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4 Mar 2003 : Column 753—continued

Mr. Simon Thomas: My hon. Friend has support from an unexpected quarter. I have with me the Welsh Assembly Government's current position on the Bill that was dated January 2003. The Welsh Assembly Government are, of course, a Labour-Liberal Democrat Assembly Government, but the document states:

Surely, if an Assembly Government asks for something from a Government in Westminster with the same political complexion, we should expect some leeway and an agreement to be hammered out. Why has that not happened?

Pete Wishart: I wish that I could answer my hon. Friend's question. Perhaps the Welsh Assembly Government were desperate to fall in line with what was requested from Scotland, which was almost identical. I understand that a similar request was made from Northern Ireland. What I do not understand—I share my hon. Friend's exasperation—is why it was rejected here. Why did Labour members of the Committee object? That baffles me entirely.

5 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): I draw the attention of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend to the fact that the Governments in Scotland and Wales are of a different political complexion from the Government here. There are Liberal Democrat Members in those Governments, which is why they are better.

Pete Wishart: I wish that I could concur with the hon. Gentleman, but he will excuse me if I do not endorse that view.

All we are asking is to be given the level of representation that we have under the existing regime. These modest amendments attempt to address the rebalancing between the nations of the United Kingdom and the establishment of the Ofcom board. It is neither the best solution nor the second best—it is a poor third

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solution, but at least it would do something to ensure that the nations of the United Kingdom have a voice in the new communications regime.

John Robertson: I had intended not to take part in this debate, but merely to make interventions, but the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) threw out a line and I bit. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is not being very friendly given that I am about to support much of what he said. The fact that there were so many Scottish Labour Members on the Committee meant that Scotland was well represented. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) will testify to the fact that we spoke together on many clauses. My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke about Gaelic and Welsh language matters. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous to say that we did not do our bit for Scotland or, for that matter, Wales or Northern Ireland—I spoke about Northern Ireland myself.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): It was a pleasure to have the hon. Gentleman on the Committee, but it would be fair to say that altogether the six Scottish Members probably spoke for about one hundredth of the time. As the Committee had only 26 members, they should have spoken for 25 or 20 per cent. of the time.

John Robertson: After an intervention like that, it is probably not surprising that we did not speak for longer, unlike Conservative Front Benchers, who overdid it by repeatedly labouring the point on many occasions.

I accept the basic argument that it is important that the regions, not only Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, are represented as nations. In Committee, we had the argument about regions and nations. It is important to have such recognition. Opposition Members may remember, however, that we also argued in Committee about the size of Ofcom. Ofcom is a completely different kind of body from previous bodies such as Oftel. If it represented everything in terms of regions and nations, as well as every single aspect of communications in the tier 1 hierarchy, its size would be unworkable, to say the least.

The hon. Member for North Tayside is right that David Currie said that he would look favourably upon Scotland and the other two nations when he considered the makeup of committees for the regions, and he has stated that he will consult the Scottish Executive on that matter. That answers some of the hon. Gentleman's questions. He will not get everything that he wants, but the Ofcom chairman is making the right noises. It is not fair to say that there is a diminished role for Scotland within Ofcom, given that five bodies have been incorporated into the one. I should like a Scot and someone from each region to serve on the board, but that cannot happen. It is not right to claim that because Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland are not represented, the system is unfair. We account for only one ninth of the population, so if there are fewer than nine people on the board, someone has to suffer.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. However, in the Standing Committee on the Office of Communications Act 2002, which established

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Ofcom, I tabled an amendment to increase Ofcom's membership from nine to a figure to be determined by the Secretary of State. What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the relationship between the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales and Whitehall? It is a much-vaunted relationship and we are told that a Labour Executive in both places leads to a better working relationship. So when those Executives say not once, not twice, but three times that they want such changes to be included in the framework of this Bill, does he not think that we, as UK MPs who legislate for the UK as a whole, should listen to them?

John Robertson: As I said, not everyone can be included on the Ofcom board. It is for Ofcom to decide whether to appoint a Scot, a Welshman or an Irishman. The board would have to be bigger if the devolved Parliaments were to be represented. We had a long discussion about Ofcom's size in Committee. It was originally going to have only three members. We cannot continue to increase it because it will become cumbersome and will not work. We want less regulation, not more. A bigger board would mean more people to put forward ideas and a greater number of arguments. That would stop it reaching a reasonable decision. A regional board could deal with local decisions. David Currie was happy to have that arrangement. In fact, he insisted that it was important and it is being considered.

Scotland has diverse communication and entertainment needs. It is important that we are represented at a certain level, but if a Scot, a Welshman and an Irishman serve on Ofcom, eight ninths of the country would be represented by only two people who could also be Scottish, Welsh or Irish. It is not the nationality that counts; what matters is that Ofcom works and the interests of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all the regions of England are well looked after. That is the most important thing.

Mr. Alan Reid: I support new clause 19 and amendments Nos. 206 and 207. It is correct that Ofcom is a UK-wide regulatory body, because it is self-evident that broadcasting and communication affects the whole of the UK. However, some aspects of broadcasting affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland differently from England, so it is also correct that the system of advisory bodies, consultation and representation proposed in the amendments should be included in the Bill. For example, the political and news coverage in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is different because of the presence of the devolved Parliaments and Administrations in those countries. In addition, Scotland will have the Gaelic media service and Wales will have various Welsh language services. We need to take care of those different concerns in Scotland and Wales.

Rural issues affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland much more than they affect England. I accept that the difficulty of accessing broadband is also a problem for rural areas of England, but the low population density in Scotland means that the problem is more prominent there. The sparsity of population in the highlands makes it difficult to persuade BT to enable exchanges for broadband. The threat of the analogue switch-off affects far more people in the highlands of

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Scotland than elsewhere, as many villages in highland glens surrounded by high mountains rely on self-help relay schemes to receive television signals.

Because of those issues and similar ones, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different needs, and I hope that the Government accept the amendments. I do not see how they can possibly oppose the system of advisory bodies, representations and consultations that they propose. Surely, that is good Government practice, so I hope that the Government will accept them.

Mr. Timms: In Committee, a similar amendment to new clause 19 was eloquently moved by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and debated, but he could not persuade us of its merits. My hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting pointed out to hon. Members at the time that it is essential to bear in mind the fact that the vast majority of Ofcom's functions and responsibilities do not relate to devolved matters. I appreciate that there are areas of overlap with devolved matters, but measures are in place to ensure that the interests of the nations and regions are taken into account. There is therefore no need for committees such as those proposed in the new clause.

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