Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: Order. I have now twice called to the hon. Gentleman's attention his persistent irrelevance. I draw his attention to Standing Order No. 42, which would enable me to ask him to discontinue his speech. I do not want to have to do that. More generally, if hon. Members persist in very wide debates on narrow amendments, it will prejudice my decisions on stand part debates.

12.30 pm

Michael Fabricant: Well, Miss Widdecombe, I stand duly warned. Fortunately, I have reached paragraph 5(g), so I am about to finish.

I make the cri du coeur to the Minister that radio should be taken into account in the drafting of the structure of communications commission, as it is different from television in how it is transmitted, and has its own peculiar problems.

I commend the amendment to the Committee.

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Mr. Robertson: I am tempted to open my remarks by saying, ''Follow that!'' If anyone says in future that Committee work is boring, I shall refer them to my hon. Friend. In spite of being called to order three times—although you thought it was only twice, Miss Widdecombe—he made some valuable points, as did the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East.

The amendment has value, because it addresses the confusion that seems to surround regulation, which might be cleared up if the people appointed to Ofcom had the expertise as listed. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield mentioned religious broadcasting, for example. I do not have his experience—nor do I have a house in America, as he does—so I bow to his greater knowledge. It is odd that some things can be broadcast in this country that cause great offence to many people when, under the Broadcasting Act 1990, it is illegal for a religious organisation to own a national radio licence. In their White Paper, the Government say that religious content has a capacity to offend. That may be so, but many other things on television and radio have an enormous capacity to offend, so I do not know why the distinction is made. I do not blame the Government for that distinction, as the Act in question was passed in 1990. However, they seem reluctant to address the issue, if we take the White Paper as a guide.

Confusion also surrounds regional broadcasting. The White Paper says that, under the Belfast Agreement, there is an obligation to achieve in Northern Ireland more widespread availability of a television company known as TG4, which is based in the Irish Republic. If the White Paper sees fit to draw attention to that regional aspect—the need to introduce a foreign broadcasting company to the viewers and listeners of the United Kingdom—there must surely be a need to consider regional television in general.

I shall not add to what has been said on mobile phones, although a great deal of confusion exists as to the effects on health of phones and phone masts. That confusion needs addressing, and I am glad that the Government have set up a further investigation, as I and other hon. Members have asked questions on that subject. Confusion surrounds that issue, too, and I would welcome any input that members of Ofcom might be able to give.

As for the internet, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield suggested that it would be impossible to regulate it. I hope that I am not paraphrasing him too much, but I believe that that was what he said. I accept that there will be difficulties but, if the internet grows and takes over from television, as it may do—although I do not have the expertise to know whether that is likely—we must find a way in which to regulate it. If it is as easily accessible to 10-year-old children as television is, there may be a need to regulate it.

Michael Fabricant: It would be out of order to go into the technical side, but does not my hon. Friend accept that programmes and internet sites that originate from outside the United Kingdom cannot be controlled by Ofcom, as it will have jurisdiction only within the United Kingdom?

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Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am not sure what the rules and regulations are about television programmes made abroad. Again, there seems to be some confusion in that respect. I base that statement on advice that I have taken from the House of Commons Library and on parliamentary questions that I have tabled.

The inclusion of the amendment would be helpful. Other hon. Members have said why that would be the case; my point is that it would help to clear up some confusions and irregularities.

Dr. Howells: I understand why the hon. Lady and other members of the Committee have identified the specific areas of expertise mentioned in the amendment. Of course, it will be essential that Ofcom draws from experience in many, if not all, of those areas. I recognise, too, that the list in the amendment is probably not intended to represent an exhaustive list, although it has been an exhausting list. One might identify many other areas of specific interest or experience that the Secretary of State should take into account when considering making appointments to Ofcom.

