Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: We are trying to help the Minister, although he might find it hard to grasp such a novel concept. I am full of admiration for his handling of the Utilities Bill. Through amendment No. 26, we seek a

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ministerial undertaking that the board of Ofcom will never be bigger than 10 members, plus the chairman and chief executive. Can he give us that commitment?

Dr. Howells: I cannot give the hon. Lady that commitment. I want the board to remain small, but circumstances may dictate that it should be larger.

I turn to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ceredigion on behalf of his hon. Friends on the nationalist side, or Scottish nationalists—I could stray into the dangerous territory of talking about the regions of England, but I will not, even though regional development agencies show that some regions have much larger populations than Scotland, Wales or the two combined. Those regions might press hard for future constitutional change that might give them greater self-determination than they currently enjoy. One expects our system of regulation to have sufficient flexibility to cope with such developments.

I am loth to accept the amendment, or the return to the days of Buggin's turn, or people being nominated for committees only to make up the numbers. That would be a dreadful fate for the Office of Communications, which, as so many hon. Members have said, is important for the future of broadcasting in this country.

Miss McIntosh rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before we come to the winding up from the mover of the amendment, it may be to the Committee's convenience to make it clear that if the hon. Member for Vale of York presses amendment No. 25, I will entertain separate votes on amendments Nos. 26, 47 and 9. I therefore require a clear indication of whether the amendment will be pressed.

Miss McIntosh: On a point of order, Miss Widdecombe, may I ask about a separate vote for amendment No. 26?

The Chairman: I said that I would take a separate vote on amendment No. 26, but will say so again for the sake of the Committee. Votes on amendments Nos. 26, 47 and 9 will be taken if the hon. Lady presses amendment No. 25.

Miss McIntosh: To assist the Committee, I will not press amendments Nos. 9 or 10, but I will press amendments Nos. 25 and 26. I did not hear what you said about amendment No. 8, Miss Widdecombe.

The Chairman: Amendment No. 8 is not a discrete amendment.

Miss McIntosh: In that case, I will press amendments Nos. 25 and 26.

The Chairman: Is that it?

Miss McIntosh indicated assent.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

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Division No. 1]

AYES
Fabricant, Michael
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Thomas, Mr. Simon
Watkinson, Angela

NOES
Bryant, Mr. Chris
Farrelly, Paul
Grogan, Mr. John
Howells, Dr. Kim
Jackson, Glenda
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Linton, Martin
Miller, Mr. Andrew
White, Brian

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 26, in page 1, line 5, leave out from ''of'' to end of line 6 and insert

    ''more than 10 in addition to the Chairman and Chief Executive''.—[Miss McIntosh.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided, Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Division No. 2]

AYES
Fabricant, Michael
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Watkinson, Angela

NOES
Bryant, Mr. Chris
Farrelly, Paul
Grogan, Mr. John
Howells, Dr. Kim
Jackson, Glenda
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Linton, Martin
Miller, Mr. Andrew
White, Brian

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 47, in page 1, line 6, leave out from ''three'' to end.—[Mr. Simon Thomas.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided, Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division No. 3]

AYES
Allan, Mr. Richard
Fabricant, Michael
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Thomas, Mr. Simon
Watkinson, Angela

NOES
Bryant, Mr. Chris
Farrelly, Paul
Grogan, Mr. John
Howells, Dr. Kim
Jackson, Glenda
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Linton, Martin
Miller, Mr. Andrew
White, Brian

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Thomas: I beg to move amendment No. 46, in page 1, line 6, at end insert—

    ''The Secretary of State shall ensure that the membership of OFCOM includes a representative for Wales and a representative for Scotland, and in appointing these national representatives the Secretary of State shall consult with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.''.

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 55, in page 1, line 6, and end insert—

    ''( ) In appointing members of OFCOM, the Secretary of State shall consult with the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting needs are considered.''.

No. 54, in page 2, line 18, at end insert—

    ''( ) OFCOM shall establish an office in Wales and an office in Scotland in order to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting needs are considered.''.

