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Industrial Development (Financial Assistance) Bill

Read a third time and passed.

Communications Bill

4.30 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 again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

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

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Lockwood) in the Chair.]

Clause 3 [General duties of OFCOM]:

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 16:

"( ) In subsection (2)(c) to (f), "television and radio services" includes all television and radio services transmitted directly to electronic communications devices via cable, satellite or dial-up modem."

The noble Lord said: I apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lord Northesk. Unfortunately, his transport arrangements were made before the Committee began its very detailed consideration of amendments. He had expected to move these amendments himself on the first day of Committee. He has rather rashly asked if I would act as substitute for him.

It is worth repeating that my noble friend's view is that, although the amendment complements his Amendment No. 12, which was debated on the first day of Committee, it is distinct and merits separate debate. It is a much more general approach to the problem. Although last week's debate strayed into the area of content regulation—for example, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, questioned the feasibility of 9 year-olds accessing Dutch pornographic channels on their 3G telephones—it is questionable whether that provision would bite on the problem, except in so far as such content issues relate to "unwarranted infringements of privacy". This amendment, were it to find favour with the Committee, could have a direct impact. It is the "taste and decency" arm of my noble friend's amendments.

My noble friend's main concern is whether "electronic communications network services" of media enterprises, particularly their web-based activities, fall within the scope of the Bill. We know the official answer to that. As the Minister made clear last week, they do not. The fact that they do not is a deliberate and conscious decision on the part of the Government, despite the Minister's strenuous acknowledgement that it is a problem that must be

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dealt with. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, put it, in the context of the Bill, that represents "a philosophical inconsistency" that generates,

    "a hard position [for the Government] to sustain".—[Official Report, 29/4/03; col. 644.]

If, as the Minister argued, it is right and proper for Ofcom to have oversight of the radio, television and print activities of media enterprises, it follows, therefore, that Ofcom should have oversight of their web-based activities also. As the Minister said,

    "if we have provision in Clause 3(2)(f) in respect of radio and television services, there ought to be comparable provision for electronic communication network service users—there is no doubt about that".—[Official Report, 29/4/03; col. 646.]

In principle, we are in agreement.

All of us agree that the global nature of the Internet—it is that platform that creates the difficulty—makes it desirable that its legislative framework should flow from international agreement. That is the background to the Government's position. But my noble friend will argue that that should not prevent our making appropriate, anticipatory but not pre-emptive provision in the Bill for any forthcoming directives or ensuring that the regulatory intentions of the Bill are construed in a comprehensive and seamless way.

There my noble friend parts company with the Government's position. The Minister appears to imply that it would be appropriate for Ofcom to have oversight of the areas represented in the amendment, but only when the final text of the relevant directives have been enacted by means of separate regulations under the European Communities Act 1972. It is a case of, "Yes, you are right, but not right now and not in this way".

It is my noble friend's conviction that that approach will have the unfortunate effect of creating an unnecessary hiatus, both in terms of time and legislative provision, which will serve only to heap even more confusion on an already difficult situation. That leaves aside the conviction of many, including my noble friend, that the current texts of the relevant directives are, in any event, seriously flawed. To echo my noble friend Lord Brooke, it is a case of passing problems by because they are too difficult.

The way to resolve the "philosophical inconsistency" to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, refers, and to ensure that Ofcom can operate seamlessly across all relevant platforms is to give it some measure of responsibility for the activities carried out by media enterprises via electronic communications networks.

The amendment is fairly anodyne. Quite deliberately, my noble friend seeks to obviate the risk of Ofcom being drawn into areas beyond its remit. That is why it is linked back to the provisions of subsection (2)(c) to (f). It is conceivable, too, that the drafting may be less than perfect—that is not unusual in Back-Bench amendments—by perhaps being a little less technologically neutral than would be desirable, possibly when measured against the Government's

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very welcome intention not to regulate the Internet. But that is a matter of understanding and perception as much as anything else.

The amendment's sole purpose is to give Ofcom the same oversight of the activities of media enterprises on the Net as it is already committed to in respect of television and radio in the normal broadcasting format. There is no attempt to draw the regulator into any of the wider issues of the Internet. What really matters—and it matters a great deal—is a fundamental point of principle to which we think the Government ought to attend. I beg to move.

Lord Northbrook: I support my noble friend's amendment. Following in his footsteps and in those of my noble friends Lord Peyton of Yeovil and Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, I apologise for being unable to participate in the Second Reading debate.

I declare an interest as an amateur "fluffy"—in the parlance used by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, at Second Reading—having recently become chairman of a fledgling independent film production company. I definitely consider myself to be an amateur "techie". As a general observation on the Committee stage so far, I must say that it is remarkable how the first day demonstrated that different sides of the House agreed on many of the amendments made.

