Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Robertson: By no means could I attempt to speak as eloquently or in as much detail as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who has taught me an awful lot in the space of just a few minutes.

I want to emphasise the importance to television of the independent sector. Thinking back to when I was young, I remember all sorts of programmes being broadcast through that sector in different regions. ''Emmerdale'', ''Coronation Street'' and ''EastEnders''; they are all household names. Despite my earlier comments about good taste and decency, it is important that at least some of those programmes continue.

I am concerned about the future of the independent sector in the sense that it seems that the BBC will be regulated somewhat differently from ITV. We have heard a great deal from my hon. Friends about the difficulties faced by independent companies. We must remember that they are not funded by the anonymous taxpayer; they have to generate their own income, which puts them on a very different footing. That is a serious consideration in terms of regulation.

The White Paper contains a great deal about the future of independent broadcasting. On the one hand,

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that makes me feel confident about its future. On the other, it seems a little woolly and vague. Will the Minister add a little more certainty?

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield made his points far more colourfully than I could hope to do. If I am in a position to do so, I shall ensure that he serves on the Committee that considers the main communications Bill, because it would not be the same without him. I am sure that members of the Committee will agree about that, if nothing else.

Independent companies need to be able to plan ahead, but the White Paper has a lot to say about the ownership of different media in the future. For that ragbag of reasons, I support the amendment.

Dr. Howells: As the hon. Member for Esher and Walton said in his speech, which was interesting, mercifully brief and—

Glenda Jackson: Intelligent.

Dr. Howells: ''Intelligent'', as my hon. Friend says; that is such a joy. The hon. Gentleman raised matters that will properly be discussed and dealt with in the drafting of the substantive communications Bill. But we are not discussing that Bill and I want to return to the business in hand.

If I hear another account of this lavish lunch at which poverty-stricken Mr. Clive Jones and poverty-stricken Carlton Communications brainwashed poor vulnerable Conservative Members, I might throw up.

I doubt whether a single member of the Committee does not share a desire to ensure that high-quality regional programming, including news, continues to be an important part of ITV's public service offering. The White Paper outlined our commitment to retaining and strengthening the regional dimension of public service broadcasting, and to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of different communities and cultural interests. I reaffirm that aim now.

Those matters are not relevant to the single function that is conferred by the Bill on Ofcom; to prepare itself to take on other functions at a later date. As Ofcom will not be exercising regulatory functions at this stage, it will not be in a position to ensure continued, effective ITV regional programming, so it will remain the responsibility of the ITC. The communications Bill will set out the detail of Ofcom's central regulatory objectives, and no more. I oppose the amendments.

Miss McIntosh: I thank and congratulate all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I hear what the Minister says, but it is not an adequate response because we are finding it difficult to divorce the function of Ofcom and the content of the communications Bill from its setting up. The one purpose of Ofcom, and of our being here, is to enable Ofcom to prepare for functions about which we know not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield was helpful, given his vast knowledge of Radio Caroline and other stations. Yesterday, I discovered that I might have been listening to that station when he was performing, although not under the name of Mickey Fab; I would have remembered that.

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Michael Fabricant: I believe that my hon. Friend was brought up in Scotland, so she may have been listening to somebody else in this Committee who was a regular broadcaster on Radio Scotland.

Miss McIntosh: I am afraid that although I was born in Scotland, I went to Harrogate ladies college. We were not supposed to have radios in our dormitories—it was a boarding school—after hours. I hate to say this on record, but I brought a radio in and listened to it, although I did so quietly, so as not to disturb other residents. So far as I recall, it was Radio Caroline, not Radio Scotland.

Reference has been made to the problems that face ITV programming and news editions. The Committee will be delighted, or appalled, to learn that when my husband took me out for our wedding anniversary two years ago, I was accosted upon leaving the restaurant by someone who thought I was the star of ''The Bill''. I do not know how I might have been confused with the main players of ''The Bill'', but I am grateful to Tyne Tees Television and Yorkshire Television for giving me such coverage. The amendment is necessary because if the Government do not accept it, I may not get such exposure in future.

Importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has put on record the pressures that individual programme makers and news editors are under; we have benefited from that. In my introductory remarks, I said that all hon. Members—whether Front Benchers or Back Benchers—benefit almost disproportionately more from regional news programmes than from national news programmes. The importance of using every opportunity here or in constituency must be close to your heart, Mr. Gale. What a shame that the Committee is not being recorded and broadcast.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton who has Front-Bench experience of the kind that none of us elected in 1997 has yet tasted. He was not simply driven away in a ministerial car; he carried home the red box each night and did the business. As the Minister said, my hon. Friend still bears the scars, as I am sure he would agree. Posing the question in reverse, as my hon. Friend did, was helpful. The Minister must respond to his plea and say what would happen if Ofcom had no role in preserving regional programming. My hon. Friend was almost apologetic in explaining that he was raising technical points. We must accept that it is a joint departmental responsibility.

