Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Borrie: The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, whose interventions in matters of this kind I greatly respect and always enjoy, has allowed himself to make a little fun of subsection (6) with its reference to the conflict of duties that may arise. As he is the former member of a government and a former regulator, I would have thought that he would welcome the openness and honesty of subsection (6) in which there is a recognition that conflicts of duty may arise and in which it states that Ofcom shall resolve such conflicts. That seems to me to be an excellent subsection. By the same token clearly, as consumers and as members of the public, we should all expect that Ofcom explains itself when it has the problem of resolving a conflict of duty. Therefore I believe that this is a good amendment.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: In following the noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth and Lord Borrie, I apologise to the Committee for using an

6 May 2003 : Column 1008

illustration that I have used on a previous occasion. I remember discussing the extraordinary kaleidoscope of strategies that were required under the Greater London Authority Bill that the Mayor was charged with setting up. I recall in Committee in another place asking Miss Glenda Jackson, who was the Parliamentary Secretary in charge of the Bill at that time, how differences between the various strategies would be resolved if they were in conflict. In response she made a very long speech at the end of which—it required a degree of textual analysis—she said that they would not conflict because the Bill prevented them from doing so. That is a nice and pious thought. If it was applied to the criminal law, prison numbers would melt at a stroke and penal policy would appear to be a great deal more effective than it had previously been.

The real world is not like that. Priorities must be calibrated. I support my noble friend's worthwhile exploration of this complex dilemma, on which the noble Lords, Lord Thomson and Lord Borrie, have also shed light.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I am emboldened to intervene briefly on some general aspects of this matter. At an earlier stage in the debate I said that realistically it was not likely that in five years' time Ofcom would be reporting jointly to two Secretaries of State. I believe that it is important for the Government to give some thought to the mechanism for reporting. I suggest that there should be a Select Committee of both Houses which would receive a report from Ofcom once a year.

Otherwise, the DCMS and the DTI Select Committees in another place will want them and, I have no doubt, yet another committee. One will find Ofcom executives spending the greater part of the year preparing for hearings in front of several different Select Committees in another place. We need to focus and create one Select Committee. If we think we can create a single Ofcom, we surely can create a single Select Committee. The admirable work done by the committee of scrutiny under my noble friend Lord Puttnam surely is a good way ahead: a joint committee of both Houses, to which Ofcom would report once a year.

Lord Davies of Oldham: This is an interesting debate against the background of a substantial meeting of minds on the issue in another place. The Bill contains government amendments which were tabled in response to pressure from the Opposition with regard to these important issues. Let us be absolutely clear: the Government accept all representations which are made about the necessity for transparency on the part of Ofcom.

Perhaps I may deal with the original point raised by the noble Baroness about how frequently Ofcom will report on its decisions. In its annual report it will seek to identify the major issues which reflect its principles and the decisions which it has taken during the preceding year. It is fairly obvious why we cannot accept an amendment which looks as though every

6 May 2003 : Column 1009

decision should be subject to such a report. If the board meets 10 times a year and there are 12 issues of substance which it debates at each meeting—which makes for a fairly substantial meeting—one would expect those decisions to form the basis of the annual report. As noble Lords have indicated, it is enormously important to all stakeholders and the wider public that full information is available.

However, the board will not concern itself with dozens or hundreds of decisions that Ofcom may be taking with regard to individual small stakeholders which raise no significant issue of principle. The board will not be debating them. Therefore, it would be very odd indeed to suggest that documentation was necessary to detail what might consist of hundreds of cases. Anyone who has been involved in a regulatory authority—and I am grateful for the slight nod of assent from the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell—would appreciate that point. So of course we recognise that the major issues before the board will need to be transparently identified and how Ofcom has reconciled the conflicting interests must be made abundantly clear.

I add also that Ofcom already gives public notes on the deliberations of its meetings. Clearly, issues of substantial principle which the board is considering will not await an annual report and Ofcom will put those into the public domain. So, within that framework, I accept the contention of the noble Baroness that just the annual report would not be sufficient because of the inevitable factor of delay.

