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Lord Dubs: My Lords, there is a good case for setting up an independent procedure for dealing with complaints, whether about fairness and privacy or about standards. That is indisputable.

However, if I understand the amendment correctly, it is clearly not for the Bill that is before the House, but for the forthcoming communications Bill. So it must be a probing amendment. The amendment refers to an "independent communications ombudsman service". Presumably that can only mean a service that is independent of Ofcom. The suggestion is that the functions which three of the existing regulators presently have—namely, the Radio Authority, the ITC and the BSC—should stay in the main independent of Ofcom. So in a sense this drives a coach and horses through the whole concept of Ofcom.

I understand that it is on the way to being accepted that Ofcom should have within its structure a content committee consisting in the main of lay persons who would carry on these functions in the way described by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. The committee would examine these matters and apply the mind of lay people, either in its quasi-judicial sense of dealing with fairness and privacy or in the slightly less quasi-judicial sense of dealing with standards. If that principle is embedded in

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the new Ofcom, it would achieve all the aims that the noble Lord has put forward in his amendment, without setting up a separate body.

The problem with separate bodies is that citizens and consumers will be confused as to where to take a complaint. We need absolute clarity as to what are the tasks of the new Ofcom, so that those with complaints know where to go. I fear that the amendment introduces a confusion factor that will not be helpful. I hope the noble Lord will accept that point. I hope that he will accept also that, provided that the new Ofcom has a content committee with lay members, we shall be achieving what he wants to achieve through a different, less clear structure.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I declare an interest, as I did yesterday in the debate on the financial services, as chairman of the building societies' ombudsman council. I concur with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, about the role of ombudsmen in that industry.

I support my noble friend Lord Pilkington in bringing this matter forward at this particular juncture in the legislative proceedings. I appreciate that the Government may say, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has, that this is a matter for the subsequent Bill. I am aware that Sam Rayburn—Speaker of the House of Representatives when Lyndon Johnson, his great Texan ally, was president—said that the three wisest words in the English language were, "Wait a minute". However, it is a British characteristic always to think of reasons for delaying doing something. Therefore, it is worth occasionally examining whether delay is sensible.

The issue raised by my noble friend seems to me to be entirely free-standing. It seems capable of being considered on its own merits. Yesterday, I said that, as and when the financial ombudsman service comes into force on 1st December, it will be extremely important for ombudsmen to remain ombudsmen and not become regulators. In the context of remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the fact that the ombudsman service was set up under the Financial Services and Markets Act—it was not a free-standing issue—it is sensible to examine the matter independently and make it less likely that regulation will creep in to the ombudsman role. If conventional wisdom regards this as a probing amendment—my noble friend is the best judge, since none of us can know what is in the minds of others—then so be it. But I would remark gently that a paving Bill is sometimes no bad place to have a paving argument.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to consider this matter. I very much hope that he will table amendments to the main communications Bill next year to give effect to the objective behind his amendment. However, I echo the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Brooke. A paving Bill is no mean place for a paving argument.

My noble friend's amendment allows us to return to the heart of so many of the debates that we had in Committee. The paving Bill is not quite the

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"inoffensive skeleton" that the Government present to us. It sets up a body which as yet has no regulatory powers; and we all accept that. So there is currently no work that an ombudsman may do. But we simply do not know how long the stage one embryonic Ofcom will operate before it develops into stage two, when the chairman and chief executive will be appointed, and into stage three, when powers are transferred to it under the main communications Bill. This is an organic structure beginning from day one when the Bill leaves another place.

I appreciate, like my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that the Minister may give a rather dusty answer and say that the amendment is more suited to the communications Bill than to this one. However, I wonder whether that is the case. There is a sound argument for my noble friend bringing forward the amendment at this stage and I support it.

5 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall indeed give a dusty answer. Having given dusty answers so often during our proceedings, I reread Meredith's Modern Love, whence the phrase "dusty answer" came. I found that the phrase was preceded by the line:

    "That fatal knife, deep questioning, which probes to endless dole".

I suspect that we are suffering from that fatal knife, deep questioning.

The amendment would effectively require Ofcom to establish an independent communications ombudsman service. I have emphasised that the Government want to safeguard the interests of citizens and consumers. That includes those who are portrayed in the communications media, where their individual rights may be in question.

The White Paper made it clear that:

    "OFCOM will also consider complaints of unfair treatment or unwarranted infringement of privacy in licensed broadcast services, where no other legal remedy is being pursued."

I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, that the White Paper also covers the need for independent research, to which she referred, and for regulation on grounds of taste and decency.

The amendment is intended to ensure the continuation of an important aspect of the work carried out by the Broadcasting Standards Commission: its role in ensuring that those appearing on electronic media have a proper opportunity to have any complaint of unfair treatment or the unwarranted infringement of their privacy considered by an independent body that can come to an adjudication. That is a valuable function in our society; it has a beneficial effect in encouraging broadcasters generally to behave responsibly when portraying individual members of the public. That has been the role of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, both of which have been represented in the debate.

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I can give the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, the main assurance that he seeks. We propose to bring that function within Ofcom, which will reduce the risk of overlap and confusion about the responsibilities of different regulators, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred. It will also ensure—this will be important to the noble Lord in the light of what he said about his experiences—that the greater resources combined under Ofcom can be used to defend its decisions. That will give greater confidence to members of the public unfairly attacked by broadcasters that its decisions can, if necessary, be properly defended in the courts.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, raised the issue of conflict of interest, suggesting that it could arise between the regulatory and licensing functions of Ofcom and those that we are now discussing. I agree, that is possible, so in the main communications Bill we shall have to structure Ofcom to guard against such a conflict of interest.

We now come to the dusty answer. The Bill creates a small, focused body without regulatory functions. It will be for the main communications Bill to elaborate the eventual regulatory and other functions of Ofcom, including its role in considering independently of broadcasters any complaints of individual unfairness or unwarranted infringement of privacy, as proposed in the White Paper. That could be done by a content board, as proposed by the Towers Perrin report. It could be done in various ways, but we should not prejudge them now.

I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, that we are discussing not delay but doing things in their proper place. This is a skeleton Bill which will set up a body without regulatory functions. It is appropriate for the main Bill, which will cover all the regulatory aspects, to provide for that as well. However, we have the greatest sympathy for the arguments put forward, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. This is a probing amendment, I shall not be taking noble Lords through the Lobby tonight. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.

I should like to underline the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie: it is possible to have an independent ombudsman within an overall organisation. We do not have to go the way that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, suggests and keep the existing regulators.

The Minister said, "where no other legal remedy is being pursued". There may be trouble about that. When the Broadcasting Complaints Commission was set up, it was decided that it could not say that: one cannot deprive a citizen of the right to go to court. If we try to protect Ofcom against people subsequently seeking legal remedies, we may have trouble with the courts and human rights. We must be careful about the wording.

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It is crucial that there is independence and no conflict of interest. Therefore, officials must not be involved. There must be either an independent ombudsman—a lawyer-type role—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, suggests, lay people, although they must be prepared. I do not know what was the streamlining to which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, referred, but a good deal of work may be involved. Such work certainly governed a large amount of my time.

I agree with the Minister that there will be more resources, which such organisations certainly need. I am grateful for the Minister's reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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