Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend recall that the Select Committee report discussed the need for two sides to Ofcom, one concerned with the provision of the programming and the other with delivery, including the ownership of the means of delivery? Does that reinforce her argument that such matters should be covered in the paving Bill?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his pertinent remark and for the experience that he brings to the Committee, having been a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee when it considered the White Paper. His comment enhances my argument.

In competition matters, Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading will both have a role. Perhaps it is because I am by profession a lawyer, albeit not practising at present, or because I did my traineeship at the European Commission, but I have received representations expressing horror at that omission from several bodies that will be subject to regulation. They insist that it should be rectified. In fact, NTL argues that a new clause should be inserted as follows:

    the Secretary of State shall ensure that . . . at least two members of OFCOM are qualified lawyers or economists,

adding that

    A lawyer will be qualified for these purposes only if . . . he has a seven year general qualification

or

    he is an advocate or solicitor in Scotland of at least seven years' standing.

11.45 am

To have gone to such a degree of specificity may not have won much support from the Minister or from other members of the Committee, but the crucial point is brought home strongly by the way in which Directorate-General IV of the European Commission does its work. For example, it receives a considerable amount of information from journalists writing for the Financial Times that was perhaps not available through any other medium. However, in addition, most of the people who work full time for Directorate-General IV, and possibly for the OFT in this country as well, are either lawyers or economists.

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend suppose that it is because they are lawyers that they argue continuously for the protection of French and German language programming, which neither the French nor the Germans wish to watch?

Miss McIntosh: I will not rise to that interesting provocation, but I shall think about my hon. Friend's comment during the day.

If the intention is that the Bill should remove barriers to cross-media ownership, it should state, as the amendment proposes, that appointees should include someone who is familiar with the competition aspects of media ownership, either through their legal or economic expertise. That subject could open a can of worms when we come to consider the main Bill. It is important that the board should include a lawyer and, perhaps, an economist.

I turn to the requirement in the amendment to appoint someone with expertise on mobile phones. I

Column Number: 93

have been greatly assisted by Orange, which I am sure has written to all members of the Committee; that is Orange, the mobile phone company, not the colour. My favourite colour is, of course, blue. Orange implies that Ofcom will have a fuller role even before the introduction of the communications Bill and it would wish the Government and the Committee to agree to include a reference to someone on the Ofcom board having expertise in mobile phones.

The White Paper was helpful in setting out the background to broadband technology. The Bill is being introduced at an exciting stage in technological development. We have seen the Government's last round of mobile licences and, at the same time, BT has been seeking to develop broadband technology. I have received several briefings from BT, including one very local briefing. It has introduced a facility for the latest state-of-the-art broadband technology at the cluster that surrounds the university of York. In fact, it might be in the constituency of the hon. Member for Selby, which I usually have the occasion to visit every year or 18 months. We are all immensely proud of that impressive facility in north Yorkshire.

Regrettably, the broadband technology was put in place where it was thought that there would be most demand, but I discovered at a meeting with local businesses in my constituency that demand seems to be greater at Clifton Moor, north of York. I hope that when we discuss the next stage, we will argue that we should knock some heads together and get those who are trying to develop state-of-the-art broadband technology—whether they are in telecommunications or other areas of communications—to work together.

Having a representative with experience of broadband technology on the board would help Ofcom to carry out the task that we imagine it will have under the communications Bill. It is important to recognise that neither the Government nor, indeed, the official Opposition wants to regulate the internet through Ofcom, other than in the ways alluded to in the White Paper and the Bill. It is, however, important that a member of the board should have background knowledge and some years' experience of the internet.

Finally, there is the radio sector. Clearly, I am not suggesting that one person should encompass all the expertise and responsibilities that I have listed, but I am mindful of the fact that Ofcom will have to make decisions about different sectors and that the Bill does not provide for it to draw on the relevant experience.

