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Ofcom: Appointment of Chair

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the timetable for the appointment of the Chair of Ofcom; and when they expect the appointment to be confirmed.

My Lords, the campaign to appoint a permanent chairman of Ofcom will be launched imminently. The announcement will include the timetable, details of the advisory assessment panel and the selection criteria. It remains a priority for the Government to find the best candidate for the role. It will be a fair and open competition run in compliance with the Governance Code on Public Appointments and regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

My Lords, the wheels certainly seem to have come off the latest attempt to instal Paul Dacre as Ofcom chair. Reports suggest that the Government are struggling to identify credible individuals with a record in business or public life even to form an interview panel. If the appointment meets rules for public appointments, does the Minister believe that it will be seen as credible or help with the delivery of important things such as the online harms agenda? What can he say to the House to reassure the public that this and other public appointments will meet the tests of fairness and impartiality?

My Lords, of course the process will meet those tests. We want to identify the best candidate for this important role. As I say, the recruitment process will be launched imminently. Preparations are under way to ensure that it is successful in providing Ministers with a choice of high-quality candidates drawn from a broad and diverse field and we encourage lots of people to apply on that basis.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Are the Government considering the adequacy of Ofcom’s current budget in light of the increasing number of critical functions that it is being asked to regulate, not least, as has been mentioned, the absolutely critical online safety arena?

This is an important point that we have also discussed in the context of the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, which has its Third Reading in your Lordships’ House later today. The Government have been working closely with Ofcom to prepare for the new regulatory regime. This includes work to ensure that it has the resources to carry out its functions as regulator effectively and, vis-à-vis telecoms security, that includes another £4.6 million this year.

Will the Minister listen to the Conservative chair of the Culture Select Committee in the other place, who demands that the Government make clear in their new advert for the chair of Ofcom that previously unsuccessful candidates such as Paul Dacre cannot reapply?

My Lords, the very clear rules about public appointments mean that, in reopening the competition, everybody is allowed to apply, including people who had applied for the first round. I will not be drawn on specific people, but we want to ensure that a diverse and high-quality range of candidates apply and are put to Ministers to choose from.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that whoever has the post must demonstrate a total and absolute commitment to the highest standards of public service broadcasting? Secondly, can he comment on something that I have heard, which is that for some time now Channel 4 has not been able to appoint full members of the board because Ofcom has not been able to go through the process? Could that be speeded up?

I am not familiar with the noble Lord’s second point, but I will certainly take it away and look into it as he asks. Yes, this is an important role with responsibilities not just in broadcast but across the communications framework, which is why we want a high-quality range of candidates to apply for Ministers to choose from.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his role, this being my first opportunity to do so, although he may not welcome my question. In a recent speech, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who will be much missed in this Chamber, said that

“when the Prime Minister actively—and repeatedly—intervenes to manipulate an ideological ally into the chairmanship of Ofcom, every alarm bell should start to ring.”

Given that one of the most important functions of Ofcom is to uphold the broadcasting impartiality regime, does the Minister agree that it would be unacceptable for the new chair to be someone with a long record of extreme political partisanship?

I thank the noble Baroness for her welcome and join her in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, whose views will, I am sure, continue to be heard, even if not in your Lordships’ House. This is an important role, which needs impartiality and the appointment of which is governed by clear rules on public appointments. The process has been run along those lines so far and it will continue to be.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the launch of their great comedy drama “Ofcom Succession”. My understanding is that the first process was stopped because the Government had failed to appoint a headhunter to seek out the highest-quality candidates to apply for this important role. Can my noble friend tell me, first, has a headhunter been appointed? Secondly, if so, who is it? Finally, can I have their phone number?

I thank my noble friend for his question. Yes, following Cabinet Office approval and a fair and open tender process, an executive search firm has been appointed. It is Saxton Bampfylde and I am sure that its contact details are available on its website.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, in seeking the right person for this role, the qualifications will include knowledge of the radio spectrum and the universal mail service, and not former experience as a newspaper editor?

My Lords, the full criteria will be set out in the advert, which will go out once the new campaign is being run. The noble Baroness’s point about the range of areas in the sector that need to be regulated is a pertinent one.

It is McNally—the noble Lord and I have known each other for only 30 years. It has already been pointed out that Ofcom will shortly be given unprecedented responsibilities for regulation, once the Bill on internet harms has passed this House. Noble Lords have already expressed widespread concern about how this appointment is being made. The Minister mentioned that an appointments panel is about to be appointed. Would it not restore public confidence if that panel were genuinely cross-party and independent in its judgments?

My Lords, the appointments panel will of course be governed by the public appointments rules. The job description and the names of those on the assessment panel will be available on the public appointments website when the campaign relaunches. The noble Lord is right also to point to the importance of the ongoing preparatory work for Ofcom’s role in online safety.

Now that I have my glasses on, I offer my sincere apologies to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Now I am sure that it is the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley.

Will the Minister note that one specific issue that the new Ofcom chair needs to urgently address is an egregious example of compromised media impartiality due to the powerful lobby group Stonewall, as revealed by the superb BBC Sounds 10-part podcast series “Stephen Nolan Investigates” on the influence of Stonewall’s gender identity on the output of the BBC, skewing impartiality? Perhaps the Minister can comment on the content of episode 9 revealing that Ofcom itself was using its judgments on audience complaints as evidence to Stonewall, as though it was judge and jury, to prove its LGBT credentials. That is not comforting from a neutral regulator.

I have not heard that episode but the example that the noble Baroness points to underlines the importance of a free and fair media that scrutinises everyone in power, whether that is those in government or in lobby groups. It also reflects the importance of the BBC broadcasting a range of views in fulfilling that important role.