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I regret that, more than five years after the Government's original manifesto commitment on this issue was made, we still do not have all the details of their policy, and I hope that the gaps will be filled in soon, so that pre-legislative scrutiny, which I also welcome, can be effective.
Starting with the rules on media and cross-media ownership, I strongly support the relaxation of the present regime, whose restrictive provisions are no longer justified in light of the wider choice available to consumers as a result of new technology and the enterprise shown by many in the industry. I am very disappointed, however, that the Government are not willing to go all the way and leave questions of media and cross-media ownership entirely to the competition authorities.
The Secretary of State proposes to retain three extra limits on cross-media ownership. Why are they necessary, and why can the competition authorities and the marketplace not safeguard adequately the public interest? Extra controls on media and cross-media ownership are no longer needed, especially as leaving decisions about ownership to the marketplace, subject to the constraints of competition law, would not mean that the content of television and radio programmes would be completely unregulated. The authorities would continue to monitor content through their codes and their duty to preserve diversity and choice for consumers.
On the issue of monitoring content, will Ofcom distinguish between harmful material, for which regulation is needed, and offensive material, for which a much lighter touch is appropriate. I welcome references by the Secretary of State to promoting competition. Given that Ofcom will be an enormous organisation, is the Secretary of State aware of the danger that it could become a lumbering bureaucratic giant that obstructs rather than promotes competition? Given that the paving Bill for Ofcom was approved by Parliament more than two months ago, what progress has been made in setting the organisation up?
In promoting competition, how does the Secretary of State envisage that Ofcom will ensure fair access to electronic programme guides? Similarly, how will fair access to competing platforms be secured? As the Secretary of State undertook 11 days ago to keep Parliament in touch with her policy on digital terrestrial television, will she explain whether the Government still intend to switch off the analogue television signal by 2010, what steps she is taking to secure the survival of the digital terrestrial platform, and when the Government will set out the way in which they will increase the strength and reach of the digital television signal?
I welcome references to spectrum trading. Spectrum is a finite resource, the value of which has recently been more clearly recognised. One of the criteria by which Ofcom will be judged is whether it will achieve the aim of more efficient use of spectrum.
The Bill is hugenearly 260 clausesand deals with issues crucial to consumers and business. Britain has an opportunity to lead one of the 21st century's most important industries, building on our record of innovation, high-quality public service broadcasting and our large pool of creative and entrepreneurial talent. Ofcom can help that process only if it adopts the lightest possible touch, but, equally, it can hinder it if Ministers or regulators get drawn too closely into matters that should be left to the market and the industry to resolve. I trust that the Secretary of State recognises that the acid test of her proposals is whether the regime that she is setting up operates with a light touch rather than a heavy hand.
On content, as I have suggested, Ofcom will establish a content board whose membership, importantly, will be drawn from every part of the United Kingdom. The content board will develop codes. It will have a close relationship with the broadcasters and the industry, but content will also be determined for the public service broadcasters by the three-tier regulatory structure. Tier one and tier two will apply to all public service broadcasters including the BBC, and tier three will allow self-regulation of content by the public service broadcasters regulated by Ofcom. Tier three for the BBC will be regulated by the governors.
On the hon. Gentleman's point about the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable standards in television, the content board will be charged with responsibility for developing media literacy and will begin to codify such standards as its work develops.
On the size of the Ofcom board, when the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), took the Bill through the House, he constantly repeated the benefit of the Ofcom board being small. It is our intention to maintain that, with wider representation on both the content board and the consumer panel. We are making progress on the establishment of Ofcom, with the advertisement for chairman appearing in the national newspapers yesterday.
On the obligations relating to electronic programme guides, as we move to switch-over and as the number of digital channels increases, this area of technology will become more important. The operation of electronic programme guides will be subject to codes of performance that will be developed by Ofcom.
The final point is the relationship between the BBC and Ofcom. It is important to recognise that the White Paper argued the case for a twin system of regulationthe governors for the BBC and Ofcom for the other public service broadcasters and the rest of the broadcasting industry. That is the position that we have maintained. However, it is important to be clear about the extent to which there will be a level playing field between the standards applying to the commercial public service broadcasters and the BBC.
Standards set at tier onethe general standards that apply to all broadcasterswill apply equally to the BBC. At tier two, the quantitative aspects of broadcastingthe proportion of regional production, independent production and so onwill be set by Ofcom and will also apply to the BBC. I have outlined the new shape of regulation at tier three where, arguably, the BBC will be subject to much tougher regulation because of the regular monthly vigilance of the governors, whereas the other broadcasters will be subject to post hoc regulation by Ofcom against their statement of programme policy.
The BBC will be accountable to Ofcom for all its commercial standards[Interruption.] I am trying to do justice to the questions asked by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), but there is fizzing and grunting from those on the Opposition Front Bench.
My final point is that in developing the Bill, we have proceeded from very clear principles, whether in relation to the structure and purpose of Ofcom or the new proposals that I have announced in respect of media and cross-media ownership. That is in direct contrast to the Opposition's approach. When they last introduced a broadcasting Billit became the Broadcasting Act 1996that approach looked to fixing particular proprietors and institutions. The media industry in this country has paid the price ever since.
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury): My right hon. Friend has reiterated that, in the draft Bill, the BBC will fall within the purview of Ofcom for basic regulation in tiers one and two, but not for the backstop powers that will apply to all other public service broadcasters. Can she confirm that that decision is not set in stone and that it is open to further debate and discussion? Will she seize the opportunity made available by the offer of the chairman of the BBC board of governors to discuss whether the role of Ofcom can indeed be enhanced at the level of tier threean issue that will form a major part of public discussion about the Bill?