|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord McNally: I am a signatory to Amendments Nos. 59, 6l, 78, and 93. Noting the two horses that Ministers have to ridethe point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, that broadcasting has undoubtedly been a great unifier of this United Kingdom of ours while at the same time recognising and reflecting national diversities and aspirationsI remind the Committee of just two points.
First, when this debate began some two years ago, much of the lobbying was for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish members of the full Ofcom board. Some of us resisted great pressure from our regional parties on the matter because we accepted the Government's argument that the main board should be kept small and not regionally specific. Secondly, my real point is one that reflects all these amendments and the arguments that have been made. The following advice is to be found in the recommendation contained in paragraph 59 of the Joint Committee's report:
Baroness Buscombe: We have considerable sympathy for all the amendments, but I was especially moved by the words of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy who spoke passionately in relation to the need to consider Wales. All noble Lords who have spoken have made useful contributions to the debate.
In relation to Amendment No. 93, I should point out to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that one could more easily have deflected any charge that one is seeking to defend devolution for its own sake if that amendment included reference to "England". Indeed, it was the very fact that there is no specific reference to reporting the activities within England that deterred me from supporting the amendment.
Lord Davies of Oldham: When the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, rose to introduce her amendment some three-quarters of an hour ago, as a veteran of devolution debates in the mid-1970s I noted that we were in for a late dinner hour. That has certainly proved to be the case. Indeed, we should have a very late dinner if I were equipped to answer in detail every point raised during this wide-ranging debate.
During the time when the debate seemed to be focusing overwhelmingly on the relationship between the Welsh Assembly and its role and on the position of Ofcom, I was enormously grateful for the noble Lord on his white charger, coming from Scotland, to remind us that broadcasting in this country is a reserved matter for a very good reason; indeed, broadcasting is absolutely critical to the unity of the end culture of the United Kingdom, as are the arrangements that we make in that respecta point reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord McNally.
We all recognise that public service broadcasting, which relates to so much of the work carried out, is a national concept of a fundamental principle that none of us would wish to put in jeopardy. Therefore, we must carefully consider the question of the representational role and how we respond to local communities, to the nationalities, and to the regions, who have a proper stake in ensuring that broadcasting is also responsive to local needs and interests.
There is a balance to be struck. In the course of my response, I hope that I shall defend the balance that the Bill seeks to establish. I am sure that Members of the Committee are well aware of the measures that we have included in the Bill in order to meet our commitment to ensure that there is an effective relationship between Ofcom and all parts of the United Kingdom. Provision has been included in the legislation to place the main Ofcom board under an obligation to have regard to the interests of the different parts of the United Kingdom in carrying out its duties; for Ofcomthis provision was applauded by several noble Lords in the debateto have offices in each nation and in the English regions; and for there to be designated members on both the content board and the consumer panel to represent the interests of each nation and the English regions.
Amendment No. 27 would require Ofcom to consult the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly on matters of specific concern to those bodies. Amendment No. 27A, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, would modify that provision by requiring Ofcom to give due consideration to representations made by the National Assembly for Wales.
The Bill contains provisions throughout that require Ofcom to consult widely on its policies. The devolved administrations will be part of any consultation process that Ofcom undertakes in compliance with these requirements. Indeed, in recognition of the need to ensure that the devolved administrations are properly involved in the consultations that Ofcom undertakes, one of the measures that we expect Ofcom to put in place is to draw up a memorandum of understanding with each nation. Among other things, that would set out the arrangements for consulting the devolved administrations on particular issues of relevance to them.
Within that framework we envisage that the consultation in the first instance would be the appropriate territorial Secretary of State. Such Secretaries of State would not be fulfilling their duties unless they, too, took careful note of the representations made to them by the bodies of the nations involved. The appropriate formal arrangements that need to be developed in this area will primarily be the responsibility of the territorial Secretaries of State, but there is no way in which they could reach intelligent decisions without having due regard to the views of the Assembly and of the Parliament.
