Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 7, line 35, leave out from 'shall' to end of line 36 and insert—

    'serve a maximum of two consecutive four year terms'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 30, in page 9, line 18, at end insert—

    'provided that no executive member serves for more than two consecutive four year terms'.

12.45 pm

Miss McIntosh: And now for something completely different. The amendments would give the Secretary of State some direction when setting up the board. It is important to specify the length of service for board members, and a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms is entirely appropriate. Amendment No. 30 would extend the provision to executive members, who would also be able to serve no more than two consecutive four-year terms.

The Government are considering reforming the upper House to introduce an elected period of 15 years for 20 per cent. of our noble Friends, so the period in the amendments might seem short. The official Opposition tried to help the Government by referring to the seven principles of public life, but the Government were not prepared to write those principles into the Bill or, even more regrettably, to agree to a public register. We could, however, assist the Government to amend the Bill if we agreed to a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. That would be appropriate.

Michael Fabricant: I rise in partial support—if that is possible—of the amendments. I am not so convinced by the argument for amendment No. 30, which applies to executive officers, but I certainly support amendment No. 29, which refers to the chairman and the board.

I spoke of my non-lived-in home in the United States of America, and Ofcom seems to be an all-powerful institution, like the office of President of the United States. Following Roosevelt's multi-term presidency, the United States Congress introduced a rule to limit the number of terms to two, and I rather suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of

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York had that in mind when she drafted the amendment.

I think that people get stale. Perhaps even Members of Parliament should be in office for a maximum of only two terms, although I do not know whether we would want to vote ourselves out of office. The chairman of Ofcom should, however, have experience of the real world, particularly given the changing nature of technology. On the previous group of amendments, we discussed what that experience should be, but it can be gained only in the real world. Many people say that Members of Parliament live in an ivory tower, but they are absolutely wrong. Equally, people might say that the chairman of Ofcom lived in an ivory tower and had lost touch with reality at the coal face; nay, at the television camera. Two terms, or eight years, is an adequate time, after which someone should stand down.

Glenda Jackson: I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Lichfield on the question of some hon. Members standing down after two terms; I shall not name those whom I think are ripe for such curtailment of their parliamentary careers. In relation to the previous amendment, the Opposition argued strongly that appointment to Ofcom, in the particular categories named, should be based on the expertise and knowledge of those individuals within their limited areas of the communications industry. Would they also require that those experts should have been experts within their particular field for only eight years, and were duty bound at the end of that time—to concur with the hon. Member for Lichfield's point about living in the real world—to move into another industry or another area of exploration, and out of the communications industry entirely? It seems to be an utterly absurd amendment. We are talking about a new regulatory commission in an industry that is rapidly expanding and becoming infinitely more complex, not only in what it is discovering, but in interlinking what are at the moment separate areas of communication.

To presuppose that, within eight years, the regulatory body would have learned everything that was needed to know—which would preclude its stepping aside and leaving warm seats that required new people to do nothing other than sit in them—is absurd. Ofcom members will, in many instances, have to develop their capacity for learning; they will be regulating an industry that is in the process of massive and rapid expansion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East said, we should be looking to the future. To attempt to preclude some of the best and most effective people in the industry who could serve on a regulatory board by saying, even before they walk into the boardroom, that they will only be there for eight years is patently absurd.

Mr. Robertson: I was going to rise anyway, but I should like to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate. The experience—mentioned in amendment No. 21—that we ask of the people who sit on Ofcom is drawn not from sitting on the Ofcom board but, as my hon.

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Friend the Member for Lichfield said, from working in the real world. It is important to represent not necessarily the regional television companies but the regional television consumers. There is logic in listing the areas from which people should draw expertise and in saying that they should not serve on Ofcom for too long.

The fact that it is a rapidly changing world, particularly in communications and the media, reinforces the point. If people serve on Ofcom for too long—certainly if they do so full time—they are effectively out of the industry, and not in it. They will be regulating it, but they will not be involved in it. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield if he is suggesting that Members of Parliament should be restricted to two terms; the electorate can, if they like, restrict us to one term.

Countries such as the United States, of which my hon. Friend has far greater experience than I, limit their presidents to two terms. Surely that is up to the electorate to decide, and I notice that one or two countries are moving away from that constitutional arrangement. However, it is appropriate in this case; there are no elections to the board and the appointments will be made by the Secretary of State. The amendment and the previous one that we tabled are quite consistent.

Dr. Howells: We made it clear on Second Reading that it was intended that, in making appointments to Ofcom, the Secretary of State would follow the guidelines set by the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In that guidance, the commissioner has recommended that terms of appointment to bodies such as Ofcom should normally total a maximum of ten years.

We see no good reason for restricting appointments to Ofcom to a shorter period, as proposed by the amendment. Nor is it entirely clear if the amendment is intended to limit the appointment of the chairman and non-executives to terms of four years. I am sure that hon. Members will know that, in a previous set of guidelines, the commissioner recommended terms of appointment of between three and five years. That seems perfectly reasonable with regard to Ofcom. It is important to allow the Secretary of State a degree of flexibility in making the appointments, and the Bill should not set out maximum and minimum terms of appointment.

There may be circumstances, especially when making the initial group of appointments to the board, when the lengths of terms should be varied to stagger their dates of expiry. In addition, the Commissioner for Public Appointments has always recognised that there might also be exceptional circumstances in which a third term of appointment would be appropriate. That could well be the case with Ofcom at some point in the future and the Secretary of State should be allowed the discretion to make those decisions.

As to amendment No. 30, it is important to remember that executive members of Ofcom will not be public appointees. The appointment of executive members will be for the chairman and non-executive

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members, with the approval of the Secretary of State in the case of the chief executive, and after consulting the chief executive in all other cases.

Michael Fabricant: Does the Minister agree, with respect to amendment No. 30—which, as I have said, I am not so happy with—that a limited term might be a disincentive to good executives?

Dr. Howells: Absolutely. It is not often that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I certainly do on this occasion. The great weaknesses of public bodies are that it is so difficult to persuade would-be candidates that they should take places on them, that there will be some security of tenure and that they will be able to see projects through. If that is not possible, their confidence and their belief in the job are undermined.

It will be for the chairman and other non-executive members to determine the terms under which executive appointments are made. The board will be in the best position to decide what executive experience would be of most value to it and for how long that expertise might be required. I oppose the amendments.

Miss McIntosh: This has been a brief but interesting debate. I was moved by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who failed to endorse amendment No. 30. I confirm that in the European Parliament and in certain European

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national parliaments—for example, that of Holland—members can serve a maximum of three terms, in the same way that only two US presidential terms are allowed.

The apparent problem in the industry—I want to speak about it on another group of amendments—is a fast turnover of staff. That applies particularly to the executive posts rather than the chairman. I intended to show that there would be some continuity by proposing a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms.

With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate, who described the amendment as absurd, she contradicted herself. The industry is so fast moving and the technology is developing so fast that there are many arguments for bringing in fresh blood after eight years. That is a long time in any post. However, I bow to the overwhelming view of the Committee—both sides of it—and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Widdecombe, Miss Ann (Chairman)
Allan, Mr.
Bailey, Mr.
Fabricant, Mr.
Farrelly, Mr.
Grogan, Mr.
Harvey, Nick
Howells, Dr.
Jackson, Glenda
Kemp, Mr.
Kirkbride, Miss
Linton, Martin
McIntosh, Miss
Miller, Mr.
Pearson, Mr.
Rammell, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Watkinson, Angela
White, Brian

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