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Office of Communications: Chair

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to appoint a new Chair of the Office of Communications.

My Lords, the process to appoint a new permanent chair of Ofcom is currently under way. The process will be fair, open and robust. As with all public appointments, it will be conducted in line with the governance code and regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The preferred candidate will also appear in front of the DCMS Committee. The Government are committed to finding an outstanding individual, and we very much encourage all qualified candidates to come forward.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Given that one of the most important functions of Ofcom is to uphold the broadcasting impartiality regime which lies at the heart of our most trusted media, such as the BBC, does she agree that it would be unacceptable for the new chair to be someone with a long record of extreme political partisanship, and who, as a newspaper editor, presided over such headlines as “Enemies of the People” in relation to our trusted and independent judiciary, and “Crush the Saboteurs” in relation to those who voiced opposition to Brexit?

I am sure that the noble Lord will understand that I am not going to speculate on any potential candidate for the role, but I absolutely agree that it is critical that Ofcom remain impartial, independent and an evidence-based regulator.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Does my noble friend agree that just as important as the new chair of Ofcom are the new powers that Ofcom will have? The regulator will have significant extra responsibilities following online harms legislation and will have a vital role in working with the new digital markets unit to ensure that the platforms are subject to fair competition. Can she tell us what progress is being made on bringing forward the online harms legislation and, crucially, a Bill to give the digital markets unit the statutory powers it needs, particularly in the area of payment for content?

My noble friend is right that it will be extremely important in future for Ofcom to co-ordinate its activities with other digital regulators, including the new digital markets unit being set up in the CMA. We are working at pace to prepare the online harms legislation, which will be ready later this year. In December, the Government received advice from the CMA on design and implementation of the new regime. We are carefully considering this and will consult on it as soon as possible.

My Lords, we all remember the foundation of Ofcom, when all it was about was spectrum allocations and channel licensing—and now it has the BBC as well. However, the biggest elephant in the communications room is the urgent need for social media regulation, given its regularised misinformation and distortion of reality. Will the new chair and the ever-expanding Ofcom take on this duty, and should media literacy better fit with Ofcom than Ofsted?

Ofcom is the Government’s preferred regulator for the new online harms regime and the new legislation, which will be introduced later this year. The Government will announce their media literacy strategy later this year.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of concern about the Government’s stated attitude to the BBC and, indeed, to public service broadcasting generally? Ofcom has been particularly successful to date. Does the Minister agree that it would be a tragedy for the high standards of British television broadcasting if we lost the traditions we have had and denigrated the standards to those of Fox?

The Government are supportive of a modern system of public service broadcasting that remains relevant and continues to meet the needs of UK audiences in future. Obviously, Ofcom, with its regulatory role in this capacity, is a crucial part of delivering this.

My Lords, earlier this week the Government published their external review, which said that the BBC is the most trusted broadcaster in the world. Is it not about time they started showing that they believe that in their statements and policies?

The Government have been very clear about the value of the BBC, particularly in the pandemic, during which it has served to educate, inspire, inform and act as a crucial and reliable source of news.

Several noble Lords have already referred to Ofcom’s expanding remit and the additional responsibilities to be introduced through the online safety Bill and the challenges they will bring. What conversations has the Minister had through her department with Ofcom’s new chief executive about the body’s current and future resourcing? Can she assure us that the various changes envisaged in the forthcoming legislation will be accompanied by commensurate increases in staffing budgets, training opportunities and, vitally, political support?

The noble Lord raises a very important point. Work is already starting within Ofcom to recruit the appropriate skills and experience that will be needed to deliver on the online safety regime, including the recent recruitment of a head of emerging technologies from Google.

My Lords, can the Minister give the House any valid reasons why the committee wants the power of veto over such appointments?

They will need an understanding not only of fast broadband connectivity issues in rural areas, which Covid homeworking has highlighted, and the pressing questions of online security and harm, but of the far-reaching changes in the television sector with the streaming of content by international providers such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Does the Minister accept that the appointment must be future-proof and not given as a reward for yesterday’s achievements?

The role profile for the chair of Ofcom was discussed, including with the DCMS Select Committee, and updated with exactly the intention the noble Lord suggests.

Does the Minister recall that the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, was appointed to an NHS position without any proper scrutiny? Her main qualification was being a member of the Jockey Club. The main qualification of the acting chair of Ofcom, Maggie Carver, is being chair of the Racecourse Association. Can we have an assurance that this appointment will be made in a proper fashion and that the person appointed will have knowledge of the communications industry and not of the racing fraternity?

If the noble Lord looks at the role profile, he will see that it is extremely clear about the level of professionalism and experience required—although, it being Cheltenham week, I cannot exclude racing connections.

My Lords, moving away from Cheltenham, does the Minister agree that the only independent member of the board’s being closely associated with the Murdoch stable might make us a little nervous about the results of any appointment?

The process regarding the independent panel member to which the noble Lord refers has been carefully considered. The Commissioner for Public Appointments has approved them and they are recusing themselves from all areas of discussion where they have a conflict of interest.

My Lords, what expectations do Her Majesty’s Government have of a new chair of the Office of Communications in enhancing Ofcom’s role in preventing online abuse?

This will be a very important part of the new role, but I stress that the role of the chair is to lead the independent board. It is for the board, together with the chair, to deliver on that responsibility.