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The Puttnam Report: ‘Making a good bill better'

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Press Statement by Lord Puttnam, Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill.
"The draft Communications Bill is concerned with issues that affect all of our lives every day of the week: the service from our phone company, the way we use the Internet, the quality of the television programmes we watch, the variety of radio stations we tune in to.

The draft Bill, whilst in so many ways welcome, has given rise to unease on several grounds.

"Does it provide a framework for effective competition and economic regulation wherever appropriate? Does it protect the unique strengths and vitality of British broadcasting? Does it strike the right balance between fostering the development of a dynamic market and the protection of plurality in the media? "Our Report seeks to provide a route map to enable Parliament and the public to navigate through this difficult territory and answer these and, we hope, many other questions. "We have concluded that the draft Bill goes a long way in the right direction. Our main purpose has thus been to make a good Bill better. "We have been set up by both Houses to undertake a thorough process of scrutiny; I believe that we have achieved this. All members of the Committee from both Houses have put in a massive effort over the last three months and I wish to pay the warmest tribute to all my colleagues on the Committee and those who have supported us in our work. We have examined a vast range of issues and make over 100 recommendations as to how the final Bill might be made better than the published draft. "OFCOM will unavoidably be perceived as having a "pushmi-pullyu" character, with a hard-nosed economic regulator at one end and a culturally sensitive regulator of broadcast content at the other. However, one of the central lessons of our inquiry, which informs many of our recommendations, is that getting the economics of the market right is crucial to OFCOM's success in regulating broadcasting as well as its success in relation to electronic networks and services. "The effective use of the new competition law, the statutory framework to be established by the Competition Act 1998 and the Enterprise Bill when it is enacted later this year is crucial to OFCOM's success. This pivotal role must be reflected in the statutory framework for OFCOM, in its funding and in its internal structure. "At the heart of our conclusions and recommendations about media ownership is the proposal for a new plurality test to be used in connection with mergers and takeovers across all media. We hope that this recommendation will stimulate an important and timely debate. In due course, if Parliament is satisfied that this powerful new weapon is being used effectively, the need for specific ownership restrictions set out in statute will greatly diminish. In advance of such a development, and before OFCOM has established itself as an effective regulator, the case for the lifting of certain existing restrictions has not been established to our satisfaction." The Chairman's Executive Summary and a note about the conduct of the inquiry are attached. CHAIRMAN'S EXECUTIVE SUMMARY "Our Report contains 148 separate conclusions and recommendations. We are necessarily dealing with detailed and complex issues relating to proposed legislative provisions. What follows represents my own attempt to summarise these recommendations: * a principal duty: OFCOM should have a single principal duty which combines the long-term interests of citizens, relating to broadcast content; and the long-term interests of consumers, relating to market efficiency; and which requires OFCOM to pursue both sets of interests, wherever possible, by promoting effective competition; * the structure of OFCOM: the main Board should be expanded from the proposed maximum of six to a maximum membership of nine, to ensure that it is able effectively to carry out its strategic objectives; the Content Board should have a defined executive role in relation to broadcast standards; the independence of the Consumer Panel ought to be strengthened; OFCOM's representative duties in respect of the nations of the United Kingdom should be more clearly specified; * targeted and proportionate regulation: regulation should be at the minimum level necessary to enable OFCOM to fulfil its duties, but such regulation is not usefully characterised as light touch; the path to self-regulation rather than detailed statutory regulation should be clearly signposted; further measures are needed to ensure that OFCOM meets necessary promptness standards; * clarity for the telecommunications sector: that part of the Bill which relates to networks and services must be drafted so as to reflect more precisely the requirements of the EC Directives and to send clear signals to OFCOM about the move from sector-specific regulation to greater use of competition law powers; * making the most of competition law powers: the acquisition and effective use of competition law powers will be a crucial determinant of OFCOM's success across the communications market: OFCOM's competition law functions must be funded from the Exchequer and its internal structures should ensure competition law expertise is given high priority; * a new plurality test: plurality should be specified as an additional public interest consideration within the terms of the Enterprise Bill for the purposes both of consideration of media mergers and of references for market investigation; the lifting of certain specific restrictions on ownership should not take place until after review of the likely consequences by OFCOM; * content regulation focused on production: the Government should give OFCOM a number of additional tools to regulate content production; in particular, OFCOM should be required to review the operation of the programme supply market and should consider the case for a reference of that market to the Competition Commission for investigation; * sustaining and strengthening public service broadcasting: OFCOM's overall review of public service television broadcasting should be conducted with the purpose of sustaining and strengthening public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom; arrangements for OFCOM's oversight of commercial public service television broadcasters should be simplified, but OFCOM should be given tools to ensure the correct balance is struck between economic pressures and maintenance of the public service remits of those channels; * clarity about the position of the BBC: the Bill should be amended to place beyond doubt OFCOM's powers over the BBC in respect of competition law; proposals in the Agreement relating to the BBC should mirror the provisions of the Bill more fully; the Government should set out its initial proposals for the conduct of Charter review before the Bill is considered by Parliament." THE CONDUCT OF OUR INQUIRY Further Press Statement by Lord Puttnam, Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill "We have undertaken an exhaustive and at times exhausting inquiry. We have made clear in our Report some of the limitations imposed upon us by the information provided by Government and by the time at out disposal. Within these limitations, we have done everything we can to ensure that our inquiry has been thorough-going. "In a period of less than two months we held ten hearings during which we heard evidence from well over one hundred representatives of more than fifty organisations with an interest in and knowledge of the draft Communications Bill. "We received over two hundred separate pieces of written evidence, each of which we have carefully examined and the vast majority of which we refer to in our Report. "We commissioned from the Hansard Society and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology an online forum which attracted a high level of participation and which further broadened our understanding of the issues of public concern about this legislation. We heard regular reports at our private meetings about the progress of the forum and frequently raised such issues with witnesses. Many comments in our Report and some of our recommendations arise directly from what we learnt from this inclusive and informal form of evidence-taking. "In addition to our ten evidence sessions, the Committee held thirteen deliberative meetings to determine our findings. We also held three private seminars focused on particular themes. I estimate that simply in terms of attendance at meetings, we have each committed upwards of sixty hours to this process in a matter of weeks. "Thirteen of the Committee's 23 meetings were attended by all twelve members of the Committee, including all of the meetings where the draft Report was considered. The overall percentage attendance at our meetings was 91 per cent, an exceptionally high figure that reflects the tremendous commitment made by all members of the Committee to our task of pre-legislative scrutiny. "We have done our best to make the process of pre-legislative scrutiny work. We have genuinely strived to examine a whole range of issues covered by the draft Bill some of great political moment, but many more of some technical complexity and put forward proposals to make sure the final legislation is effective and practical. "We expect the Government to respond to our Report in the same careful way that we have considered its draft Bill. If the Government wants to make the process of pre-legislative scrutiny work, as I hope and believe it does, then it must satisfy Parliament as a whole that it has responded to our Report in the spirit in which it is tendered as a genuine attempt to make a good Bill better.

DATELINE: 25 January, 2010