Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Addington: I should like very briefly to add my support particularly for Amendment No. 60. I must apologise to the noble Baroness for not putting my name to the amendment—I think it a very good idea. It proposes establishing an advisory panel that actually knows about the issues affecting the various groups which can be sidelined. That is very important. We have had many discussions highlighting the fact that one such person on a board is probably not enough for the disability movement, and I think that the same applies to other groups. I hope that the Government can reassure us that there will be a mechanism in place to ensure adequate representation. One person on a board is simply not enough. One person often does not know enough about other types of disability. As I have said before, I know that from personal experience, having held the disability portfolio. I have often had to seek the expertise of others on specific issues and groups. I therefore hope that the provision will be accepted.

Lord Puttnam: I rise to speak in particular to Amendments Nos. 43 and 57, which I think deal with essentially the same problem. The Government must by now be very aware that there are enormous

15 May 2003 : Column 343

anxieties in various communities—the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has just mentioned that the business community has its own anxieties—about the role and responsibility of the content board. We feel that Amendments Nos. 43 and 57 are totally sensible. Amendment No. 43 is sensible and is effectively already operating, as two non-executive members of the board will be members of the content board, which is just as it should be. If there is anxiety, surely it is in the Government's interest to alleviate it whenever and wherever possible. Here is a marvellous opportunity, at no cost and with no dispute, to put on the face of the Bill that the content board will in perpetuity contain at least two non-executive members of the Ofcom board.

Amendment No. 57 deals with the right to publish. For all the reasons set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, it is common sense that the transparency and reasoning behind the decisions of the content board should be made evident on at least an annual basis. It is the type of reassurance that every community wants and is entitled to have.

All of that brings us back to Clause 3. These anxieties exist fundamentally because of the confusion in Clause 3 as to whether Ofcom's decision will be primarily market driven or citizen driven. Here is a marvellous opportunity to make clear to everyone what is driving these decisions.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: I should like to speak briefly to Amendments Nos. 44, 60, 46, 48 and 57. I am perplexed about how Ofcom can be challenged over its failure to have regard to the desirability of reflecting the interests and opinions of people living in different parts of the UK. How is such failure to be measured? On what basis would evidence be produced? So I support the replacement of what seems to me to be a rather otiose provision with a provision that seeks to distil something of the essence of our community and our rich cultural and religious identity, and for that to be reflected in the make-up of the content board. I think that the inclusion of the word "significant" makes that a reasonable and achievable task. I think that Amendment No. 44 achieves a simple statement of key attitudes and sensibilities that colour views of broadcast content.

Amendment No. 60 recognises that those needs must be spelled out. This provision is about those who are on the margins. We talk much and often about being an inclusive society, but, as we have already been reminded this morning, we must also remember to include the less visible, the young, the old, the sick and the housebound elderly. I give an example from a religious viewpoint. Very often people who are housebound, and therefore often invisible to most of us, are, as I know from my pastoral experience, among the most devoted audiences of religious provision and broadcast worship on television. This is no fringe sport. "Songs of Praise" shown on peak time regularly attracts an audience of over 5 million. Despite the unjustified complaints that have been made about ITV's religious remit and the showing of short services

15 May 2003 : Column 344

of worship, "My Favourite Hymns" on a Sunday has a smaller but still strong audience, particularly among the group that I have mentioned.

Television worship has declined in the past three years whereas radio worship has not; yet I know directly from many elderly people, as well as from broadcasters, that the elderly and disabled find the presence of television worship a very great comfort. Many of them also find it easier to operate television than radio. These are issues that can be easily overlooked by those of us who are not disabled or have special needs. Therefore, a special committee or panel to keep in mind those kind of issues could be very helpful.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 46, 48 and 57. It is most welcome that there is to be a separate content board within Ofcom, but to be effective it must have independence from government and industry. I cite what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—who is not present at the moment—said at the Broadcasting Standards Commission annual review last year.

I believe that the content board's independence is buttressed by giving it the statutory remit set out in Amendments Nos. 46 and 48 rather than one determined wholly by Ofcom. I believe that that is also true of Amendment No. 57 which gives the content board an independent voice rather than one subject to Ofcom's own communications needs and imperatives. I rather suspect that if Ofcom is to have the task of holding competitive freedom and quality regulation in creative tension, these competing demands will need to have their own voices. But it is not just independent voices that are needed. Especially when the reporting cycle for Ofcom is up to five years, voices are needed that can hold a broadcaster to account while the recollection of the broadcast is still vivid in the public memory.

