Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord McIntosh of Haringey: In light of my response to the previous amendment, it will be clear that I am far from antagonistic to the amendment's objective. When the matter arose in Committee in the Commons, we said that we should consider a way in which to achieve that objective. The proposal was moved in a similar manner in the House of Commons. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, reminded us, Clause 3(4) requires Ofcom, in furthering the interests of consumers, to have regard in particular to,


On the face of it, it would not appear to be too difficult to add to that list. However, the difficulty is that the amendment does not quite say what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said. It refers to,


    "accessibility and usability of services".

However, the noble Lord and other Members of the Committee referred to accessibility and usability of services for people with disabilities, which is not quite the same as what is stated in the amendment. Agreeing to the amendment would have effects much wider than the disability issue. It could crop up all the way through the Bill in unexpected ways. We asked ourselves instead about what the role of Ofcom is and—this is Clause 3, after all—whether it is the most appropriate body to address what are essentially issues of design. I made it clear that I am very nervous indeed about the risk of the move towards electronic communication, which could be to the disadvantage of people with disabilities, as well as the elderly and those on low incomes. We will discuss the issue of design when we consider Amendment No. 39, which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. I shall not go into detail at this stage.

The Government are already active in this sphere, both in Europe, where standards for product manufacture and design are agreed, and through the digital TV action plan. A key part of the digital TV action plan is to ensure that the equipment on offer is usable and accessible to the broadest range of people. The Technology and Equipment Group, which is made up of manufacturers, broadcasters, software/application providers and consumer groups, is making an important contribution to this work. One of its early recommendations—to hold a workshop on inclusive design and usability—will be taken forward in early July. This week, the DTI is hosting an RNIB seminar on the current and future development of audio description services.

The DTI has appointed the "Generics Group" to carry out research on how consumers engage with digital TV. It will explore the issues surrounding the usability of digital television for all consumers, with a special focus on users with special needs, including the elderly. It will deliver by the end of July. Bringing

6 May 2003 : Column 1005

together all the people who can make a difference in this area is the proper role of government, not of the regulator.

Clause 3(4), which is where the amendment would be inserted, lists some but not all of the particular matters that Ofcom must have regard to. They are the bare essentials; the list is not exhaustive, and I do not claim that it is. It is important that they should be read in the context of the commitment to the interests of persons with disabilities at Clause 3(3)(i) and by the specific provisions throughout the Bill, to which I referred earlier.

Looking forward to Amendment No. 39 and backwards to my account of what is actually being done by government and the regulator and to my response to earlier amendments—and in view of my response to this amendment—I hope that the amendment will not be pressed.

Lord Carter: I am grateful to the Minister. I shall obviously not press the amendment in Committee, which is the time to probe. That allows the Government to make a considered and constructive response and avoids the tedium of having to seek the opinion of the House at Report.

I thank all Members of the Committee who spoke. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, gave the good example of audio description. We shall return to that later. It is certainly available but it is neither accessible nor usable.

As I understood my noble friend the Minister, he accepted the objective of the amendment but said that the problem was in the drafting. I tried to make it as succinct as possible, but he said that that made it much too wide. If I had made it specific to disabled people, I am sure that he would have said that it was much too narrow. I was rather surprised when he seemed to find a problem with having wider "accessibility and usability" throughout the Bill. I thought that this was a communications Bill. So what is the problem with wider accessibility and usability? As always, I shall consider my noble friend's response. I am not convinced at this stage but, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Wilcox moved Amendment No. 26:


    Page 4, line 22, at end insert "and publish the reasoning for the resolution of any conflict between their general duties"

The noble Baroness said: I wish to speak to Amendment No. 26, but I shall not move Amendment No. 28. This amendment requires Ofcom to publish a document in the event of a conflict between its general duties explaining how it reached a decision one way or another. It is a probing amendment.

