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Lord Crickhowell: I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 61 and 93, to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, referred, and which stand in my name and that of other noble Lords who are members of the Joint Committee. They are grouped with Amendments Nos. 27 and 27A but go further than establishing a link with the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment No. 61 would establish consultative councils for matters within the responsibility of the board of Ofcom in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and each region of England covered by a regional Channel 3 licensee. The Joint Committee, at paragraph 56 on page 20 of its report, refers to the Bill's requirement that four members of the content board be appointed to represent the interests and opinions of people living in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The committee referred to what it described as,
It must be understood that the needs of people in different parts of the United Kingdom are strikingly different. I am perhaps in a better position than almost anyone to comment, because I was chairman of the one licence-holder whose licence covered two separate regionsWales and the west of England. We had to organise entirely different set-ups in Cardiff and Bristol. Welsh viewers wanted completely different kinds of programmes from those wanted by viewers in the west of England. The problems that we had to deal with in each case were entirely different.
The ITC, in anticipation of Ofcom's role, has been developing its existing viewer consultative councils in the nations and regions, with more representative content panels able to inform the content board about interests particular to the different parts of the United Kingdom. The ITC also saw merit in the establishment of streamline councils in the nations and regions to be chaired by the relevant members of the content board in providing a link to the devolved administrations.
Against that background, the Joint Committee welcomed the proposal for national and regional councils reporting to the content board through the designated national members. We recommended that formal provision for their establishment be made on the face of the Bill. We further recommended that, in establishing such councils, Ofcom be required to have regard to the views of relevant devolved institutions. We also recommended that Ofcom be required to include in its annual report accounts of its activities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is the point covered by the second of my amendments.
The Government responded that it was all a thoroughly good idea but it should be left to Ofcom. That is the reply that we have heard again and again from the Benches opposite today. But the Joint Committee believed that the issue should be included on the face of the Bill because of the importance attached to it in the regions and nations concerned. If the Government think it is a good idea, there can be no strong reason in principle why they should object to its inclusion in the Bill. It is a little hard to see why they should reject the proposition, particularly when it is so strongly supported by the National Assembly for Wales, among others, and other public bodies.
The debate on the subject in the Standing Committee in another place was unsatisfactory for two reasons. All the relevant amendments were moved by Mr Simon Thomas, the Plaid Cymru Member for Ceredigion. The merits of the amendments were then lost in a welter of politically charged accusations that they were all about extending devolution. The charge was completely unfair, but the Labour members could not resist playing politics with some sensible, practical proposals.
Mr Thomas also played into his critics' hands by tabling a new clause that probably went too far. It suggested that the Secretary of State should appoint the committee members after seeking nominations from the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales, and that the committee should then issue recommendations, not just on content issues to the content board, but on all the activities of Ofcom with their respective regions. The Minister, Dr Howells, in responding to the raft of amendments, concentrated almost entirely on that flawed clause. The difficulty is that, if one tables a number of amendments, skilful Ministers reply to one that is weak and pass over all the others that might have greater merit. That is exactly what happened on that occasion.
On the question of appointments, the Minister produced what I think is one of the most tortuous solutions that I have ever seen devised by a Minister. He said that he could not see any reason for the formal involvement of the devolved Scottish Parliament or Assemblies, and added:
I understand that it is always a task in government now to find something for the Secretaries of State to do, but that is a bizarre way of approaching the system of appointment and consulting about them. We ought to do better than that. On that occasion, the Minister produced the argument that we will, no doubt, hear in a moment and say that Ofcom has the power to do everything that is necessary and that no more need be said about it.
As I have made clear, my amendments deal with content issues. Amendment No. 27, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, is wider in scope. It deals with telecommunications matters as well. It has the
At the appropriate moment, I shall move two different amendments, but I will conclude now by saying that I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness. It is correct that Wales should be able to express its interest in and concerns about telecommunications matters, as well as broadcasting issues. I am sure that that goes for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the English regions as well.
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