I turn to the more general issue first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. It caused me to shudder in my seat when he talked a little about the tectonic plates of two great ministries colliding. We do not see earthquakes ahead. We rather belong to an age of joined-up government where we expect our two departments to work in mutual amity and consideration. In fact that mutual amity, consideration and forethought is present in the Bill. That is why we all enjoy a broad consensual perspective on the merits of this Bill now that it has emerged from another place and is before your Lordships.

Of course there will be differences which will need to be identified. At present, I have no comment to make on the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Gordon. I recognise what he said. I shall certainly look at the matter, although I must say that it is for Parliament to make a decision on that issue rather than the executive. However, I recognise the fact that inevitably with a body of this kind, with its very substantial interests, there will be widespread interest in both Houses of Parliament with different perspectives on how to respond.

In general terms, I hope that I have given the obvious assurances that we think the Bill was improved in another place as a result of Opposition arguments and amendments, that led us to change this clause, to clarify the issues. I am a little saddened at the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, that perhaps the phraseology is a little bland. I thought that it was a masterpiece of draftsmanship and expressed

6 May 2003 : Column 1010

the aspirations of all good people and true, and even Members of the Committee, in relation to the issues. Of course the objective is for this body to be transparent and open. Issues of principle must be before the public and stakeholders, otherwise they cannot organise themselves in response to these important issues.

I add that the Bill's approach reflects the recommendation from the joint scrutiny committee, which also accepts that requiring Ofcom to explain every decision by reference to its general duties would be unduly onerous. I hope that I have given assurances to the Committee. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able, on that basis, to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister for his explanation and for taking the trouble to answer my two questions which I still ask. First: what does the Minister envisage will happen between times? I think the answer I received was that he did not really envisage anything, but he hoped that the regulator will choose to report. My second question was: what about particularly difficult or controversial cases? That did not cover every decision but was for particularly difficult or controversial cases. However, as the Minister said, this is an aspiration. It seems that the Government are becoming more and more aspirational by the day. Hopes and aspirations are wonderful things, but they are not always met.

I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, my noble friend Lord Crickhowell and the noble Lord, Lord Borrie—whom I know well from his days as the Director-General of the Office of Fair Trading, and I was very interested that he supported the amendment—to my noble friend Lord Brooke and to the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, who brought forward a very interesting idea.

I said that this was a probing amendment. So for the moment I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff moved Amendment No. 27:

    Page 4, line 38, at end insert—

    ( ) In performing their duties under this section OFCOM shall have a duty to consult the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly over matters of specific concern, respectively to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland."

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak to Amendment No. 27, but my remarks may also be relevant to the other amendments in the group. Telecommunications and broadcasting are not devolved; they are a UK-wide industry subject to EU directives, regulation of frequencies, internal market regulation, and so on. But there are some specific issues that are pertinent to Wales which, I believe, are also pertinent to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Perhaps I may address some issues for Wales.

6 May 2003 : Column 1011

BBC Wales, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru, S4C, HTV and the independent radio channels are all important broadcasters focused specifically on Wales, the people of Wales and their needs. However, because of the topography, the roll-out of cable is restricted to south Wales and in large areas of Wales there is no mobile telephony coverage at all. Within Wales, the population is diverse. There are those who have Welsh as their first language; those who have English as their first language; some who have no Welsh at all. There is also a marked difference between the populations and their needs between the north and the south; the rural and the urban areas. Even within the urban areas, there are the Welsh Valleys.

The proposal for an Ofcom office in Wales is to be welcomed, as is that for a Welsh representative on the content board, but that is not enough. We need a full consumer panel for Wales to cover the issues specifically relating to Wales, and to work with the Welsh Assembly government to meet the specific needs of Wales. The Welsh Assembly government does not have an executive role, but it must be consulted under the Bill through the statutory routes.

