Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has touched on several groups whose interests should be represented. The people to whom he has inadvertently not referred, but I am sure that he will, are the vast majority who do not fall within any of those categories. They may be termed the silent majority. They are dismayed by what they see on their television screens and deserve representation.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right. It is, however, difficult to know what the silent majority's interest is by virtue of the fact that they are silent. Nevertheless, Ofcom is there to protect their interests, and to ensure that their needs are reflected. Ultimately, we have a Minister, and a democratic political process in which the silent minority can make its views felt.

To have three to six members of Ofcom will limit the Minister's discretion too much and will not allow him to examine needs that come online in the future or to change its structure. It cannot have just one or two members—they would be overburdened—and three seems a reasonable de minimis for membership. Will the Minister take the opportunity to explain why he feels that there must be an upper limit of six? Can he

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look at the spirit of either my amendment or the Conservative amendment and consider how he might be able to give himself some more discretion for the future, and produce an Ofcom that is focused and streamlined but also demonstrably answering the public's needs?

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): This is the first Standing Committee dealing with detailed legislation in which I have been able to take part. May I say that I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe? I am sure that you will correct me if I stray from the remit of the discussion. I understand that we are examining not policy, but the framework and structure of the new body.

I support the amendments, which deal with who should make decisions, who should be on the board of Ofcom and how many people should be on it. I would welcome the widening of the decision-making procedure for choosing the board's membership. To ensure that the wide range of interests in the broadcasting and telecommunications industries is fairly represented, it is critical that the right individuals are chosen. They, like the organisation, will be extremely powerful. The selection of those people will be crucial to the future success of the industries.

I, like most other Committee members, have received a wealth of lobby information from all sorts of interest groups, some of them extremely concerned about their future representation. Hon. Members have already referred to people with disabilities. I have had an interesting communication from the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which, as we all recognise, has an important interest in radio. My mother was blind, and I know how much she relied on the spoken word. It is important that groups such as blind people and those with other disabilities are adequately represented.

Michael Fabricant: Some people might foolishly ask why the blind should be concerned, since they have radio. Does my hon. Friend agree that those people underestimate the importance of blind people being able to enjoy television programmes? That is not only because of the information that those programmes impart, but because they can then talk with sighted people about those programmes, and other things, so that they are not sidelined in life. Blind people should not find themselves in a cultural ghetto because they cannot participate in the situation—some might call it a rather unfortunate one—in which so many people spend so many hours watching television each day.

Angela Watkinson rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Lady responds, I remind the Committee that interventions should be just that. I also remind hon. Members that there will be an opportunity to discuss disabilities under a later amendment, and that they must keep within the scope of the amendment under discussion. I allow a little latitude to new Members, but it is not endless.

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Angela Watkinson: I am grateful for your advice, Miss Widdecombe.

I welcome the amendment that allows for more people to serve on the Ofcom board. There is a danger in it having as few members as three. If we happened to have three people unsympathetic to a particular group, that group could end up without adequate representation.

Mr. Robertson: The concern is not only that three people could be unsympathetic towards a group but that the Secretary of State could be similarly unsympathetic and that his selection of those three might reflect his lack of sympathy.

Angela Watkinson: I entirely sympathise with that point. We need an organisation that can regulate with a light touch and ensure that all interest groups in the community have the opportunity to use broadcasting services without restriction. I include the BBC in that. I think that we have all had lobby material from the BBC, which is ambivalent—that is the kindest way of putting it—about being included in the new umbrella organisation. I am sure that we will come to that later in our scrutiny.

Broadly, I support a wider body to select members and having a larger number of people on the Ofcom board, to give wider representation to all groups.

Michael Fabricant: I appreciate that a balance must be struck here. Having just argued for a light regulator, it would be incomprehensible were I now to argue for a very large board. Before the Government get too excited and think that I might oppose my Front Bench, I say hold fire.

