mechanism, an announcement will be made to the House so that hon. Members may have the chance to debate whether the chosen co-regulatory body is the appropriate body to carry out co-regulation with Ofcom.
May I take this opportunity to press the Minister on the definition of video-on-demand services?
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Good question!
Mr. Vaizey: I thank the hon. Gentleman. As some hon. Members might know, he is my mentor in the House, so when he says that something is a good question, I take that in good part.
The best known example would obviously be YouTube, which I am sure that many hon. Members regularly visit. Indeed, many members of the Committee might have their own channel on YouTube, and if they do, I am sure that they would want to enlighten the Committee. It seems to me that YouTube is beyond the scope of video-on-demand regulations, so I would be interested to know how the Department reached the conclusion that such a website, which is to all intents and purposes a broadcast channel, should escape such regulation.
As you will be aware, Dr. McCrea, we also face an interesting conundrum in our fast-changing world of technology due to convergence between the internet and television. Newspapers that we all read and enjoy such as The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph—the latter is a particular favourite newspaper of mine, and it has given so much fair and balanced coverage to the activities of hon. Members—now effectively have channels through which they broadcast programmes, which are mainly of a political nature involving interviews and so on. Are they to be regulated under the video-on-demand proposals? Will it be possible to extend the scope as convergence becomes a reality?
Michael Fabricant: I am listening to my hon. Friend with considerable interest as someone who uses YouTube quite a bit, although as a viewer rather than a broadcaster, or perhaps a sub-broadcaster—“narrowcaster” might be more appropriate. Does he agree that although Ofcom can regulate programmes that originate in the UK, we will in due course be able to watch programmes transmitted from anywhere in the world, as long as they are streamed on the internet? While my hon. Friend does not agree that the internet cannot be regulated, regulating it only in the United Kingdom will not be particularly effective if people in the UK are able to watch services such as Red Hot Dutch, which was debated in this very Committee Room many years ago before it was taken off the air—[Hon. Members: “What are you talking about?”] Red Hot Dutch, which was a cable porno channel, was banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, and I remember it being debated in this very room in 1996.
Mr. Vaizey: I am enormously grateful, as usual, to my hon. Friend for that information. Let the word go forth if Members want to participate in racy debates on racy subjects, Committee Room 12 is the place to be—we should probably put up a plaque. I am also grateful for his substantial point about how video-on-demand services can be regulated in a converged and global communications world.
In fact, the mention of Red Hot Dutch brings me to my most substantial point as we hold the Minister to account on this measure, which is the issue of the watershed. In a pre-internet world—
Mr. Foster: Two good questions!
Mr. Vaizey: I thank the hon. Gentleman once again. He is giving a running commentary on the quality of my speech, but I would not be surprised at all if he was also tweeting to his thousands of his followers about the quality of my remarks.
I had an interesting meeting last week with Mediawatch-UK, which was formerly known as the National Viewers and Listeners Association—I think that Mary Whitehouse started it but I might be wrong. It has circulated a memorandum in which it points out that the main video-on-demand services with which most of us will be familiar—the iPlayer which, I think, recently reached 80 million downloads in a month and is obviously an enormously popular channel; Channel 4’s video-on-demand service; and the ITV video-on-demand service—have virtually no controls to ensure that young people do not watch inappropriate content.
I want to press the Minister on how he sees the regulation of video-on-demand services working in this extremely important area. For example, the BBC iPlayer runs a guidance system that gives only the option for parents to set a password. Mediawatch accessed the iPlayer and identified content that it thought was inappropriate for young people, including “Wallander”, which surprised me, as I happen to think that it is an excellent drama, although it can be quite graphic.
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is doing extraordinarily well, but I want to help him to take his excellent contribution a stage further. In respect of the issue that he raises, has he examined the audiovisual directive in detail? It says—and it is very clear from the impact assessment that we have no intention of going beyond anything in it under the draft order—
“Content which might seriously impair children’s development may be made available only in ways that ensure children will not normally have access—e.g. with access codes or other means.”
Does he accept that that presents a problem, because our definition of what should not be available before the watershed and the definition in the directive—“seriously impair children’s development”—are, in fact, wide apart?
The Chairman: Order. May I draw to the Committee’s attention that the subject for debate is not the directive, but the statutory instrument?
Mr. Foster: On a point of order, Dr. McCrea. I seek clarification in advance of my speech. If the impact assessment includes a clear statement that the regulatory bodies set up by this order will stick absolutely to the directive and not go beyond it, is it not the case that the directive has a clear role in our determining whether these are the right bodies to which, as the order requires, we are to allow information to be passed?
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