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Ofcom: Appointment of Chair

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the criteria for the appointment of the next Chair of Ofcom; and what has been the impact of the withdrawal of Paul Dacre on the progress with that recruitment.

My Lords, the essential criteria for the role of chairman of Ofcom have been publicly available on the public appointments website since the process launched on 1 November. The panel, whose names have also been published, will be responsible for assessing candidates objectively against these criteria. The process is fair and open and the Secretary of State has been clear that she wants the best candidate for the role and to be presented with a choice of candidates from a broad and diverse field.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer and say how pleased we are on these Benches that so many Conservative Ministers are celebrating the creative industries this week. Does the Minister agree that my Question would not have had to be asked if the Prime Minister had heeded warnings, including from Julian Knight MP, chair of the DCMS Select Committee, not to pursue bending the rules to suit the reapplication of the person of his choice? Going forward, will the Minister assure this House that choosing the next chair will be conducted in a way that ensures the integrity and independence of the process, as is fit for Ofcom’s global reputation as an independent regulator?

My Lords, the original competition was rerun because of the disappointing number of candidates. As the previous commissioner, Peter Riddell, wrote, one of the reasons for that was no doubt a result of speculation in the press at the start of the process about candidates said to be preferred by Ministers. It is regrettable that that speculation may be putting people off. We want to see a broad and diverse range of people applying so that the right person can get this important job.

My Lords, I commend the Minister for his honesty but now that plan A is out of the way—with Paul Dacre having thought better of it and decided to continue with his senior editorial role at the Mail newspapers—can he update noble Lords on plan B? Would the Minister like to come clean and tell the House who the preferred candidate is? Can he also ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, gets a set of application forms this time?

I cannot be drawn on speculation about candidates, either in the first round or now. This has always been a fair and open competition, run in line with the governance code. It is ongoing and we want to see the best candidate appointed to the job.

My Lords, whatever one’s view of Paul Dacre—I happen to regard him as a person of great integrity and ability who would have been a sensible choice to share Ofcom—surely what we should focus on now are his remarks about the Civil Service’s attitude to the private sector and wealth creation. Does the Minister agree with those remarks that Paul Dacre made and, if so, what does he plan to do about it?

Again, I cannot be drawn into speculation on who may or may not have applied, but the general thrust of my noble friend’s remarks makes an important point. Civil servants do a brilliant job in delivering the laws that we enact in this place and in another place, but it is important that there is oversight not just from Ministers but from a broad range of people with experience in those fields. We want a broad range to apply to be the chairman of this important regulator.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to the Daily Telegraph, the term popular in the 1980s that “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie” is back in fashion? That of course referred to the late and much lamented Viscount Whitelaw being available to Mrs Thatcher to curb her exuberances. Does he think that the present Prime Minister needs a Willie and, if he does, could he not look to the Privy Council Benches for an ideal candidate?

I think that the noble Lord may be ranging a little from the topic. Like me, he is a former political secretary to a Prime Minister; it is a pleasure to serve Prime Ministers in whatever capacity and they benefit from a range of experience, as do all Ministers.

My Lords, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, I think that Paul Dacre would have been an excellent candidate to run Ofcom. When he stood down and withdrew his name, he said that the blob was in charge of the selection process and that it would never have shortlisted him for consideration by Ministers. Was he right?

Again, I cannot be drawn on speculation about who may have applied, but the panel in the first round and the new panel both include civil servants and non-civil servants, in line with the governance code.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while these appointments to key bodies should remain in the hands of Ministers, there have to be proper checks and balances and that the candidates put forward to the Minister have to satisfy clear criteria of competence? In this case, will he, first, clearly condemn the fact that someone in government, probably a special adviser, leaked the name that we are talking about to deter other good candidates from applying? That was the purpose. Secondly, will he criticise the Secretary of State for having failed to get Sir Paul Dacre on the list the first time round, then altering the criteria to make it easier for that to happen?

I will not join the noble Lord in speculating on the Kremlinology of how the name came out but I agree with the former Commissioner for Public Appointments that it is regrettable that it did. As he has said, this

“appeared to pre-empt the outcome of the competition”

and “risks undermining public confidence”. There is a governance code that governs these public appointments processes. This one has been run in line with it and continues to be so.

Does my noble friend agree that Ofcom is a statutory body with many, and increasing numbers of, serious statutory responsibilities? In that respect, what we are looking for in a chair is somebody who can bring a high calibre of judgment to those statutory responsibilities, not treat Ofcom as any kind of discretionary vehicle for their own prejudices. Does he therefore agree that we need somebody with that judgment, rather than prejudices, and that the same has to be true of the selection panel?

My Lords, this is an important job and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State wants to get a broad and diverse field of candidates to choose from, so that we can select the right person to chair this important regulator. That is why the governance code makes sure that the process for choosing that person is open and fair.

My Lords, regardless of his suitability for the job, Paul Dacre’s stinging critique of the blob rang true with many of us, especially as only yesterday Dame Kate Bingham accused the Civil Service of groupthink and risk aversion. Does the Minister agree that, whoever is recruited, they will need to be sufficiently independent of mind to face down the blob? They should break Ofcom out of any sort of groupthink—the sort that led one of the most powerful regulators in the land to so unwisely be captured by the gender ID lobbying group Stonewall, perilously threatening impartiality in the media in the coverage of women’s sex-based rights.

On the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, yes, this underlines the importance of having independent people appointed to oversee such important regulators. It also underlines the need for boards with a broad and diverse range of views. All government departments and regulators such as Ofcom benefit from that breadth of experience and views.

Is it not vital that whoever is chosen is articulate, has a strong mind and, most of all, has the courage to stand up to the giants of social media?

The criteria for this big and important job are published online and note the role that Ofcom has in regulating not just the traditional media but the social media too.