Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Miss McIntosh: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point and I am sorry that I was so slow to get there.

Dr. Howells: May I confirm for the third time that taxpayers will pick up the costs?

Miss McIntosh: Right. This is a matter to which we want to return and I give notice of that. I hoped that the Minister could give us a timetable for the transfer of the assets.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Lady has tried that before.

Miss McIntosh: Yes, and I shall do so again. I shall not give up so easily. I want to know what the timetable will be for the transition phase and the final phase, but it is appropriate to return to that at a later stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. You are an experienced Chairman and I would like some clarification. When a husband and wife are not speaking, they may ask questions of each other through an intermediary. Is it normal in Committee for an hon. Member such as myself to have to ask the Minister questions through my hon. Friend, who then has the Minister intervening to answer them?

The Chairman: I am not entirely sure that that is a genuine point of order. It is up to the Member who has the Floor to decide whether to give way to a Member who is seeking to intervene, and it is up to the Member who is intervening to make his point briefly. It is not up to the Chair at all.

Clause 6


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

Miss McIntosh: I do not intend to detain the Committee for long, although there is one item that I shall wish to return to at the earliest opportunity.

In responding to the previous clause stand part debate, the Minister said that the DTI currently acted as a regulator, so it is curious that it is not mentioned in the Bill. We all know what the DTI is, but it would have been appropriate to define its role for the benefit of laypersons like myself who do not have the great wealth of expertise of my hon. Friends and other

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Members on both sides of the Committee. Will the Minister take this opportunity to rectify that?

I shall return to the other matter in the not too distant future.

Michael Fabricant: Clearly, the clause must be included in the Bill, but it is a sad clause, owing partly to its omissions and partly to its inclusions. As my hon. Friend said, it would have been clearer to include some definition of the functions of the DCMS and the DTI in relation to Ofcom, although it might not have been within the scope of the Bill to do so. The situation was even more disparate before 1997, when the Home Office was also involved. That is yet another argument for there being only one Government Department with responsibility for communications; a Government communications organisation.

It is a sad clause because there is no subsection 1(e) referring to the BBC. There should be, because the BBC board of governors is a regulator.

The Chairman: Order. The BBC is not part of the Bill and we have had this debate about four times already.

Michael Fabricant: Another sad part of the clause is subsection (2)(b)(iii), which cites the Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967. That is sad for me because it made a dishonest man of me.

Angela Watkinson: I rise briefly for a point of clarification. The list of existing regulators in clause 6(1) does not include the Radiocommunications Agency. My Library research paper says that there are five regulators, of which the Radiocommunications Agency is the fifth. Will the Minister elucidate?

Dr. Howells: I am advised that although the clause does not cover the Radiocommunications Agency, which is currently a manifestation of the Secretary of State, the agency is expected to co-operate with Ofcom in a similar way to that set out in the clause. I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that answer.

Angela Watkinson: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Short title, commencement and extent

Dr. Howells: I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 6, line 14, leave out subsection (5).

It is unusual for me to move an amendment. Clause 7(5) was inserted in another place to avoid infringing the privileges of this House. As is usual in these circumstances, amendment No. 33 removes it.

Miss McIntosh: This is one of many amendments that were tabled in the other place. I want to press the Minister on several points arising from what he has just said and from what he said during the passage of the Bill. We are told in the explanatory notes on clause 7:

    This order-making power will be used so that OFCOM can be operational by the time that the Communications Bill is brought into force.

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We are also told about the financial effects of the Bill:

    The Government envisages that the initial planning costs of establishing OFCOM so that it can prepare to receive its functions will be in the order of £5 million spread over the period of transition.

The notes continue:

    By adding to the existing regulators' statutory functions—

The Chairman: Order. Before we proceed down that road, the amendment, not unusually in procedural terms, is very clearly and narrowly defined. As with my standard practice as Chairman, I am perfectly happy to allow a stand part debate now to broaden the issue slightly, on the clear understanding that we have only one stand part debate and that this is it. The hon. Lady may, alternatively, wish to draw her remarks to a conclusion, allow the amendment to proceed and then have a stand part debate. I am very relaxed about which way she plays it, but she cannot have it both ways.

Miss McIntosh: I am happy to accept your invitation to have only one debate, Mr. Gale, and have a clause stand part debate now. I wish to refer only to this paragraph.

The explanatory notes state:

    By adding to the existing regulators' statutory functions, the Bill will allow existing regulators to recover a proportion of the establishment cost from the communications sector. These powers will mean that the net cost to public expenditure—

I presume that that means the taxpayer—

    will be significantly less than the overall gross cost of the practical transition.

I wish to allude to the remarks that the Minister made when concluding the last debate. Being a lawyer, financial matters do not come easily to me. He clearly stated, as I think the Committee was happy to accept, that there will be a cost to the taxpayer.

The Chairman: Order. I am trying to be as helpful as possible, but even under the terms of the short title clause, which is clause 7, those matters are not covered. Even in a very broad stand part debate, I am afraid that the hon. Lady is out of order.

Miss McIntosh: I crave your indulgence, Mr. Gale. I am talking about amendment No. 33. Am I right in thinking that the Minister just moved that, or are things going so quickly that I cannot keep up? That is always possible. I am responding to amendment No. 33.

The Chairman: I must advise the hon. Lady that the House of Lords has inserted a privilege disclaimer in the last subsection of clause 7. The scope of the debate on the amendment to remove it is confined to the question of whether the House of Commons should maintain its claim of financial privilege. That is all that is under discussion, and that is not what the hon. Lady is discussing.

Miss McIntosh: The Opposition wish to retain that very welcome subsection. Clause 7(5) is very clear and states:

    Nothing in this Act shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Perhaps I can assist the hon. Lady. Subsection (5) is, in a sense, fictional; a fiction by convention. Having seen such

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things before, I can assure her that there is really no need to go over it. The fiction is inserted so that the Lords can debate the Bill. It will obviously cost the public money. I do not think that any of us are under the illusion that it will not cost the public money at some point.

Miss McIntosh: I am sorry, but I think that we must have this commitment on the record. We wish to retain it, whether it is a fiction or a privilege. We can bandy the words about and discuss fiction and privilege and convention. The whole of the British constitution is a convention at the moment. This House operates by convention. We are all familiar with that concept. Having obtained clause 7(5) as an amendment to the Bill, I think it important that we retain it here. I would resist any attempt by the Government to remove it.

I am referring to the financial effects of the Bill as explained to me in what are meant to be simple, layman's terms in the explanatory notes, which say:

    These powers will mean that the net cost to public expenditure will be significantly less than the overall gross cost of the practical transition.

We are still trying to establish what the transitional costs will be. I am simply trying to retain clause 7.

5.15 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): As I understand it, the hon. Lady is arguing against removing the subsection; I will accept that that may be fiction for the moment. Can she explain how that stands beside her previous amendments, which sought for Ofcom to be economically efficient? This clause would refuse to allow any variance in the public charge. Surely one must set a sprat to catch a mackerel, so how will Ofcom achieve what she wants if its hands are so tied?

Miss McIntosh: As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield put on record, there is the question of loans, their repayment and what their net effect will be. There is no point beating around the bush, or having the same debate over again. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is absolutely right that I have forcibly argued throughout our discussions that we should know precisely what cost savings the Government seek to make. That request has fallen on deaf ears. We still do not know what the transitional arrangements will be and, should the Bill's provisions fail by 2003—or very shortly thereafter—we do not know what assets will have been transferred, and what assets will be transferred back to the Secretary of State. I would resist amendment No. 33 and argue in favour of keeping clause 7(5).

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