These amendments would reassure the public that the concerns of the listener and the viewer about content, which have certainly been addressed often to the Broadcasting Standards Commission, will still be seen to matter to the regulator.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I wish to support Amendment No. 43. It seems to me to be almost common sense to bind in, and have horizontal co-ordination between, Ofcom and the content board in the manner in which they are devised. I should also like to speak in favour of Amendment No. 44, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Buscombe and Lady Wilcox. I am not sure whether the precise formulation of the intent is perfect but the general intention of the content board to ensure that those matters are considered, by itself in particular, makes much sense to me and addresses a considerable amount of anxiety about imbalance in the Bill in terms of underrating political, cultural and religious areas of concern.

I am afraid that I at least wonder at, and probably oppose, Amendments Nos. 53 and 58, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Buscombe and Lady Wilcox. It seems to me that to require the content

15 May 2003 : Column 345

board to have special regard to business interests in the manner prescribed in the amendments is unnecessary and imbalancing. I say that with regard to the keystone Clause 3 which tries to establish a balance between business and non-business issues, if I may put it so simply. Therefore, I doubt the wisdom of those two amendments.

On the other hand, I strongly endorse Amendment No. 57. It seems to me self-obviously virtuous to allow the content board to publish information. It should do a great deal of that. Finally, I support Amendment No. 60, in the name of the noble Baronesses, Lady Buscombe and Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Luke, which seems to me to be meritorious.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I should clarify that I have no delegated authority from my noble friend Lord Peyton to represent him in the context of his Amendment No. 43A. Even if I were a delegated proxy for my noble friend, I should be a pale simulacrum of him although I can guess what his purpose was in putting down Amendment No. 43A. In his absence I ask a probing question of the Minister; namely, to tell us what purpose Clause 11(6), which my noble friend wishes to delete, fulfils. Is it the sort of copper bottoming to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred as an amulet against marauding lawyers? If that is not its purpose, Clause 11(6) carries the unfortunate implication that the Government believe that it might slip Ofcom's mind to carry out the provisions of Clauses 11(4) and 11(5), in which case they would effectively become academic within the Bill.

Baroness Blackstone: I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that I believe she would be critical were the preparation not to be begun that is needed to ensure that Ofcom and, indeed, all its constituent parts, are ready to function on the prescribed date. No functions have yet been conferred on the content board nor are such functions predetermined while the Bill is still being debated in this House. It is a matter of the shadow board meeting and starting preparatory work. I am sure that the noble Baroness would welcome that.

With one exception the Government resist the amendments in the group we are discussing, but I shall explain in some detail why we consider that the amendments, many of which lie within the grain of the Government's and Ofcom's thinking, should not form part of the primary legislation. I shall also move a minor government drafting amendment.

Ofcom is aware that it remains ultimately responsible and accountable for the work and decisions of the content board. That is the fundamental point which lies behind everything that I shall now say in response to individual amendments. The appointment of Richard Hooper and Sarah Nathan from the main Ofcom board, as chairman and deputy chairman respectively of the shadow content board, along with Kip Meek from the Ofcom executive, demonstrates Ofcom's commitment

15 May 2003 : Column 346

to have the work of the content board fully within the ambit of the main board. I am sure that they will continue to make appointments with that in mind.

Amendment No. 43 reflects a recommendation made by the joint committee. In the government response we recognised that there was a great deal of merit in the committee's proposal, but we concluded that that did not need to be specified in the legislation. However, having listened to the debate today, I can still see the merit in the amendment, especially in the light of the increase in the size of the main board, following another recommendation of the joint committee. The Government will therefore consider bringing forward an amendment at Report stage to achieve what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, seeks. I say to the noble Lord—this is relevant to many of the amendments we are discussing—that the content board can clearly have executive functions in the sense that it can carry out Ofcom's content functions. It will not simply advise Ofcom. That is an important point to remember.

I turn to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane. Amendment No. 45 has the effect of removing one of the key provisions in Clause 11 which protects against conflicts of interest. I fail to see what benefits the removal of that protection would bring. The content board has the status of being the only committee Ofcom is required to establish, and it will play an important role. Therefore, it is crucial that adequate provisions exist to prevent members being compromised by other interests.

We believe that those with a risk of self-interest in the decisions of the board should be disbarred from membership, and that membership of those bodies listed in subsection (8) can be clearly identified as posing such a risk. I would not be comfortable with having, to take one example, a governor of the BBC chairing a board examining and adjudicating on content issues across the whole broadcasting sector.

1 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Will the Minister reply to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, about figures representative of various other aspects of the telecommunications and broadcasting industry who could, equally with those three named, have conflicts of interest? Why are those three exclusively mentioned?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page