Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Michael Fabricant: Surely the question arises from the lack of clarity. Does my hon. Friend agree that because Ofcom naturally has expertise in the broadcasting industry and other digital media, it should deal with issues relating to cross-media ownership and other aspects of competition policy? Although some issues may relate to shares and would

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therefore be embraced by the FSA, such cases would be the exception rather than the rule. Questions are being asked today because of the lack of clarity and guidance from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr. Robertson: I agree. The lack of clarity is the reason why the amendments were tabled. Unfortunately, I must be here tomorrow, although I know that other hon. Members may not have to be. I therefore conclude my remarks.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Member for Vale of York appears to be concerned about conflicts of interest among media employers, although the exact focus of her concern is unclear—and that is being charitable. The Secretary of State has not yet made any proposals that Ofcom should concern itself with such matters. Should my right hon. Friend choose to do so, however, Ofcom's interests in that area in so far as they relate to the regulation of communications would be adequately covered by clause 2(3)(a) and (b), which allow the Secretary of State to make proposals to confer on Ofcom any function relating to telecommunications, wireless telegraphy, broadcasting, radio and television services, or other services connected to the communications industry; and any matters that are incidental or supplemental to those proposals. Those proposals will be set out in the draft communications Bill and debated fully when the Bill enters Parliament.

I can deal with amendments Nos. 61 and 62 briefly. They are unnecessary and add nothing to the Bill. Anything that they would make permissible for Ofcom is already permissible. I ask the Committee to reject the amendments.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister started well but has gone downhill rapidly. I understand what he said about the clause as it stands. Amendment No. 39 was a probing amendment, and he has gone some way towards answering our concerns and specifying the precise role of Ofcom. The Minister says from a sedentary position that that is unnecessary, but that is not true. The Bill is not as clear as it should be, but I am grateful to him for clarifying at least part of it. I accept that that amendment may not be the best drafted, but we do not have two Departments at our disposal, as the Minister will remember only too well from his time in opposition.

The Minister's response on amendments Nos. 61 and 62 was derisory and unacceptable. I set out the position under the Competition Act 1998 and remarkably, it appears that the Minister may feel inadequate or incompetent because the Department of Trade and Industry is the lead Department in that respect.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Lady may not know this, but for three and a half years, I did the job of Competition Minister. I may not have failed my exams in Brussels, but I assure her that I know competition law in this country and will debate it with her at any time.

Miss McIntosh: I am most disappointed that the Minister will not debate it with me here and now on these two amendments. I may have omitted to say this

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morning—I thank the Minister giving me the opportunity to set the record straight—but I was told that I had passed the competition paper: to get through the written stage and to the oral stage, all that was required was 50 per cent, and I got 51.05 per cent. However, the pass mark was raised to 55 per cent. That was unacceptable, and I could have pursued the matter through the courts, but I chose not to do so because I imagined that another life beckoned, and here I am getting on with it.

Dr. Howells: We're all glad about that.

Miss McIntosh: Indeed, I thank the Minister for that kind remark.

I do not know where the Minister was in 1998—perhaps he was at the DTI and responsible for taking the Competition Act through Parliament—but he must be aware that concern was expressed then by not only Members on both sides of the House, but outside bodies such as NTL.

I have gone through the activities that are expected to stop under Ofcom, and only one relates to competition—even that is stretching it a bit. However, three activities are expected to start under Ofcom, and all relate to competition. I will make it really simple for the Minister and ask the question that sums up the purpose of the two amendments. Which one will be the ultimate arbiter, the primus inter pares—the Office of Fair Trading or Ofcom? That is why his response is unacceptable.

Given our strategy and tactics, and that we want to return to the matter at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Management of OFCOM

Amendment proposed: No. 15, in page 3, line 26, at end add—

    '(2) Decisions of OFCOM shall be published.'.—[Miss McIntosh.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 11.

Division No. 6]

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

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

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Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman: I must now propose the Question that clause 3 stand part of the Bill.

Miss McIntosh: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I crave the Committee's indulgence. I have not had time to prepare, and the Whip said that if I were in that position, I could make a request.

The Chairman: The Chair has had no notice of that. I must propose the Question that clause 3 stand part, and the Committee has the right to debate it.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Miss McIntosh: I wish to debate clause 3 and I am most grateful to you, Mr. Gale. This will be quite a substantial debate, and I look forward to views being expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. Clause 3 relates to the management of Ofcom. It places Ofcom—

The Chairman: Order. I apologise to the hon. Lady. I should have clarified the position earlier. With what I understood was the agreement of the usual channels, I agreed that the Committee would sit until 5.25 pm, in view of the time lost during a Division in the House. The hon. Lady just said that this was likely to be a substantial debate, so I must inform the Committee that, although I will, of course, honour the agreement to sit until 5.25, at that time the motion to adjourn will be moved, or I shall suspend the Committee for an hour and a half.

Mr. Robertson: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I am not aware that any Opposition Member was informed that the Committee would sit until 5.25 pm.

The Chairman: I was asked by the Government Front Benchers whether I was prepared to allow that, and given that there was a Division in the middle of this afternoon's sitting, I agreed.

Miss McIntosh: Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale.

The Chairman: Order. I am answering the point of order.

It is a normal courtesy that the usual channels discuss the decision, but having given an undertaking as to what I would do, I will stand by it. That is my ruling, and I do not wish to have any further debate on it. I propose to suspend the Committee at 5.25 unless it is adjourned.

Miss McIntosh: I am treading new waters here. I have served on Bill Committees before, but not from my current position on the Front Bench. My understanding was that, to enable the official Opposition to prepare and given that we do not have the same resources to hand as Government Members, it was a customary courtesy for the usual channels to consult the official Opposition on such matters. I regret the fact that that has not been done, as it places me in great difficulty.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend will know that I have concerns about clause 3 and that I believe that

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amendments could be tabled. I understood that the clause was not to be discussed until next week, so I have not yet tabled any amendments and therefore they cannot be debated. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Chairman—I think that it was Mr. Gale; it may have been Miss Widdecombe—stated that he or she would not accept any manuscript amendments? That is right and proper, but because no amendments are listed, clause 3 will not be fully debated if we continue this debate now, especially if we have to finish debating clause 3 and move on to clause 4.

Miss McIntosh rose—

5.15 pm

The Chairman: Order. The position is abundantly plain. We have reached the moment in the debate when it is necessary to debate clause 3 stand part. That is the motion before the Committee. The Chairman will not accept manuscript amendments, and no amendments to clause 3 have been tabled for debate this afternoon. Opposition Front Benchers have the opportunity to oppose clause 3 stand part if they wish to do so.

Miss McIntosh: I seek your indulgence, Mr. Gale. I am in great difficulty. At no stage did anyone approach my hon. Friends or me with any request to sit until 5.25 pm. At no stage was it put to us that there might be an evening sitting. The Clerk knows, but the Government may not, that amendments to clause 3 have been tabled. I ask that we adjourn, so that we have time to discuss the amendments. That is part of the democratic process. I am sure, Mr. Gale, that you and Miss Widdecombe will recall that I requested a debate on clause 2 stand part.

 
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