Amendment No. 16 continues with the theme included in Amendment No. 12 and addresses the issue by a different route. It would require Ofcom to secure, in carrying out its functions, the same availability, plurality and protection of standards for satellite, cable and internet broadcasts. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said, in reply to my noble friend's amendment, Amendment No. 12, and in reply to Amendment No. 10, moved by my noble friend Lady Buscombe, that there was a,

    "framework of European directives that will govern regulation of communication networks and services".—[Official Report, 29/4/03; col. 631.]

The noble Lord stated:

    "we intend to implement the directive in the UK by means of separate regulations under the European Communities Act 1972".

However, the noble Lord admitted, in reply to my noble friend Lord Northesk, that,

    "We started consultation on 27th March".

It seems that the whole European process could take a long time. The Minister also admitted, when referring to the consultation:

    "we expect a large response".—[Official Report, 29/4/03; col. 647.]

Would it not, therefore, be better to have it all in the Bill, to ensure that there is a level playing field and to provide the consumer with protection for a period of up to two years or more? Why should those forms of communication be outside Ofcom's remit, particularly when they can be received in the UK and often repeat what is broadcast by television and radio services?

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I support the amendment. There was an earlier amendment, to which I spoke, raising concerns about the Internet and

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other forms of electronic communication device. We heard earlier today about spam and various other forms of unpleasant e-mail and faxes that people receive. We have heard that the European directives in the making will be the means by which such things are dealt with. However, like the previous speaker, I am worried that it will take so long. In the mean time, Ofcom will be up and going.

Increasingly, it looks to me—and, perhaps, to other noble Lords—that we will need not just a European but an international directive to cope with some of the problems that we have seen already. Getting that would take even longer. At least with an overview, without total interference with the Internet and so on, Ofcom could have the duty and ability in the long term, if it became necessary—we are told that the Bill is flexible and can adapt to any circumstances—to make some codes of conduct. It is in that spirit that we ought to think seriously about the amendment and support it.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury: The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, explained the amendment well and clearly. If he continues in that vein, we shall not miss the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, as we will get the benefit of his advice indirectly, via the noble Lord.

The amendment would have a wider effect than the limited purposes that the noble Lord described. As I read it, the amendment would oblige Ofcom to secure that, whatever radio and TV services are provided, exactly the same variety should be on offer through the other media. An increasing number of people have broadband in their home, and, on the move, they will connect to the web through wireless LAN hotspots in pubs, airports, hotels, coffee bars and, now, in the whole of Soho, thanks to a bold scheme initiated by Councillor Wilder, of whom we have heard in another context, as the noble Baroness will realise. He has launched a plan for blanket coverage of central Soho, so that parking meter attendants, cleaners, noise inspectors and other officials will be able to link up to the council's IT system from anywhere in Soho. Among other benefits, the council will be able remotely to monitor noise levels around the clock with less expensive equipment and fewer staff.

The use of wireless LAN has been given a huge boost by the advent of integrated 802.11b in the Centrino processor, launched by Intel at the beginning of this year. That means that users who buy Centrino-powered laptops and ultimately, I suppose, an AMD equivalent will be able to connect to the Internet from any one of thousands of hotspots without the use of add-on cards. It would be possible for the whole of the Palace of Westminster to be enabled for wireless LAN, so that Members and staff with new laptops could log on wirelessly from anywhere on the premises.

Users of PCs and laptops will expect to be able to access TV and radio via their PCs or laptops, as they can to a certain extent already. With a broadband connection, one can get quite good video reception on a PC, and one can watch Colin Powell giving a press

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conference in Beirut or Damascus or listen to the wonderful programmes of the BBC World Service without having to tune in at the exact time of the broadcasts. In fact, one can do the same on the Internet with public service broadcasts from other countries, including US PBS, Canadian or Australian broadcasting or Spanish language webcasts live and on demand via Spanish TV, for instance. The breadth and variety of the material accessible via the Internet is already superior to what one gets on conventional TV or radio, and the disparity is likely to become greater as the bandwidth available to the public at large increases. All major broadcasters will have to have a presence on the net, and they would do so without the intervention of Ofcom, which, in any case, deals only with UK broadcasters, a small fraction of those accessible via computers.

I suggest that, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, the amendment has some logic—in so far as, if the clause endows Ofcom with powers over radio and TV services, the powers should extend to all means of delivery of those services—it is unnecessary to extend them to the dial-up modem. That would conflict with the principle that the regulator does not have any say on what is provided on the web. Content is dealt with in paragraphs (e) and (f), and what is provided on cable or satellite is presumably already covered in the same way as for terrestrial radio and TV, and the variety is taken care of by the "must carry" provisions that we shall discuss later in Committee.

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