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Lord Ackner: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for giving me leave to ask my timid and deferential Question. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for revealing just how pig-headed a government department can be. Is he aware that the description in the Bonhams & Brooks catalogue--itself extensive--underlies and supports the proposition that these are articles of strong historic importance?

Is the noble Lord aware that his invitation created concern over the weekend? Will he tell the House who responded to the Treasury invitation? I know that my Inn of Court, the Middle Temple, did so, concerned to see whether the silver would add sensibly to its collection.

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Finally, why has it taken so long to reach this conclusion? I was in touch with the Chief Secretary's private office over the weekend and earlier today, shortly before asking this Question. It said that it could not give me the slightest indication of which way the cat was going to jump.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, on the noble and learned Lord's last point, surely it is proper that any decision should be announced to Parliament rather than to anyone else. I am sure that my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House is grateful for the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. I should immediately say that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was the first to respond, expressing--correctly, I believe--the view of the House that the items should be withdrawn from sale. No list of representations has been compiled and the information may not necessarily become public, because some of those who made representations may not wish their intervention to be made public.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it is greatly to the credit of noble Lords on all sides of the House, including the Minister and the Leader of the House, that this deplorable decision has, at the last moment, finally been reversed. Is it not clear that the Treasury cannot be trusted to look after such assets of great beauty and historical integrity? Will the Minister now publish a list of national heritage items in the Treasury's keeping, spelling out which are still regarded as open for sale?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Treasury has done a great deal more than that. As a result of government resource accounting, the Treasury has published a National Assets Register, which covers items of historical and artistic importance and all other government assets held not just by the Treasury, but by all other departments.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, when were the objects in question last on display to the public--or, indeed, to members of the Treasury?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the items were last displayed in 1957 in an exhibition by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which travelled to a number of countries.

Lord Acton: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the excellent decision that he has relayed to the House. How much was the Treasury expecting to raise from the auction? I do not think that we were told last Thursday.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, if we add up the estimates for the four lots, it comes to something over £100,000, but of course the estimates are in ranges, as auctioneers are always cautious about these matters.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, we on these Benches also congratulate the Minister on the work that he has

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clearly done behind the scenes. The outcome is very satisfactory. Surely one of the worrying aspects of the affair is that it was sprung on so many people as a surprise. I do not know whether the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was aware of what was likely to happen--probably not. After the salutary lesson that has been given to the Treasury on this occasion, will procedures be laid down to ensure that whenever a body intends to divest itself of such heritage items, all those concerned, including primarily the department of state itself--in this case the Department for Culture, Media and Sport--are informed and the public are made aware of the issue without having to wait to hear of it as a result of a Question in your Lordships' House on a Thursday afternoon?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, if the Government do anything wrong it is the fault of the Minister, but if the Government do anything right the credit has to go to the department and the Government as a whole rather than to any individual. It is fair to say that we did not consult as widely as we should have done on the items. We ought to take that lesson and see that we have procedures for consultation in the future. One of the ways of finding out how much things are worth and who is interested is to put them up for auction. We have taken seriously the concerns expressed in the House last Thursday that there was a risk of the items going to private buyers and therefore not being available to the public. That has resulted in the decision that I have announced today.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, on what basis was it decided that the Chancellor could dispose of the silver? Is it said that all silver in the hands of every other department can be sold by the Chancellor if he says that it is desirable to do so?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I answered that question last Thursday. I said that six or seven years ago, under a Conservative administration, assets of that sort were assigned to individual departments rather than being held by Property Holdings. That is the basis on which they are the property of the Treasury.

Lord Peston: My Lords, did I mishear my noble friend? Did he say that the stuff has not been seen by the public for 40 or so years, or did he add something that I missed? I assume that it must have been seen by the civil servants who have checked that it is still there and we have not lost any of it. What is the flow of benefit if it is not available to be seen by the public? Have we become misers who are happy because we know that it is there, even though no one else does?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I think that for most of the time the silver has been held in a locked cupboard, or a series of locked cupboards. Of course, it has been available to be seen at Bonhams & Brooks since last Friday.

