Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: I just wanted to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield on a stirring speech that unfortunately did not stir the Minister to a reply. The Minister should have taken the opportunity to say how the preparations will be put into effect.

We are told in the explanatory notes that subsection (2)

    ''imposes a duty on existing regulators to comply with directions from the Secretary of State to prepare schemes for transfer to OFCOM of their property, rights and liabilities, so that they can be transferred with the minimum of delay when the regulatory functions are ready to be transferred to OFCOM under the Communications Bill.''

According to the explanatory notes, subsection (3)

    ''provides that the existing regulators have the power to do anything incidental or conducive to their functions under this Bill. This includes assistance to OFCOM by means of secondment of staff and the payment and provision of information.''

Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that subsection (1)(d), which refers to

    ''a power to carry out the functions of that regulator in a manner that promotes the interests of OFCOM.''

establishes a hierarchy of interest between Ofcom and the existing regulators? If there is a conflict of interest or a problem of capacity in the existing regulators to undertake those additional functions, paragraph (d) provides that Ofcom's interests will take precedence over those of the existing regulators.

Miss McIntosh: It is a pity that the Minister could not be as clear in his response.

The power to carry out ''conducive'' functions mentioned in subsection (3)—this does not contradict the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster—include

    ''assistance to Ofcom by the means of secondment of staff, payments and provision of information. This power will be essential for the establishment of the . . . structure and procedures that will need to be put in place to allow the smooth transition of functions and property under the Communications Bill''

That has been a dereliction of duty. The Minister's responsibility was to share that with the Committee, the rightful authority to scrutinise the Bill, because there is a huge gap between that and what the White Paper suggested.

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Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend share my suspicion that it is not that the Minister withheld information, but that he does not have the information? He and his Department have not considered those practical details.

Miss McIntosh: I find that intervention almost unbelievable because we have been waiting for the paving Bill, let alone the main Bill, for some time. I cannot believe that the DCMS, whatever its failings, has not thought about and prepared for precisely those matters.

I repeat that there is a huge gap between the Bill and the promises made and expectations raised in respect of the implementation process by chapter 9 of the White Paper. There has been a huge failure to deliver on the part of the Government and, I regret to say, the Minister. The Committee's responsibility is to analyse and scrutinise the Bill, but we have not been able to do so because he will not share the information with us, which I find deeply regrettable.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Winding up of OFCOM on abandonment etc.of proposals

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move amendment No. 59, in page 4, line 34, at end insert

    'after consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.'.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee of my warning about departures from the scope of the amendment prejudicing the clause stand part debate.

Miss McIntosh: The purpose of amendment No. 59 is to add to subsection (1) a provision that before the Secretary of State can decide that it is necessary to wind up Ofcom there should be

    ''consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.''

Such an abandonment or modification of relevant proposals on the regulation of communications would be due to the Government failing to produce the main communications Bill either before or after 14 April, or whatever date they choose. Should the circumstances in which the Secretary of State deems it unnecessary for Ofcom to continue to exist arise, the Government may by order wind up and dissolve Ofcom.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport believed most fervently that Ofcom, even in its transitional phase, should be fully accountable to both Houses of Parliament. What the best vehicle for such accountability would be is debatable, and we have debated it elsewhere. The reason why the Opposition believe that it is right and proper that there should be an alternative to a Select Committee of either this House or the other place is that we were told by the Minister that there would be a pre-legislative scrutiny committee, which would be a Joint Committee of both

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Houses of Parliament. The duty of a Joint Committee on pre-legislative scrutiny should be to monitor the way in which Ofcom is set up.

Perhaps clause 5 could be described as a sunset clause. Our attempt to insert a sunset provision failed miserably through lack of support, even though I moved it vigorously--

Dr. Howells: It was brilliantly moved.

Miss McIntosh: Thank you.

If the communications Bill does not appear before the House this spring, or by the autumn, or even by spring next year, it would be a right and proper for the matter to be considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. The composition of such a Joint Committee would be determined not by the Government, but by both Houses of Parliament, although I am not sure which House would have seniority. I had the privilege of serving on a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament and was told that if another similar Joint Committee was set up it would be the turn of the House of Commons to provide the Chairman. However, the Joint Committee would, no doubt, make a joint decision, so seniority would be of no consequence.

It should be for the Secretary of State to deem that it is no longer necessary for Ofcom to continue to exist. It may be necessary to prompt the Secretary of State to reach a decision, but that is not apparent in the Bill, so amendment No. 59 is necessary. Without it, primary legislation would not come before Parliament, although there is another procedure that we shall discuss in connection with clause 5 stand part, whereby a statutory instrument can be laid and prayed against. That is an unsatisfactory procedure and depends on

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the vigilance of an active official Opposition in monitoring statutory instruments to ensure that they do not slip through unannounced.

Our purpose today—or on Report, or even on Third Reading—is to ensure that once Ofcom has been brought into existence, it does not continue longer than absolutely necessary. Our sunset provision—we have overcome our disappointment—would have introduced a time scale that would have helped the Minister to concentrate his Department's mind on whether Ofcom should continue for one year or 18 months, although the Opposition believe that one year would have been sufficient, from the date of the Bill's enactment.

The Bill fails to provide for the Department, having strung us along and promised a communications Bill, leaving us with only the little baby paving legislation--

Michael Fabricant: Not so much a baby.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East): What about the amendment?

Miss McIntosh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that.

Even the Government envisage in the clause that the act or failure to act, or the abandonment or modification of any relevant proposals about the regulation of communications, may obviate the necessity of Ofcom continuing to exist, in which case the Secretary of State may by order provide for its winding up and dissolution. The purpose of our concise but appropriate amendment is that that should happen only after consultation with and consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. We could have gone further and suggested that that should be subject to the approval of a Joint Committee, but the Minister may think that that would be a step too far--

        It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past four o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Widdecombe, Miss Ann (Chairman)
Allan, Mr.
Fabricant, Mr.
Farrelly, Paul
Grogan, Mr.
Harvey, Nick
Howells, Dr.
Jackson, Glenda
Kemp, Mr.
Linton, Martin

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McIntosh, Miss
Miller, Mr.
Pearson, Mr.
Picking, Anne
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Thomas, Mr. Simon
Watkinson, Angela
White, Brian
Wyatt, Mr. Derek

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