Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the hon. Gentleman not share the view of the official Opposition that, rather than making formal reference to representatives from the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament in the membership of Ofcom, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Highgate and Hampstead-

Glenda Jackson: Hampstead and Highgate.

Miss McIntosh: I stand corrected. I apologise to the hon. Lady.

Glenda Jackson: You managed to say Ceredigion-

The Chairman: Order.

Miss McIntosh: I shall manage to say it properly next time.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Is this a speech?

Miss McIntosh: No, it is not. Do the Liberal Democrats not agree with the official Opposition that it would be better to do what the Select Committee suggested, which is to have a formal mechanism for consultation with the relevant Committees of the devolved assemblies?

Mr. Allan: I was trying express sympathy for that view by referring to amendment No. 55, which expresses that point. The devolved assemblies will take their own view about how they should be represented on UK-wide bodies. What we seek and what the hon. Member for Ceredigion is trying to tease out is a commitment to respect the new constitutional

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structure of the United Kingdom whenever we establish a new UK-wide body.

There are different ways to achieve that. It would be a shame to go through the entire Bill without even recognising the issue and without having any statement on the record from the Minister about how he intends to deal with it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion on instigating the debate. I hope that the Minister's response will show that there will be respect, not so much for language, but for the constitutional structure that now pertains.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): As one who grew up in Belfast, I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Ceredigion restricted himself to Welsh issues. That demonstrates what Plaid Cymru is about.

I am worried about the fixation on regional issues. A debate that is solely about Wales and Scotland-and Northern Ireland, perhaps-ignores the vast majority of the people of the United Kingdom. There are regional issues in England-centering on Cornwall and other parts of the country-as well as other interests that are ignored when we become fixated on geography.

Previous debates exhibited a tendency to treat the Bill as a broadcasting measure, not a communications measure. We seem to be fixated on the broadcasting element rather than on the new technologies and their convergence, and the other issues with which Ofcom will have to deal. If Ofcom is pushed down the route of dealing primarily with broadcasting issues and ignoring the far more fundamental regulatory issues, we are in for trouble.

I regret the emphasis on broadcasting. There is a distinct problem with it, in that Ofcom will have to deal with issues of dominance as Oftel has done. That will be a key issue for the new regulator, which will not be better equipped to deal with Welsh issues, Scottish issues or Orkney issues by having each of those different elements vested in a board member. Those issues need to interact with the board, and the board needs to be small so that it can interact properly. What is important is the processes that are set up under Ofcom, not the creation of vested interests on the board.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is correct to a certain extent, but is he not in danger of losing sight of one of his Government's great achievements? Devolution comprises the institution of a legislative Assembly in Wales and a fully legislative Parliament in Scotland. Surely, that demands that any UK body should deal with them in an appropriate way. One way is suggested in the amendments, and I would be delighted if the Minister came up with another.

2.45 pm

Brian White: I believe that devolution is unfinished business. I am a strong supporter of regional government for this country, in which we have a long way to go. The hon. Gentleman may have achieved devolution in his part of the United Kingdom, but I long for the day when there is a regional assembly in the south-east to deal with issues

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that affect it, not least its relationship to London. Real issues, particularly economic ones, require regional government, but I will not go into that because you would rule me out of order, Mr. Gale. However, England has strong regional issues that need addressing.

Questions such as how Ofcom and its set-up will deal with the European Union framework directive on telecommunications are critical for the success of the industry. As the hon. Member for Lichfield said, we lead the world in this area and it is important that Ofcom enables that to continue. Although it is important to recognise the interests of Scotland and Wales, to introduce artificial barriers that require board members to be their representatives would undermine Ofcom and its effectiveness. It is critical to have a small board to set up processes of communication, consultation and two-way interaction. That is far more important than having an artificial element on the board, as the amendment suggests.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): In speaking in support of the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, I should declare an interest. I had a Welsh paternal grandmother and am proficient at pronouncing Glamorgan and Neath.

