Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, perhaps I should have mentioned that ExCeL, on whose board the noble Lord, Lord King, sits, may well be one of the venues used for a London Olympics for badminton and 10 or 12 other Olympic sports. I hope that the noble Lord welcomes that.

I do not have anything to add to what I have said about Crossrail, but I accept the importance of trying to create an improved infrastructure and regeneration through this bid. I believe that a very large area of east London, which has been a pretty miserable brownfield site for a very long time, will be greatly improved as a result of the investment that the bid will lead to.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, does the Minister feel that London will have the graciousness and humility to seek at least a little advice from Manchester on how to do these things successfully? In particular, can she give an assurance that those who were involved in the organisation of those games are already associated with what is happening over the London bid?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am all in favour of both graciousness and humility. Speaking as a Londoner, we should never be anything other than gracious and we should certainly take into account the successes of other cities around the country. As I said

15 May 2003 : Column 381

in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, Manchester and the Commonwealth Games was an object lesson on how to go about a project of this sort. We are certainly involving people who were key to that enormous success and will get advice from them in pursuing the London bid.

Lord Monson: My Lords, may I press the noble Baroness further on the prospective council tax increase if the bid is successful? Is the 2.2 per cent increase for band D payers that she mentioned a one-off, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked, or will it be levied year after year over a number of years?

On a totally different note, will small-bore pistol shooting once again be permitted, or will that event have to take place on the Isle of Man or even on the continent?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the extra council tax will be levied each year—it is not just a one-off, one-year requirement. But, as I said earlier, there will be huge benefits to London from hosting the Olympics. I did not mention tourism, for example. It will help people in a range of industries and will benefit their employees as well as people who run tourist attractions of one kind or another. I cannot answer the noble Lord's question on small-bore pistols. I am extremely sorry about that; I shall write to him.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am delighted to speak for Hackney on this occasion, because I am Lord Clinton-Davis of Hackney. Will my noble friend tell the House what discussions are envisaged between the Government and the London borough of Hackney regarding this matter? Is she aware that transport links as far as Hackney is concerned are absolutely appalling?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my noble friend is Lord Clinton-Davis of Hackney; I am Baroness Blackstone of Stoke Newington, which is part of the London borough of Hackney, so I share his interest. I accept that a great deal needs to be done to improve transport links from some parts of Hackney to the rest of London, but a successful Olympic bid would achieve just that. I am sure that those who are involved in taking this bid further will be having extensive talks with not just the GLA but all the London boroughs involved.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I join in the general rejoicing, but as chair of the largest of the good cause lottery distributors, your Lordships will perhaps understand that I am a little less enthusiastic about the proposal, particularly in view of what my noble friend said about the lessening of the lottery receipts. Can she give a further assurance that in the understandable commitment to winning which goes with the Olympic Games or even a bid for the Olympic Games, the Government will not lose sight of the extremely important part which school and community sport

15 May 2003 : Column 382

play in society and the huge contribution being made by the New Opportunities Fund, together with my colleagues in Sport England?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we remain committed to the development of grass-roots sport. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, our decision to bid to host the games will not divert any of our attention or our funding away from this terribly important area. I hope that my noble friend will reassure others with whom I know she is in touch who benefit from lottery funding for community sports facilities that the Government are absolutely committed to making sure that all young people and, indeed, all adults who want to participate in sport are able to do so and that the facilities for them are improved.

Communications Bill

4.10 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 16 [Membership etc. of the Consumer Panel]:

Baroness Wilcox moved Amendment No. 71:

    Page 18, line 19, leave out from "by" to end of line 22 and insert "the Secretary of State, acting with the advice of OFCOM, and shall comprise a chairman and such other members as the Secretary of State may determine"

The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 71, 73, and 75 are intended to secure the independence of the consumer panel. They do this by making the Secretary of State responsible for making appointments to the panel, while Ofcom plays only an advisory role. That is in contrast to the Bill as it currently stands, whereby Ofcom appoints the members of the consumer panel and the Secretary of State is able to perform only a blocking role.