As Her Majesty's Government have conceded that in the interests of transparency it is necessary for Ofcom to publish an annual summary of how it resolves conflict between its general duties, a further question remains to be asked: what does the Minister envisage will happen between times and what about

6 May 2003 : Column 1006

particularly difficult or controversial cases? Surely it is desirable, especially during the early years of Ofcom's existence and whenever a novel conflict of its general duties arises, to publish a document outlining its reasoning at the time of the decision. That appears to be common sense if the Minister for DCMS in another place, Dr Kim Howells, is correct, when he expects, and I quote,


    "Ofcom to be a model of good regulatory practice".

The first of the principles of regulation is transparency.

A short summary once a year is not sufficient to guarantee transparency. In order for communication users and providers alike to have confidence in the new regulator, it is essential that they are informed about the rationale behind the decisions that Ofcom makes, especially in the case of appeals. Does the Minister envisage further publication by Ofcom on this matter above and beyond that included in the annual report? I beg to move.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I support the noble Baroness in moving this amendment. I await with great interest the Minister's reply. It seems to me that in some ways the amendment goes to the heart of the Bill and to its central dilemma, which is that to an unusual degree the Bill produces a marriage between two great departments of state which have widely conflicting responsibilities. On the one hand there are the broadcasting responsibilities that go with the DCMS and on the other hand there are the equally important responsibilities of the DTI for telecommunications and the global marketplace .

In any normal legislation that comes before the House it is normal for the department of state and the Secretary of State to reconcile the conflicts that inevitably arise. There is the famous remark of the Scottish left-wing MP of the 1930s, Jimmy Maxton: "If you cannot ride two horses in this bloody circus you are not much good at it, are you?" In this case there is not the normal issue of reconciling conflicts of interest within a normal department of state, but of doing so within the two great departments of state that have conflicting interests and that have a history of representing important national interests.

I well remember when I was chairman of the old IBA being summoned to a meeting in the House of Lords by my Minister. That was at the time when we were just starting geostationary satellites and BSkyB was on the horizon. When I arrived here and went to the office of the Home Secretary in this House I discovered to my dismay that he was not there and I was directed to the office of the Secretary of State for the DTI. I was not very pleased. When I arrived at the office we had a discussion and I did not receive the impression that the Home Secretary of the day was very pleased with the arrangement because there was the first vivid example of the troubles that lay ahead with the development of telecommunication's technology, the increasing convergence of the issues of telecommunications and the national interests involved in that, and the interests of broadcasting.

I do not know the solution to that issue, but I believe that the amendment of the noble Baroness has pinpointed an important aspect of the Bill. It will be

6 May 2003 : Column 1007

necessary for Parliament to be able to have the necessary evidence on a continuing basis, especially in the earlier years of the working of the new Act, of how the genuine conflicts of interest between two great departments of state will be resolved. I have seldom come across blander language in a Bill than appears in Clause 3(5) and (6):


    "Where it appears to OFCOM that any of their general duties conflict with each other in a particular case, they must secure that the conflict is resolved in the manner they think best in the circumstances".

We shall all want to know a great deal more about the circumstances as they emerge as the months and the years go by. I notice in the Explanatory Notes that there is a marvellous explanation:


    "References to the Secretary of State in the Bill mean any Secretary of State. In practice, some of the functions conferred upon the Secretary of State will be exercised by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport jointly and others by only one of them".

I believe that last week in Committee on this Bill I mentioned that just as two cooks in a kitchen are a problem, I foresee immense problems ahead with two major Secretaries of State involved. I do not conceal my own interest in trying to ensure that the broadcasting interest, which appears to be so important to the character and quality of our society, is adequately maintained in that conflict. It is a real conflict and requires adequate machinery of government to deal with it.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: I had not intended to intervene, but I shall do so only briefly. I have been prompted by the remarks that I have just heard. I was a regulator—chairman of the National Rivers Authority—answerable to the Department of the Environment and to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. On at least one occasion—I could think of others if I put my mind to it—the issues were so contentious that they had to be resolved by No. 10 Downing Street. I can confirm that where two departments of state are responsible for one body there are complex issues that are sometimes difficult to resolve.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page