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Michael Fabricant: No one doubts the amount of consultation that has taken place, but we find it odd that when the Opposition offered helpful suggestions to amend the Bill, they were rejected outright in Committee, yet those same amendments were accepted in another place and are being accepted today. Could not considerable time have been saved, had they only been accepted in the first place?
Tessa Jowell: Let me go back to the earlier discussion of the proposal to insert a provision to further the interests of citizens among the general duties of Ofcom. I proudly acknowledged that after listening to the debate in Standing Committee, we were persuaded that greater clarity was necessary. However, as has been made clear by the Government and by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) from his experience, inserting the word "citizen" at that stage was deemed not to be possible by parliamentary counsel. Once the matter had been voted on in another place, the more arcane conventions of parliamentary counsel allowed us to adopt the term without its previous narrow meaning relating to nationality, which had obstructed our wish earlier. That is an example of good engagement in the Standing Committee and an eventual solution being found as a result of the amendment passed in another place.
Hon. Members should remember that those outside who feed the Opposition with their briefing, ideas and proposals are free with their advice to Members in all parts of the House, so we receive the same ideas, briefing and argument. Those have been fairly reflected in the Bill as it now stands. The changes that have been made in respect of localness and local radio are a good example. The amendments under discussion were tabled in response to the radio industry's concern about the application of the "localness" clause. Hon. Members will recall that in the draft Bill, the plurality floor in relation to local radio was originally set at three plus one. In consultation with the industry, the Government accepted the case that was being made and amended that to two plus one. Let us have no more criticism. That is the process whereby good legislation is developed, and we can all take due credit.
I shall say a little more about the application of the "localness" clause. There was a concern that the Government's original proposals were over-prescriptive. In the amendments we have provided clarification, which has been welcomed by the industry. For example, the amendments make it clear that not all services need to include local material, and that a suitable proportion of local material must be locally made. The reference to a code is replaced by reference to guidance provided by Ofcom. Once again, the Government listened to the arguments from the industry and acted to reflect the balance between the ambition to deregulate where possible, and the need to protect the public interest because of the unique importance of media in our democracy.
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford asked why we had amended the definition of control. The relevant provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002 deal with merger control, whereas the Broadcasting Act provisions safeguard plurality. There is no necessary reason why the definitions of control should be wholly identical.
The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises in amendment No. 114 with regard to broadcasting competition has been a hoary chestnut throughout the parliamentary stages of the Bill. I shall not replay the lengthy debate that took place in Committee. The issue has been debated in both the House and another place, and reflects the concerns expressed, notably by Sky in relation to the packaging of its channel. That broadcaster sought to reduce Ofcom's ability to consider the interests of citizens or consumers in respect of matters that could have an impact on its business.
Along with the important economic and competition issues, Ofcom must be able to balance the wider public and consumer issues. The need to get that balance right exercised the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, as it has hon. Members in the House and in another place. The process has produced a Bill that represents a proper balance, and we should not re-open consideration of such fundamental questions, given the specific concerns of one broadcaster, which I have had the opportunity to discuss with that broadcaster. In view of the many procedural and other safeguards in the Bill, I believe that those concerns are unfounded.
I shall deal with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) about the importance of music, whose protection and promotion we have sought to achieve. Amendment No. 99 would mean that Ofcom did not have to consult on a request for a departure from the character of a service where the departure would not substantially alter the service's character. However, if the departure would substantially alter the character of the service, Ofcom would have to consult on the proposed departure before it could agree to it.
That is one very specific area in which the position of music is safeguarded. That has again been a matter of some considerable debate and interest during the Bill's passage. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland and the House about the strength of the safeguards to secure music as part of the wide range of broadcasting genres, whether on television, on radio, and particularly where his interests lie, in relation to local radio.
Lords amendment: No. 56, in page 249, line 11, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b).
Tessa Jowell: We have listened carefully to the arguments advanced in debates in both Houses about the subject of the Channel 3 news provider. The amendments are our response to that debate. They will lift most of the ownership restrictions on the Channel 3 nominated news provider and remove the Ofcom nomination process for that body. That will mean that ITV can own its own news provider, but must still function as a single body corporate in order to maintain the desirable level of independence.
The remaining ownership restrictions are intended to ensure that a body that could not hold the Channel 3 licence or have a substantial interest in the holder cannot provide the news service. So the main restrictions are as follows: any body banned from owning a Channel 3 licence under part II of schedule 2 of the Broadcasting Act 1990for instance, that includes political bodieswill be similarly restricted from being or having an interest in the Channel 3 news provider; and any body, such as a major newspaper, that is prevented from owning a Channel 3 licence is also prevented from owning its news provider and restricted in the interests it can hold in the news provider.
The quality provisions remain in place and require that Channel 3 national news continues to be able to compete with other national news services. They also provide for Ofcom to approve the appointed news provider contract to ensure that it is adequately funded. In order for Ofcom to guarantee that the required arrangements are in place and work effectively, the amendments ensure that Ofcom can obtain the information it needs from ITV or the appointed news provider. If Channel 5's audience share becomes broadly equivalent to that of Channel 3, it will be possible to create a Channel 5 scheme comparable to the appointed news provider scheme for Channel 3. We will be able to modify by order the quality and ownership provisions of the Channel 3 system and any Channel 5 scheme.
Mr. Whittingdale: In debating the previous group of amendments, I suggested that we might have saved some time if the Government had listened in Committee, rather than resisted our ideas before going to the House of Lords and conceding those points. In reply, the Secretary of State said "Let's not have any more of that", but if ever there is going to be any more of that, it will be in relation to the group of amendments that we are now considering.
The amendments introduce the most important change that the Opposition have managed to achieve in relation to the Bill, and it will undoubtedly benefit ITN and ITV. It is worth reflecting on the history of this matter. The nominated news provider system and the cap on ownership were established back in 1990. Such an arrangement was arguably right at that time, but over the past 14 years, it has become a handicap to ITN.
Brian White: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the arguments for nominated news providers came from ITN itself, which advocated the system as one or two people in the company thought that they could make some fast money?