Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): First, let me deal with amendment No. 14. I can see no purpose in the functions that the Bill confers upon Ofcom expiring one year after commencement. The communications Bill, when enacted, will confer functions on Ofcom that supersede those in the Bill. However, with the best will in the world, I cannot imagine that the communications Bill will be in a position to achieve Royal Assent—

2.46 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.1 pm

On resuming—

Dr. Howells: I was saying that with the best will in the world I cannot imagine that the communications Bill will achieve Royal Assent within one year of the commencement of the paving Bill. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said that she has not even started yet, but if we ever get off this group of amendments, Ofcom will exist by summer 2002—this year. If the Opposition are reasonable when the main Bill is discussed, it should receive Royal Assent by summer 2003 at the earliest.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The timetabling of a Bill is often related to the skill of the draftsmanship, not just the Opposition. I hope that the Minister will keep a close eye on the drafting of the main Bill.

Dr. Howells: Yes. I see that the hon. Gentleman still bears the scars.

If all goes well, Ofcom will be regulating by the end of 2003, less than six months after Royal Assent to the main Bill. The total time taken will be approximately 18 months. The communications Bill will be larger and more complex than this small paving Bill, but even if

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parliamentary time is found for it early in the next Session, it will be far from surprising if it takes less than the best part of the parliamentary Session to pass through Parliament.

With a paving Bill we recognise the danger that the substantive proposals might, for unforeseen reasons, not be introduced. That is covered by clause 5, which gives the Secretary of State the power to wind up Ofcom if it seems to her that its continued existence is no longer necessary—God forbid. She will retain the duty to do so in such circumstances at any time after the end of 2003. That provides a clear cut-off date if no substantive proposals have been introduced

Michael Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No—while providing the flexibility necessary when dealing with parliamentary timetables. I shall not give way because the hon. Gentleman was not here at the start of my substantive contribution, so he does not know what I am talking about.

The proposed new clause presents wider problems. The timing implications that I mentioned apply, but there are additional reasons why I am not inclined to consider the new clause. The Bill sets out the basic structure of Ofcom. Our intention is that it will remain in place even when the communications Bill is in force.

Miss McIntosh: We now understand that ''quick'' means about 18 months. Can the Minister state that, if his scenario is correct, Ofcom will have regard to the transitional principles and sunset provisions, as adopted in his party's manifesto for the last election?

Dr. Howells: We would not have included them had we not been aware of them or had we not wanted them to have meaning. Of course we do not want any delays in transition. The entire period in question is 18 months, six months of which are after Royal Assent to the communications Bill. That is a short time. We could re-enact the relevant provisions in the communications Bill, but I wonder whether that would be good use of Parliament's time when we are spending so much effort considering them now. For that reason, I oppose the amendments.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) was accused of not knowing what the Minister was talking about. That could be applied to all of us, because although the Minister started to specify time scales, they still seem uncertain.

I gave an analogy when Mr. Stevenson was in the Chair, which I hope you will allow me to repeat, Mr. Gale. I declared an interest in the horse racing industry. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), gave an assurance two or three years ago that the status of the Tote and the levy system would be changed. Responsibilities have been transferred to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the industry still awaits legislation, even though we are now in a different Parliament.

That industry has been thrown into chaos because of delay. The last thing we want is the communications industry to be thrown into similar chaos. The Minister said that that will depend on the parliamentary

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timetable, but we have been told that matters raised by Opposition Members are irrelevant because they will be in the main Bill, which will begin in spring—a debate followed about what spring meant. I am not entirely satisfied by the Minister's considerate response so I will press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 11.

Division No. 5]

Fabricant, Michael McIntosh, Miss Anne Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Taylor, Mr. Ian Watkinson, Angela

Bailey, Mr. Adrian Farrelly, Paul Howells, Dr. Kim Jackson, Glenda Kemp, Mr. Fraser Linton, Martin
Miller, Mr. Andrew Pearson, Mr. Ian Picking, Anne Rammell, Mr. Bill White, Brian

Question accordingly negatived.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 2, line 36, at end insert—

    '(2A) In carrying out its functions under this section, OFCOM shall take into account the need to ensure continued effective ITV regional programming and news editions.'.

The amendment speaks for itself. I shall refer to the Government's response to the excellent report on the communications White Paper by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Paragraph 34 of the report recommends that:

    notwithstanding the proposed removal of specific legislative bias to further ITV consolidation above and beyond the general provisions of competition law, separate licences should be retained for each ITV region, including provisions relating to regional production and the contribution of each region to network programming. We further recommend that there be a legislative obligation upon the new regulator to maintain a network of offices in the nations—

that may be of interest to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas)—

    and regions of the United Kingdom to facilitate effective monitoring of compliance with regional obligations by broadcasters.

The Government's response is illuminating. Paragraph (viii) states:

    The retention and strengthening of the regional dimension to public service broadcasting is an important strand of White Paper policy . . . and the Government does not propose to alter the present statutory requirement for Channel 3 services to be separately licensed on a regional basis.

    Requirements for regional programming and production by public service broadcasters will be included in tier two of the proposed new regulatory structure and we agree with the Committee that effective monitoring of compliance with regional obligations by OFCOM will be important. The detailed organisational and administrative arrangements to achieve this will, however, be a matter for OFCOM to determine.

My disappointment with the Bill in its present form is that, despite the amendment that we tried so hard to get on to the amendment paper, paragraph 7 of the schedule makes no reference to the presence on the Ofcom board of a member who has knowledge of and expertise in regional television.

Dr. Howells: Will the hon. Lady tell the Committee whether she considers that one person on the board should be responsible for the regions of England,

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Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or should each have a representative?

Miss McIntosh: I do not want to go over the ground that was covered extensively and eloquently by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but that is a moot point that we could debate at some length. One of the reasons why he felt moved to table the amendment, which we debated fully, is because the Bill is silent on the matter, even though the White Paper specifically stated that there was to be some relationship between Ofcom and Committees of the devolved assemblies.

Given the backdrop of that enthusiastic and positive Government response, it is deeply regrettable that the Bill fails to deal with regional programming. I am particularly disappointed because ITV is under huge pressure. As we learned yesterday in our discussions with Carlton Television, that company faces great uncertainty. Its chief executive, Mr. Clive Jones, said that this is the worst and the deepest recession that he can recall. The Committee will be aware of the extensive interest that Carlton Television—

3.15 pm

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I am concerned that someone who holds such an important job is so unaware of when the deepest recessions occurred. Where was he during the terms of Conservative Government?

Miss McIntosh: It just goes to show that the recessions under the Conservative Government were nothing like the one under the current Labour Government. In the confines of the Tea Room or the Cafeteria, the hon. Lady and I could discuss that at greater length than is possible within the confines of the amendment.

Glenda Jackson: Maybe the hon. Lady's memory has lapsed too.

Miss McIntosh: My memory has not lapsed. I recall that the previous recessions turned the corner quickly. This is a deep and long recession and, in his view, the worst that Mr. Jones can remember. I shall advise him to contact the hon. Lady directly, to ensure that she is equally aware—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. If hon. Members want to have private conversations, would they kindly do so outside?

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