Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Dr. Howells: I was going to say that I take seriously any public broadcasting service that, on the same weekend, shows ''The Bridges of Madison County'' and Pontypridd rugby club's magnificent victory over cash-rich Saracens. So excited was I by the end of the game that I was not sure whether it had been shown on BBC, or whether the commentary was in Welsh and it was shown on S4C, so the BBC may not deserve my congratulations.

The hon. Member for Vale of York was refreshingly honest in saying that she thought that the Conservative Government had made a mistake in

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their relationship with the BBC. I hope that she does not go as far as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson).

Miss McIntosh: May I correct the Minister's misapprehension? I did not say that the Conservative Government had made a mistake, nor would I like that suggestion to be placed on the record. I said that the present Government are about to make a mistake, for reasons that I shall mention when answering the debate.

Dr. Howells: It gives me great pleasure to withdraw the compliment that I paid the hon. Lady—she was not refreshingly honest after all.

The scope of Ofcom's initial function would be expanded to include any proposals made by the Secretary of State to bring the BBC board of governors within its remit. Under amendment No. 20, a person would not be prevented from being appointed as chairman or a non-executive member of Ofcom simply because of his membership of the BBC board of governors.

I made clear on Second Reading that the purpose of the Bill is to set up Ofcom and lay down its initial functions. Much of what was said during the debate was not relevant to the Bill. A number of remarks were made about the relationship between Ofcom and the BBC—indeed, that issue formed the meat of the debate. I said that we would look at the issue seriously, which we are doing. However, the time for serious, detailed discussion of the issue will be when the draft version of the main communications Bill is published in spring. I hope that hon. Members have received a briefing note that sets out clearly the Government's policy on the BBC and Ofcom. I do not intend to go into the detail of the proposed arrangements at this time because that is not what the Bill is about.

I shall resist the amendments, because clause 2 already gives Ofcom the power it needs to facilitate or secure the modification of any proposals relating to the BBC. I cannot stress enough that the power already exists. Under clause 2(1), Ofcom has the power to do whatever is appropriate in preparing for its task. The BBC's charter will allow it to prepare for implementing our legislative proposals. The phrase

    whether by transfers from the existing regulators or otherwise

in clause 2(3) means that Ofcom's power is not limited to transfers from existing regulators, as defined in the Bill, but that transfers from the BBC can be included.

I am satisfied that the powers in the Bill are sufficient to cover the points that we are debating. They will allow Ofcom and the BBC to make preparations for implementing the new regulatory regime. When the time comes, they will not prevent proper debate of the exact relationship between Ofcom and the BBC, nor will they pre-empt the outcome of that debate.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for the Minister's comments. I regret that my powers of seduction did not win the day. It has been a good debate, even though the Opposition were temporarily underpowered while my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield was elsewhere.

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The White Paper refers to the BBC's governors as

    the trustees of public interest in the BBC—ensuring that the organisation is properly accountable while maintaining its independence. It is the Governors' responsibility to ensure that the BBC is properly regulated, is on the right strategic course and is effectively managed.

Paragraph 8.1 of the White Paper states:

    We shall create a new unified regulator—Ofcom—responsible for the communications sector. The regulator will be independent, will act at arm's length from the Government but will work closely with the DTI, DCMS and other relevant departments, including on European and other international negotiations.

11.30 am

Let me dwell for a moment on the independence of the BBC. Occasionally, the BBC is accused of bias. I hope that someone from the BBC is listening today and the message is carried back to the BBC that its bias on certain occasions does not always go unnoticed. I did not watch a great deal of television during the general election last year, but when I did, it was to catch up with the news. I regularly watched ''Newsnight'', having missed the earlier bulletins.

Amazingly, every night the BBC ''Newsnight'' team dealt with a target seat for the Government and claimed that it was a marginal seat. I am not a card-carrying member of the National Union of Journalists, as other members of the Committee have the good fortune to be, but I would have thought that the real story was the possibility that a Minister occupying a marginal seat might lose it and so lose power. We had identified 60 Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries who fell into that category. That, to me, would have been an exciting story. However, every night ''Newsnight'' religiously carried the story of a Conservative-held marginal seat. It is flattering that the BBC thought at that stage that the Conservatives were still in Government, and that they were the real story.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, but I would not condemn the BBC too much. It said that with a majority of just 238, I was doomed, so I can only assume that my majority increased to 4,500 because of the coverage that I received from the BBC.

Miss McIntosh: That just goes to show that my hon. Friend should not be written off too quickly.

That ''Newsnight'' coverage was a clear instance of bias. I have never had the opportunity to recount it before.