Although I know from experience that a large board can become unmanageable, I think that this very small board suffers from two problems. First, there are the issues raised by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. The second problem concerns perception, which is an important point. During the past few years, the charge of cronyism has been levelled at the Government, and the same charge might be made against Ofcom. Whether it was right or wrong, it would be invidious to Ofcom's authority if that charge were made. With a very small board and a chairman appointed by the Secretary of State, that charge will almost certainly be levelled.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Is not the danger of all the arguments so far used in favour of the amendments that they are talking about a representative organisation, not the regulatory one that we need? As it is, representatives from what I have now counted as the 15 different bodies that have been referred to will be difficult to fit into the membership of 10 being suggested.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I certainly agree that were all the different parties represented, we would end up with a wholly unworkable board of 15 or 20. I am not totally convinced that even 10 is a good size for a board, but six is far too small, and the perception of the board would be wrong.

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Miss McIntosh: Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to ask the Minister if, in view of what the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the Government do not wish Ofcom to represent stakeholders in any shape or form and if they want it to be truly regulatory in nature?

Michael Fabricant: I rarely disagree with my Front Bench, but there is no way that I will use the word ''stakeholder'', which I think is the most terrible example of new Labour speak. However, interested parties—I think that that is a nicer expression—might well be unable to be represented. The question is valid, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it. Before I give him the opportunity to do so, I will happily give way to the hon. Member for Ceredigion, which I enjoy saying.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman finds something here that he enjoys saying.

Notwithstanding the fair point that the hon. Member for Rhondda made—although it is covered in the next group of amendments, which seek a representative role—does the hon. Member for Lichfield recall that the Towers Perrin report from the present regulators clearly said that Ofcom, with regard to its new functions, should

    ''actively promote clear links with, and understanding of, all of OFCOM's key stakeholder categories''?

Can we do that with five or six members?

10.15 am

Michael Fabricant: No, we cannot, but the problem is that nor could we do it with 10 members. I agree that the interests of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should be represented on the board of Ofcom.

Perception is important. I have often criticised the structure of the board of governors of the BBC, not because they necessarily do a bad job, but because they are perceived to be their own judge and jury. That is wrong, and for that reason I may later argue that Ofcom should have greater powers over the BBC simply because of perception. I strongly argue that if there is a board of between three and six, with a chairman appointed by the Secretary of State, the charge will be made—rightly or wrongly—that Ofcom is yet another example of Tony's cronies.

Mr. Robertson: The amendments are important because they largely shape the make-up of Ofcom. Without straying on to the next group of amendments—you would rightly call me to order if I did so, Miss Widdecombe—we must understand that the amendments under discussion are important if the next group are to remain so. The provisions are restrictive in some ways.

We should remember how important the media are. It is not exaggerating to suggest that children—perhaps children and adults—are greatly influenced by what they see on television, and, to a lesser extent, hear on radio. The question of whether regulations should be a guiding light, as the Minister suggests, or show the heavy hand of regulation is significant. We cannot overstate the importance of what comes through our

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television screens. How do we prevent the wrong things from coming through and ensure that the right things do?

Like many other hon. Members, I receive many letters and representations on what people deem to be inappropriate material on television. People often ask me how we can stop too much sex, violence and bad language on television. My response is that it is difficult because we live in a free society and a democracy. I say that one thing worse than a free media is one that is heavily regulated. The problem is how to protect people from bad influences without curtailing the freedom of the press or media.

It strikes me that the Bill achieves the worst of both worlds. It may not reflect the interests of the many groups addressed in the next group of amendments, but at the same time, it has the potential for extreme regulation and control by the Secretary of State, who will determine Ofcom's size. The detail of the Bill suggests that the board will not necessarily be restricted to between three and six, but that the Secretary of State will have powers to modify by order the numbers specified in subsection (2). Presumably, she could determine that the number be reduced to two or even one. If I am wrong, the Minister will correct me. My reading of the Bill is that the Secretary of State could make the matter worse through statutory instrument. She could have only one person to make up Ofcom. I should be glad to be corrected, because it is an extremely important point. Something would have to be passed by the House, but we have seen how easy that is when a Government have a majority of this size.

 
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Prepared 24 January 2002