Paul Farrelly: Blue is also my favourite colour, because of its scarcity value. Does the hon. Lady derive perverse pleasure from using her list to put the Minister in a straitjacket? We could formulate lists of other sectors that were not represented, such as television programme making, religious broadcasting and wildlife broadcasting. What about people with experience of ''Bob the Builder'' or even ''Coronation Street''?

Miss McIntosh: I shall respond most vigorously to that point, because the straitjacket was imposed by the Minister or by whoever drafted the Bill without including the provisions in the amendment. The Bill simply includes four categories, and it is the poorer for

Column Number: 94

that. The Government have made a serious omission by not extending the categories, and we should adopt the amendment because of precisely the problems that the hon. Gentleman identified.

We have received several representations from the radio sector. Ofcom will look specifically at the role of the Radio Authority, radio ownership, the onward sale of radio licences and cross-media ownership. Again, we must appoint someone with a background in radio, the sector that Ofcom will be seeking to develop. I would not like to take away the impression that the Government were ignoring the radio sector and looking only at television as a broadcasting medium. That would be a false impression, and I hope that the Minister will be minded to secure for the board the expertise of someone from radio.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) identified, the Bill imposes a straitjacket. The Minister will find the amendment extremely helpful, because it would expand the expertise available to Ofcom.

12 noon

Brian White: First, may I make an apology? I should have declared an interest when I first spoke last week. I am the chairman of EURIM—the European Informatics Market group—which brings together parliamentarians, the IT industry and others. Indeed, we shall be meeting the team working on the communications Bill next week. I apologise for not having made that declaration last week.

The amendment goes to the crux of the Bill, but it makes a fundamental mistake. On Second Reading, I alluded to what we wanted regulations for, and I went through the types of regulation. The regulations were set up to try to create market conditions at a time when a state-owned industry was being liberalised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme seeks to portray my arguments as those of a techie. I refute that; my arguments are more about his field of economics and the way in which Ofcom will interact with market forces. As the new framework document takes effect, we shall be considering not just the old, monopolistic industries such as BT, but players with significant market influence; mobile phone companies and some of the television companies. The document deals with a range of fundamental issues, but it does not look to the challenges of the future.

We are considering the communications industry and talking about convergence. Rather than going through a list of the historical ways in which the industries have developed, as the amendment seeks to do, we need to find people who can read financial data and who understand how the technologies are changing market forces. We must ask whether price control is the appropriate mechanism to intervene in the market and whether issues such as access are dealt with. Those are the critical issues, and those are the skills that we need to secure for Ofcom, rather than asking for people with experience in a particular field. Those skills are not highlighted in the amendment.

Column Number: 95

The games industry is not mentioned in the amendment. It is one of the most significant contributors to the British economy and we should consider how it interacts with TV, with broadcasters and with mobile phone suppliers. Oftel, in its current form, will be concerned about some aspects of that, but it is not mentioned.

Michael Fabricant: Apart from my brief exit, I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's remarks with interest. While Miss Widdecombe has already said that she will not accept manuscript amendments, surely the hon. Gentleman, who makes a powerful point, could have added those very criteria in an amendment of his own.

Brian White: I certainly could. However, that misses the point that I am making. The Bill is as limited as it needs to be; the amendment goes way beyond that. Many things might have been included; a lot of things are missing. The hon. Member for Vale of York probably knows that a range of skills could be listed and that trying to get a balance would make a nonsense of the Bill, as no individual would have all the skills and all the experience required.

How will Ofcom relate to all of the issues and to people? What type of regulator will it be? Will it be a protectionist lobby representing every vested interest—something that some of the amendments seem to argue for—or will it be a light-touch regulator, intervening to tackle market dominance or significant market influence, where appropriate? Will it generate new markets? Will it tackle broadband and some of the access issues, and intervene in the market to do so? Will it argue with Government for changes of policy? If it is not independent, it will not have that role. Ofcom's ability to say to the Government, ''These significant issues must be addressed'' is critical.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 29 January 2002