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Michael Fabricant: I welcome all the amendments, but especially the one that deals with radio. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and others will know, I have the gravest concern about the possibility of our reverting to the position that obtained in the days of the Independent Broadcasting Authority when the radio division was confined to a few bleak offices in the Brompton road.
Miss McIntosh: I feel a certain sadness at this stage. As the Minister said, we have spent many happy hours debating the Bill in Committee and this evening. Despite the sad conclusion that those happy hours have reached, I welcomed the opportunity to consider its remaining stages. Obviously, Opposition Members are disappointed by our failure to carry any of our amendments. We shall have opportunities to return to some of the issues involved but others need to be raised now.
The composition of Ofcom should represent all forms of the media and communications. That applies to board members, officials and staff. We think that appointments should be approved by a parliamentary Committee such as that chaired by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), or alternatively by the Joint Committee that the Government intend to request the House to set up.
For the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), our fervent desireeloquently expressed by many Members on both sides of the House: I think it struck a chord with certain Labour Back Bencherswas that the BBC's board of governors should have been included in every respect. As my hon. Friend said, it is important that we recognise the public service broadcasting obligations of the BBC's board of governors. It is a bizarre omission that, as we speak, the BBC has no parliamentary accountability. I am sorry that the opportunity offered by the Bill for discussion of that was turned down.
As I have said, we believe that Ofcom should be a deregulatory organisation with a light touch. We shall monitor developments over the next month, especially in view of the Minister's promise of a communications Bill in the spring. No doubt the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee will work carefully to ensure that the organisation has a light touch and a deregulatory mandate.
We are especially keen for the particular needs and interests of the radio sector to be reflected through a radio committee. We had a good discussion in Committee about the needs and concerns of religious broadcasters, although we did not have an opportunity to discuss them this evening. A greater range of frequencies would enable greater choice in religious broadcasting, which both sides of the House would welcome. Other media and forms of communicationsuch as mobile phones, broadband technology and the internetshould properly have been referred to. Those who represent Ofcom should have regard to those special interests.
On financing, loans should be set at the interest rate referred to by the Minister in his letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), and the Secretary of State should set a limit on the expenditure that Ofcom can incur. The Minister should also offer a commitment that, if the main Bill never appears and Ofcom is wound up, the somewhat complicated procedure that he set out in Committee will be simplified so that even hon. Members can readily understand it and explain it to all concerned outside this House.
I consider the BBC one of the finest British institutions. It holds a special place of affection in the hearts and minds of the British people, including me. However, as I have said, it is our fervent desire that, if one regulator is to replace existing regulators, it should replace all six, including the BBC board of governors. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said, initially the board of governors will monitor all first and second-tier responsibilities. However, in the light of its public service obligations, there should be one rule and a one-size-fits-all regulator. For that reason, the BBC should be included.
I make a special plea for the ongoing delivery of regional programming and news editions by the BBC, ITV and other companies. As Members of this House, we are keen that such programming be improved, and that the high standards that we enjoy across the United Kingdom be maintained. I recognise only too clearly that we are in the midst of perhaps the longest and deepest recession for some time. Advertising revenues are down, which has put especial pressure on the delivery of regional programming and news editions.
As we have said at various stages in the Bill's consideration, it is the fervent desire of all Opposition Members that parliamentary accountability be paramount. Ofcom's committees, its annual report and the preparation and presentation of its annual accounts should be considered by the relevant body of each House of Parliament. Its annual accounts should be considered by the Public Accounts Committee, and its annual report should be considered by the relevant Select Committees.
Mindful of a possible Government reshuffle this Easter, may I take this opportunity to wish the Minister a fair wind? Perhaps he will be transported to another Department, or to a more elevated position.
In its lengthy, considerable and interesting deliberations, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report on the communications White Paper raised the question of merging the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry. There are many merits in that argument, and I could think of many people who were less fit for that position than the Minister.
There was a glaring omission in our debate and we were unfortunately unable to reach the amendment that dealt with it. We failed to consider the measure's competition aspects and their implications for the communications sector. Consequently, there will be two competition authorities: Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading. I fervently believe that the Bill should declare that, in cases of any doubt about which body should be the ultimate arbiter on competition matters, the OFT is the right body to rule on them.
Nick Harvey: We all agree with the hon. Lady that Ofcom should be a light-touch regulator. However, she is keen for the regulation of the BBCa complex taskto be transferred to Ofcom and, if a competition issue arises, for Ofcom to defer to the OFT. In the world that she envisages, the BBC would barely be regulated and, if it deigned to do anything in competition terms that was deemed to conflict with anyone else, the case would simply be rolled over to the OFT.
Miss McIntosh: Those comments are interesting, but I believe that the hon. Gentleman confuses two matters. By "competition aspects", I mean, for example, media ownership. I served an apprenticeship in the part of the Commission in Brussels that deals with competition, and I am therefore mindful of the means that competition lawyers will employ if they believe that an uncompetitive practice is occurring. The hon. Gentleman confuses a true competition aspect, which the OFT should tackle, with my earlier comments about the BBC's public sector broadcasting obligations. I apologise to him if I did not make myself sufficiently clear.
We have had the opportunity this evening to consider many points in some depth. It therefore gives me great pleasure to support the Bill, with the proviso that I am disappointed that many of the issues that we wanted to include remain open for discussion when we consider the main communications Bill.
Brian White: I am pleased that the Bill is receiving a Third Reading and that it will move us forward. However, a lot of nonsense was talked on Second Reading, in Committee and again tonight. That does not move the debate forward.
As was said earlier, changes are happening all the time. Indeed, British Telecom's announcement on broadband wholesale prices shows that change has occurred since the end of our deliberations in Committee. I plead with the Minister to publish the communications Bill by the end of April or the beginning of May, even if all the i's have not been dotted. It is important to get it into the public
There is also a serious issue about the BBC. We must debate the BBC, its licence fee and its relationship to Ofcom. There is also a need to debate cross-media ownership, but these matters must not be confused and, in the communications Bill, must be tackled separately.
I conclude with two heresies. There has been an awful lot of talk about convergence. Things are converging technically, but socially and in the way that people use technology, they are not. It is important that we understand how people use, or do not use, technology. We should not just assume that because it is technically possible to converge technologies, it will automatically happen. There is a danger that the policy assumptions of the Bill and the communications Bill are not solid in terms of the way in which people use technologies. I urge the Minister to understand what is happening in the real world, and not just the whizz-bang technological stuff.
The second heresy concerns the role of regulators and whether existing models can cope in a world that is changing so fast. The economy is speeding up and changing. Ofcom will need to be adaptable, flexible and quick in its decision making, which is why the Minister was right in regard to the composition of the board. Things will need to be done quickly and, in setting up Ofcom, such imperatives will need to be recognised. The Minister recognises that it is important that when Ofcom is set up, the right people are chosen and that they understand the issues.
Is this a step forward? The debate on the communications Bill will show a lot of areas of agreement, but it will also show some fundamental problems and disagreements. I hope that we concentrate on the disagreements and get the bits where we do agree into Ofcom as soon as possible.