Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): I have two questions for the Minister. Clause 2 says that Ofcom shall carry out its functions in such a way as to facilitate the implementation of proposals about regulation that the Government make. If, as I have suggested to my hon. Friend, we want Ofcom to use digital signatures and electronic communications, will he confirm whether, given that this Bill does not facilitate them, he wants to introduce secondary legislation for that purpose under this Bill, under the proposed communications Bill or under e-commerce legislation?

European Union framework legislation about electronic communications states that from February 2002 to mid-2003 quite a bit of work will take place on the whole range of communications. The framework document states:

    During this period between date of entry into force and date of application, both the Commission and the National Authorities will be occupied with the creation of co-operative mechanisms foreseen in the new package, eg, the new Communications Committee, the new Spectrum Policy Committee, the creation of a group of national regulatory authorities.

Given that that will be the kernel of Ofcom's future role, will the Minister say whether in the transition period the existing regulators alone will represent Britain in those discussions, or whether Ofcom will be able to participate in them?

It seems to me that Ofcom has a vital role to play in the discussions, given that it is to be the body that ultimately deals with those issues. It is likely that Ofcom will be at the forefront of the way in which the newly liberalised European markets will operate; it will set the trend for the rest of Europe. It should have a key role in the setting up of the new Europe-wide mechanisms. Will the Minister confirm that the Bill does not prevent Ofcom from playing that key role alongside the existing regulators?

Mr. Taylor: I am glad to follow the hon. Gentleman because he and I are both involved in EURIM—the European Informatics Market group—which is the parliamentary body that keeps in contact with industry. He made two important points. I was involved in the Government Bill, now an Act, that dealt with digital signatures, which I hope can be extended into all areas of legislation. I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments about the European Union. All sorts of regulatory interests at Europe level will grow as communications convergence occurs throughout the EU. I hope that the Government are clear about how the emerging Ofcom will play an active role in that during the period of establishment.

In the digital dark ages, prior to 1997, I was Minister for Science and Technology. The original thought that there might be an Ofcom occurred to us even in those days, so it is intriguing to be sitting on this Committee in 2002. Mr. Stevenson, you and the Committee will be glad to know that my remarks relate to clause 2(1). I was immensely enlightened by

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my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) who gave a stellar performance explaining what the amendments actually meant. I am now properly briefed on the proposal.

I am intrigued by the Mary Whitehouse memorial amendment, No. 11, with its phrase

    to reflect standards of good taste and decency.

It is right that that was tabled, because the Opposition are here to probe. Will the Minister reflect on how, in the Ofcom era, standards of good taste and decency, which are subject to variation according to the age, and the related matter of public service are to be protected, and on whether they should be protected in the increasingly competitive world of media distribution and content? It is certainly right that the Opposition have raised that subject.

The essence of amendment No. 44 is to find out what the words,

    or for securing the modification of, any relevant proposals

will mean during the period in which Ofcom becomes established. I am intrigued by that phase, because I am not sure what it implies in the context of the paving period in which the new body is established. Does it imply that the agencies should themselves contribute to a debate about modification of regulation, or that the people who are initially assigned to Ofcom should promote that debate? What status will they have before Ofcom is formally established? Should they to some extent anticipate the contents of the main communications Bill, which we await with bated breath; or should they try to influence its contents if it is delayed beyond its expected spring publication date?

10.15 am

As a Minister, I was responsible for the Office of Telecommunications and for the Radiocommunications Agency, which is not one of the nominated regulatory bodies that are dealt with separately in this context, although it will ultimately fall within Ofcom's remit. In the next few months crucial debates will take place about how Oftel will, for example, promote further competition. Only yesterday the director general made an announcement about pricing and BT. There is continual, healthy debate about competition policy between the regulators and the Competition Commission, and competition matters are increasingly replacing regulation.

Substantial principles are involved in the Government's execution of the agenda that they set for themselves whereby all Government services should be online by 2005—that is an EU ambition under the Lisbon agenda. At the same time, the Government are one of the most crucial drivers of change as customer and catalyst. I have reread the interesting press release that the broadband stakeholders group issued a couple of months ago, which said:

    Government's role as a customer is even more important than Government's role as a regulator.

I agree. However, if the new Ofcom is to try to modify regulation, will it take an interest in the Government's process of stimulating roll-out? For example, might it

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say to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ''We want a few fiscal incentives for infrastructure development''? Those are not trivial matters, because behind this Bill lies a substantive Bill to come. As we do not know what the next Bill will contain, it is right that we probe what might happen in the interim.

I know that the Minister, whom I hold in high regard, will not go to sleep on the job while tables and chairs are assembled in some office—perhaps with fancy wallpaper. He will want to ensure that Ofcom comes together in a way that makes credible the future regulation of one of our most crucial industries, and that it takes a radical approach instead of merely bolting together existing agencies. As a Minister, I had responsibility for two of those agencies. The Broadcasting Act 1996 involved me in technological delivery mechanisms, including electronic programming guides and conditional access; they were the most interesting aspects of that Act. Most of the media focused on the front end of the process, but it was the back end that was crucial to the way in which the industry developed and was invested in.

Will the Minister clarify what is meant by the phrase:

    securing the modification of, any relevant proposals about the regulation of communications?

The Committee would be much enlightened. Moreover, it would help those in the industry to understand where they should start to apply the pressure that they want to apply; how they should envisage the interaction of the various agencies in the interim—companies are increasingly interested in the radio spectrum as well as in television and telecommunications in the more traditional cable and copper pipe form; and how broadband access will continue to be stimulated while the Bill is being enacted and we wait for the main Bill.

Although the amendment appears small, its consequences would be fairly significant. I shall be attentive to the Minister's response.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) has put his finger on a significant aspect of the Bill.

The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Vale of York are important, but I am inclined to resist them. They do not deal appropriately with the matter at hand, although they serve to bring it to the fore so that we can debate it. It should not be part of Ofcom's job to achieve cost savings. Regulation is much too important a job to put such restrictions on its activities.

I have a little more sympathy with the question relating to clause 2(1) about how Ofcom will work on the modification and implementation of proposals on the regulation of communications. Will the Minister respond to that in the context of our previous debates? For example, on Tuesday, when unfortunately I could not be here, the Committee considered establishing consumer panels and advisory panels. He resisted amendments in that respect, leaving us with the worrying prospect that in its early stages Ofcom

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might be a body of minimal size, not yet having reached the slightly larger size that he accepts that it might eventually reach through the making of statutory instruments.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right to ask about the size of Ofcom, but our previous debates were about the size of the Ofcom board, not the regulatory office that may be created as a consequence of Royal Assent being given to the substantive communications Bill.

Mr. Thomas: I accept that. I am trying to focus on how Ofcom—which will, in effect, be the board advised by its staff—will comment on the contents of the communications Bill. If it is to have a wider role than the one the Minister initially suggested, in terms of making recommendations to Government about how communications should be regulated, and if it is not to have advisory bodies and consumer panels, it might have too narrow a focus.

Miss McIntosh: We were the poorer for the hon. Gentleman's absence on Tuesday.

As the Minister said, the previous amendments dealt only with the size of the board in relation to its membership and, to some extent, with its chief executive. This is a key amendment, because we have not yet had the opportunity to probe the Minister on the size of Ofcom's staff. If it is to be big even in the transitional period, that is unacceptable.

 
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Prepared 31 January 2002