Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is right, of course, and I said that I do not disagree with the Government in that respect. My amendment is not designed to give a representative role in Ofcom to any particular individual. However, many interests exist; if it is to do its job properly, Ofcom will need the confidence of the public as well as broadcasters, the telecommunications industry and so on. Will it be able to secure that confidence with only a limited number of board members, who might be stretched to do their job?

Brian White: I am not often a fan of Oftel, but it is fair to say that that regulator has achieved the public acceptance to which the hon. Gentleman refers. If we adopt a focused approach, Ofcom will be able to respond quickly and secure public confidence.

The amendments are wrong. The Government must ensure that the board is flexible and responsive, and that it does not become bogged down by a bureaucracy that prevents it from taking decisions quickly.

Dr. Howells: I am sure you agree, Miss Widdecombe, that we have had an interesting debate. Having spent years in opposition myself, I know that when one gets a chance to bite at something like this, one does so. However, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury understands, this is a paving Bill. The whole idea is to set up Ofcom so that it can hit the ground running when the substantive communications Bill receives Royal Assent at some future date—sooner rather than later, I hope.

I shall deal with each of the amendments in turn. Amendment No. 25 would require the Secretary of State to consult a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament before determining the number of members of Ofcom; in doing so, he or she would not be able to determine a membership of fewer than three or more than six. Members of the Committee might be forgiven for thinking that that would not leave much for a Joint Committee to consider, apart from whether the Secretary of State should determine a board of three, four, five or six members. That would be a rather unproductive use of parliamentary time and would be the cause of inordinate delay should it not be convenient to convene a Joint Committee at an appropriate time. Perhaps the amendment is really aimed at changes to the size of the board that might be made at a future date, should that prove necessary.

I remind the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that we had a long debate on Second Reading and that there was an exhaustive debate in another place. The hon. Gentleman is pointing to his copies of Hansard. The debate is worth reading, because it was excellent, although some hon. Members seized the chance to discuss what the communications Bill might contain, rather than the contents of this Bill.

On Second Reading we said that it might be necessary to increase the number of members of Ofcom at the time that it takes on its regulatory functions. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made an important point about people with disabilities. I feel strongly about that matter, and I think that we are now starting to understand its

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significance. Nine million people in this country are registered disabled—that is more than the populations of Scotland and Wales put together, although, of course, many people with disabilities live in Scotland and Wales. I am sure that the issue will be exhaustively debated during the passage of the communications Bill.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): On the point about the Joint Committee, the Minister said on Second Reading that he expects there to be pre-legislative scrutiny of the main communications Bill. He also said that he expects to appoint the chairman or chairwoman of Ofcom shortly, probably before that procedure takes place. Does he agree that it would be appropriate to consider questions of membership again during pre-legislative scrutiny, when we should have a clear idea of the likely identities of the chairman and other members?

Dr. Howells: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. That is the proper time to discuss the size of the Ofcom board, which could vary. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) made an important point about that. Parliament has been obsessed with debates about broadcasting, but the way in which technology is changing makes it likely that the board might require a member with expertise in a field that we do not yet understand and might not even be aware of. Sufficient flexibility to allow for that is necessary.

On Second Reading we said that it might be necessary to increase the number of members of Ofcom at the time that it takes on its regulatory functions, which will not happen before the substantive communications Bill receives Royal Assent. If it does prove necessary, clause 1(7) and (8) provides for the Secretary of State to make an order that would be subject to the annulment procedure in either House. I note that amendments Nos. 9 and 10 propose to do away with that power and procedure, but it is a perfectly reasonable and proportionate power for the Secretary of State to have. Rather than convene a Joint Committee, Parliament itself would have adequate opportunity to consider any proposed change to the size of the board.

Miss McIntosh: I realise that this is an intervention, but I want to make two points. First, the Minister has embarked on a totally different course. As I understand it, if the Secretary of State proceeds through a statutory instrument, the matter does not come before Parliament and hon. Members do not have a chance to discuss it. The amendments would bring the decision before the House.

