|Office of Communications Bill [Lords]
Michael Fabricant: The Government pride themselves on open government, but whether they are able to deliver that is another matter. I should like an open Ofcom. Ofcom will have to make tough decisions on several different issues. The Radio Authority is involved almost on a day-to-day basis in awarding, and sometimes taking away, independent radio franchises. Ofcom will have similar functions in respect of independent television and other media that it controls. It will also be involved with licensing, cable providers and so on.
Some of the discussions regarding how those decisions are made should be held in camera, but on other occasions a degree of openness will be required. That is what amendment No. 35 would do, by ensuring that there was democracy within Ofcom. Amendment No. 15 would ensure that Ofcom's decisions were published. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the member for Vale of York thinks that that publication should be in the form of a report, printed in ink on paper, or merely on Ofcom's website. Would she be happy with the latter option?
Miss McIntosh: That is a thought. I had intended publication in written form.
The Chairman: Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's question, but the amendment deals with whether the information should be published, not the form of publication.
Michael Fabricant: I personally think that if it were published only on the web, it would save Ofcom money. If it saves Ofcom money, it saves the money of the organisations that it is regulating, because when the main body is eventually established those organisations will fund Ofcom's operations.
Mr. Taylor: If it were published on the net, it would help to meet the Government's target of ensuring that all Government services were online by 2005, which is looking a little shaky.
Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The whole position of open government is shaky at the moment, as evinced by changes in the Cabinet Office. However, I shall not take that line, Mr. Stevenson, because it would be out of order.
These are two short and simple, but powerful, amendments. They are powerful because they get to the whole basis of open government and whether the Government are concerned with keeping the promises that they made in 1997.
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Mr. Allan: I am curious about whether the hon. Gentleman has considered the alternative, because reversing an amendment sometimes helps. If it said, ''Decisions of Ofcom should be made by a minority of its members and kept secret'', that clearly would not work. I find it hard to understand how Ofcom can operate other than by following the rules that he suggests. How can a regulator regulate anyone if it does not publish the things that it wants them to do?
Michael Fabricant: Very surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have the highest regard, has somewhat missed the point and is taking a rather simplistic approach. Clearly the main decisions of Ofcom will be published, but the build-up to those decisions should also be published.
Perhaps I should withdraw that remark, because the hon. Gentleman has a point. When my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York says that Ofcom's decisions should be published, does she mean the decision-making process, or merely the decisions themselves?
Miss McIntosh: I mean it to read as it reads.
Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I did not hear my hon. Friend's reply.
The Chairman: I can clarify it for the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Lady made it clear that she wishes the amendment to be presented and discussed as it reads. I could not agree with her more.
Michael Fabricant: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson. I do not know how I missed that.
Given that ruling, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam has a point. The award or withdrawal of licences would have to be published, or there would be difficulty in withdrawing or awarding them, but Ofcom will make other decisions relating to its internal workings. Under normal circumstances they may not be published and they certainly would not affect outside organisations directly, in the short term, if they were not published. It is not so foolish of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam suggests, to table amendment No. 15. Without it, internal decision-making processes in Ofcom that might have long-term ramifications for the future of technology in this country would not be published, and people would not be able to see through the exterior of the Ofcom organisation.
I believe that the points are clear. We want democracy, transparency and openness; or glasnost, as Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev would have said. The question before the Committee today is whether the Minister wants glasnost.
Dr. Howells: I appreciate that the intention behind amendment No. 15 is to ensure openness and transparency of Ofcom's decisions. The hon. Member for Lichfield will be pleased to know that the Government share his desire that Ofcom should operate in as open and transparent a way as possible. Indeed, paragraph 22 of the schedule makes Ofcom subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and paragraph 23 of the schedule applies the Public Records Act 1958 to Ofcom. Those provisions, taken together, mean that it will have the same duty to
Column Number: 141maintain records and respond to requests for information as other official bodies.
I see no benefit in going beyond that. To maintain the confidence of relevant interests, Ofcom will no doubt wish to make as much information available as possible, but, as the hon. Member for Vale of York hinted, it may not be possible for Ofcom or its committees to undertake all their proceedings in the full glare of public scrutiny. There will often be matters of commercial sensitivity—for example, in competition matters, in which Ofcom will have concomitant powers with the Office of Fair Trading—or cases, which we have not heard about so far, involving personal privacy or fairness to individuals, where the full disclosure of proceedings could reveal information that could itself breach confidentiality. In such circumstances it would not be right to require that Ofcom should be under an obligation to reveal detailed information. It must have the discretion to decide what arrangements would be most appropriate in the circumstances.
Amendment No. 35 would require that Ofcom's decisions be taken by a majority of its members. Paragraph 15(3) of the schedule gives Ofcom the power to make arrangements about quorums and reaching majority decisions. It is surely for Ofcom to identify the arrangements that it wishes to adopt. To require that all decisions be taken by a simple majority of Ofcom members would unnecessarily constrain the board's freedom to make decisions in the most
Column Number: 142appropriate way, and in particular to delegate those decision-making powers to committees; something for which the Opposition have been consistently arguing. To require a majority of members—not merely those present, or present and voting—would be a great constraint on the effective conduct of business. The Government and the Committee should not be in the business of control-freakery, and I am sorry to hear that the hon. Lady's party is.
Miss McIntosh: I shall not respond to that challenge on this occasion. The Minister is wilfully misunderstanding the position of the Opposition. I prefer that the decisions of Ofcom should be taken by a majority of its members. It is not good enough for the Minister to say that it is for Ofcom to devise its working practices and structures. I thought that that was the purpose of the Bill. I am happy, subject to later developments, to withdraw amendment No. 35. However, I should like to press amendment No. 15 to a Division at the appropriate time. Ofcom decisions would not be published if public disclosure was not helpful on the grounds of confidentiality.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule agreed to.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]
Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Seven o'clock till Thursday 31 January at half-past Nine o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
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