Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Allan: I too have much sympathy with the amendment. The Minister referred to the Bill being described by others as a mouse, which I think does it a disservice. My understanding of the timetable for the evolution of Ofcom is that through the paving Bill, a chair of Ofcom will be put in place and board members appointed later in the year. Its full powers will not be taken on until the end of next year, and we are constantly referring to the communications Bill that will be published, but the timetable for that is that it will be published in late spring, and we do not know when late spring is. Quite properly, there is a long period of pre-legislative scrutiny, and the final draft of the communications Bill might not be produced until sometime in 2003.

The Ofcom that we create through the Bill will shape future communications policy for some time to come, and will have a significant role-it will not be a mouse of an Ofcom. Once the chairman is announced,

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it will become the major player in broadcasting, and on the internet and other communications issues that we want to keep on the agenda. Ofcom's shape, accountability and accessibility are important. The hon. Member for Ceredigion has identified specific interests that will properly need to be translated to Ofcom. We have received many such submissions in respect of this part of the Bill, and as Ofcom's chairman is appointed and it begins to evolve, organisations representing disabled people will properly want to have their input. They will not want to wait for the communications Bill, because a lot of decisions will have been taken by then, including decisions affecting the offices of existing regulators that deal with disability issues.

We anticipate some form of merger-otherwise, there is no logic to Ofcom. However, individual groups will doubtless feel that a particular merger or dismissal is inappropriate, or that the new structure for dealing with disability issues is unsuitable. Under existing legislation, there is no guarantee of an accessible route into Ofcom for those who wish to make representations. Although there is no point in delaying the Bill's passage, the Minister could help by giving us the guidance that we need as soon as possible, and certainly before completion of the main communications legislation, which will not happen for some time.

Dr. Howells: I told the Committee this morning-you were not present, Mr. Gale-that the draft Bill will be published in full. There will then be a period of approximately three months for full consultation. No one in this country will be unable to respond to that process, and we will ensure that all the hon. Gentleman's concerns will be addressed.

Mr. Allan: That is very helpful. It is perhaps safe to assume, therefore, that the rules governing the ability of interest groups-be they disabled people, people from regions and nations of the United Kingdom, or whoever-to access the Ofcom that we create in this transitional period will be those in the draft Bill. Presumably, one could read guidance on Ofcom's operation on completion and assume that the shadow Ofcom will operate in a similar fashion. The question of accessibility is at the heart of the amendment.

Dr. Howells: Obviously, I have not made this point clear. As the hon. Member for Lichfield said, the Ofcom that we are creating is a shell. We should not use the phrase ''shadow authority'' because there have been too many of those. According to the Bill, Ofcom has the function to form itself. It will not regulate or perform any other function until the substantive communications Bill receives Royal Assent, at which point the process of regulation begins.

Mr. Allan: I hesitate to disagree with the Minister about his Bill, but if that were Ofcom's sole function we would not need to consider a separate paving Bill. Ofcom will have a role in the intervening period-otherwise, there would be no point in creating it-which is to shape existing regulators. Ofcom itself will not regulate, but it will guide regulators on how the merger will take place. As I understand it, the purpose of the Bill is to guide regulators so that the transition to the full assumption of powers is smooth. For

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example, decisions on personnel in respect of existing regulators will have to be taken within the aegis of Ofcom, as set up under this Bill.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is very patient. He will know that, if a communications Bill had been included in last June's Queen's Speech, this Bill would have been unnecessary. The purpose of this paving Bill is simply to avoid a further six-month delay in the setting up of Ofcom, prior to the substantive communications Bill's receiving Royal Assent, hopefully in mid-2003.

3.30 pm

Mr. Allan: That is a helpful clarification. I shall consider the Minister's words, but I am not persuaded that the new chairman and board members of Ofcom will be sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen prior to the new legislation.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman might find clause 2, headed ''Initial function of OFCOM'', helpful in that regard. It states:

    ''It shall be the function of OFCOM . . . to do such things as they consider appropriate for facilitating the implementation of, or for securing the modification of, any relevant proposals about the regulation of communications.''

The paved Ofcom will surely do a great deal, therefore, in its first few months.

Mr. Allan: That is very helpful. It reinforces the central point-I do not want to labour it, as we have had a lengthy debate-of the amendment, which is that people with disabilities will want to make their views known during the new Ofcom's evolution. They will not want to wait until Ofcom is fully in place, because their natural suspicion is that it is much easier to make changes during the formative stage. Like other hon. Members, I will of course encourage people with disabilities to have their say when the draft communications Bill is published for consultation, but it is none the less valid to try to tease out their route to Ofcom. We will be paying those in Ofcom to do something, and that ''something'', as the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, could have implications for staffing and the new structures, although formal powers will not exist.

Michael Fabricant: It is absolutely right that this issue be discussed now, even though this is a paving Bill for a shell organisation. There are almost 9 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, and they should not be ghettoised. According to the Rowntree Foundation, the north-south divide and the gap between rich and poor has widened in this country in the past five years, and we want to ensure that the gap between the able-bodied and the disabled does not similarly widen. Indeed, there is no reason why it should, because the technology exists to prevent that, but Government action is none the less needed. The question of whether one person on the shell board should be responsible for achieving that aim is not that important. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, the amendment gives us the opportunity to discuss these matters now, and as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, if there were not more to the shell organisation, we would not be discussing this paving Bill.

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As I have said, the technology exists to try to narrow the gap between the able-bodied and the disabled, and there are very good reasons why we should enable access for the blind to, say, television. Many might question the need for that, given the existence of radio, but the blind need to interact with those who watch television. They should not be ghettoised. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East will probably chide me for again talking only about broadcasting, and he would be right to do so. He will know, however, that technology exists-I am not sure how it works-to enable the blind to use the internet. They should have access to it, but that argument needs a strong and powerful advocate, not only in the Government but in Ofcom. Is it really so wrong or unusual for someone to stand up and appeal for the 8.7 million people in this country who are disabled? I think not.

Glenda Jackson: It certainly is unusual if that person is a member of the Conservative party, who when in office fought tooth and nail to deny people with disabilities civil rights.

Michael Fabricant: I will treat that intervention with the contempt it deserves. Not only is it cheap, it is inaccurate. It is typical of the hon. Lady to interrupt me while I am speaking on the cause of the disabled with a cheap little party political point.

Miss McIntosh: I share in a more mild way my hon. Friend's outrage at the remarks of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate. I hope that he will agree that one of the major achievements of the outgoing Conservative Government was the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Michael Fabricant: I thank my hon. Friend for putting the record straight.

The Government have boasted about the plug-in modules that enable access to television through the audio description of programmes. Will the Minister confirm that those facilities have so far been made available to a total of 45 disabled people in this country? It is a start and I congratulate the Government on that, but 45 is a very small proportion of 8.7 million.

Mr. Bryant: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman cannot be deviating from the subject, Mr. Gale, because you would have pulled him up. Surely the point is not who is more on the side of the disabled, but how the views of people with disabilities can best be catered for. He asked how the BBC board of governors is constituted. No individual member has a specific responsibility for disabled people, but the BBC is better than any other broadcaster in Europe in showing its responsibilities towards them. The amendment may be a mistake because it might ghettoise disabled people. It might be better for responsibility to lie with all members of the board.

 
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