The Welsh Assembly government has an advisory group to a Minister, and the report of that group to the Minister for Culture, Sport and the Welsh Language was laid before the Welsh Assembly government on 27th March 2003 and submitted to the noble Lord, Lord Currie, the chairman of Ofcom, on 3rd April 2003. The report makes a recommendation entirely compatible with the amendment: the preferred option in the recommendation. I cite the report. There were two options for an advisory structure. Option 1 was,

    "That an Ofcom Wales Communications Council should be established to advise and assist the executive team in Wales"—

That was the option strongly endorsed. The other option, which was not, was,

    "That no advisory structure be created by Ofcom, and that the executive team in Wales should rely instead on a structured relationship with the National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government".

My amendment is entirely compatible with the recommendation in option 1. The amendment would acknowledge the interests of devolved bodies in matters that concern the economic and cultural development of devolved government not only in Wales, but, I suggest, in the other devolved governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 27, Amendment No. 27A:

    Line 5, at end insert "and give due consideration to representations made by the National Assembly for Wales"

The noble Lord said: Of course I support the duty to consult set out in Amendment No. 27, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. Amendment No. 27A would add a specific duty to give due consideration to representations made by the National Assembly. It is one thing for Ofcom to consult the

6 May 2003 : Column 1012

National Assembly; it is another for the Assembly to take the initiative by advancing concerns to Ofcom on which it wants Ofcom's consideration.

For example, on the first day in Committee, we were discussing jobs and creativity. One cannot imagine Ofcom picking up the telephone to ask, "How are things going with the creative companies in Caernarfon?" Those are matters of jobs—employment—that one would imagine the National Assembly would be anxious to take up with Ofcom in due course.

A proposal has been made that there should be concordats between Ofcom and the Secretary of State's office. That is unsatisfactory; that is not consultation with the elected representatives of the National Assembly. Although broadcasting is not a devolved matter, the National Assembly has and will continue to have an immediate interest in how a broadcaster serves the needs of the people of Wales. No doubt, following his answer on a previous amendment, the Minister will point to Clause 3(3)(l), which states that Ofcom must have regard to,

    "the different interests of persons in the different parts of the United Kingdom and of those living in rural and in urban areas".

But that is not enough. The decision was taken that there should be no national representatives on the board of Ofcom. There is no advocate for specific Welsh issues on that board, which, we have just been told, meets 10 times a year and which therefore will not have time to consider such matters in detail. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, the provision of one member on the consumer and content panels is by no means satisfactory.

The fact is that Wales, like Scotland and Northern Ireland, has a democratic, policy-making forum that both creates and implements public policy in many areas in which Ofcom will also have responsibility. Mutual understanding and agreement will require close co-operation. That is a structural issue, not a cosmetic exercise. It is essential that Ofcom continually recognises that the cultural diversity of the United Kingdom must be reflected on our screens and through our radios.

Perhaps I may speak to Amendment No. 61, which has been proposed by a cross-party group. The proposed new clause sets out a statutory duty to establish consultative councils with membership determined only after the views of the National Assembly and the equivalent Scottish and Northern Irish bodies have been ascertained. That follows the recommendations made to the National Assembly, as the noble Baroness pointed out. If it is unacceptable to have a consultative council, we propose Amendments Nos. 59 and 78, which give specific authority for the board to establish committees and panels under Clause 12(5), which will have a similar effect. I shall speak briefly to Amendment No. 93, which would place a specific obligation on Ofcom to publish an annual report on its activities in Wales.

I am sure that the Government will accept that the amendments are intended to be helpful and to clarify the role of Ofcom and its subsidiary committees. I have

6 May 2003 : Column 1013

no doubt that Ofcom will try to establish a good and effective working relationship with the National Assembly, but that should not be voluntary—a matter of goodwill that can be revoked at any time. If ownership is to be thrown to the four winds, it is essential that the regulators are properly informed and given the resources, advice and tools to maintain the quality of regional broadcasting.

A London-centric or multinational corporation will not understand the specific needs of our unique communications ecology in Wales. It will be tempted to cut down on hours and investment in Welsh programming and production. The amendments would assure that that will not happen.

The primary purpose of the Bill ought not to be to bow the knee to global institutions and corporations but to enrich and inspire the lives of ordinary people—in Wales as in the rest of the United Kingdom. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page