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House of Lords

Thursday, 26th June 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.

Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Communications Bill

11.7 a.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Addington moved Amendment No. 31:

    After Clause 12, insert the following new clause—

(1) It shall be the duty of OFCOM, in accordance with the following provisions of this section, to exercise their powers under paragraph 14 of the Schedule to the Office of Communications Act 2002 (c. 11) (committees of OFCOM and advisory committee) to establish and maintain a committee to be known as "the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board".
(2) The Disability and Older People's Advisory Board shall consist of—
(a) a chairman appointed by OFCOM; and
(b) such number of other members appointed by OFCOM as OFCOM think fit.
(3) The chairman of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board must be a non-executive member of OFCOM or a member of their Content Board but is not to be the chairman of OFCOM.
(4) In appointing persons to be members of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board OFCOM must secure that the Advisory Board are able to give informed advice about matters referable to—
(a) the interests of persons with disabilities;
(b) the interests of persons of pensionable age;
(c) the development of domestic electronic communications apparatus which is capable of being used with ease and without modification by the widest possible range of individuals including those with disabilities;

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(d) the development of technologies which facilitate access by disabled or older people to electronic communications services;
(e) telecommunications services for disabled or older people;
(f) television and other broadcasting services for disabled or older people; and
(g) employment and training opportunities for disabled or older people in the broadcasting and telecommunications industries.
(5) The validity of any proceedings of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board shall not be affected by any failure by OFCOM to comply with subsection (4).
(6) It shall be the duty of OFCOM when appointing members of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board in accordance with paragraph 14(3) of the Schedule to the Office of Communications Act 2002 (c. 11) (at least one member of non-advisory committee to be member or employee of OFCOM) to secure, so far as practicable, that a majority of the members of the Board (counting the chairman) consists of persons who are neither members nor employees of OFCOM.
(7) The following shall be disqualified from being the chairman or another member of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board—
(a) governors and employees of the BBC;
(b) members and employees of the Welsh Authority; and
(c) members and employees of C4C.
(8) Before appointing a person to be the chairman or another member of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board, OFCOM must satisfy themselves that he will not have any financial or other interest which would be likely prejudicially to affect the carrying out by him of any of his functions as chairman or member of the Board.
(9) A person is not to be taken to have such an interest by reason only that he is or will be a member or employee of OFCOM.
(10) Every person whom OFCOM propose to appoint to be the chairman or another member of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board, shall, whenever requested to do so by OFCOM, furnish OFCOM with any information they consider necessary for the performance of their duty under subsection (8).
(11) In addition to paying remuneration and expenses under paragraph 14(4) of the Schedule to the Office of Communications Act 2002, OFCOM may—
(a) pay to, or in respect of, any member of the Disability and Older People's Advisory Board who is not a member or employee of OFCOM, such sums by way of pensions, allowances or gratuities as OFCOM may determine; and
(b) provide for the making of such payments to or in respect of any such member of the Board.
(12) In subsection (11)—
(a) the reference to pensions, allowances and gratuities includes a reference to similar benefits payable on death or retirement; and
(b) the reference to providing for the payment of a pension, allowance or gratuity to, or in respect of, a person includes a reference to the making of payments towards the provision or payment of a pension, allowance or gratuity, or of any such similar benefits, to or in respect of that person."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, to move this proposed new clause as a probing amendment is not appropriate on Report, but it does seek to extract from the Government exactly what is their attitude on the issue. What colours the debate is the news that Ofcom has stated that it will set up a committee to give advice on attitudes towards and activities concerning disabled people. That is welcome, but it is a fact that any body that is set up on a voluntary basis can be

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removed as easily as it has been created; that is, at will. Moreover, what tends to happen with voluntary activities is that they last only as long as the people working on their behalf remain enthusiastic and committed.

When considering all the issues and legislation surrounding disability, if we could rely on people always behaving in a generous, open-handed and considerate manner, we would not have needed any of our disability legislation in the first place. Similarly, if we could rely on people always to be on top of matters, we would not need any legislation. So, although we must welcome what the new chairman of Ofcom has done, we still need a commitment to ensure that the committee will continue to function and operate in a recognisable form in the future. To be perfectly honest, that explanation probably deals with the arguments lying behind Amendments Nos. 31 and 32.

I turn now to my Amendment No. 46, which is grouped with Amendment No. 31. This amendment seeks to form a committee to advise the consumer panel. It is a straightforward issue. The panel is to include one or two representatives from certain groups. If one has representation for large issues such as disability matters from only one person, there is a tendency for that single representative to be expert in one form of disability and to know a little about all the surrounding issues. Such people then tend to pick up more information as they go along and find out exactly who to talk to. But that is not a sufficiently wide information base to enable such a representative to advise the consumer panel; it is simply not enough.

If a committee were set up to advise the representatives serving on the consumer panel, then we would stand a chance of being able to bring forward and present sufficient information to ensure that those representatives were able to hold their own. We want to make sure that they are briefed with enough information to function well on the panel.

I know about this from personal experience. As a spokesman for disability issues, I am always going into new areas in which I might well know the first two or three steps, but I do not know all the intricate detail. That is simply the way it works. As soon as someone is put in charge of a certain field, they need much more information. I am sure it is the same for any other issue that requires this kind of portfolio of knowledge.

I hope that the Government will be able to give us an assurance either that they will make provision for more information, or that something has already been put in place. I say that because we have genuine worries about both of these situations. I look forward to hearing a positive response from the Minister. I beg to move.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I support Amendments Nos. 31 and 32, to which I have added my name. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, explained, these amendments would place on the face of the Bill a commitment for Ofcom to establish and maintain—the important word here is "maintain"—a

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disabilities and older people's advisory board. Last week the chief executive of Ofcom, Stephen Carter, undertook a commitment that Ofcom would establish,

    "a standing committee on matters concerning disabled people".

As I understand it, this will be a high-level committee with both consumer representatives and industry stakeholders. It will have a wide, holistic remit covering access to services, representation in the media and employment in broadcasting.

Members on these Benches warmly welcome that announcement. It gives an indication that Ofcom recognises the importance of disability issues in the communications industry and plans to make them a priority. With these amendments we seek to probe the Government as to whether they will take a step further and give the new board a statutory footing. That would guard against future abolition under different personnel and give it the stature it deserves and needs to attract the best people and get buy-in from industry and other stakeholders.

There is a real risk that without placing the disability and older people's advisory board on the face of the Bill it will dissolve after a few years if Ofcom finds itself with a different set of priorities. Evidence suggests that where such organisations are not written into legislation, the tendency is for them to wither over time. Oftel set up a consumer panel which had no statutory underpinning, and subsequently it has been abolished. On the other hand, in the Telecommunications Act 1984, a statutory advisory body was created on disability and older people. DIEL has been a highly effective body of expertise. For the Government to reject this amendment could be perceived as a step back or a downgrade for disabled persons in the communications sector, in which case I shall be most interested to hear what the Minister has to say on this issue.

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