Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Paul Farrelly: Much has been made of the alleged vacuum that a Bill such as this will leave, rather than it being seen as a sensible, preparatory step. Does the hon. Lady agree that these paving arrangements are nothing new? The Financial Services Authority was set up in advance of the city legislation taking effect, and the transitional arrangements worked well. There was not a massive outcry when that legislation was enacted.

Miss McIntosh: I will be grateful if the hon. Gentleman can confirm my recollection that similar measures were proposed at the Committee stage of

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that Bill. We are following exactly the same procedure in tabling these two amendments.

Paul Farrelly: My point is that there was no vacuum. The measure is a sensible preparatory step, but it is being presented as if it will lead to a vacuum.

Miss McIntosh: I do not want to repeat arguments that were well rehearsed on Second Reading, as you will rule me out of order, Mr. Gale. I simply regret that we are being prevented from considering the two matters because that stifles debate. How can we debate which people are best able to do the job when we do not know what the job is?

The purpose of the amendments is to recognise, as one regulatory body has done already, that matters are proceeding apace and it is regrettable that the main communications Bill has been delayed. The Independent Television Commission welcomed the Government's commitment during the final stages of the Bill in the other place to publish the main communications Bill in the spring and invite Parliament to set up the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee to which I have referred. The ITC is confident that that deadline will be met, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that spring will not become early summer and that he means before the end of March. The Easter and Whitsun recesses have been announced today and they are longer than I have experienced in my short time in the House, and that may push back matters even further.

I received a useful communication from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, which said

    ''We also believe that the appointment of the Chief Executive and members of the Board should be subject to approval of a Select Committee.''

I believe that the best way of conducting such approval would be through a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee rather than the relevant Select Committee, as proposed by amendment No. 41. One problem that we will have in the House in relation to establishing Ofcom and reviewing its work is that neither the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, whose work which we have referred to with admiration, or the Select Committee on Trade and Industry is responsible. The Minister may like to share with us an advance announcement that owing to the poor performance of successive Secretaries of State, the Department of Trade and Industry is to be phased out and its responsibilities merged, as was advocated by the Select Committee report on the communications White Paper. I am happy to give way if the Minister wants to make such an announcement, but we may have to wait until the reshuffle, which may be sometime in the spring.

This debate follows on from amendment No. 48, and I want the Minister to tell us precisely what he envisages as the role of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. Will he confirm whether he is minded to support amendment No. 34? The Committee's role would be to consult on, consider and report on

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appointments of the chairman in amendment No. 34 and the deputy chairman in amendment No. 36.

4 pm

Paul Farrelly: Before my hon. Friend responds, will the hon. Lady confirm that what she describes as a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee is nothing of the kind? It is a ratification Committee.

Miss McIntosh: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's agreement that the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee should ratify the appointments. That is precisely the thrust of my amendments. I am grateful to him for expressing it in a much simpler, clearer way than I did.

Paul Farrelly: The Labour party has made it clear that it is committed to pre-legislative scrutiny to improve legislation. However, the hon. Lady has effectively agreed that she is discussing a ratification Committee. We should be clear about what she is asking the Minister.

Miss McIntosh: Yes, it is a form of appointment ratification. It could lead to congressional-style hearings of a limited duration; obviously, the candidates will be experts in the field. It would overcome the problem of not having a Select Committee until the departmental responsibilities have changed. DTI responsibility may be removed in some reshuffle; the Minister may like to refute that. As such, it would be more appropriate to use the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee for that purpose.

The Minister said that there would be a three-month consultation period following publication of the Bill in the spring. When is spring? We had a discussion about the autumn budget-

Dr. Howells: Spring is when it warms up a bit.

Miss McIntosh: On that basis, we in north Yorkshire do not have spring until August; thus, the Minister is not raising our expectations of early consideration. However, I hope that he understands the thrust of my remarks. Ofcom will be established, a chairman and deputy chairman will be appointed and it will consider the functioning of the regulations before we have even had possession-[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. This Chairman wishes to hear at all times what is said by the Member who has the Floor, from whichever party. I have been tempted to say this earlier during our deliberations: if Members wish to have private conversations, there are comfortable green benches outside where they may do precisely that. I prefer that such conversations do not take place in the Room.

Miss McIntosh: As ever, I am grateful, Mr. Gale. The Minister said that Ofcom will be established and the chairman and deputy chairman will be appointed before the House considers the communications Bill. Therefore, does he agree that it is entirely appropriate that the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee should be consulted and should have the opportunity to consider the appointments?

The Government recognised the importance of the Committee when they agreed to set it up during discussion in the other place. However, they have not told us what its role and constitution will be or when it

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will be set up. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to do so.

Mr. Allan: I rise to speak to amendment No. 41, which the Minister shall find as resistible as the invitation of the hon. Member for Vale of York to abolish a Government Department. I have no illusions about the amendment's fate, but it is important to put something on the record about it. My mother always told me that spring is sprung when the grass is riz. Thus, we must look out for the grass rising to know when the Bill will be introduced.

Opposition Members are suggesting that Ofcom appointees by the Secretary of State should appear before a Select Committee, and the hon. Member for Vale of York discussed the consideration of such appointments. I would not expect the substantive Bill to be different from the paving Bill if it returns to that issue, which means that the Secretary of State would make the appointments, it would be a done deal and Parliament would have no further role in the matter.

As a matter of principle there would be a better relationship between Parliament and the Executive if Parliament had a role in respect of a range of appointments. In a sense, we are referring to the system by which the Treasury Select Committee interviews appointees to the monetary policy committee before they are appointed. It is not a formal confirmation, but there is a clear understanding that the Treasury Select Committee has a role to play. Again as a matter of principle, the idea that Select Committees should have a role in appointments to powerful non-departmental public bodies is helpful. By definition, the Government have a majority of members on every Select Committee, and if we are discussing political balance the Government can always get their way. The regulators and other non-departmental public bodies would benefit in terms of their legitimacy by offering their appointees up for consideration by the House before those appointments are made.

As the Government consider how they can reform the constitution, I hope that they will be sympathetic to that point of view. They may not want to concede the point on this Bill for this particular regulator, but I hope that they do not feel hostile to the general principle that Parliament should have a role in appointments to powerful positions.

The MPC analogy is appropriate to Ofcom because if one accepts the premise that information is the currency of the new economy, Ofcom's position will be fundamental. It will be so powerful if it regulates broadcasting across all potential media, which will include the internet and telephony. Ofcom will be in a sensitive political position because of that, and we have not previously been in a position in which the media and our means of distribution of information is regulated by a political force, but we read about such cases in the newspapers on a daily basis. In different countries around the world, including European countries, certain people have been elected who have large media interests, and there are concerns around that. The Ofcom position will be sensitive in political terms as well as in terms of the amount of power that it will have.

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When we discuss these matters we must put our alternative point of view and hope that the Government will consider, and in time come to agree with us, that both Houses of Parliament, in their independent role through their Select Committees, are able to give additional legitimacy to positions like this without threatening the Government's and Secretary of State's ability to appoint people. Indeed, if the people concerned are halfway decent, as I am sure that they will be, they should have no fear of appearing before a Select Committee, as they will have to do that once they are appointed. They would be in a stronger position if they had a parliamentary stamp of approval.

We have not specified which Select Committee should be involved because their responsiblities change. We hoped that this would future-proofed if we discussed an appropriate Select Committee.

 
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Prepared 24 January 2002