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Lord Holme of Cheltenham moved Amendment No. 25:



"STATEMENTS TO PARLIAMENT
(1) At least once every six months the Secretary of State shall make a statement to Parliament about OFCOM's activities and its relationship with the existing regulators.
(2) The requirement to make a statement to Parliament under subsection (1) shall cease when--
(a) legislative effect has been given to the proposals about the regulation of communications referred to in section 2(3); or
(b) OFCOM has been wound up."

The noble Lord said: In rising to move this amendment, I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of NTL, whose briefing material the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Anelay, so kindly referred to earlier. I shall be brief because at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, gave a positive response to this amendment, and I do not want to detain the Committee at this time of night longer than I need to.

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There will be a period--it should not be longer than one year--in which Ofcom co-exists with the five current regulatory bodies. Organisationally that is quite properly intended to be a preparation for a hand-over. Hence, the Bill refers to preparatory functions and to transitional arrangements. Amendment No. 25 is intended to allow Parliament to keep tabs on how that hand-over is going.

There are always dangers when two sets of people are engaged in worrying about the same issues in that one set of people is coming and the other set is going. Earlier the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, expressed concern that the new Ofcom chairman, the non-staff directors and the chief executive would have nothing to do. That is one possible danger. However, assuming that they are all able people, might not the greater danger be that they may choose to be activist and do too much too soon, anticipating their future powers in one way or another.

The time-scale is somewhat uncertain, as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, told us so eloquently in reply to his noble friend Lord Lipsey on the issue of a Joint Committee. External events may delay the main Bill, competing legislation may put it back, and its passage may turn out to be even more time-consuming and complex than the Government's managers expect. Judging from the two debates that we have had so far, I believe that that is more than possible. One year could stretch to two. Then we might have two years of co-existence between the five current regulators soldiering on and the shadow regulator converting itself from ectoplasm to a more solid existence.

I certainly want to pay tribute to the constructive and thoughtful way in which the five existing regulators have approached the difficult problems of transition. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is in his place. He, of course, is one of them. I believe that the Towers Perrin report is encouraging and that the process is difficult but going well. However, I am concerned to keep the process of change constructive and thoughtful, with minimum confusion, with no turf wars and with no chilling effect of anticipating what the new Ofcom might want. I believe that we must allow the existing regulators to run right through the tapes so long as they are charged with these important responsibilities. That is something in which Parliament has a legitimate interest.

Therefore, my hope is that the periodic report suggested in my amendment will be able to tell us that everything is going well. I believe that the need to report makes that more likely. The Minister was generous in his response at Second Reading, and I hope that he will feel able to be so now. I beg to move.

Lord Lipsey: I rise briefly to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Holme. I do so for one or two reasons. First, I am not absolutely certain that the full Bill will dash through the House in the next Session of Parliament. We have heard of the terrorist legislation that may be required. I now fully expect a Bill to commit me to the Tower for dangerously aiding bin Laden in proposing a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider this Bill. Therefore, the legislative

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process may be obstructed in that way and, on a more serious note, we may yet see more issues of that character.

The Bill is not at all easy to draft. Various attempts at doing so have not yet succeeded in dealing with all the problems involved. There are a number of areas in which we have not reached finality. There is the question of cross-media ownership on which we are now to have a consultation paper from the Government. There is the issue of the BBC which has been very usefully exposed tonight, but we have not yet reached finality. With all these big issues I do not believe that any of us would like to bet our lives that we shall have a Bill which has received the right proposals and had the proper consideration by next autumn.

Inevitably, long run-ins to Bills are difficult. That is why we have this Bill. Reforms of this kind with bodies running in parallel are difficult. I can speak from personal experience as a member of the board of the Personal Investment Authority at the same time as it was running in parallel--it still is--with the Financial Services Authority. The truth was that with every passing month it became more difficult. There was great good will as there is between all the organisations involved in Ofcom. But it became more and more difficult to reconcile the needs of the new organisation with the policies and prejudices of the old organisations. In the end there was a bust up or two. I hope that that will not happen in this case. But it seems to me very sensible, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, is proposing, that Parliament keeps an eye on it, regularly reviews the matter and considers where we have got to. If we really believe that there will not be a Bill, then Parliament may decide that the time has come to pull the plug on the organisation set up by this Bill. We must keep it under review and I believe that we would be helped in that by this amendment.

Baroness Blackstone: The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said that he was going to be brief. I shall be brief in reply. That is not because it is getting late, but I believe that I can be fairly positive in what I am going to say.

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I believe that both he and my noble friend Lord Lipsey were unduly gloomy about the prospects for the main Bill. The Government are more optimistic. I believe that we shall spend time next Session debating it. I agree that it will contain many difficult and complex issues. We may well be debating long into the night. If I am still in my present position I shall certainly look forward to engaging with noble Lords about it.

The new clause tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, requiring a statutory obligation for reports to Parliament to be made on progress every six months is taking matters a little too far. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord that the Government will keep Parliament and other interested parties fully informed of the progress which is being made. That is a pledge that I make to Members of the Committee tonight.

We published the Towers Perrin report, which was the first concrete step down this particular road. It did not have to be published, but we believed that it was in the interests of both this House and the other place that we should do so. We will continue to follow an open approach to reporting on the progress made. I am sure that we shall be making reports to Parliament more frequently than the noble Lord has proposed in his amendment.

In the light of that commitment I very much hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: A pledge from the noble Baroness is not something that anyone would take lightly in this House. I certainly welcome the terms in which she has responded to the amendment. I also welcome the fact that she expects reports to Parliament more frequently than every six months. In a fast changing communications scene, she is probably better advised than I as regards my original amendment. I would like to consider whether to return at a later stage as regards a more concrete pledge, but for the present I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

House resumed.

        House adjourned at a quarter past ten o'clock.


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