Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman does not want to specify a Select Committee, but the amendment refers to a ''designated'' Select Committee. Who will make the designation?

Mr. Allan: I am happy to leave that in the hands of the Secretary of State. In these circumstances the Select Committees on Culture, Media and Sport and on Trade and Industry both have a role. A joint hearing would be the ideal method of dealing with these appointments, but we are trying to establish a general principle in law that, as we establish powerful bodies, parliamentary Select Committees are given the crucial role of giving an independent stamp of approval to a Secretary of State's appointments.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman describes Select Committees as independent. What confidence does he have that decisions made in that way would not simply be rubber-stamping exercises, because the composition of Select Committees reflects the balance of Members in the House?

Mr. Allan: I would list the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), among others. A tradition has grown up whereby Select Committees exert a fair degree of independence. The best ones, and those that receive the most respect inside and outside the House, are those that demonstrate such independence.

I am a great fan of Select Committees. In general, once their members get together to work on an issue they take their responsibilities seriously, regardless of which party they come from, so they would rise to the challenge if they were given this additional function. The majority of members are always on the Government side, so ultimately no power is handed over. However, I believe that Labour Members in the current Parliament would take it seriously.

Paul Farrelly: The amendment proposes a constitutional novelty with which I would have some sympathy. The hon. Gentleman is looking to tease out some general acceptance of the idea, if not in relation to this Bill, as a general principle. Does he accept that we would need to agree procedures and rules of questioning, and that we would need to ensure that a Select Committee was the appropriate forum given that its role might be compromised by the

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appointment of people who were not up to the job and whom it might wish to criticise later?

Mr. Allan: The hon. Gentleman is correct. I would describe this as a paving amendment. As with an important body like Ofcom, if we can establish the principle, the procedures can follow later.

I hope that the Minister is amenable in spirit to the amendment. It is crucial to get a commitment on behalf of Secretaries of State that they can safely move forward to appointing people to public bodies in ways that will command far more respect. All Members, of whatever party, understand the criticism that constantly takes place. We heard it on Second Reading in relation to appointees to bodies such as the BBC. Parliament must do something about that, or we will devalue the bodies that we set up. We all want Ofcom to work well, regardless of who its chairman is. The amendment would give it an additional stamp of approval that would be helpful to it and to the authority of Parliament.

Brian White: I have some sympathy with the amendments, although I find it hard to accept criticism from the Tory party, which gave us privatisation and regulators appointed without consultation. I shall say no more about that, although it is tempting to do so.

I want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of individual regulators. Claire Spottiswoode, the former gas industry regulator, differed with the electricity regulator on how to deal with environmental considerations and on who had the power to do so. That gave rise to a lot of discussion when Ofgem was set up. The Minister was at the DTI at the time, so he will remember only too well the painful nights that he had as a result. Oftel under Don Cruickshank was a very different beast from Oftel under Dave Edmonds. The initial appointments to Ofcom are crucial, because the attitudes of those people will be fundamental to the way in which it works. We could pay a heavy price if we make mistakes at the outset. Ofcom will probably be the first body to introduce the EU framework directive, so it will be setting the trend not only for this country, but for the whole of the EU. Will the people who are appointed be broadcast biased? Will they recognise the needs of telecoms?

I have a certain amount of sympathy with the amendment, although it is not appropriate in such a paving Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme so graphically pointed out. The Government will have to grapple with the real issues that lie behind the amendment. Will the Minister address those concerns, if not necessarily in his response, then later? They will have to be addressed if we are to get Ofcom right.

4.15 pm

Michael Fabricant: I have some sympathy with several hon. Members' contributions. I was attracted to the Liberal Democrat proposition that the Select Committee should be asked to approve such appointments. I am attracted for two reasons. First, I relish the idea of the right hon. Member for

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Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) tearing apart anyone whom the Government propose as chairman or deputy chairman. We note the record of the Cultural, Media and Sport Committee, and its predecessor, the Select Committee on National Heritage, which systematically destroyed all the Secretaries of State in that Department.

