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Baroness Finlay of Llandaff moved Amendment No. 115:



"DUTY TO ESTABLISH AND MAINTAIN NATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS COUNCILS
(1) It shall be the duty of OFCOM to establish and maintain National Communications Councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
(2) The chair and members of these Councils shall be appointed by OFCOM.
(3) In making appointments under subsection (2) in respect of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, OFCOM shall seek nominations from the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively.
(4) The National Communications Councils may review OFCOM's work in respect of their individual territories where such work affects devolved matters.
(5) The National Communications Councils may issue such recommendations to OFCOM or the Secretary of State with respect to their territories as they see fit.
(6) The National Communications Councils shall produce an annual report on their activities."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to insert a new clause after Clause 209. The amendment is based on the recommendations of the specialist advisory committee chaired by Geraint Talfan Davies. The report was accepted in January 2003 by the Welsh Assembly Government.

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In Wales and Scotland, the rural and remote agricultural communities experience financial hardship. They have poorer infrastructure in most domains. They are more dependent on broadcasting and telecoms for vital information as well as entertainment. New technology and e-mail can bring new jobs, education and employment diversity to those areas. Despite telecoms being an increasingly important component of the Welsh economy, the smaller Welsh economy is more susceptible to monopolies or quasi-monopolies.

The Bill as it stands runs contrary to the philosophy and policies of devolved government. With devolution has come an increased awareness of local issues and a clear recognition of the difficulties in rural areas for all aspects of education and communication, and health and other services delivery. The Scottish Parliament has many devolved powers and functions. The Welsh Assembly Government have been communicating closely with all agencies in Wales to ensure that concerns are noted and, where possible, plans are put in place to address them. The Welsh Assembly Government are debating and making policy in all of those areas, which will directly impact on the people of Wales.

The development of the media goes far beyond the delivery of programmes. The infrastructure for communication networks is particularly complex in remote areas to strive towards equity of access. Devolved territories require their own separate advisory councils, reporting annually. Those can then be sensitive to local culture, including Welsh- language or Gaelic-language programming; to local topographical problems; to meeting local history, culture, education and information needs; and to the entertainment opportunities of its innovative and high-standard programming industries.

The proposed councils will be able to relate directly with the devolved government at civil servant and ministerial level over the devolved functions, especially health, environment, education, culture and economic development. Their responsibilities will be substantial.

The accountability will have clear management lines to the central structures of Ofcom, thereby strengthening Ofcom in devolved institutions, within a unified UK system of regulation. Ofcom's intelligence on the ground will be strengthened and formalised, and consistent connections will be built with relevant areas of civil society in each country. I beg to move.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I, too, shall speak primarily about Wales. I point out that the new clause applies to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as to Wales.

The noble Baroness was good enough to accept my earlier Amendments Nos. 116 and 117 to her new clause and I hope that their incorporation in the new clause that is before us will make it more acceptable to the Government and to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, who spoke on this issue in Committee.

The amendments were drawn up specifically to take account of the comments of the Minister, Dr Kim Howells, in Committee in the other place on a not

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dissimilar clause, which was moved by Mr Simon Thomas, the Plaid Cymru Member for Ceredigion. The new clause as amended will confine the national council's review of Ofcom's work in respect of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, solely to the extent that it affects devolved matters. That Ofcom will affect devolved matters such as the economy, education and, in Wales, the Welsh language, is beyond question. Communications are all pervasive in regional and national life.

That the new clause is essential seems to me beyond doubt. If we do not have formal, statutory councils of the kind proposed, I am sorry to say that I can see nothing but trouble ahead for Ofcom in the national regions. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell mentioned S4C in our previous debate. Those of us who have had anything to do with broadcasting in Wales know that it can be a troublesome area. That was so long before the difficult birth of S4C in the early 1980s and I am sure that it will continue to be so.

The Minister, Dr Howells, in the other place told the Committee that the Government would,


    "expect Ofcom to consult the relevant territorial departments and, through them, the devolved Administrations in order to seek nominations for suitable candidates".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee E, 12/12/02; col. 106.]

