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Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: I thank the noble Baroness. There was some hesitation about sanctions and movement on human rights because the international
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To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking in conjunction with the Government of France to investigate the delays in rescuing passengers in Eurostar trains which broke down in the Channel Tunnel on 18 and 19 December 2009.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the Government have approved the terms of reference of an independent review, to be chaired jointly by Christopher Garnett and Claude Gressier, to report directly to UK and French Ministers in parallel with Eurostar.
The review will consider all aspects of the Eurostar service disruption, including the breakdowns in the tunnel, contingency planning, and communication with passengers. We expect the review to publish its findings around the end of January and the Secretary of State will make a Statement to Parliament at this point.
Lord Berkeley: I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that the original concession agreement between Eurotunnel and the Government required the company to remove all passengers in a stricken train within 30 minutes? That is rather different from the 17 hours that thousands of passengers suffered with no food, water, light or communication. What comfort can he give the House, especially at this time of snow-this always seems to happen when it is snowing-that the same kind of incident will not happen again?
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, it would be a foolish person who said that such a thing could never happen again. All I can say on that point is that the precise mechanical problem which caused the five trains to break down has now been corrected and services are operating, albeit with a reduced service in the present very bad weather. The question that my noble friend raises about the evacuation time is very important and is one which we shall encourage the
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Lord Bradshaw: The real essence of this is to not refer the matter to some independent commission that will report in so many years' time. Will the Minister ask his colleague, the Secretary of State, to tell us what procedures are going to be put in place within a very short time and rehearsed regularly so that they are robust and not forgotten by the staff?
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: The independent inquiry is not going to take a year to report. We have instructed it to give us the report by the end of January, and there will then be a Statement to Parliament immediately afterwards. It is much more sensible to look at these matters properly and to consider the experiences of the passengers who were affected. We are encouraging people who were affected on the five Eurostar trains to write in to the inquiry. E-mail details are available on the website, so that all the experiences that they suffered can be properly examined. As a result of that we can have a method of operation, post the end of January, which will meet the requirements of the noble Lord.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, as someone who was stuck in the Channel Tunnel-not on this occasion, but previously, for two hours-I endorse the fact that there is no communication when things go wrong. The Minister has mentioned this, but I ask that the inquiry addresses communication between the surface and the train driver, between the train driver and the train manager and then between the train manager and the passengers. The last is usually a disaster, but it seems as if there may be some gaps in the others. We need to ensure that that aspect is fully covered.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: I can give the noble Baroness exactly that assurance. She has raised one of the most important and disturbing aspects of this whole unhappy story-the fact that passengers on the train were not being informed of what was going on. It is possible for the train driver to be kept informed from the Eurotunnel control. The inquiry is looking at why it was not then possible for the passengers to be kept in the picture. I appreciate what the noble Baroness has said. She may even wish to write to the inquiry, to Mr Garnett, and give her own experience of her previous delay.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: I suspect the noble Lord is referring to a legal liability. I understand that the independent inquiry is concerned with what went wrong, and what needs to be done to put it right. It is not concerned with legal liability at this stage. However, if I am wrong about, I will write to the noble Lord and correct myself.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: I can give my noble friend that assurance. One aspect of this saga that surprised us was the Eurotunnel statement that was issued, perhaps in some haste, immediately after the series of incidents took place. In that statement, it appeared to contradict the evidence that it had already given to the IGC about safety issues. The interface between Eurotunnel and Eurostar is extremely important and it is something that is at the heart of the independent inquiry that Mr Gressier and Mr Garnett are conducting.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in light of the inclement weather conditions today, and their impact on the transport system, the usual channels have agreed that it would be for the benefit of the House and staff if we rose earlier than planned. I propose that the House adjourns at a convenient point tonight, at around 7.30 pm, the time we would normally take dinner break business. This means that the Question for Short Debate in the name of my noble friend Lord Dubs will be postponed. However, I assure noble Lords that another suitable day will be found. I hope your Lordships will agree that this is a sensible way forward in the circumstances.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, Clause 3 of the Communications Act 2003 sets out the general duties of Ofcom. The first subsection describes Ofcom's general duties towards citizens and consumers, and the second subsection sets out its detailed functions. It is significant that on the plaque in the lobby of Ofcom's office only the second set of duties is commemorated. The duties to the citizen and to the consumer are missing. I think that that has been Ofcom's attitude throughout its life-that it feels that its principal duties are to itself and to the industry and that the inconvenient subsection (1) is to be ignored. So that is the attitude with which I approach subsection (2), which I wish to remove with Amendment 1.
It is of specific concern that we are loading on to Ofcom new duties to promote investment in electronic communications and infrastructure, and for the investment resulting from that to be efficient. Given Ofcom's open disregard of its duties to the citizen and to the consumer, that is putting too much emphasis on the wrong side of things. If we consider Ofcom's attitude combined with those words, we are creating something which over time will reduce competition and the breadth of services available to the consumer. It is also of concern to me whether it really is right that a body which is supposed to be an independent regulator should be responsible for promoting investment, a duty which is more commonly separated from that of regulation. This confusion of powers and principles is likely to cause problems over the long term.
