Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Howe of Idlicote moved Amendment No. 6:



"(g) the availability of adequate means for considering and, where necessary, redressing complaints from the public about alleged lapses from the standards referred to in paragraphs (e) and (f)"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 6, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 27.

I return with the same amendments I put down in Committee because I hope that the Minister will this time be able to convince me and others who have the same concerns that those who complain about fairness, privacy, taste and decency issues to Ofcom or its content board will have their complaints dealt with and decided upon not just by able and well qualified people, which members of Ofcom and the content board are, but by people who can be seen as being, in all respects, truly independent of the broadcaster complained of. As your Lordships know, it is my contention that members of a body that hands out and regulates licences and approves the codes whereby broadcasters operate will not always be so viewed.

I accept that broadcast material viewed as offensive for reasons of taste and decency is more difficult. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, referred to such issues as "relative morality", but, even with most of the disputes left to be settled directly with the broadcasters, there will be occasions on which broadcaster and citizen refuse to be reconciled. If my experience at the Broadcasting Standards Commission is anything to go by, there will be plenty of such occasions. How are they to be dealt with by Ofcom? Are they to be dealt with by Ofcom, despite the powers retained in the Bill for it to do so? How will the complainant be reassured that decisions are made objectively?

With fairness and privacy, the principle of having complaints scrutinised and decided by lay people, such as the members of the Broadcasting Standards

23 Jun 2003 : Column 71

Commission, who are independent of broadcasters and regulators, without the cost of going to court is even more important. As the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, said in Committee, enormous distress has been caused to people whose privacy has been subject to unwarranted infringement and to people whom the broadcast media have treated unfairly. People have suffered not only distress but damage to their business or other form of livelihood. By no means will everyone concerned have the resources to take the matters directly to court.

As I said, the Minister said in Committee that Ofcom would have the same powers as its BSC predecessor to adjudicate such cases. He rightly emphasised that Broadcasting Standards Commission research showed that, in most cases, complainants were more concerned with safeguarding and restoring their reputation than with receiving financial compensation. But what is still not clear is whether the citizen has any assurance that he can invoke these powers and that they will be used on his behalf. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, in Committee on 29th April at col. 638 of Hansard, threw out a hint that without fettering the discretion of Ofcom, separate arrangements for hearing these complaints could be made. Could he make it plain that this is still a possible intention? It is only the guarantee that arm's length decisions are made that will eliminate charges of lack of independence.

One solution might be for Ofcom or the content board to set up themselves a completely independent but knowledgeable committee, the equivalent of three wise men and women. The responsibility could then be delegated to them. There is one final point on this issue: to whom—if anyone—would a dissatisfied citizen complainer be able to appeal after a ruling? A suggestion was made recently that for appeals against the dismissal of complaints by the Press Complaints Commission, an independent ombudsman should be established. It would be a strange outcome, if as a result of two parallel changes made this year, the right of the citizen to complain effectively about the written word was being enhanced, but his right to complain about the broadcast word was being diminished or taken away. I beg to move.

7.00 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I should like to add to the congratulations from these Benches to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. His responses to the Bishops are sometimes robust, always courteous and occasionally supportive. Whether or not the Government support and accept the amendments of the noble Baroness, I hope that they will acknowledge that they highlight something of great importance. There is a need for Ofcom to take seriously complaints about alleged lapses from the standards to which these amendments refer. I have had a pile of letters about this issue from members of the public, particularly on the harm and offence issues. Many people feel that it is perhaps not even worth complaining because their complaints will not be taken seriously.

23 Jun 2003 : Column 72

I do believe that the noble Baroness is expressing concerns that ought not to be put aside lightly. Whether or not she presses her amendment, I urge the Government to make clear that they will encourage Ofcom to provide adequate means for the redressing of such complaints so that the Government are seen to take this issue seriously.

Lord McNally: My Lords, in Committee my noble friend Lord Falkland with his usual absolute honesty, confessed that he and I had been discussing the Liberal Democrat attitude and had come to a conclusion. This transparent honesty caused the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, to tease us unmercifully about the nature of Liberal Democrat policy-making. I can say that between Committee and Report, I have given full consideration to this. I have also listened carefully to what the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said. I think that she has posed a question that needs now to be answered by the Government. If it is not, it will come back and bite them.

Public opinion is very concerned about how legitimate complaints will be dealt with. As regards the existing bodies they know the avenues for redress. They want to be sure that those avenues remain open when this Bill becomes an Act. Therefore we need clear assurances from the Minister and we would certainly support the noble Baroness in these amendments.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we did indeed discuss these amendments in Committee. I recall that on that occasion the noble Lord, Lord McNally, had to be more dextrous than he normally is. He still made a cogent speech on that occasion as he did on this. I recognise the strength of the points that both he and the right reverend Prelate have put forward and the strength of the case put forward by the noble Baroness. We regard the proper treatment of complaints from the public about unfairness in broadcasting or the unwarranted infringement of privacy as a very important matter.

That task, so effectively undertaken by the Broadcasting Standards Commission and before it by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, is being handed lock, stock and barrel to Ofcom. We believe that it is best placed to discharge that responsibility and that there is no longer a compelling case for retaining an entirely separate body. Ofcom must—and I believe will—be able to demonstrate sufficient independence from broadcasters in this matter. I recognise the strength of the case made that any such work needs to be done by those totally independent from broadcasters.

Amendment No. 27 appears designed to ensure that the functions of the content board include, to the extent determined by Ofcom, functions in relation to the consideration of complaints about breaches of fairness standards and privacy. In the Bill as drafted, these functions fall within the list of functions in Clause 12 which Ofcom could give to the content board. But we do not believe that we should limit the discretion of Ofcom as to how or by whom that function is to be carried out. Providing they meet the

23 Jun 2003 : Column 73

principles and follow the high standards of past practice, they should have the freedom to reach judgments on how this function should be carried out.

The danger is that if we were over-prescriptive at this stage, we might work against the very proper degree of independence which was the major point in the argument of the noble Baroness. As I have explained before, it may be that a separate committee might take responsibility for this function. However, if we are to have a regulator that can adapt to changing circumstances, we must not be too specific about its internal structure. As in Committee, major points have been made as regards the necessity for the independence of Ofcom. It is a hugely significant role, but it would not be right to be too specific about which committee or how Ofcom would construct its committee to carry out this particular function.

The issue of appeals came up about privacy decisions. Like the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Ofcom will adjudicate on complaints of privacy. There is no statutory basis for appeal, but Ofcom would be expected to set up a two-stage process encompassing the concept of appeal. It is also important for Ofcom to demonstrate the independence of the adjudicators on privacy. It might want to set up an entirely separate committee and perhaps bring in people from outside. But we are arguing to retain some flexibility while recognising that the principles embraced in these amendments are subscribed to by Ofcom. On that basis, I ask the noble Baroness to consider withdrawing her amendment.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and I am grateful for the support given by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The Minister gave more grounds for optimism. There would be the independence which concerns not just me but a number of other people when making decisions about complaints, whether on taste and decency issues or, as we all agree, far more important because of the real damage to individuals, the fairness and privacy issue. I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page