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Lord Ackner: My Lords, the Minister has generously conceded that his department may not have consulted as widely as it should have done. As a matter of interest, who was consulted?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have attempted to answer that question. We do not have a list of those who were consulted. Some of those who were consulted take it to have been done in private, so it is not necessarily the case that we would be able to release a list.


Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m., my noble friend Lord Rooker will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement which is being made in another place on asylum, migration and citizenship.

Office of Communications Bill [HL]

3.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [The Office of Communications]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 1, line 3, at end insert "which shall be constituted in accordance with and have functions conferred by this Act"

The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment that raises two issues. One is technical--I shall come to that in a little while--but the other is a matter of principle that underlies the whole Bill. The question, quite simply, is whether it is right to have a single, overarching model of regulator for both broadcast and telecom sectors. What other models did the Government consider and why were they rejected? I am asking the Government to put on the record their reasons for choosing this model for Ofcom. I agree with the Government that this model should be the right way forward, but on these occasions I always have regard to the Bassingthaighte principle that the more that the Opposition agree with the Government, the more careful we have to be that we are agreeing for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. That means that we have to scrutinise properly any legislation before us. As it was not obvious from the amendment that I would ask the Minister that question, I gave prior warning to her office earlier today.

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If we accept this model for the regulator in this paving Bill, we are pre-empting the scope of action by Parliament when it comes to debate the provisions of the communications Bill itself. We ought to be aware of that before we consider the Bill and this amendment.

When I discussed the Bill briefly with the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, earlier this summer, I said that I believed that it would be necessary for me to put down several probing amendments. One of those is the technical amendment before the Committee today.

Will the Minister confirm that Ofcom will be a statutory corporation, an entity separate from the Government; in other words, an individual? The Bill does not state that clearly despite the reference at page one, line two to Ofcom as "a body corporate". I agree with the Government that it would be appropriate for Ofcom to be constituted as a statutory corporation. As I understand it, all existing regulators, save for the Radio Authority, are bodies corporate. In many ways the structure of Ofcom proposed in the Bill resembles a company with a board made up of executive and non-executive members with objectives and aims to pursue. It is intriguing to note that in drafting the Bill the Government have used another phrase for non-executive directors; that is, "non-staff members". Further amendments seek to elicit the reason for that.

Ofcom will not resemble anything like the existing regulators; nor is it a government department. With a changing communications industry the regulator needs of all things to be up-to-date, efficient and perhaps even revolutionary in the way it is organised. We need to come to it afresh, not just simply absorb the old regulators into Ofcom as pieces of a jigsaw. Ofcom must be more than the sum of its component parts.

If Ofcom resembles a modern day company, should it be set up as a company and established in accordance with the Companies Act? That is a technical question to which I seek a government response on the record. Of course, I appreciate that Ofcom will not have share capital and its liabilities should remain with the Government in the event of its dissolution. The danger is that it may resemble an old-style nationalised company which is indirectly controlled by the Government, or, indeed, perhaps even a quango. There are implications here for the perceived independence of Ofcom as a powerful regulator.

The industry has repeatedly pointed out to myself and my noble friends that it is concerned that the new body should not operate as a quango with the great and the good running it but should be very much a business-like body. That is the industry's perception of quangos. There is something worrying about the way in which we use non-departmental government bodies.

We should keep in mind the point that statutory corporations, by virtue of their legal status, have limited capacity. They can only do what their governing legislation authorises them to do. That places greater emphasis on the need to ensure that this particular regulator has the necessary flexibility that is

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intended for it while at the same time avoiding the adoption of functions, and later of powers, under the terms of the communications Bill, that may be so sweeping as to alarm the sectors which Ofcom is intended to regulate.

The amendment seeks to ensure simply that Ofcom is properly constituted in accordance with the Bill and will only have functions that relate to the regulatory powers it will receive when the main communications Bill becomes law. I beg to move.

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