The arguments for the amendment are similar to those for having more people on the board. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate was right to say that we cannot have an enormous representative body because it would get out of hand. However, the number suggested is too small to encompass the spectrum of needs and interests that we have heard about. It must be larger, with a sensible balance so that the interests of customer groups in Wales and Scotland, and of those people to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) referred, who do not want swearing and gratuitous sex and violence on the television. A wide spectrum of interests should be on the board to ensure that everybody's needs are considered.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): It is certainly true that Wales has special needs in relation to broadcasting, broadband, the internet and almost every field that will fall within the scope of Ofcom. It is good that those issues are being aired.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion did not mention that Wales enjoys the highest level of digital television penetration in Britain. I have said many a time and oft in the House that that is partly because many people want to watch Channel 4 as well as S4C-and some want to watch S4C as well as Channel 4-because of border area complications and sports rights, particularly rugby rights. However, that does not mean that we must go down the route that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

We do not have the 10-member option; we are talking about two of six-possibly two of three-members of the board of Ofcom being devoted to Wales and Scotland.

Mr. Thomas: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Minister said that he has powers to introduce at any time statutory instruments to vary the number of

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members. It would be in order to accept the amendment, and for the Minister to table the necessary instruments.

Mr. Bryant: It would indeed be in order, but not sensible because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, we are not talking about a representative body. I worry that hon. Members appear to think that Ofcom should be some sort of council on which every affected interest group-such as the disabled and radio interests-is represented and has a person to whom they can put their case. As my hon. Friend said either we would end up with vast numbers of people, or a fierce process of discrimination would be mounted. Later amendments refer to whether religious broadcasting should have special notification in the process. That, too, would be wrong.

Broadcasting should not be devolved for the reason acknowledged by the hon. Member for Ceredigion: many parts of the country already have problems with channels being received according to the side of the border on which one lives, or in which direction the valley points. As for internet connections, digital television and other issues, the Welsh valleys have more in common with many ex-coalfield areas in England than with parts of north Wales. It makes more sense to have a small regulatory body, especially for the initial processes dealt with in the paving Bill.

The amendment fails before the basic tenet of the Bill. Convergence of the internet, television and telecommunications is the reason why we must bring the regulatory bodies together. The amendment proposes the opposite of convergence: disintegration in a variety of forms. Whether one splits things up into radio, internet and television, or into Scotland, Wales, England, the regions and so on, all those who support the amendment have failed to acknowledge convergence in the industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said, that is a problem because the EU has a significant role in the framework directive being introduced, much of which will be incorporated in the next Bill. If we start to break down Britain into representative parts, we will do a gross disservice to the broadcasting, telecommunications and communications industry in this country.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): The hon. Member for Lichfield set a precedent this morning by declaring non-interests. I will join him by saying that I am not Welsh, nor have I a drop of Welsh blood-I am Irish. However, my wife affects to be Welsh and my four month-old daughter, Aneira, is named after the great Nye Bevan.

I am sympathetic to the aims of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, as is the Minister. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is from Aberdare, or an original Pontypridd boy, but he is definitely Welsh to my ears and he has made it clear that his views on accountability are strong.

My problem with amendment Nos. 46 and 55 is different from that of my hon. Friends the Members

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for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) and for Hampstead and Highgate. I had the same problem with the unsuccessful Conservative amendments Nos. 25 and 8. Those amendments tried through the back door to change the system in Parliament to a United States-style system of ratification of appointments, without properly worked out procedures. That is a matter for fundamental House of Commons reform and I look to Opposition Members' future proposals to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to complete that process.

Amendment Nos. 46 and 55 run the danger of extending that process even further to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Their practical effect might be to bog down a sensible paving Bill in rows about individual appointments. I would be the last to suggest that the Opposition were up to mischief, but many Conservatives in the House did not want this paving Bill at all. When he was not straying on to Mrs. Whitehouse's territory, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury made it clear that he did not want the Bill either. I am glad that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) did not take that approach today, and that our debate has been constructive.

The amendments are tantamount to a wrecker's charter that might lead to futile rows that would overshadow the launch of Ofcom, which is to do valuable work in many areas, including the digital superhighway and broadband.

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