The candidates would be for the content and consumer panels. That is all right so far as it goes; indeed, since the Government accept it, I see every reason for its inclusion in the new clause—and included it is. However, there will be matters outside the scope of the consumer and content panels—matters relating to policy and direction. Who will advise Ofcom in those circumstances and warn it of the likely public reaction? It may not be known to local directors and so on. Ofcom will certainly need a sounding board of the kind that the councils will provide.

The Minister also anticipated consultative arrangements set up in a memorandum of understanding between Ofcom and the relevant Secretary of State for each nation. That is better than nothing, but my preference is for councils, enjoined by statute, similar to those of the BBC. Such councils will be a good sounding board for Ofcom, and I am sure will be found invaluable.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Currie of Marylebone: My Lords, in considering this amendment, it may be helpful to your Lordships to know what Ofcom intends to do on its own account with respect to advisory structures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ever since I was appointed chairman of Ofcom last summer, I have made it clear and public that we will set up national advisory councils for each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whether or not we are specifically required to do so under the statutes as finally determined. We consider that it will be of the highest importance to Ofcom that we receive advice at a senior level from those who can reflect the concerns

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and interests of people living in the home nations, such as those issues that have been highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.

There is a national representative from each nation already on the Ofcom content board and we would expect a similar arrangement to be put in place for the consumer panel, with the detail subject to the outcome of our consideration of the Bill. More generally, we are determined that Ofcom shall be present and properly represented in each nation. Ofcom executives have already made contact with the territorial offices and, while respecting the principle of reserved powers, with the devolved administrations.

We are engaged in discussions about how good, effective working relationships can be established. Those discussions will cover procedures for consultation; the appointment processes for the national councils; seeking advice on Ofcom's physical presence in each nation; and arrangements for the maintenance of regular contacts with the devolved administrations.

I greatly hope that that will serve to reassure noble Lords about Ofcom's own plans. We intend to do this well. I hope also that Ofcom will be allowed enough freedom in the wording of the Bill to allow these structures and processes to evolve organically from those discussions, and to demonstrate appropriate flexibility. Too much detailed prescription on the face of the Bill could be counterproductive.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, the whole House can be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Currie, for his important contribution to our debate. It was precisely because I was worried that the original wording of the amendment would be in conflict with his closing words that I was critical of a similar amendment at the Committee stage, and pressed my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy to seek to put down amendments.

I entirely share the noble Lord's view that we must not put wordings into the Bill that might suggest to the national assemblies or to the other devolved bodies that they have responsibilities for the operations of Ofcom that they do not have. Similarly, we should not write into the Bill directions which go outside the proper role of advisory committees. I therefore understand and sympathise with the comments made by the noble Lord.

Having said that, the amendment now before us is very similar to the amendment suggested by the joint scrutiny committee and also to the amendment which I put forward in Committee. In a sense, the noble Lord, Lord Currie, has undermined any arguments against having it written into the Bill—clearly what this amendment suggests is very much in line with what they are already going to do—but, for the reasons that my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy has hinted at, there are some quite powerful arguments for having it actually covered in the statute, if only to give the reassurance that is sought in the nations and regions, and perhaps to eliminate some of those sources of conflict to which he referred.

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When my noble friend looks back to past history and to the troubles that we had in the very first days of the administration of which we were both members, I hope that he will not prompt anyone else to start, or threaten to start, a fast unto death, to get what they want. But those were the sorts of emotions that were raised at that time about broadcasting. He is quite right to say that these are touchy subjects.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Currie, and his colleagues will be able to accept the proposed wording. Alternatively, if there are some minor amendments that would make it easier for him to do so, perhaps they could be brought forward on Third Reading. If the noble Lord could accept something along these lines, which is broadly similar to what he is going to do anyway, it would, as my noble friend Lord Roberts suggested, help his task. It would calm things. It would give reassurance. I think that it would be a wise move. I therefore support the amendment. I hope that it, or something very like it, will emerge from the Bill when it leaves this House.


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