Secondly, the purpose of amendments Nos. 25 and 26 is to obtain an undertaking from the Minister that Ofcom's board will never have more than 10 members. The Independent Television Commission said that it must not be so large and unwieldy that it is unable to discharge its responsibilities effectively, and we all agree that regulation must be effective. Is the Minister minded to ensure that the Joint Committee is

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consulted not only about the content of the broadcasting Bill, but about appointments to the board?

Dr. Howells: I cannot and will not give that assurance. I shall explain why in due course.

I turn, as the hon. Lady asks, to amendment No. 26, which would replace the current limit of not fewer than three or more than six members with a maximum number of 10 members in addition to the chairman and the chief executive. As the chairman and chief executive are automatically members, that would in effect provide Ofcom with a board of not fewer than two or more than 12 members.

Given that the Secretary of State will retain her power to determine the number of members, I am not clear whether the hon. Lady intends to press amendments Nos. 9 and 10, which would remove the associated order-making powers and allow for the annulment procedure to be applied to any such statutory instrument. Alternatively, does she intend that amendment No. 26, coupled with amendments Nos. 9 and 10, should set for all time the size of Ofcom's membership at a range of two to 12? Such inflexibility would create great difficulties.

Amendment No. 47, spoken to by the hon. Member for Ceredigion—although he is really an Aberdare boy, as one can tell from his accent—would have a slightly different effect in establishing a minimum number of three members, but no upper limit. At this point, I remind members of the Committee that initially Ofcom will have only one function—that of making itself ready to take on other functions at a later date. We would all love to get stuck in and ask about this interest or that interest, but the purpose of the Bill is to allow Ofcom to create itself. We are determined that during that process the board of Ofcom should be kept as small as possible, commensurate with the effective exercise of its responsibilities. Appointing a membership of between three and six should be sufficient to meet its needs during the initial preparatory stage.

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Mr. Thomas: I accept the Minister's points. He has outlined the procedure by which the Secretary of State can in future vary the number of Ofcom's members. He is right to consider future technology or future demands arising from the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, but why does he want to go through a statutory instrument process? I do not share Conservative Members' views on that. I would be perfectly happy for the Secretary of State to determine the number of members necessary for Ofcom, and to be answerable to Parliament, through written questions and so forth, for her decisions. Why do we need a statutory instrument? Why cannot there simply be a de minimis membership and we then give the Secretary of State discretion? Surely she is capable of making that decision.

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Dr. Howells: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's confidence in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I share his feelings entirely.

We must not get too Henry VIII about this. That sounds curious coming from a Minister, but there must be parliamentary accountability when serious issues arise, as they do from time to time. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention future constitutional settlements, which might be very different from present arrangements. We must have in place mechanisms such as statutory instruments and direct accountability to Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said. That is the most valuable mechanism to ensure real accountability. I am loth to say that the power is unlimited; it is important to retain some control.

Even when Ofcom is fully operational and has assumed its other functions, its board must not become too bureaucratic and unwieldy. We must keep it small and flexible so that it can react quickly to fast-changing circumstances. Indeed, some have argued that a board of three to six may be too large. The initial debates about what Ofcom should look like examined whether there should be a single regulator, as we used to call it, or whether—using the collegiate model favoured by my the hon. Member for Vale of York and myself—there should be two or three.

As I recall, we went through tortures. I am not sure whether any other member of the Committee was on the Committee considering the Bill that became the Utilities Act 2000. This Bill is paradise after that one. I went into the first day of Committee consideration of that Bill with 300 Government amendments to our own legislation; I then had to rip water and telecommunications out of it. The new regulator, Ofcom, must be capable of being debated and it must have flexibility to proceed. Remember that the four regulators that we were trying to put together under the Utilities Bill were individually powerful.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion referred to the water regulator. I remember him and think it appropriate to name him—Mr. Ian Byatt. I have great regard for Mr. Byatt, but he was a very authoritarian regulator when it came to deciding how many comparators there should be. As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, we should try to get away from that approach and adopt a broader one. Initially, our debate was about whether to have two or three people on the board as opposed to one; now we are talking about 10, 12 or more. We must get things in perspective.

The substance of the Bill is simply to set up Ofcom. That is the sole reason why the board is to be limited in number. We do not want it to become bureaucratic; we want it to be able to react quickly.

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