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Mr. Simon Thomas: The Minister mentioned how he expected the committees of Ofcom to take into account the needs of the different interest groups. It would be beneficial for the House if he could say explicitly that he would expect the committees to take into account, in whatever way is thought appropriate, the interests and needs of people with disabilities.

Dr. Howells: I can say that unequivocally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) made clear, we have a good and healthy tradition of so doing among broadcasters in this country. I would expect that to continue and, on that basis, I will oppose the amendment.

Mr. Thomas: I am encouraged by what the Minister said in response to my intervention, because that was a more explicit recognition of the need for Ofcom to take account of the needs of people with disabilities through the working of its committees. I can tell the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that that is why I did not change the amendment. She addressed her argument to the committees and I addressed mine to Ofcom, and I suspected that the Minister would say that this Bill is only the paving Bill for Ofcom and that the issue is for the future and is not debatable now.

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We have had a useful debate. It is especially useful to debate the matters on the Floor of the House, because it sends the signal to people with disabilities that we are not letting matters slip. In the light of the Minister's response, especially on the role of the committees of Ofcom, and the opportunity to debate the issue under the next communications Bill, I beg to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2

Initial function of OFCOM

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 3, line 2, at end insert—

(c) any proposal by the Secretary of State to bring within the remit of OFCOM the BBC Board of Governors.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 7, in clause 6, page 5, line 28, at end insert—

'(aba) the BBC Board of Governors.'.

No. 8, in schedule, page 7, line 22, at end insert—

'(aba) a member of the BBC Board of Governors'.

Mr. Yeo: The amendments in this group, especially amendment No. 7, go to the heart of the only surviving political controversy in the Bill. Why are the Government persisting in excluding the BBC from the remit of Ofcom? The structure that Ministers have proposed for Ofcom is anomalous, irrational and likely to work against the interests of viewers, listeners, licence fee payers, other broadcasters and the BBC itself.

It is absurd for Parliament to approve the creation of a new super-regulator for the industry and, at that very moment, leave outside its responsibilities the largest single broadcasting organisation in the country. The BBC has more than half the national radio audience and a substantial share of the total television audience—although the latter is gradually reducing. The chance of primary legislation does not come along very often. After the communications Bill in the next Session, it may be a decade or even longer before another opportunity occurs.

To those who say that we should not prejudge the forthcoming debate about the renewal of the BBC charter, I say that that debate should start with a recognition that the BBC is increasingly one of a number of broadcasters, albeit a large, special and important one. Its role will be less dominant in future. The BBC's public service obligations are much more stringent than those of other broadcasters and its governors have a primary duty to see that those public service obligations are met. However, so do the boards of Channel 4 and the ITV companies. If the ultimate responsibility lies with Ofcom for all those other broadcasters, so it should for the BBC, especially as it continues to enjoy such a uniquely privileged funding status.

The Government will eventually have to concede this argument and I urge them to do so today. If they do not, the only remaining chance will be in the communications Bill in the next Session. That Bill is due to be published in draft form soon—perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on when we can expect to see it. We could have the

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absurd situation of the Government publishing a draft Bill that contains an amendment to this Bill, perhaps even before it receives Royal Assent.

The amendment is designed to save Ministers from that embarrassment—I am ever helpful. I also give the Minister notice that we will seek to press amendment No. 7 to a vote and I hope that we will enjoy the support of all those hon. Members who have expressed support for the principle in the amendment.

Mr. Bryant: My problem with the amendment is that it seems to suggest that the issue of the BBC's regulation and how it relates to Ofcom is simply a matter of wholly in or wholly out. The hon. Gentleman was not able to join us in Committee, so he will not have heard all our debates—perhaps he has read all eight of them—but the point was often made that the BBC is already regulated by third parties and therefore will, in large measure, be regulated by Ofcom. The problem with the amendment is that it might make it impossible for the governors and the BBC to have any accountability directly to this House.

Mr. Yeo: I assure the hon. Member that nothing I propose will affect his rights, should he be a member of the BBC's pension fund from his time there. I did read the reports of most of the Committee's debates with interest and I was pleased to see that the issues were addressed. I seek to put the BBC on a par with the other broadcasting organisations that will ultimately be regulated by Ofcom. That will still leave the governors with a substantial and important role, to which I shall refer in more detail presently.

The idea that the amendment, by placing the BBC within Ofcom's remit on the same basis as other organisations, would put the governors out of a job is wrong. As to the question of how accountable the BBC is to this House, that is a matter on which hon. Members will have a variety of views. However, many of us have felt over the years that the existing system falls short of being satisfactory.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): The whole point about the BBC being established under a charter is that it is not accountable to the House of Commons. If it operated under an Act of Parliament, it would be accountable in the same way that Channel 4 is accountable to this House. I well recall that when the Select Committee asked the chairman of the BBC to delay a planned change until the Committee had reported on the matter, he said that that would be yielding to political interference with the BBC. It was a simple request for a delay. As I shall seek to say if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the real problem with the BBC is that it is accountable to no one.

Mr. Yeo: The right hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority and expertise on this subject and I know that he has studied it carefully for a long time. I entirely accept everything he says, particularly the point about the charter and the obstacle that it represents to direct scrutiny by the House. He cited an example in which a wholly reasonable request was denied. Now is the time to address that difficulty.

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7 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): The hon. Gentleman may care to know that I once asked the Table Office whether I could table an amendment about the BBC. The Speaker, who is now in another place, wrote to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State could not make up his mind so he wrote to the chairman of governors, who wrote to the Speaker to say that it was up to her. Clearly, Parliament has no way of holding the BBC to account.

The question of whether the governors want to be included in Ofcom arises because the board of Ofcom might define, once and for all, what a public service is, then ask the governors to behave by holding the BBC to that remit. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is what they fear and why they do not want to be included?

Mr. Yeo: That is another example of the difficulties faced by hon. Members in trying to call the BBC to account.

I do not know the motives of the governors who are apparently resisting the inclusion in Ofcom. Certainly, if Ofcom can produce a definition of public service broadcasting that commands broad agreement, it will have achieved something that has eluded many people over many years. The need to make that definition is growing increasingly urgent, for several reasons.

My motive in moving the amendment—apart from a general sense of fairness to the other players in the broadcasting industry—is to benefit the BBC. I have no wish to damage the BBC's governors, staff, management or programme makers; and certainly not its viewers, listeners or licence fee payers. The BBC would be strengthened if it were to be so regulated in future. The present situation may have been justified a long time ago, but no longer: it is now anomalous.

The right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) has come round to that viewpoint. He spoke impressively on Second Reading, explaining his conversion by saying that his concern for the future of public service broadcasting had led him to share our view that the BBC should have the same relationship with Ofcom as other broadcasters.

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