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Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I support these amendments, but of course I would because we put them down in Committee. I am rather tempted to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Randall of St Budeaux, to the Bill, albeit at a rather late stage. As chairman of

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a project linked to the Small Business Bureau, he is obviously very keen to support the interests of small businesses.

This is an issue we have spoken to at earlier stages of the Bill. It is an important issue and we very much hope that the Government will be able to respond positively to these amendments today.

6 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is certainly the case that we have discussed these amendments previously and it is a little late in the Bill for such fundamental concepts to re-emerge. We did not have the opportunity of considering them at the Report stage. I will do my best to reply to my noble friend's long list of amendments.

I shall take Amendments Nos. 10 to 16 together, as their combined effect would be to make the Secretary of State responsible for appointing and removing the members of the consumer panel. As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, recalled, we discussed this in Committee in response to her amendments. We explained at that time why it was not our intention that appointments to the consumer panel should be made by the Secretary of State and nothing has changed since to alter our view.

There are two possible models which might be followed in establishing the consumer panel. The first is the approach adopted in the case of Energy Watch and Post Watch—and the other is that followed by the Financial Services Authority.

Both Energy Watch and Post Watch were established as separate non-departmental public bodies with a separate legal identity and their own secretariats and staff. They each have significant complaint handling responsibilities which the Ofcom consumer panel will not have. As separate bodies, it is appropriate that the appointments to those bodies should be made by the Secretary of State.

The model we have followed for establishing the consumer panel is that adopted for the Financial Services Authority where, although the members are appointed by the FSA, albeit with the chairman's appointment subject to the approval of the Treasury, the panel is still able to operate perfectly independently of the FSA itself. We believe this provides a more appropriate model for Ofcom and have presented our arguments to the House on previous occasions.

We have also put in place a number of measures designed to ensure that the panel is able to work independently. These include the consumer panel being a legally separate unincorporated body and operationally independent from Ofcom; the panel being able to formulate its annual work plan and be responsible for allocating its own resources; providing the panel with the power to establish its own advisory committees and to determine its procedures; ensuring that no member or employee of Ofcom is able to be a member of the consumer panel; and that Ofcom must explain the reasons why it might not accept the advice given to it by the panel. On the second day of Report, we moved a government amendment to require the

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consumer panel to publish an annual report, adding an extra element of transparency and accountability to the panel's work. When taken together, we believe that the whole package will ensure that the consumer panel will be able to act as an effective, independent voice for consumers.

Amendment No. 9 suggests that as well as domestic consumers, the remit of the consumer panel covers small businesses of no more than 10 employees because the experiences of these businesses are similar to the experiences of domestic consumers in the markets for communications networks and services. Businesses of this size may lack the resources and expertise to tackle any communications problems they may experience and they will have particular issues as consumers on which the consumer panel will be able to advise Ofcom.

We have excluded communications providers and persons supplying associated facilities—even if they have no more than 10 employees—because they may have different needs as consumers that would not fit with the tight focus of the panel. I know that some members of the small business community have expressed concern that this exclusion will cover many small IT businesses, but let me assure the House that this is just not the case. The definitions of "communications provider" and associated facilities are set out in Clauses 402 and 30 respectively.

Amendment No. 17 would in its first part effectively create the consumer panel as some kind of "watchdog" for Ofcom, monitoring it and reporting on what it has been doing. This is not the role we want to create for the panel. We have made clear during the passage of the Bill that we want to ensure that the consumer panel acts as the independent voice of consumers. I indicated today the way in which that has been established in the Bill. The phrase "a critical friend" has often been used, but sums up nicely the way we envisage the consumer panel operating by working closely with Ofcom in order to provide it with expert advice.

The remaining parts of Amendment No. 17 relate to the power of the consumer panel to establish committees and would, in effect, require the panel to establish advisory bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and one for small businesses. We have had debates on these issues, too, during the passage of the Bill. One of the measures we have included to ensure the independence of the consumer panel is the power for it to determine what committees it feels are necessary in order to provide advice about its functions. We did so in response to the recommendation from the pre-legislative scrutiny committee.

