Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: That is democracy for you.

Mr. Robertson: It gives the Secretary of State even more power than Opposition Members have discussed, and I am concerned about that.

Mr. Thomas: In the context of a single regulator and democracy, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have an example at present of a single regulator, which is Ofwat. There is one regulator for the water industry. The last review of the water industry began with the Government telling that regulator ''You will have lower water prices''. It had nothing to do with the environment. That may have been a good thing, but without the body behind it, that regulator has little choice but to listen to the Government.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Member for Ceredigion—which I do not enjoy saying—makes an important point. Although regulation of the media is important, it is perhaps not quite as important as the supply of water.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York said, to appoint members to the new body and to frame its set-up when we do not know what its powers will be seems a little like putting the cart before the horse. If I am allowed a brief analogy, before we determine who sits in the House of Lords or how they get there, we should determine what that body does. In the same

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way, we should determine what the new body does before we decide who sits on it. It may have little regulatory power, in which case it does not matter who or how many sit on it, but if it is to have great control over what comes through the media, we must first know what its power will be. I fear that I shall stray out of order if I carry on down that road.

I have a problem with the power that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State. I do not want to be party political, but over the past four and a half years, we have seen the Executive taking more and more control over this place. To stray slightly wider, I suggest that it has not just been in the past five years. There has been a tendency over a number of years for the Executive to gain control over this place at the expense of Parliament. I greatly regret that the Bill furthers that process. It gives the Secretary of State the power to decide the size of the body and to vary the parameters. It gives her the power to reflect her interests and intentions rather than those of consumers, which is not a welcome move.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Given that one of the organisations being replaced is Oftel, where one person makes the decision, and we are moving to a board, can the hon. Gentleman explain why he thinks that having a focused board is not an improvement on a single regulator? Is his not an argument against the Conservative Government?

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has made the point that we are trying to make, in the sense that one is not enough, but nor is three, when media and telecommunications are being lumped together.

Michael Fabricant: We are lumping together, to use my hon. Friend's colourful expression, not only programme content but also the means of providing it. Therefore, it is not simply control over programmes and ''the internet'', but control over the way in which they are delivered. Three would certainly be inadequate.

Mr. Robertson: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. My concern is the power that the Bill could give to the Secretary of State. The Government will almost determine what comes on to television screens. The regulation could be too tight, and political debate could be stifled; or it could be too liberal, in the sense that the three things that I do not like to see on the television screen—sex, violence and bad language—could be given free rein.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): Don't turn it on, then.

Mr. Robertson: Does not a family have a right to watch television without seeing filth? To say that one can simply turn the television off is, if I may say so, a rather flippant remark. No doubt it was meant flippantly—

The Chairman: Order. Could we return to the scope of the amendment?

Mr. Robertson: I apologise for being diverted from the theme of my speech, which is that the Secretary of State will have far too much power. As was pointed

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out, a larger body would be less likely to be influenced by the Secretary of State. We will discuss in due course the individual organisations and interests that should be represented on it, so I shall not stray down that path now. However, I think it important that we accept the amendments to facilitate the level of representation that the subject's importance warrants.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): May I add my voice to those who said what a privilege it is to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe?

Mr. Robertson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Glenda Jackson: Let me get started, for heaven's sake.

In essence, I rise to respond to the contribution of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who began by referring to what he perceives as the lack of regulation of television in this country. I must contest that argument. There are those who say that we have one of the most tightly regulated television industries in the world. As I understand it, Ofcom will incorporate five existing regulatory bodies. We are contemplating a future in which all elements of the communications industry will have to work together increasingly closely. There are already areas of the industry in which it is extremely difficult to define where responsibility lies. They are bleeding into each other in a way that was not possible in the past. All areas will drive for greater integration, and as other members of the Committee have said, there is clearly a need for a light regulatory hand.

My central point relates to the hon. Gentleman's argument that the decision about the chairmanship of Ofcom should not rest with the Secretary of State. His worry, about which he spoke almost exclusively, is that the Government will be able to decide what appears on our television screens. However, if the aspects of television broadcasting that seem to cause him most concern were obliterated from our television screens, there would never be any news, because if we are not allowed to see violence, we cannot have news. That is simply one example.

Mr. Robertson: Surely the Committee can distinguish between the reporting of, say, the war in Afghanistan and the gratuitous violence, sex and bad language that is broadcast in so many programmes? There is a very clear distinction between the two.

Glenda Jackson: Representations have yet to be made directly to me about the amount of gratuitous violence, sex or bad language on our television screens. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman and I move in somewhat different circles.

My central point is the question of where the power of appointment should lie. To consumers who pay their television licence fee and want improvements in programming—I shall not go into detail about what would constitute improvements in my book—it is vital that the person who appoints the chairman be accountable to them. If the planned changes to the regulatory system did not take place as described, or if

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Ofcom's sub-committees failed to respect and observe specific national or group interests, it would be essential that the person who determines Ofcom's chairman be accountable to the electorate. It would be extremely dangerous to put such power into the hands of someone whom the electorate could not remove.

The industry has immense power in this country and internationally, so in considering who will be responsible for appointing to such a sensitive post, we must ensure that the electorate will be able to say directly and without fear or favour, ''You are wrong and you are out.'' That would be extremely difficult to do if there is no direct line of responsibility to consumers and the electorate.

Mr. Robertson rose—

Glenda Jackson: I have finished.

10.30 am

Brian White: One thing that concerned me about the remarks of certain Opposition Members was their concentration on broadcasting. Ofcom's remit will be far wider. References to control and to stopping filth suggest that its role has been completely misunderstood. Do the Opposition want a regulator that is concerned with prevention?

Mr. Robertson: That is the very point: we do not know what Ofcom's role will be.

Brian White: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the White Paper, which makes that clear. If he had followed the debate on communications, he would know why there is a need for Ofcom. Select Committee reports from a few years ago, to which the hon. Member for Vale of York has referred, gave rise to the issue. It has a substantial history and we are not approaching it in a vacuum. Various manifestations of Ofcom have been discussed for some time, so we know what we are talking about.

When considering the Bill, which is about setting up the shadow body that will become Ofcom, we should remember that the industry with which it is to deal is fast moving. The board needs to be small and focused. It needs to be able to take speedy decisions and have the flexibility to respond to changing situations. To create an unwieldy board would be a major mistake.

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman highlights a problem about which we can all agree. Ofcom's remit is to be large. In respect of certain powers, the Office of Fair Trading has a concurrent remit. That is why it is better to establish at the outset the board's maximum and minimum membership. We cannot change our minds at a later stage.

Brian White: Hon. Members have referred to geographic and sectoral interests in connection with television, but there are many other interest groups that cannot possibly be represented on the board. We must not create a board that is far too large and unwieldy. It must be small and focused, so that it can take decisions quickly, be flexible and give effect to the light regulatory touch that we have all said we want.

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