Secondly, having a pro-American tendency, I see certain parallels with the position in the United States Congress and Senate. We should remind ourselves that Margaret Thatcher established Select Committees on the American model. Of course, American select committees-House committees, as they are known there-approve presidential appointments. The Liberal Democrat proposition is therefore attractive. Nevertheless, just as this is a paving Bill, I suspect that it is a teasing-out amendment.

The important question is: why have the amendments been tabled? I think that they were tabled for the protection of Ofcom. Earlier, I spoke about the BBC board of governors. I said that, in my view, they do a good job, but they have to be seen to be fair, as well as being fair. Being their own judge and jury creates difficulties. Recently, the Government appointed a new chairman of the BBC in the shape of Gavyn Davies, and of course the director-general is Greg Dyke. Both are extremely able people. I know Greg Dyke especially well from his background in London Weekend Television. During his few weeks with the BBC, he has done all the right sorts of things. Gavyn Davies had a distinguished career at Goldman Sachs, and he has been an excellent chairman. However, criticism has been made of those two appointments, because the BBC is a powerful media organisation, not only in the United Kingdom but in the world, and the two men are known to be supporters of the Labour party. The accusation was made that it was another example of cronyism. Had those appointments been considered by a Select Committee or Joint Committee of Parliament, the BBC would have been seen to have had fair appointments, and the Government would have been protected from accusations of cronyism.

Mr. Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman remind us of the political allegiance of Marmaduke Hussey, Richard Ryder and Christopher Bland?

Michael Fabricant: I do not have to do so, as by implication they were Conservatives. However, they were not all at the BBC at the same time, which is a big difference. Both Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke give huge amounts of money to the Labour party, and they are at the BBC at the same time. I am sure that they will bend over backwards to be fair, because they are professional people, and would not want accusations that the BBC's programming output is biased, although many would argue that it is. Nevertheless, they would have been protected from such accusations if there were a structure, as is being proposed, to ensure that a Government could not be guilty of cronyism.

However, I am not totally attracted, despite my natural inclination, to the Select Committee idea. While the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam rightly points out the independence of Chairmen such as the

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hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, and the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, that is not always the case. Moreover, the Chairmen may be independent-indeed, members of Select Committees should be, too-but we know that it does not necessarily work that way. People have ambitions and sometimes fall prey to the Whips.

Mr. Thomas: Surely the answer to the hon. Gentleman's conundrum is reform of the way in which Select Committees are compiled? A process is under way by which we will shortly-I hope-get them away from the Whips and have proper elections to find the best Members to be on Select Committees.

Michael Fabricant rose-

The Chairman: Order. We are here to discuss the Bill, not future reforms of the House of Commons.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Member for Ceredigion makes a powerful point, and I am sure that the Committee has noted it.

It is not that important who monitors and approves the appointments made by the Secretary of State or how that is done. However, an independent mechanism should be set up, either by the House of Commons or jointly by both Houses. That would protect not only Ofcom but the Secretary of State.

Glenda Jackson: I am immensely touched by the faith expressed by hon. Members as to the general public's view of parliamentarians. Every newspaper poll conducted shows that the two most despised professions in the country are journalists and politicians, in that order. I cannot perceive why people would have a greater belief in the independence of those appointed to Ofcom if the holders of those posts were appointed by parliamentarians. That is what the argument is about.

I can well understand the need for scrutiny of appointments, and I have already argued in Committee that it is right and proper that the appointment should, in the first instance, be made by the Secretary of State, as that way, there is a clear line of accountability to the person responsible. If the appointments are vested in the hands of parliamentarians from all parties-that is fair enough, but there will be a bias towards whichever is the majority party in any Government-and a wrong appointment is made, the clear line of responsibility to the electorate would simply not be there.

 
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Prepared 24 January 2002