The amendment has the support of the National Consumer Council, which points out that in order to do its job properly and be able to fight the corner for consumers, the consumer panel must be truly independent of Ofcom. There can be no doubt that circumstances will arise when the opinions of the consumer panel and Ofcom are at odds with each other. In that event, it is vital that proper procedure is followed, without any underlying pressures, whether intended or not, as a result of the role Ofcom plays in appointing the consumer panel.

This debate is highly revealing about how Her Majesty's Government see the relationship between Ofcom and the consumer panel. Will the Minister explain whether the Government want the consumer panel to be independent of Ofcom? If not, how can the consumer panel be expected to do its job properly? If so, do the Government agree that an important way to secure this independence would be to remove Ofcom's power to play such a central role in the appointment of the consumer panel?

15 May 2003 : Column 383

We received no explanation from Dr Kim Howells on the issue during Committee stage in another place, so I am extremely keen to hear the Minister's response now. I beg to move.

Lord Borrie: Clearly, there is no point in having a consumer panel at all unless it is independent of both government and Ofcom. Nor is there any point in having a consumer panel unless it is widely representative, although I do not favour members being representative of any particular consumer group or organisation, let alone the risk of being mandated by them.

The consumer panel is intended to be an advisory body. I feel sure that Ofcom would see no point in having a body that was in any way a replica of itself or not independent of itself. Its value as an advisory body surely depends on its members being free spirits, forthright and outspoken. It also needs to be well resourced, so as to act as an adequate counterweight to the advice that will undoubtedly come on so many matters from well-heeled and well-resourced parts of the corporate sector.

The amendment has extremely good intentions. It emphasises that the consumer panel should be independent of Ofcom, but I do not believe it to be necessary. It is unnecessary that the Secretary of State rather than Ofcom should make the appointments. Indeed, if the Secretary of State did make the appointments, it might elevate the role of the consumer panel in the minds of the public as if it were a rival to Ofcom, rather than an advisory body. It is Ofcom that in so many circumstances will have to judge the public interest. It is right that appointments to the consumer panel should be made by Ofcom, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State.

Viscount Falkland: I rise to support many of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and, particularly, the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, about the appointment by Ofcom. We on these Benches support that view absolutely.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is entirely right in what she said at the very beginning. The crucial point is the independence of the panel. I shall set out a number of ways in which that is achieved, of which the appointments process is only one part—but even that is not the whole story.

First, the panel is a legally separate unincorporated body, which will be operationally independent of Ofcom. Secondly, Ofcom is required to ensure that the consumer panel is able to fulfil its remit effectively—in other words, that the resources will be there for it. Thirdly, the consumer panel will be able to formulate its annual work plan and will be responsible for allocating its own resources. Fourthly, we expect that the consumer panel will have a memorandum of understanding with Ofcom, which will set out the relationship with sufficient clarity.

15 May 2003 : Column 384

Fifthly, we believe it important that the panel should report independently on its work, and I have already indicated my support for a report along the lines of that which is proposed in Amendment No. 80. We are considering an amendment to the Bill to give that effect. Sixthly, we have included provisions in the Bill for the consumer panel to establish its own advisory committee and to determine its procedures. The seventh item in the package is that we have provided that no member or employee of Ofcom can be a member of the consumer panel. Finally, Ofcom must explain the reasons why it might not accept the advice given to it by the consumer panel.

Added to all of that is the very considerable safeguard of appointments to, and removals from, the panel requiring the approval of the Secretary of State. The amendments would make the Secretary of State directly responsible for appointments to the panel, which would alter the whole dynamic of the relationship that we want between Ofcom and the consumer panel. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, was too polite to say so, but some people believe that the Secretary of State will merely rubber stamp the appointments. That is not my experience of the way in which Secretaries of State work.

There are two possible models from previous experience. The first is that of Postwatch or Energywatch. We are not saying that those bodies are not right for their own sector, but they have a different role from the Ofcom consumer panel. After all, they have a particular responsibility for dealing with complaints from consumers, which is not the role of the consumer panel.

We believe it to be much more appropriate to consider the other model, the Financial Services Authority consumer panel, which is appointed by the Financial Services Authority with the approval of the Secretary of State. That model is working well, and is more analogous to the model that we want for the consumer panel to Ofcom. We hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that that is the correct relationship, as the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, indicated from his own experience.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page