Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: We have had a good discussion and debate. I am not prepared wholeheartedly to accept the Minister's dismissive attitude that the Bill allows Ofcom to set up any committee that it wants. If we are to serve in a Committee considering a Bill to set up the necessary structures, it is incumbent on us to take these discussions and debates about the structure of Ofcom seriously. Mindful of the useful note to which he referred this morning—concerning the BBC's compliance with regulatory standards and the different types of radio that will come under that—the hundreds of responses that were made to the consultation and White Paper and the acute problems relating to radio summed up in the Select Committee's report, it is incumbent on us to consider a radio committee. However, I want to reserve that matter for a later stage, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I beg to move amendment No. 52, in page 12, line 29, at end insert—

    ', except that in Wales, OFCOM shall make such arrangements as if it were a public body as designated by the Welsh Language Act 1993 (c. 38).'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 4—Office of Communications: Welsh Language Act 1993—

    'In section 6(1) of the Welsh Language Act 1993 (c. 38), at the end there is inserted—

    ''(p) the Office of Communications (OFCOM).''.'.

Mr. Allan: The amendment was tabled by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), who cannot be here today because of a long-standing prior arrangement. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to get something on the record, and I am sure that the Minister has a prepared response.

The amendment was tabled to tease out a Welsh language issue. We have had a long debate about the use of the Welsh language in broadcasting, and the amendment relates to the function of Ofcom and the way in which public bodies in Wales are deemed to function in the context of Welsh language legislation; for example, they must publish proceedings bilingually. I shall not spend as long on the amendment as we spent on the previous one because I merely want to offer the Minister an opportunity to put on record his intentions in respect of the use of Welsh language, in order to assist the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the Committee.

Michael Fabricant: I rise in support of the amendment. I served on the Committee that considered the Welsh Language Act 1993, and I remind the Committee that my mother speaks Welsh.

It is right and proper that Ofcom should fall under the ambit of the Bill and, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, there is a special role for it. We have already heard from the hon. Member for Rhondda who has said that part of his election pledge was to enable not only S4C but Channel 4 to be received in his constituency. Ofcom has a particular role in the dissemination of Welsh language programming, Welsh language content and, for all I know, the Welsh language on the internet. It would seem correct and proper for Welsh to be incorporated in the amendments. Will the Minister tell us whether the annual report that we discussed earlier will be available in Welsh? Will the people of Pontypridd be able to read it in Welsh?

Dr. Howells: They speak English.

Michael Fabricant: I am sure that there are Welsh speakers in Pontypridd who would wish to read the report in Welsh. This is an important issue. The Committee that discussed the Welsh language legislation was the first on which I served in this House. It was there that I learned to orate, if there is such a word. Hon. Members can blame that Committee if they think that, to use the Minister's unkind term, I am gassing too much in this Committee.

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Dr. Howells: New clause 4 would make Ofcom a public body for the purposes of the Welsh Language Act 1993. That would require it to ensure that, in relation to its activities in Wales, the English and Welsh languages were treated on an equal basis. That happens with most public bodies inside Wales.

I am very sympathetic to the intentions behind the new clause, but I am concerned about the cost implications for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is impossible to tell how many extra staff might be needed to enable Ofcom to comply with the new clause, but we must not unnecessarily inflate the cost of regulation in the communications sector, especially bearing in mind that the cost of the regulators will be met by regulated companies and, ultimately, by the consumer.

The amendment, however, makes a valid point that I shall draw to the attention of the Ofcom board. I am sure that Ofcom will wish to have good relations with business and consumers in all parts of the United Kingdom and where that involves using the Welsh language, it will want to do so. I hope that it will.

Mr. Allan: I am grateful to the Minister for putting such a clear statement on the public record. Obviously, it is for the hon. Member for Ceredigion and his colleagues to decide whether they wish to return to the matter later but, for now, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 35, in schedule, page 12, line 29, at end insert—

    '(1A) Decisions of OFCOM shall be taken by a majority of its members.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 15, in clause 3, page 3, line 26, at end add—

    '(2) Decisions of OFCOM shall be published.'.

Miss McIntosh: Amendment No. 35 reflects my hope that Ofcom's decisions will be taken by a majority of its members. The reason is, simply, that two alternative models could be proposed in the setting up of Ofcom. One is that followed by the telecommunications industry with its single statutory regulator, the Director General of Telecommunications. The other is characterised by a more collegiate approach. My thinking in the amendment is that the powers of the new regulator are so extensive and so structured under the Bill that it would be appropriate for decisions to be reached by a majority of its members. By that, I mean that they would adopt the collegiate approach rather than the model used by the telecommunications regulator.

Obviously, that would mean, as in a Cabinet—something with which the Minister is familiar—once there had been a vote and the majority ruled, all members of Ofcom would be bound by the decision, including those who did not agree. That would be a more collegiate approach.

Amendment No. 15 concerns the decisions of Ofcom being published. I believe that it is the desire of those being regulated—I am sure that it will also be the wish of the regulators who are to be replaced by

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Ofcom—that, in the interests of the greatest possible degree of accountability, Ofcom's decisions should be published. That was the Select Committee's desire. It said that the new regulator should have a

    specific duty . . . to ensure that its governing body and its sub-commissions or committees meet in public unless the governing body is satisfied that, in the case of any particular issue under consideration, the interests of public disclosure are outweighed by the need for commercial confidentiality.

For reasons that the Committee will understand, it is not my wish to seek to compromise the commercial confidentiality of any company in any sector that will come under Ofcom's remit. However, I believe not only that its committees should meet in public, but that their decisions should be made public.

I pray in aid the Select Committee's further recommendation that

    where any decision is reached by vote, the voting records are published

and that there should be a requirement

    that all meetings with broadcasters to discuss their annual reports on delivery of programme statements are held in public.

It can only help the Minister in the jigsaw puzzle of putting the regulator together under the Bill that we refer to the publication of Ofcom's decisions, which, as I say in amendment No. 35, should be taken by a majority of its members. I think that all Committee members want Ofcom's decisions to be as accountable and public as possible.

Angela Watkinson: Amendment No. 35 refers to Ofcom's decisions being made by the majority. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should also be reference to a quorum? With a very small body—it is envisaged that Ofcom might have as few as three members—a decision could be made by two people. Whether the chairman should have a casting vote could also have a significant effect on such a small group.

Miss McIntosh: That is a pertinent and relevant point. I would like to elaborate on it later, and perhaps table a separate amendment on it. Having lost the argument, as the Minister will recall, that this Committee should have the right to set a maximum number of members, so that the Secretary of State could not appoint more than 10 in addition to the chairman and deputy chairman, I find the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) entirely relevant. We should consider whether Ofcom ought to have a quorum in its meetings and when making a decision. The Minister might enthusiastically embrace that idea.

In the representations made, not least by consumer organisations, the plea—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. Could hon. Members have their discussion outside?

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful. I am sure that important matters relevant to the Committee were being discussed and that we can continue those discussions later.

The amendments reflect the overwhelming body of opinion that emerged during the consultation on the White Paper and in the representations that

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Committee members have received. I will not go through each one, unless the Minister feels that I should. There should be accountability and openness of decision-making, and a collegiate approach—a majority decision by which all are bound—is preferable to a single regulator.

Having made those points briefly, I hope that the Minister and the Committee will be able to adopt the two most modest amendments that we have considered today.

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