Finally, I turn to Amendments Nos. 18 and 19, which would require the consumer panel to make arrangements for regulating its own procedures and those of any committees it establishes. The Bill as it stands allows the panel to make such arrangements as it sees fit. Given what I have already said about not wishing to constrain the independence of the panel unnecessarily, I cannot imagine that the consumer

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panel would not want to make proper arrangements. It would certainly make its operation needlessly difficult if it did not.

In the light of those assurances—and I have no doubt that my noble friend has had a chance to study our previous debates on these issues—I hope he will feel we have aired the issues sufficiently and will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Randall of St Budeaux: My Lords, I am absolutely dumb struck by the comments I have just heard from my noble friend. I beg leave not to test the opinion of the House.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 [Membership etc. of the Consumer Panel]:

[Amendments Nos. 10 to 16 not moved.]

Clause 18 [Committees and other procedure of the Consumer Panel]:

[Amendments Nos. 17 to 19 not moved.]

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 20:

    After Clause 19, insert the following new clause—

(1) It shall be the duty of OFCOM, in accordance with the following provisions of this section, to exercise their powers under paragraph 14 of the Schedule to the Office of Communications Act 2002 (c. 11) (committees of OFCOM) to establish and maintain a committee for each of the following parts of the United Kingdom—
(a) England;
(b) Wales;
(c) Scotland; and
(d) Northern Ireland.
(2) Each committee shall consist of—
(a) a chairman appointed by OFCOM; and
(b) such number of other members appointed by OFCOM as OFCOM think fit.
(3) In appointing a person in accordance with this section to be a member of a committee, OFCOM must have regard to the desirability of ensuring that the person appointed is able to represent the interests and opinions, in relation to communications matters, of persons living in the part of the United Kingdom for which the committee has been established.
(4) The function of each committee shall be to provide advice to OFCOM (including other committees established by OFCOM) about the interests and opinions, in relation to communications matters, of persons living in the part of the United Kingdom for which the committee has been established.
(5) A committee established under this section may also, at the request of the Consumer Panel, provide advice about those interests and opinions to the Consumer Panel.
(6) The consent of OFCOM is required for the giving of advice under subsection (5).
(7) In this section "communications matters" has the same meaning as in section 3."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will recall that in responding to an amendment tabled at the Report stage by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, we recognised the anxieties the nations have expressed that their voices should be heard within Ofcom. We therefore agreed to

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consider tabling a government amendment to ensure that Ofcom should establish advisory committees for each of the nations.

Amendment No. 20 would place Ofcom under a duty to establish and maintain committees for each of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in order to provide Ofcom with advice about the interests and opinions of people living in the respective nations in relation to communications matters.

It will be for Ofcom to appoint the chairman of each committee and such numbers of other members as Ofcom thinks appropriate. In doing so, Ofcom would need to have regard to the need to ensure that the people appointed to each national advisory committee are able to represent the interests and opinions of those living in the relevant part of the United Kingdom in relation to communication matters.

The national advisory committees would be able to provide advice to other committees established by Ofcom, including the content board. In view of the independent status of the consumer panel, it would of course be possible for the panel to establish its own national committees should it so wish. However, we have also made provision that it would be possible for the national advisory committees to provide advice to the consumer panel should the panel request such advice and Ofcom consents.

Also at the Report stage we considered two amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that would put a requirement for a disabled and elderly person's advisory committee on the face of the Bill. One amendment required Ofcom to establish and maintain an advisory committee on the interests of disabled and elderly people and the other required the consumer panel to do so.

Consistent with our approach on the advisory committees for the nations and regions that I have just set out, Amendment No. 21 will require Ofcom to establish and maintain a committee to advise it on the interests of disabled people and of elderly people across its remit.

As I have said, we do not want to get embroiled in the detail of Ofcom's organisational structure—it must have the flexibility to make operational decisions without being tied into complex statutory requirements. For this reason, we have kept the clause simple and avoided over-prescription. We have also allowed the same flexibility that the national committees have to advise the consumer panel, if they request it and with Ofcom's consent.

I set out in some detail in Committee and again at Report the powers which underpin the panel's independence and self-determination. This is why we have not taken forward the second amendment that was tabled at Report which would require the consumer panel to establish a committee for disabled and elderly people. Our amendment does not preclude

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the panel from establishing such a committee and it paves the way for an element of joined-up working if that is what the panel and Ofcom desire. I beg to move.

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