I am seeking to give clear reassurances that appropriate consultation is envisaged within the Bill, and that the framework within which it is being operated is one in which broadcasting remains a reserved matter. In doing so, Ofcom will need to give proper consideration to representations made to it. We believe that this will provide a sound basis on which to ensure that the devolved administrations are consulted properly and their views considered. Therefore, we do not accept the need for the amendments and I would ask the noble Baroness and the noble Lord to withdraw them.
We have been considering with Ofcom what would be the most appropriate means by which to ensure that the content board receives the advice it will need in relation to the nations and the regions. There is a shared desire to ensure that the arrangements are right, but there are also resource implications for Ofcomand, indeed, under the amendment, for the individuals serving on the content boardwhich must be taken into consideration. We hope to be able to discuss these proposals shortly with the relevant territorial departments and the devolved administrations to set out what those arrangements might be. That will provide greater clarity on this issue as the Bill progresses through the House.
I wish to emphasise that this is a changing situation, one which is evolving rapidly and needs to be worked out through the process of consultation. To that end, I can give the Committee a reassurance that before the Bill has completed its passage through this House we shall have a clearer definition of the nature of consultation which, at this stage of the process, is still being discussed. I hope that Members of the Committee will accept that it is difficult for me to be as definitive at this point as some have sought.
The Bill already contains a provision to enable Ofcom to authorise the content board to establish committees and panels to advise the board on the carrying out of its functions. We have tried to avoid being overly prescriptive, as what may appear to be necessary now may not be so in the future. We believe, therefore, that the existing provision is sufficient to provide the flexibility needed to allow Ofcom to establish the most suitable arrangements both now and in the future.
I turn now to Amendment No. 78, which would require the consumer panel to establish and maintain advisory committees for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Apropos Northern Ireland, I thought that my cup was already full, but it then ran over when the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, introduced a dimension to the debate which I had not anticipated and feel singularly ill-equipped to respond to. However, let me give the noble Lord the fundamental assurance that I believe he is seeking. The Government fully recognise the role of broadcasting in the Good Friday agreement. The Bill as drafted does not conflict with the agreement. While I recognise the points made by the noble Lord and the emphasis he sought to lay on the very special dimension of broadcasting in Northern Ireland, I can give him that assurance and I have no doubt that, if it does not meet the point to his satisfaction, he will press me further at subsequent stages of the Bill.
I turn finally to Amendment No. 93, which would require Ofcom to include in its annual report accounts of its activities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The amendment seems to take as its starting point an assumption that Ofcom is otherwise likely to report on its activities only as they relate to England, which is a somewhat unlikely concept. Ofcom has a United Kingdom-wide remit, a point clearly made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, in his intervention. That United Kingdom remit can be met only if Ofcom's reports cover all its activities, including those which impact individually and separately on the nations of our country. I cannot see that Ofcom would ever want to limit the accounts it gives in its annual report to activities concerned with England alone. Similarly, where Ofcom carries out significant activities specific to a particular nation, I am sure that it will wish to report on those activities. Indeed, as we discussed in an earlier debate, the Bill demands from Ofcom a substantial degree of transparency in the way it carries out its activities. On that basis, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
There appeared to creep into the debate on one or two occasions an implication that somehow the relationship between Ofcom and the devolved administrations will be largely dictated by Ofcom's whim. That will not be the case. Ofcom will agree memorandums of understanding with the relevant Secretaries of State covering issues such as consultation on relevant national appointments; it will hold regular meetings with the devolved administrations; and it will produce an account in its annual report of its activities within the nations. So Ofcom has clear obligations built into the Bill in relation to the administrations addressed by this group of amendments.
I apologise to the Committee for speaking at great length, and I apologise too for having had to glide over certain points that were made with some force during the debate. We are still at an early stage of the Bill. Certain aspects of it will become clearer over the next few weeks. If I have not been able to respond to the satisfaction of all Members of the Committee today, perhaps I will be able to do so at a later stage. On that basis, I hope that I have been able to respond in a manner that will satisfy the Committee at this point and that the amendments will be withdrawn.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|