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Lord Davies of Oldham: The Government want standards to be maintained in television and radio that ensure citizens are protected from harm. The Bill secures this protection by ensuring that Ofcom is properly charged with maintaining standards. This is among its general duties in Clause 3. Then there are specific responsibilities in the Bill, notably at Clause 312, which provide for Ofcom to ensure that there are codes for content standards. These are underpinned by high-level principles in the Bill and backed by sanctions.

We consider that Amendment No. 260 is unnecessary in encouraging Ofcom to operate through self-regulatory systems where those will effectively deliver the protections required. Ofcom is already encouraged to do that by way of Clause 6. The amendment also seems aimed at allowing regulation without any code. Whether Ofcom itself draws up a code, or, for example, endorses an industry code which achieves the required result, I find it hard to imagine an effective system that does not have a code of some kind telling broadcasters what they can or cannot do. Codes are a fundamental part of the regulatory structure for broadcasting and are almost infinitely malleable. They can be very detailed or very high level. But a code of some kind, backed up by sanctions, is an effective means to securing transparent regulation.

I am disappointed by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, on Amendment No. 261. This issue was addressed in another place and we had thought that the Opposition seemed to be reasonably satisfied with our response. The Government maintain that Ofcom is required to consult on its draft code. It is not precluded from taking soundings prior to drafting the code and I expect it would want to do so. A change in that code may be proposed as a result of it becoming apparent from a number of sources over a number of years that a change might be needed. That can all continue to happen.

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However, the formal consultation is best undertaken on a draft code. Many consultees would find it difficult to form a view in the abstract and a draft code is the best way of stimulating debate, both on the principles and on the detail of their proposed implementation. A statutory requirement for a two-stage process of consultation would work directly contrary to the aims of efficient and effective regulation which we are aiming for.

As I indicated, we hoped that we had succeeded in making this case in the other place. I hope that on mature consideration the noble Baroness may feel that she can accept the case on this occasion and is prepared to withdraw this amendment.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for his response. I shall not say much more than that at this late hour. In some ways I am disappointed by what he has said. I will read with care what he has to say in Hansard but for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 312 agreed to.

Clause 313 agreed to.

Clause 314 [Objectives for advertisements and sponsorship]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendments Nos. 260A and 260B:

    Page 278, line 44, leave out from beginning to "the" in line 46 and insert—

"(7) Provision included by virtue of this section in standards set under section 312 is not to apply to, or to be construed as prohibiting" Page 279, line 1, leave out from "political" to "paragraph" in line 5 and insert "or referendum campaign broadcast the inclusion of which is required by a condition imposed under section 326 or by"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 314, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 315 and 316 agreed to.

Clause 317 [Setting and publication of standards]:

[Amendment No. 261 not moved.]

Clause 317 agreed to.

Clauses 318 to 325 agreed to.

Clause 326 [Party political broadcasts]:

Lord Lipsey moved Amendment No. 262:

    Page 287, line 20, at end insert—

"(1A) The regulatory regime for every television licensable content service licence and every radio licensable content service licence shall include—
(a) conditions requiring the inclusion in that service of party political broadcasts and of referendum campaign broadcasts, if so prescribed under this section; and
(b) conditions requiring that licence holder to observe such rules with respect to party political broadcasts and referendum campaign broadcasts as may be made by OFCOM."

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The noble Lord said: To detain the Committee at this hour of the morning, it has to be good. This is an important matter and I am grateful to those noble Lords who put their names to this clutch of amendments referring to party political broadcasts.

It is barely an exaggeration to say that a sword of Damocles hangs over us in this matter, not only on the Bill but about something even more important; that is, the integrity of our political system. I believe that most noble Lords would agree that one of the great advantages of our system over some others, in particular the American system, is the fact that it does not allow paid advertising by political parties. That is the crucial fact that makes our politics affordable, stops us becoming not a democracy so much as a plutocracy, and keeps corruption at bay. In the United States of America there would be nothing more popular than that among everyone except politicians and those who fund them.

The problem that we have is signalled on the front of the Bill where my noble friend Lady Blackstone has had to state,

    "I am unable (but only because of clause 314) to make a statement that, in my view, the provisions of the Communications Bill are compatible with the Convention rights".

The fear is that because we do not permit political advertising, that will be seen under the European Convention to be a breach. The case I make is set out in considerable detail and very well by the Electoral Commission in its publication entitled Party Political Broadcasting (the Electoral Commission 2003). The core of the argument is that our best defence for the human rights court is that we have a perfectly good, robust, established system of party political broadcasts which enables substantial minorities to have their say and therefore does not require paid advertising.

I have been connected with the system of party political broadcasting for some time. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, looks at me. He and I were responsible for some of the Labour Party's greatest party politicals. In those days Ministers often spoke straight to camera but things have moved on.

The point here is that this is a very ramshackle system. There is not a proper process. There is no real way to determine who gets what. At the end of the day, the broadcasters decide and you either grumble or take them to court. There is inadequate consultation. It is a mess. That will no longer do if we are trying to set this up as a system that is a defence in front of the European Court. I do not want to go seriatim through the amendments, which speak for themselves. Broadly speaking, we want to have Ofcom set up a system for party politicals under an independent chair which can bring order to this chaos. We want to extend its remit in this regard only to the BBC and S4C. We want to encapsulate in legislation, rather than as something that is just done by ad hoc negotiation, the entitlement of parties to party political broadcasts based on objective criteria. And we want Ofcom to be able to extend PPBs to other broadcasters if in time they become more important.

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Those are the amendments in a nutshell. I very much hope that Ministers will have something positive to say about them, sooner rather than later. There is a case that they have come in rather late in the Bill's progress, and perhaps it will take rather longer before the Government are ready to legislate them into effect. But we need words of comfort; otherwise, we shall leave the Bill only with the very uncomfortable words of my noble friend, Lady Blackstone, on the front page of the Bill and with nothing to assure us that the threat which I perceive, and which the Electoral Commission in its wisdom takes very seriously, will not materialise.

12.15 a.m.

Baroness Buscombe: I rise to support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, to which my name and that of my noble friend, Lady Wilcox, have been added.

The amendments largely reflect the recommendations of the Electoral Commission's report published in January 2003. As the Bill stands, as the noble Lord said, the ban on political advertising is maintained, reflecting the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1990, a policy which we support.

The reasoning behind the ban is simple. If the prohibition was removed and political parties were permitted to pay for advertising through the broadcast media, only the wealthiest candidates with access to financial resources would be able to advertise frequently. Other smaller or less affluent parties would fail to secure the necessary media coverage to participate fully in the democratic process. This is contrary to the interests of the electorate; success would be judged on pecuniary advantage alone. Furthermore, it would be impossible to maintain a balance between each political party and the level of media coverage it enjoyed individually.

I believe that the amendments are pretty much identical to those tabled by my honourable friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire, Andrew Lansley, in another place. I am pleased that the noble Lord has put them down for us to debate in the Committee.

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