Deletion, of course, is not the only solution to this problem. We could try to bring into these clauses something which reminded Ofcom that the citizen and the consumer are actually its principal concerns. We could bring in a requirement that, to keep these matters in its mind, Ofcom should report at intervals to Parliament or the Secretary of State on competition and on the breadth of services available to consumers. However, it seems to me that, as things are at the moment, loading these rather unusual duties on to a body which ought to be a regulator-which, as I say, has left some duties out of the plaque in its lobby and always been less than mindful of its duties to the consumer and the citizen-and to give it this additional bias in terms of industry and efficiency, at a time when the breadth of opportunities to the citizen seems to be exploding and when the industries that Ofcom regulates have in many instances dragged their feet and been slow to take advantage of these and tried to oppose the tide of change, is the wrong way to be looking. We ought to be looking to redirect Ofcom towards the consumer and the citizen and not to be focusing on the support of the industry. I beg to move.
The Earl of Erroll: I want to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has said. I have noticed that in various areas where we have amalgamated the roles of enforcer and helper, it has rarely worked, if ever, because the agency or body concerned finds it difficult to know which one it will do. The danger is that the Government will then say, "Don't worry, this is covered", when the body concerned is failing in the bit that it is not good at. In other words, Ofcom may be a good regulator but not a good promoter, but we will be told that the issue is covered because it is part of its duties, even if it is not doing it well.
It is difficult to set priorities because one role costs money and the other sometimes involves levying charges, so there can be great conflict. From this point of view, the first part of the proposal is that Ofcom should promote investment in electronic communications networks and infrastructure. Part of Digital Britain, which has been left out of this completely, was the concept that we should have a minimum level of broadband in every household in the country, so that the Government could reduce the cost of delivering services to the public-they have assigned a lot of money to this-by using the internet much more widely. A minimum level of 2 megabits per second would be required for that. I see nothing about that in the Bill. Do the Government intend to place a duty on Ofcom to bring that forward, and also perhaps to bash heads together so that BT and other local community initiatives for broadband come together properly? Or do the Government not see that as Ofcom's role? I think that there will be confusion, so I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that subsection (2) should be left out of the Bill.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: I support the thrust of what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, have been saying, particularly in reference to subsection (2)(a), which refers to promoting,
I should declare an interest-or a lack of interest, to be more accurate. I happen to live in an area that has no mobile telephone reception. Both my mobile telephone and the gadget which the House of Lords kindly provides me with to receive communications do not work. I have raised this in correspondence directly but Ofcom has tended to shrug it off by saying that it is not part of its responsibility. I should have thought that in this day and age there should be a general policy to ensure that where there is at least a reasonable population-I am not talking about the tops of mountains-and villages which do not yet have a telecommunications network, the companies that have not built the necessary masts should do so. In the case that I am thinking of only one more mast is needed. These companies are falling down in their duty. I should like to hear that the Government will take this matter seriously and that, where there is a reasonable population, the whole country will be covered by the mobile telephone network.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I wish to strike a slightly different note. It seems to me that the answer to what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has just said lies precisely in subsection (2)(a). The reason for promoting investment in networks is precisely to ensure that people such as him can receive mobile reception. My contribution will be very brief. Basically, I think that Ofcom cannot put everything on its plaque. I forget how long the Communications Bill was, but it is a fairly weighty document. I do not think that it neglects the citizen or the consumer. After all, there is a difference between the citizen and the consumer, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam-who I am delighted to see in his place-pointed out when the communications legislation was going through. The clause is there precisely to remedy the lack of coverage, including broadband coverage.
Lord Puttnam: My Lords, as will probably become evident during the passage of this Bill through Committee, I am an all but unalloyed fan of Ofcom, but I support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in the broad thrust of what he said. I do not know whether the mechanism that he has chosen is the right one, but he makes a very good point. Noble Lords will remember that we dragged Ofcom, kicking and screaming, into its citizen obligations. I believe a severe error has been made in Ofcom not taking on board the spirit as well as the letter of those obligations that this House imposed on it. The truth is that it could do a lot more. These improvements could well be in the Bill, and although an alternative mechanism should be found I certainly support what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is seeking.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, while I, like my noble friend Lord Gordon, do not entirely accept the characterisation of Ofcom by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, by and large it has not made a bad fist of balancing out its obligations to citizens and consumers-and I declare, as I will probably have to do later as well, that I am chair of Consumer Focus. In one sense, Ofcom has been relatively good among regulators -and that is, let us just say, a relative term-in terms of taking care of the consumer interest. Yet, without any counterbalance, this clause changes that balance. It insists that it is the role of the regulator to promote infrastructure, for whatever purpose, so that the economic responsibility to the industry is emphasised but not the responsibility to the citizen and the consumer.
Whether we do it in the general sense to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred or, following some of my later amendments, in a more explicit and specific sense in the terms to which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred, of something approaching a universal service obligation on the part of Ofcom, the balance in simply taking this clause will be wrong. At this stage, I am not explicitly supporting the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, should this be taken to a vote, but the Government need to look at whether, by adopting this clause, they are unbalancing what has hitherto been a balanced responsibility for Ofcom.
The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, it is my view that removing these proposed new duties of Ofcom would strip the Bill of one of its most considerable
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I do not wish to dwell on the importance of public service content, as I expect that this amendment was not born from a desire to see less of such material available to the public. However, the consequences of doing nothing to keep a closer eye on the trend in the provision of such content and in having a regulator that continually has that on its mind cannot be side-stepped. Part of PSB's power lies in its ability to touch mass audiences. Such content must therefore be available to as many as possible on as many platforms as possible: over the internet, and on mobile telephones. That point was repeatedly made during Second Reading, and I do not expect that many of your Lordships would disagree with the importance of ensuring that we do not create a two-tier digital Britain of haves and have-nots. Yet the consequence of removing this obligation of Ofcom to keep an eye on the investment going into building networks of the future would send a deeper message about our commitment to such a programme.
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