|Office of Communications Bill [Lords]
Paul Farrelly: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. He has so anaesthetised me that I have completely forgotten what I was going to say.
Michael Fabricant: I did not mean to cause the hon. Gentleman embarrassment, although the note that he passed me earlier almost caused me to collapse. However, that is another matter.
I just do not understand what subsection (5) means. At best it is redundant and should be deleted. At worst, it is a meaningless subsection. I sit down with great anticipation and hope that the Minister will explain, when he gets the chanceI know that my hon. Friends have a great deal to say on the amendmentswhat it adds to the Bill. I do not think that it adds anything.
Mr. Robertson: I rise to make a brief contribution. I cannot follow my hon. Friend in his colour and extravagance, and his detailed knowledge of what we are discussing is to be admired; especially when he has just received such terrible news, which I have just seen, and when he had such a good night last night.
I, too, am rather confused by clause 4. At the risk of becoming monotonous through repetition, I regret that the Government have tried to do something that we do not disagree with as a whole in two Bills rather than in one. That adds to the potential for confusion and the potential to fail to set up Ofcom in the way that we want.
I am concerned about the continuing absence of any guarantee about when the main communications Bill will be introduced. I mention that again because it leaves a big gap. If we go down the route suggested in clause 4, whereby existing regulators must do this and that, and Ofcom must do this but not that, and so on and so forth, and if there is a long time until the main Bill is published, we shall run into difficulties, especially in an industry that changes so quickly.
Column Number: 232
I am confused. Clause 2(1) refers to
Clause 4especially subsection 1(b), (c) and (d) and subsection (5)seems to pass some duties from the existing regulators to Ofcom, but to keep others. I detect potential for great confusion, which I do not want. I want a very smooth transition. The White Paper correctly identified that the staffing of Ofcom and the quality of staff would be all-important. If there is to be a protracted period of transition, any confusion will serve only to undermine the position, and perhaps the employment prospects, of current staff.
It is important that the Government make clear the time scale, which I have mentioned before. They must also clear up some of the confusion that, to my mind, surrounds clause 4, about which my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of York and for Lichfield spoke at much greater length and with more eloquence than I have sought to do.
Dr. Howells: Hon. Members have expressed concern today and previously about the Bill's proposal that Ofcom and the existing regulators must work closely together to ensure a smooth and speedy transition to the new regulatory regime. I agree that it is essential that the existing regulators and Ofcom co-operate closely if the transition from the current arrangements to the new regime is to be completed smoothly and efficiently, without disruption to the industry or consumers. The purpose of clause 4 is to ensure just that. The clause is essential to ensure that the existing regulators have the requisite powers and duties to facilitate the implementation of relevant proposals, and that they can co-operate with Ofcom so that it can carry out its initial and future functions effectively.
Turning to amendment No. 43, Ofcom will be preparing to take on the responsibilities of the existing regulators and their associated functions, so it is vital that all the organisations work closely together to ensure that nothing they do unintentionally creates difficulties for anyone else. The purpose of clause 4(1)(b) is to require the regulators in carrying out their functions to secure that Ofcom will also be able to carry out its functions effectively.
That need for co-operation extends first to Ofcom's initial function of preparation, and then to ensuring that it will be in a position to carry out its future regulatory functions. Hon. Members will recall that clause 2(2) places Ofcom under a duty to co-operate with the existing regulators and not to interfere with their current work. The two provisions are intended to
Column Number: 233ensure that the regulators and Ofcom co-operate closely. Clause 4(1)(b) is an entirely sensible provision and it should be retained.
Moving on to amendment 63, in addition to the obligation placed on the existing regulators in clause 4(1)(a) to do everything that is necessary for Ofcom to prepare itself, clause 4(1)(c) enables those regulators to do such other things as they consider appropriate to implement relevant proposals or to secure their modification. It will be for the regulators to decide what other things it might be appropriate for them to do in this context. It is entirely for the regulators to decide, and Ofcom will not be able to force them to do anything they do not want to do.
In addition, just as it is vital that Ofcom should be able to secure the modification of relevant proposals, it is important that the existing regulators should be able to express views on the relevant proposals and, if they consider it necessary, to seek to secure their modification. Clause 4(1)(c) allows them to do that and should therefore be retained.
The hon. Member for Vale of York raised the question of amendment No. 64. Hon. Members will be aware that because the regulators are established and governed by statute, they are limited to doing only what statute permits. The purpose of the provision in clause 4(1)(d) is to empower the existing regulators, in addition to what they can already do under statute, to carry out their functions in a manner that promotes the interests of Ofcom. The provision provides the regulators with further flexibility to help Ofcom in its preparations. It is therefore essential to allow the co-operation that we all desire to take place.
Miss McIntosh: My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and I asked about the expression,
Dr. Howells: I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to tell her that the purpose is the promotion of the whole industry. She will recall, because I have told her 20 or 30 times, that the Bill is about setting up Ofcom. The sole purpose of the provisions in clause 4(5)perhaps this will be of help to the hon. Ladyis to make clear that the new functions that the existing regulators will have as a result of the provisions in clause 4 are in addition to, and will not be prejudicial to, any existing powers that have been conferred by other Acts.
Michael Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?
Dr. Howells: No.
That provision ensures that there will be no conflict between the existing regulators' current functions and those that will be conferred on them. Amendment No. 65 is therefore not needed.
Column Number: 234
Miss McIntosh: I would not like to jeopardise the possibility of a short debate on clause 4 stand part, so I would like all four amendments to be voted for en bloc.
The Chairman: The vote will be on amendment No. 43, not on any others en bloc.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 12.
Division No. 7]
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful for the opportunity to debate clause 4(1). There is concern in the industry that will be regulated by the new merged body about how the subsection will be applied. The White Paper provides some assistance, stating on page 85 in paragraph 9.4.2:
Given that a whole chapter, albeit a short one, of the White Paper dwells on the process of implementation, I cannot grasp why the Government did not take the opportunity presented by the Bill to describe the form of the discussions and consultations. The Minister commented on that only in response to our probing amendments. The White Paper states that the Government
Column Number: 235
That is a key point, and once the Bill leaves Committee and proceeds to the Floor of the House the amount of time in which to debate it will be even more limited. As chapter 9 of the White Paper says,
The White Paper says that:
We have had lengthy discussions about whether both Houses of Parliament should be involved in the appointment of board members. It is not only disappointing, but mysterious, curious and even unacceptable that the subsection fails to address the issues that are set out in some detail in the White Paper. I urge the Government to take the opportunity to rectify that omission.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2002||Prepared 5 February 2002|