HL Deb 25 March 2004 vol 659 cc797-9

11.14 a.m.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether Ofcom's use of the hybrid term "citizen-consumer" fully accords with Section 3 of the Communications Act 2003 which sets out separate duties towards citizens and consumers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, the separation of the two duties is deliberate, and the intention, as I said in the House on 16 July last year, is that, Ofcom must strive to further the interests of both consumers and citizens, as appropriate, and with equal vigour … We absolutely believe that the consumer interest is normally best served by competition, but in citizen interest issues, competition is not the only solution".—[Official Report, 16/7/03; col. 861.] I trust that Ofcom is fully aware of these points and will pay them due regard when carrying out its functions. How Ofcom expresses them in its public statements is a matter for Ofcom.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that although most citizens are consumers, and most consumers are citizens, duties to further the interests of citizens and consumers—which Parliament distinguished after long debate in this House—are distinct, should not be amalgamated and cannot be judged by a merged benchmark? Does he further agree that Ofcom's statement that its overall mission is: To further the interests of the citizen-consumer where appropriate by encouraging competition", represents a risky amalgamation of duties that Parliament separated?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, is expressing the view that was debated in the House at considerable length. The Government agreed with it then and agree with it now.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell

My Lords, do the Government think that it is in the citizens' best interests that Carlton-Granada prepares to close its Nottingham studios, given that the Communications Act 2003 is supposed to provide programmes of particular interest to people living in all parts of the region that it serves? Are the Government prepared to monitor the outcome of this proposal in relation to Ofcom regulations?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is substantially wide of the Question on the Order Paper. Much as I am tempted to give my views, I should not.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, is it not right that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell has come up with a good practical example of the role that Ofcom must play as regulator? During the passage of the Communications Act 2003, it was suggested at some length that the term "citizen" reflects a long-term interest, while "consumer" invariably reflects a more short-term perspective. The importance of the future of these studios is surely something in which Ofcom should play a role, as looking after the interests of citizens.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Communications Act, as the noble Baroness. Lady Buscombe, will remember, contains provision for minimum quotas of regional production and of production designed for people in particular regions. I am sure that Ofcom has been monitoring that point when considering the issue of which studios should be open or closed. That is the context in which the opening or closing of studios must be considered.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister is playing the ministerial straight bat on this, but does he agree that the noble Lord, Lord Currie, and his bright young men are extremely lucky not to be before the Bar of the House for contempt of Parliament? He knows well that these words were part of a specific deal that allowed this Bill to go through only after the special pleading of the noble Lord, Lord Currie, which removed reference to the citizen in the prime duty of Ofcom? This was a real betrayal of Parliament's intent, which an independent regulator should take on at its peril. I read from a quote from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who unfortunately cannot be here today. In a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Currie, he wrote: This fundamental distinction can only be distorted by a continuing reference to this hybrid 'citizen-consumer'. I beg you to drop it, because by using it the only organization guilty of 'conflation' and 'artifice' is Ofcom! That is absolutely true. Ofcom should drop this immediately.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have explicitly and unequivocally confirmed the view of this House last summer and the Government's view on it at that time and now. I do not think that it helps to indulge in more flowery language. Our position has been made clear. Ofcom is independent, and we do not control what it says. If we do not like it, we are by corollary entitled to say so.