No. 53, in schedule, page 11, line 32, at end insert—

    ''(2A) As soon as possible after the end of each financial year, OFCOM shall also prepare and send to the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament a report of how OFCOM are ensuring that Welsh and Scottish interests are being adequately met.''.

No. 49, in schedule, page 12, line 9, at end insert—

    (c) for ensuring that the membership of every committee established by OFCOM contains at least one representative for Wales, and one representative for Scotland;

    (d) for consulting the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament in appointing the representatives referred to in sub-paragraph (1)(c).''.

No. 51, in schedule, page 12, line 22, at end insert—

    ''( ) OFCOM shall establish—

    (a) a Welsh Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Wales; and

    (b) a Scottish Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Scotland

    and shall, in appointing these Committees, consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.''.

Mr. Thomas: It might be for the convenience of the Committee if I briefly explain the purpose of the amendments before saying a little about their import and my reasons for tabling them.

Amendment No. 46 would ensure that representatives from Wales and Scotland were on the proposed Ofcom body from day one. There is, of course, flexibility for them to come in later, and we have just had that debate, but the amendment would ensure that they were included them from day one. It also provides for those appointments to be made in consultation with and by the recommendation of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.

The other amendments are associated amendments. Were amendment No. 46 to find favour with the Minister, the others would not be so important, as they build the case that amendment No. 46 would achieve at one stroke.

Brian White: Why should my region of England be excluded?

11 am

Mr. Thomas: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have tabled an amendment, if he feels that way. I am here as a Welsh nationalist Member of Parliament. If he wants to be an English regionalist Member of Parliament, he is free to table an amendment. His point reflects on him, not on me. I am here as a Plaid Cymru Member: he should understand that and understand where we in Plaid Cymru come from. We are here not as United Kingdom MPs, but as Welsh MPs.

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Although we often co-operate with hon. Members on both sides of the House, we remain Welsh Members of Parliament.

As for the Tories, I recall that it is former Conservative Members who join the Labour Party and become Labour Ministers and MPs in Wales, not the other way around. Our conservative members leave and join the Conservative party rather than stay in our party.

Amendment No. 55 would ensure that when appointing the members of Ofcom, the Secretary of State consulted the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament to ensure that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting and telecommunications needs were met. Broadband communication is especially important to Wales, because we in Wales failed to get broadband licences working as well as we would like. The amendment is very reasonable, and we see similar provisions turning up time and again in Government Bills. I am surprised that there is not one in this Bill.

Amendment No. 54 would require Ofcom to open an office in Wales and in Scotland—a public office to which members of the public and members of the organisations and industries regulated, controlled or light-touched by Ofcom would have access. That would bring Ofcom to the public and to a very useful level of answerability. It might happen anyway, but I think it useful to test the idea now.

Amendment No. 53 proposes that as well as the annual Ofcom report described in the Bill that, rightly and properly, will be laid before both Houses of Parliament, there should be an annual report to the National Assembly for Wales and to the Scottish Parliament on the work and activities of Ofcom in those countries. I do not think that that would undermine in any way Ofcom's answerability to the Houses of Parliament, which is in the primary legislation. It would add an extra veneer of accountability and an extra means by which people in Wales and Scotland could relate directly to what Ofcom was doing in their countries.

Ofcom will have the power to establish advisory committees, although we do not yet know what they will be. We have debated whether Ofcom will reflect, if not represent, many different interests; I suspect that that will happen mainly at advisory committee level. The board will be small and focused, perhaps to allow a large structure of advisory committees on its different responsibilities. Amendment No. 49 would establish the principle of having on all those advisory committees representatives from Wales and Scotland, who should be appointed in consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament respectively. It is for other hon. Members to advance a similar argument for other areas.

Amendment No. 51 would establish a Welsh advisory committee and a Scottish advisory committee—distinct geographical advisory committees to advise Ofcom on Welsh and Scottish matters. The key point is that, if amendment No. 46 is unsuccessful and there is not to be representation of

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Wales, for example, on Ofcom's board, it will be important that Ofcom has an advisory committee for Wales. That balance should be struck.

I do not want to take up too much of the Committee's time—

 
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Prepared 24 January 2002