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Nick Harvey (North Devon): Is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that Ofcom should therefore have the

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sole right of approval for new BBC services and that the Secretary of State should not have that right; or is he talking only about that general backstop power?

Mr. Smith: I'm talking about the general backstop power, but I accept that the point that the hon. Gentleman makes represents a logical extension of my argument and that it may well be sensible to consider putting the power to approve or disapprove new services in Ofcom's hands as well. There should be clear parliamentary accountability, and Ofcom should be answerable, through the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and the reports that Ofcom makes to Parliament, for the decisions that it takes, but there is an argument for saying that that route should be considered.

None of this removes from the BBC's board of governors the responsibility for the day-to-day control over how the BBC fulfils its public service remit. Of course, as with Channel 4's board and the independent boards of the ITV companies, the board of governors will have a role to carry on the basic functions of ensuring that the BBC is run effectively and in accordance with its remit.

Dr. Howells: I obviously place great store by what my right hon. Friend says, but, on a point of clarity, he is not agreeing with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that the present regulatory structure, which allows the BBC's board some independence that no one else enjoys, should continue. He is saying that that should continue, but that small changes should take place.

Mr. Smith: In fact, I am saying that the independence that the White Paper seeks to create for the ITV companies and Channel 4 would enable them to be largely self-regulatory, which the BBC is at the moment, and that Ofcom's reserve backstop power should apply to the BBC, as it will to the other broadcasters. While the other broadcasters are moving towards greater freedom under these proposals, the BBC should swap the Secretary of State's ultimate responsibility for that of Ofcom. That could provide a sensible way forward in the interests of the BBC itself, as well as in those of the whole broadcasting landscape. I say that because I believe passionately in the importance of public service broadcasting.

Michael Fabricant: In addition to believing in public service broadcasting, does the right hon. Gentleman believe in public perception? Does he agree that the current public perception in some quarters is that the BBC is its own judge and jury and that, if Ofcom were to be the backstop, it would be seen as an impartial, third party judge and jury for the BBC?

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman is partly right in that the board of governors acts jointly as a regulator and, ultimately, as a manager. However, the ultimate judge in relation to the BBC is, at present, the Secretary of State. I suggest that that judge should be Ofcom rather than the Secretary of State.

The importance of public service broadcasting should not be underestimated. I was deeply concerned by the answer that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and

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Hyde (James Purnell) who asked about the future of the BBC and Channel 4. Both the BBC and Channel 4 are public assets, must remain public assets and must remain publicly owned. Even to be considering, as the hon. Gentleman appears to be, the prospect of privatisation of not just one but both fills me with deep dismay.

The role of public service broadcasting is to do the things that the commercial sector either cannot or will not do. It is also to ensure that there is regional strength to what the major broadcasters do in terms of the origin of their programmes, the focus of news and the way in which the regions are brought to the attention of the country as a whole. However, perhaps most important, public service broadcasters are there to act as a benchmark of quality against which the whole of the broadcasting environment must be judged. The role of ensuring that the rest of broadcasting is kept honest and of high quality is one to which the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, in their public service responsibilities, must hold fast.

I hope that Ofcom, as it takes shapes under the proposals in the main Bill, will, first, have a duty to promote commercial competition coupled with the duty to preserve and enhance public service broadcasting. Secondly, I hope that it will have a duty of fairness between and to the broadcasters. Thirdly, I hope that it will have a duty to promote a broad band future for this country. I stress that point strongly because I am extremely worried that Britain, which was apparently set fair three or four years ago to be in the lead of the broad band environment in the future, is in danger of slipping behind. A sound and exciting future for broad band will happen only if the infrastructure providers and the owners of the infrastructure systems talk with, work with, share with and enter into ventures with the content providers.

In broad band, as in broadcasting generally, the synergy between economic infrastructure and rich and varied content is the secret of success. One has to make sure that the two go hand in hand. Having the ability to deliver new ways of absorbing information and entertainment across telephone wires or any other means of communication into the household is no good unless one simultaneously thinks about how one ensures that rich and varied material can be conveyed.

Ofcom's aim is fundamentally to provide a framework in which both infrastructure and content are brought together and are considered in the same environment and with the same set of aims and objectives. That is partly why it will be such an essential feature of the new regulatory environment that we must seek to create. The bringing together of infrastructure and content is part and parcel of what Ofcom is all about. That is important for the world of broadcasting and telecommunications and for the broad band future that we all want to occur.

Because of that and because the Bill takes us the first tiny step along the road towards bringing infrastructure and content firmly together in the same environment, I wish the Bill well. I also wish the Government well in taking it forward.

7.25 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) saw a blinding flash on the road to Damascus or merely on the road from Trafalgar square or to Disneyworld, but—whatever the reason—I agree with

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much of what he said. In particular, I agree with him about the BBC, about the need for broad band, and on many other aspects of the issue.

It is unattractive to say, "I told you so," but, as I said in interventions previously, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport told the House so in May 1998 when it recommended that a single body should be responsible for regulation. It said:

We now know that that will be Ofcom. Interestingly enough, the report went on to say that there should be oversight of all broadcasters, including the BBC. That is what the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and the chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), have called for too.

I disagree with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton about the possible privatisation of the BBC. Apart from anything else, that would be wholly impractical at a time when net advertising receipts to ITV, Channel 4 and the independent sector in general are falling. God only knows where one would find an extra £2.5 billion—the BBC's current receipts from the licence fee—from advertising.

There is no question but that an organisation such as Ofcom must come into being. We have recently heard much about convergence—about the need for broad band and about convergence between the television set and the computer. Let me give two simple examples of how that exists at present. I often listen in my office in the House to KING, a classical music radio station in Seattle that is broadcast on the internet. Similarly, I sometimes go to York in Maine and I am able to watch the BBC 10 o'clock news on my computer there. The news is sent on the web via Real Networks, and, as a friend of mine, who is the vice-president of Real Networks, would say, the picture is rather "herky-jerky"—that is the expression he uses—at the moment. With the introduction of broad band, however, we shall undoubtedly be able to watch programming from anywhere in the world with quality as good as we can watch from the United Kingdom already.

I welcome the creation of Ofcom, as do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench. However, I pointed out in an intervention on the Minister that I am a little concerned that radio will be overshadowed. The hon. Gentleman gave me some assurance that it will not be, and I have no interest to declare other than my interest in the subject. I used to work in radio broadcasting and, as I told the hon. Gentleman, I am only too aware of how it was overshadowed by television in the old Independent Broadcasting Authority. That is why radio was separated from television and the Radio Authority and the Independent Television Commission were founded. Some might say that it is a retrograde step to combine them again. I do not think that it is. Provided that the structures are in place to ensure that radio and other organisations which will be controlled by the new Ofcom are not overshadowed, there needs to be one regulatory organisation. There are clear interests that need to be maintained.

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