That being the case, it would not be practical or sensible to try to list all the different interests and experience that should be taken into account. The hon. Member for North Devon made that point. The Secretary of State will be able to take into account a whole range of possible requirements to ensure that the board has the relevant skills and experience that it will need. We also made clear, during a debate in another place, that the chairman of Ofcom will play an essential role in the appointments process in identifying the specific requirements of the board and of the Secretary of State.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister might like to alert his noble Friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey that we share an almost identical e-mail address. I hope that he is not receiving my e-mails; on the two occasions when I have received his, I have forwarded them post haste.

Will the Minister take the opportunity to respond to the serious omission of a reference to competition, not only in media ownership but between Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading?

Dr. Howells: The Bill will establish Ofcom. That is all that it does, without specifying any form of regulation. There will be ample time in which to discuss concomitant powers between the various agencies that oversee competition law, including the OFT, the Competition Commission and Ofcom. The reference to competition is not missing from the Bill, which simply establishes Ofcom.

The Secretary of State will have to pay regard to the skills and experience required by the Ofcom board. To begin with, Ofcom will have only one function; to prepare itself to take on its regulatory functions at a later stage. Members may call me prejudiced, but I am not surprised if the hon. Member for Vale of York has been bombarded with lobby material from her learned friends who, as she said, are horrified that the Government have not specified that lawyers should be appointed to the board of Ofcom. Of course lawyers want lawyers to be included on the board, but,

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in my experience, it is a mistake to appoint lawyers to any body. That is probably a bit extreme, but it will be unnecessary for the board to have such a wide a range of skills and expertise available to it at the start. Experience in the areas identified in the amendment may be useful once Ofcom begins to regulate, but it is unnecessary to provide for that in the Bill.

Miss McIntosh: I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the debate. It has not been in the least exhausting. In fact, I have found it most stimulating; I could continue for hours, but I shall not.

I regret the Minister's prejudice, which I take personally. In spite of my having said that I am a non-practising Scottish advocate and that I spent six months in the Directorate-General dealing with competition, he did not even pay token tribute to the expertise that I bring to the Committee.

Dr. Howells: I would be extraordinarily foolish to include among those bodies to which I referred the great body of politics in this country. I would not keep my ministerial car for long if I castigated all lawyers who have positions in the House of Commons.

Miss McIntosh: I have not yet set my sights on the hon. Gentleman's ministerial car, although it might be an attractive proposition. However, there is a serious point in the amendment, which includes a more comprehensive list than the straitjacket provision in the Bill that was identified by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The Minister said today that the Bill was concerned with the structure of Ofcom. He will bitterly regret not taking this opportunity to emphasise the role of competition policy, because there will be a problem at the next stage when we come to the mother of all Bills, which seems to be getting bigger by the moment with all the issues that we hope are to be included in it. The fact that the Bill is silent on that very important issue will return to haunt the Minister and the Committee, but we can discuss that at a later stage.

Paul Farrelly: If I summarise correctly the lengthy contribution of the hon. Member for Lichfield, he was in favour of paragraph (5)(a) to (g) with the exception of (c).

Miss McIntosh: I will not invite my hon. Friend to go over that ground again, for reasons that you have already explained, Miss Widdecombe. Perhaps we can discuss the matter during lunch.

One part of our discussion that I found especially fruitful was the contribution and expertise of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East—backed up by that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield—on the technology of the industry and the fast-moving feast that will meet us when we discuss the communications Bill. There are serious issues relating to religious broadcasting, regional television, competition and mobile phones. Some 30 million people in Britain now have mobile phones, double the figure for two years ago. Those developments must be watched closely and someone on the board of Ofcom should have expertise in that area.

I also want to record my regret that the Government have missed an opportunity, as was

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eloquently set out in the report of the Select Committee of which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield is a member. The Select Committee recorded its disappointment that the Government's broadband strategy appeared to be developing in virtual isolation from the public, consumer needs and the opportunities created by the analogue switch-off. It said that the strategy largely neglected the role of consumer services such as digital TV and internet-based broadcasting in driving broadband take-up.

The list makes no direct reference to the essential experience and expertise that we want board members to have. The Government had an opportunity to support the amendment and, although I am deeply disappointed that they could not do so, I reserve the right to return to the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

 
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