Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: I do not want to be unkind or cruel to the Minister, but his Department's response to the Select Committee report was deemed so deficient that I understand from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton that that is why the Committee will take further evidence, which is something that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield.

I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that in considering the White Paper the Select Committee went on record, stating:

    close scrutiny of the establishment of the new regulator and its work will be a crucial task for the relevant select committee or select committees of the House of Commons in the next Parliament.

The amendments would extend the Select Committee structure to embrace the House of Lords, which should have a role because the Bill started in that place, and its Select Committees that shadow the two responsible Departments should take a view.

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In my limited experience of the House of Commons, it is unusual to have responsibility split between two Departments, which is why the Select Committee called for a single ''Department of Communications''. I invite the Minister and his Department to consider whether it would be more appropriate to have a single Department with responsibility for communications.

The communications industry is growing and it makes a massive contribution to this country. I repeat that it is entirely appropriate for the Public Accounts Committee on which the Minister had the honour to serve—I am sure that he served with great distinction—to consider the Ofcom statements rather than, as the schedule currently states, copies of the Comptroller and Auditor General's statement and report being laid before both Houses of Parliament.

The Minister's response to the debate is deficient because everybody is concerned about the monolithic new regulator that the Bill creates. He said that the five existing bodies employ 1,111 employees and have a budget of £118 million. Despite my specific question, Ofcom's staffing levels once it is set up remain unclear. That is exactly the sort of question that both Select Committees would want to put. Having debated them at some length, I prefer to return to these issues at a later stage than to press the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 51, in page 12, line 22, at end insert—

    '( ) OFCOM shall establish—

    (a) a Welsh Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Wales; and

    (b) a Scottish Advisory Committee which shall advise OFCOM on the carrying out of its functions in Scotland and shall, in appointing these Committees, consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.'.—[Nick Harvey.]

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 12, line 25, at end insert—

    'Consumer Panel

    14A (1) It shall be the duty of OFCOM to establish a Consumer Panel of 10 members, comprising persons who are neither members nor employees of OFCOM.

    (2) Members will be appointed for four year terms and shall serve a maximum of two consecutive terms.

    (3) Paragraphs 17, 18 and 19 of the Schedule shall apply to the proceedings of the Consumer Panel, but paragraphs 15 and 16 shall not apply and the Consumer Panel shall make other such arrangements for regulating their own procedure as they think fit.

    (4) The Consumer Panel shall—

    (a) research consumers' views and concerns on issues relating to OFCOM's functions,

    (b) publish its advice, conclusions and reports to OFCOM,

    (c) take due account in its work of the views of consumers with special needs, including those on low incomes or with disabilities

    (5) The Consumer Panel shall be funded by means of grants from OFCOM.

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    (6) The Consumer Panel shall make an annual report of its proceedings and financial position to each House of Parliament.'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 50, in page 12, line 25, at end insert—

    'Consumer Panels

    14B (1) It shall be the duty of OFCOM to establish consumer panels for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and consumer panels for the regions of England as it sees fit.

    (2) Their members shall not be members, employees or past members or employees of OFCOM.

    (3) The consumer panels shall

    (a) research consumers' views and concerns on issues relating to OFCOM's functions,

    (b) publish their advice, conclusions and reports to OFCOM,

    (c) take due account in their work of the views and needs of consumers with particular needs, including those on low incomes or with disabilities.

    (4) The consumer panels shall be funded by means of grants from the Secretary of State.

    (5) The consumer panels shall make an annual report to each House of Parliament and the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.'.

No. 27, in clause 2, page 2, line 24, at end insert—

    '(1A) It shall be the duty of OFCOM to have regard to the work of their Consumer Panel in carrying out their function under subsection (1).'.

Miss McIntosh: In moving the amendment I shall refer to a substantial amount of work that has been done by other bodies and evidence that was given as part of the consultation process.

Amendment No. 32 is pertinent because a consumer panel with 10 members should be set up by Ofcom comprising people who are neither its members nor its employees. On the same basis, it should be a duty of Ofcom to have regard to the work of the consumer panel in carrying out its functions under the relevant subsection of the Bill.

The Select Committee considered at length the proposal to set up a consumer panel. Paragraph 7.4 on page 72 of the White Paper refers to Ofcom's consumer protection role and states:

    OFCOM will have a principal duty to protect the interests of consumers and will have powers to take action if the industry does not develop an effective consumer protection regime.

Paragraph 7.4.3 states that the Government

    will give OFCOM powers to institute mechanisms for consumer protection if the industry fails to develop a code or codes on service delivery which satisfy all the consumer protection requirements set out in the previous section.

Paragraph 7.5 states that the Government

    will establish a new consumer panel to advise the regulator. It will be able to research consumer views and concerns on service delivery, represent these concerns to OFCOM and other relevant bodies, and publish its findings and conclusions.

Paragraph 7.5.1 states:

    The panel should be independently appointed to advise OFCOM on these issues.

Curiously, however, there is no mention of a consultative panel in the Bill.

I am sure that the Minister has been waiting for this opportunity to explain to the Committee and the wider audience why the Government have so singularly

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failed to act on what they so specifically referred to in the White Paper. Judging by the overwhelming response to the consultation, there is clearly a need for a consumer panel. That response was encapsulated in the Government's response to the Select Committee report which states:

    We welcome and support the proposal to establish a consumer panel. We recommend that the panel be empowered to examine and to seek to represent the interests of all consumers and potential consumers and not be narrowly confined to issues of service delivery for customers with a financial relationship to service providers.

During the 10 years that I was a Member of the European Parliament, the late Mary Whitehouse was my constituent. One reason why having a consumer panel is so important is that the views that were previously expressed by her could be expressed through such a panel.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): The hon. Lady has just sunk the amendment.

Miss McIntosh: The National Consumer Council—the hon. Gentleman would do well to read its words; then, he might like to contribute to the debate—calls for a stronger voice for consumers in the communications sector to ensure that their views are heard by decision makers. The council welcomed the Government's commitment in the White Paper to establish a communications consumer panel. It is now asking—I am acting as the voice of consumers—

Michael Fabricant: The voice of the people.

Miss McIntosh: Indeed, and it is a broad responsibility.

The National Consumer Council now asks the Minister to say that the proposal is being developed to ensure that such a consumer panel can effectively and independently represent consumers' interests. It would have been pertinent if the Bill had stated that. I invite the Minister to support our two modest amendments, Nos. 32 and 27, and to admit that it was remiss for the Bill not to refer to the consumer panel.

When considering the structure of Ofcom, it is appropriate to consider structures within it such as a consultative panel for consumers. I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter, perhaps on Third Reading, although if I am overwhelmed by his support for the amendments, that may be unnecessary. The Bill should not only refer to a consumer panel, but give an idea of its terms of reference. I urge the Minister to give an assurance that such a panel would be adequately resourced and capable of engaging with and influencing the full range of stakeholders. That is one of the Government's favourite words, so I hope that the Minister will be even more obliged, persuaded and seduced to accept the amendments.

I hope that he will also take the opportunity to confirm that the consumer consultative panel that both his Department and the Department of Trade and Industry said in the White Paper that they were minded to introduce would be completely independent of Ofcom and partisan only to the extent that it could set its own agenda and promote its own views on behalf of the consumer interest. It is important to emphasise that the consumer interest should cover which services are delivered as well as how they are

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delivered. Access is obviously important, but consumers should be allowed to ask, ''Access to what?'' The White Paper implies an artificial restriction on the panel's remit, and the Bill is completely silent about that: for example, would it include the BBC, as the National Consumer Council fervently wishes it would, where there is a specific consumer interest?

 
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