Paul Farrelly: As a despised card-carrying member of the journalistic profession, I remind the hon. Lady that journalists, like other people, are guided by opinion polls. At that time, the polls were decidedly against the Conservative party. Like any other news programme, ''Newsnight'' deals with news, not with Alice in Wonderland fantasy.

Miss McIntosh: I do not want to debate those issues. However, I was appalled by the remarks made last week by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), who referred to the popularity of politicians as on a par with that of actors and actresses, or journalists and lawyers.

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Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): If the hon. Lady is referring to a contribution that I made in a previous sitting of the Committee, I never once used the words ''actor'' or ''actress''. The words I used were ''politicians'' and ''journalists''. Perhaps she would like to apologise.

Miss McIntosh: I apologise; I shall reread the record more carefully. Perhaps we can at least agree that estate agents outrank us all in the unpopularity league.

As I said, I would like to dwell on the question of independence. In forthcoming debates, I want to discuss regional television, which was referred to in the margins of the Select Committee report. Regional television is coming under

    The Government intends that OFCOM will be responsible for agreeing targets for regional production with the BBC and monitoring the Corporation's compliance with them.

We are mindful of that issue, which provides another reason why the BBC should be brought within the remit of the Bill.

The White Paper clearly states that the BBC's role must be independent but, for reasons that I have mentioned, that independence is sometimes called into question. I draw the Committee's attention to the powerful conclusion in the Select Committee report, which states:

    By failing to provide for an integrated approach by the new regulator to all broadcasters including the BBC, the Government has left a large amount of unfinished business. We find it absurd to suggest that Parliament's role in reviewing the BBC's status would somehow be diminished if the BBC were subject to equal treatment with other broadcasters in legislation that will doubtless be subject to extended and detailed consideration by both Houses of Parliament.

It is regrettable that the Government have not taken the opportunity to air those views in debate on the Bill, because they are storing up problems for themselves that will emerge when the main Bill comes before the House and the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, and the charter comes up for review about the time of the next election. It would be untimely to have that debate in the run-up to a general election.

The BBC does not have a monopoly on public service. S4C—the broadcasting company established by the last Conservative Government—is a public service broadcaster with the strongest public service remit of any channel, in that it broadcasts high-quality television in Welsh when there is no Welsh television provision on any other channel. The debate should not be clouded by the insinuation that the BBC has a monopoly and that public service broadcasting is solely in its preserve.

I regret that the Committee does not agree that this is the time and place to discuss that matter. I shall not press the amendment to a Division, but I reserve the right to discuss the matter at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 7, line 28, at end insert—

    '(5) In making appointments the Secretary of State shall take into account the need to secure appointments of persons with experience of—

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    (a) regional television;

    (b) religious broadcasting;

    (c) competition aspects of media ownership;

    (d) mobile phones;

    (e) broadband technology;

    (f) internet; and

    (g) the radio sector.'.

The Minister will recall that the subject matter of the amendment was not discussed on Second Reading. However, it is important to add to the schedule that, when the Secretary of State makes appointments, she should have regard to the need to appoint people with relevant expertise. I crave the indulgence of the Committee as I share my thoughts on the need for including certain areas of expertise.

All Committee members will be aware that regional television, in its entertainment and news programming, has undergone fundamental change: for example, the ratings war has escalated. I am proud of the fact that Yorkshire Television produces ''Countdown'' and that Granada Television produces ''Coronation Street'', which is the subject of an all-party parliamentary group considering all aspects of that programme. A further change that cannot have escaped people's attention is that income from advertising has fallen. That trend may have been influenced by the events of 11 September: during the economic downturn of last year, we became aware of the serious drop in income from advertising.

Both those factors—ratings and the drop in income—have increased the pressure on BBC and ITV television news programmes. The amendment would ensure that some experience of regional television would be reflected on the board of Ofcom. I am concerned that regional television may change further. News teams are under increasing pressure, and the regional news programmes on Sundays and late on Thursdays, from which hon. Members all benefit, are under serious threat. There is an omission from paragraph 1(4) of the schedule, in that no account is taken of the growing pressure on regional television.

It could be argued that religious broadcasting is a specialist area. It is important to note that ''Songs of Praise'' and Sunday radio programmes are coming under increasing pressure for their slots. There should be a place for such broadcasting; that place should be secured, or even increased, as people who cannot go to church often find it a lifeline. The lack of reference to a background in religious broadcasting in paragraph 1(4) is an omission.

The White Paper and the Select Committee report examine at some length the competition aspects of media ownership. The White Paper even considered how our European partners deal with media ownership. I give notice that I shall, at the proper time, request a stand part debate on clause 2. I regret that one of the greatest omissions—the Minister must accept that it is huge—is the Bill's silence on the competition role that Ofcom is clearly being asked to play.

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Prepared 29 January 2002