4 pm

We are the poorer in the Committee for not having a Minister or a Front Bench spokesman from the Department of Trade and Industry present. We are focusing exclusively on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport aspects. Many of the issues that we will consider fall under the remit of the DTI.

However, I am mindful of the Minister's comments, and I may return to the subject later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 2, line 45, after 'industry;', insert—

    '(aa) any proposals for the conferring on OFCOM of any functions relating to the regulation of the financial and pecuniary interests of the employees of the media;'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 61, in page 2, line 45, after 'industry;', insert—

    '(ab) any proposals by the Secretary of State for the conferring on OFCOM of any functions relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets'.

No. 62, in page 3, line 5, at end insert

    ', including co-operating with the Office of Fair Trading on matters relating to the promotion of open and competitive markets'.

Miss McIntosh: I start by referring quickly to amendment No. 39, which would add a beneficial proposal regarding those appointed to the board and those regulated by it. The steering group considered that in a limited way in the Towers Perrin report. We may consider it at a later stage. Employees of the present regulatory authorities are concerned about the transfer of assets, pension rights, and their financial and pecuniary interests. The Minister may consider that in his response.

I hope that we can discuss, and then move formally, amendments Nos. 61 and 62. The Select Committee report refers briefly to competition, access and economic regulation. Paragraph 27 of the report recommends that

    the new regulator be given distinct objectives relating to consumer protection and to the promotion of open and competitive markets. We further recommend that the Government prepare policy guidelines for the new regulator on matters affecting the priority of its different objectives to be debated as part of the legislation giving effect to the proposals in the White Paper.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield will remember the deliberations only too clearly and may even be able to say whether the Select Committee has had time to consider the Government response.

Responding to that recommendation and to paragraph 27, the Government say that they agree that

    the consumer protection and the promotion of competition deserve to be stated as distinct objectives and the Communications Bill will provide for that. These and the other objectives set out in the White Paper will all be important for OFCOM, however, and we do not consider that it would help OFCOM to strike the right balance between them if one objective were to be given priority over the others.

The key point is:

    Where there is a conflict between them, it will be for OFCOM to resolve it case by case.

That is on page 3 of the Government's response.

Therein lies the problem. Perhaps this is the most worrying aspect of all the deliberations that we have so far had on the Bill. The Government's response has confirmed—perhaps the Minister will do so again—that they intend Ofcom to have a role as a competition authority. We alluded to that under an earlier amendment that I moved unsuccessfully. The problem is that that will not be a unique role. It is fully intended—unless the Government's position has changed, in which case today is an opportunity to inform us of that—that Ofcom will have a joint role in

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competition matters as a competition authority with the Office of Fair Trading.

I find that an impossible situation. I earlier rehearsed my interest in competition matters and referred to the brief period that I spent in DG IV as an administrative trainee, otherwise known as a stagiaire. That is a traineeship. It is called a practikophold in Danish. I then went on to practise in two separate law firms, one before and one after I was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. On the basis of that, I decided that I would like to be a competition lawyer. I sat the concours, the open examination. I then sat—this is quite an admission, especially with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, the Whip, present—the open competition as a British lawyer for the European Commission, although I forget in which year.

I passed the competition but, regrettably, and to my utmost disappointment, the invigilating authorities wrote to me saying that they had raised the pass mark. That was a scandal for which I believe I could have successfully prosecuted them before the European Court of Justice, but I assumed that I was destined for other things. I had obtained 51.05 per cent. on the written paper, but they raised the pass mark to 55 per cent. halfway through. They then had the gall to say that I would not be invited to the next stage; that is why I am here today. I thank the Committee for its interest in my background in competition affairs. The point is that many failed and thwarted competition lawyers may end up as Members of Parliament. There is a moral there.

I assume that I am not the only person to have had several representations from outside bodies. Perhaps the most pertinent came from NTL, which examined Ofcom's role as a competition authority. It shares my concern that if there are to be two competition authorities, a joint responsibility between Ofcom and the OFT, this Bill should say what the relationship between them will be and which will have the ultimate word and be the ultimate arbiter. It is intended that Ofcom will inherit the concurrent powers granted to Oftel under the Competition Act 1998, and that those powers will be extended to cover the entire communications waterfront, ecology or whatever we want to call it. At present, cases involving broadcasting would be considered by the OFT, not the ITC. Ofcom may therefore end up handling some of the most strategically important competition cases in the UK, not only in telecoms, but in broadcasting.

 
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