Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I shall not detain the Committee long, but I want to pick up on a couple of points. It is important that the Bill is fair in regulating the industry, but first and foremost it must concentrate on looking after the interests of the consumer. I say that in support of the hon. Member for Ceredigion-I hope that I said that right, having practised all morning.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East consistently stressed the telecommunications aspect of the Bill. That is fair enough, but that part of the industry currently has only a limited influence on children and vulnerable people, other than through internet. He is wrong to accuse Conservative Members of being over-concerned about media effects on the consumer; they need to be considered. That brings me back to my main point. Consumers' interests must come first, over and above those of the industry.

I had wondered why Northern Ireland was not mentioned in the amendments, but I have received a satisfactory explanation from the hon. Member for Ceredigion.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Gale. It will be a pleasure to consider the Bill under your chairmanship.

It was remiss of me not to respond to the point about radio that was raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield. Of course, he has great expertise in that field. I have been informed, reliably or otherwise, that when he worked for Radio Brighton he went by the name of ''Mickey Fabb''.

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Michael Fabricant: I want it on the record that the only person who has ever said that I worked under the name of ''Mickey Fabb'' was Simon Hoggart of The Guardian. I never used that name. He also said that I had a small mobile discotheque and was famous in Hove. That is also untrue.

The Chairman: That is fascinating, but it has nothing to do with Wales or Scotland.

Dr. Howells: I have taken note of everything that has been said. We have had an exhaustive debate, but I am sure that there is more to come.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the calls for representation and diversification. We understand the implications of the devolution settlement. However, this is a modest paving Bill; indeed, one Conservative Member described it as a mouse of a Bill. It will not shake the future of broadcasting, but merely set up Ofcom. We can have those discussions when we debate the substantive communications Bill.

It is important that Ofcom represents the interests of the various parts of the United Kingdom, and we want to ensure that that is done properly. We intend to keep the Ofcom board small and flexible initially-we should remember that Ofcom will not be regulating in the initial stages, after the Bill is passed. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ceredigion understands that it is impossible to establish a board that represents every single interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said that there will be demands from the substantial minorities who live in her constituency. That is proper, and it is the same everywhere.

One hon. Member-I am not sure who it was-referred to the different language in Scotland. I know that there is a small Gaelic minority there, but they just sound funny; they do not speak a different language from us.

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If the new creature were to take on board every single interest, it would be far too large and unwieldy, and it would be difficult to imagine it operating with any degree of efficiency. The Bill therefore does not provide for specific representation on the board from Wales or Scotland, nor from Northern Ireland or England. We should not forget that there are 50 million people in England, and they do matter. The board will be kept small, with between three and six members. The main communications Bill will include measures to ensure that the legitimate interests of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are properly represented within Ofcom's structures.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister makes an interesting point. We all accept that this is the paving Bill to set up Ofcom, which will either survive when the existing bodies are consolidated into a new Ofcom or be disbanded if that does not happen. Is the Minister saying that initially there will be a shell board that is very different in shape from the board of Ofcom as fully incorporated in the Bill that is yet to be presented to Parliament?

Dr. Howells: Yes, I am saying precisely that. It could be very similar or very different. That is a matter

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for Parliament to decide. We are, after all, the United Kingdom Parliament. We are not here to parrot the deliberations, aspirations or decisions of the devolved bodies. We are here as representatives of the constituencies of this Parliament. I owe allegiance to no other body than this one.

Michael Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I will not.

Amendment No. 49 goes too far in proposing that every committee set up by Ofcom should include a Welsh and a Scottish representative. In certain committees-a remuneration committee, for example-it is difficult to see what specific Welsh or Scottish interests would be involved.

I cannot envisage a Greater Milton Keynes standing assembly, but my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East was right to say that modern communications do not recognise frontiers or borders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, our needs in the valleys of south Wales are not unique-they are reflected in many parts of Great Britain-nor are the valleys unique in terms of topography, which causes problems in many parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate pointed out that London has similar difficulties. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport receives more letters from London about poor reception resulting from the construction of Canary wharf and its associated towers and the shadow that they cast across the area, than from any other part of Britain.

Miss McIntosh: I hope that the Minister will not respond by being rude to people north of the border. [Hon. Members: ''Which border?''] Perhaps I should have said north of Hadrian's wall. The Select Committee lamented the absence in the White Paper-an absence continued in the Bill-of any development of good links with the relevant policy Committees of the devolved assemblies.

Dr. Howells: I shall answer that in a moment. Where there are legitimate interests, Ofcom should ensure that they are reflected satisfactorily in the committees that it may establish.

Turning to amendment No. 54, in December 2000 the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), stated clearly in response to questions from hon. Members about whether Ofcom would have offices in Scotland and Wales that it would have a presence there. I am happy to reconfirm that in Committee. The details of how that will be achieved will be a matter for Ofcom. We should not be so heavy handed as to tell Ofcom what sort of office to set up, where to set it up and what its relationship should be with the devolved bodies, although I am determined that it will have a proper relationship with them.

Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), I expect Ofcom to consult closely with the devolved assemblies and the English regions to ensure that constituents' needs are taken into account in an appropriate way. The

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amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ceredigion raise some interesting issues about how best to ensure that Ofcom relates properly to the nations and regions. I am certain that those issues will have a good airing when we draft and put out to consultation the communications Bill.

Mr. Thomas: I want to tease out a little more on methods of consultation because I have suggested two ways of doing that. First, the assemblies could become involved in the appointment of Ofcom members either by being consulted or by directly appointing them. Secondly, amendment No. 51 would set up a Welsh advisory committee that would advise Ofcom on matters relating to the range of issues in Wales. I accept the Minister's statement that communications are cross-border, but government is not: it has been devolved within borders. Is he saying that we cannot address that issue in a paving Bill? Once we have laid the pavement we will be walking on it?

Dr. Howells: I am saying precisely that. One cannot do it in a paving Bill, and I do not want to do it in a paving Bill, because that would be the wrong move. Broadcasting in this country does not recognise the new borders because it is not a devolved matter; it is a matter for Parliament. [Hon. Members: ''S4C''] I hear S4C being mentioned, but it does not want to fall under the control of the National Assembly for Wales because it knows that it would not get half the money that it gets from the Westminster Parliament.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion tells the Committee his amendments reflect intense lobbying from Welsh broadcasters. There has been no lobbying, except from something called Radio Ceredigion. If he is saying that BBC Wales, HTV and S4C have been lobbying to make broadcasting a devolved matter, it is interesting that they have not bothered to lobby the Minister responsible for broadcasting. They have also not lobbied me about having a separate Ofcom.

Mr. Thomas: Will the Minister give way?

Michael Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No. I have given way to both hon. Gentlemen already. We must be careful not to assume that other bodies have a hold over us that makes us make decisions that we would otherwise feel were improper. The Bill simply sets up Ofcom, and it contains adequate powers to allow the Secretary of State to enlarge its board. I therefore oppose the amendment.

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