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Media Oversight: Transfer of Responsibilities

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 5 July 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider their decision to transfer responsibility for media, broadcasting, digital, telecommunications and oversight of Ofcom from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that rather disappointing reply. I think the House and the world understand why, in the BSkyB case, the Prime Minister had to remove responsibility from a Minister who appeared to be prejudiced in one direction and give it to a Minister in a different department who we now know to be prejudiced in another direction. However, that is not my point. At the same time, and with no logic, the Government transferred whole swathes of responsibility not just for BSkyB and broadcasting but for media as a whole—digital, telecommunications and oversight of the key regulator, Ofcom. Why was that done and who has benefited? It is not clear to me that consumers, small businesses hoping to compete, or the public interest have benefitted. Surely competition and consumer protection should be paramount.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes some valid points and I acknowledge his expertise in consumer matters, which will of course inform his views. However, he will appreciate that there are many aspects of government in which more than one department has an interest. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is an economic-focused department, so it makes a great deal of sense to bring together for the first time the full value chain of the technology industries—the infrastructure, content regulation and the creative industries—in one place. It is, after all, the department for media.

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that it was the last Government who deliberately changed the law in 2003 to allow foreign takeovers of British television companies and thus enabled BSkyB to make its bid. I put it to my noble friend that in future it would be better if, irrespective of whichever party is in power, politicians were removed altogether from taking the final decision in media takeovers.

My noble friend makes a powerful point, which I know he has made before. This is being treated extremely seriously by the Government. We are currently looking at various reviews, not the least of which is the Leveson inquiry, which will focus on this. I am sure that decisions will be taken in due course.

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as the chairman of YouView, a non profit-making organisation that was announced yesterday. It provides a new system of broadcasting television for the UK made up of all the publicly funded broadcasters. The point I would like to bring to the noble Baroness’s attention—

I will get there if noble Lords give me a moment. Is it not irrelevant where the responsibility lies for looking after this sector? What is perhaps more relevant is ensuring that the people who work in the department are qualified and understand what this business is all about. It is a dynamic and fast-moving sector. The company that I have just referred to will provide individuals with opportunities to start their own television channels. We do not need bureaucrats who do not understand this dynamic industry.

My Lords, the noble Lord has of course a great deal of experience and expertise in these fields, which is why I come back to the answer that I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty: that it makes a lot of sense to deal with all these issues within one department, which is called the department for media and where expertise from officials resides. That is more likely to be helpful to all the creative industries.

My Lords, can the Minister give us any encouragement to believe that an element of social responsibility will be part of the work of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in being responsible for the media?

I would sincerely hope so, my Lords. Social responsibility is written into all government policies across all departments, and DCMS is certainly involved in that.

My Lords, DCMS is a small department that punches way above its weight. Indeed, the creative industries are the fastest growing sector in the economy. Does the Minister agree that, as broadcasting is a key factor in this part of the economy, it and all things pertaining to it should remain within the DCMS?

I entirely agree with my noble friend that DCMS supports and encourages the creative industries, and I join her in celebrating all that those industries bring to this country. They make an enormously important contribution, not just to the economy but to the cultural richness of the country and, indeed, to the UK’s standing on the international stage, where we are world leaders in many areas of the arts and media.

Does the Minister recognise that the events of recent weeks mean that Jeremy Hunt no longer commands the confidence of the media or the public in dealing with media regulation? How much longer will the department be expected to limp along with a Secretary of State in limbo waiting for a reshuffle? Do not the arts, culture and sports organisations in this country need better leadership?

Harsh words indeed from the noble Baroness. I cannot possibly agree with her that Jeremy Hunt is a lame duck Secretary of State. He continues to run a department with important and high profile responsibilities. He is highly regarded within the fields that he covers. Nor can we forget that one of his responsibilities is for the Olympics and Paralympics, which are about to be of major significance in this country.

Does the Minister share, at least in part, my rather old fashioned view? One of the reasons why we are in such a mess, not just in the broadcasting industry but in many other things, is that years ago Parliament abrogated responsibility for taking decisions and passed it on to so-called independent quangos.

I am not entirely sure that I agree with the noble Lord. Parliament still has the ultimate responsibility for what goes on in the country in these different areas, particularly in the field of media, which we are discussing today.

My noble friend’s words were not harsh enough. We have a weak Prime Minister. He should have called for Jeremy Hunt’s resignation immediately he discovered there was a problem. That is the problem; we have a weak Prime Minister who does not have the courage to do the right thing.

Once again, I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Lord, which will not surprise your Lordships. Jeremy Hunt has actually held himself accountable to Parliament. He has also given evidence to the Leveson inquiry. A whole deal of evidence is coming out on this and we have to wait until the Leveson inquiry is finished before we can pass any sort of judgment.