Debates between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 22nd May 2024
Media Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stageLords Handsard
Wed 28th Feb 2024
Wed 17th Jan 2024
Wed 19th Jul 2023
Wed 12th Jul 2023
Tue 23rd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 11th May 2023
Tue 2nd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2
Thu 27th Apr 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 11th Jan 2023

Media Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Thank you. Let me turn to the questions posed by my noble friend Baroness Stowell. She asked when we should expect to see the regulations relating to online news. We will shortly consult on expanding the existing media measures regime and the foreign state ownership provisions to include online news websites. That will enable us to make changes which ensure that online news, whether from an established newspaper group or an online publisher, is covered by the media regime and the new measures we are introducing for foreign state media ownership.

My noble friend is right about civil servants’ ability to carry on working even during the election period. Judging from the activity in my private office, I can certainly say that they are already springing into action on a number of fronts in the best traditions of the Civil Service. Work will of course continue as it always does, notwithstanding an election. This is an opportunity for me to thank the officials who have been working on the Bill and who will continue to work on these areas—rather hastily—over the next few days, but also more broadly on an ongoing basis in the way we have set out.

My noble friend mentioned the review of media ownership rules. I confirm that Ofcom can look at whatever it would like to in its review of the rules. The Secretary of State does not have to issue instructions to Ofcom to do so. I am happy to clarify that and, I hope, assist with some of the confusion which my noble friend has pointed out.

On the timing of regulations for what we termed the “carve-out”, as my noble friend knows, we are currently undertaking a consultation on proposed regulations to follow the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill to ensure that the drafting achieves our stated policy objectives in terms of the partial carve- out of small minority stakes held by sovereign wealth funds. The regulations will be finalised when the consultation concludes. We hope then to align the timeline for the introduction of these regulations with the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful to both the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Bassam, for their support for this amendment. Before I withdraw it, I want to check on a couple of things that my noble friend has just said.

On the media ownership rules review by Ofcom, my noble friend said that it is a matter for Ofcom and clarified that the Secretary of State does not need to issue an instruction. He emphasised that Ofcom is independent, and it is a matter for it. However, I am saying that Parliament wants it to look at the rules. I know that my erstwhile noble friend Lord Grade is listening, and it is fortuitous that the chairman of Ofcom is also a Member of your Lordships’ House. It would be reassuring to know that the Government, having listened to this debate today, will say to Ofcom that the media ownership rules review that it is about to conduct should look at foreign state ownership. I do not see how that in any way undermines or jeopardises its independence. I urge my noble friend to do that.

On the online news regulations and the work being done on that, the other issue was the category known as “online news creators”; that is, not just the news websites but this other, powerful force in news online. It does not necessarily involve a platform owning a news site but refers to just how much they are able to have an impact on the success, or otherwise, of other news organisations. It sounds like that is not part of what the officials are looking at. Perhaps the Minister can consider this and write to me. It would be helpful to get some clarity on that too.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am very happy to do that. In relation to Ofcom’s review, my noble friend draws a helpful distinction. It is clear from the debate—which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, has heard—what Parliament is keen for Ofcom to do. There is a material difference between Parliament sending a message and government sending a message. Ofcom is an independent regulator. I am sure that it will heed what is said in Parliament, but I think it is better that it hears it from Parliament and is not instructed by the Government. It is an independent regulator, and I am sure the noble Lord will have heard the debate and feed it back to his colleagues.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend. I withdraw my amendment.

Telegraph Media Group Ltd: Acquisition

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Wednesday 1st May 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will pick up on the theme of timescales. I am grateful to my noble friend for the answers he has given to the noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord McNally, because they cover some of the issues I wanted to ask about. Could my noble friend also tell us what the expectation is for the Government to bring forward the secondary legislation that covers the carve-out for legitimate indirect foreign state investors, such as sovereign wealth funds? That is important in providing clarity for prospective buyers. This has already been said, but it is worth saying again: in raising this, I am very conscious that, in meeting our essential objective of a sustainable future for our free press, we should ensure that there is a proper channel for inward investment into the media industry. If my noble friend could give an update, that would be helpful.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Many of the provisions we have made in the digital markets Bill require the Bill to receive Royal Assent, which I hope it will very soon, and they will come into force then. Once that has happened, we will be able to bring forward the measures we have committed to via secondary legislation. I will be writing in the coming days with a bit more information about that and about the consultation process on some of the points my noble friend raised, and we discussed in debates during the passage of the Bill. I will write to all noble Lords with further information about that very soon.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I am here to speak to the amendments in this group which stand in the name of my noble friend Lord Offord of Garvel, and I am happy to update your Lordships’ House on the work that has taken place since our debates on Report to implement a regime to ban foreign state ownership of newspapers and news magazines. As I noted on Report, we have heard the strength of concerns expressed in Parliament, and from my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston in particular, about foreign state ownership of UK newspapers and news magazines.

His Majesty’s Government agree that the importance of these publications to our democracy cannot be overstated: newspapers have always been, and must continue to be, free to develop relationships with their readers and develop editorial lines supporting different positions. The plurality of views across different newspapers ensures that there is a wide range of views supporting a culture of argument, debate and challenge, which in turn contributes to a healthy democratic society.

His Majesty’s Government are therefore taking steps to preserve the freedom of the press, recognising the risks that foreign state ownership of, or control or influence over, the UK’s newspapers and news magazines could pose to democracy and to free speech. Foreign state ownership, if used to develop or control narratives which align with another state’s interests, may over time corrode trust in our media as a whole. That is why many countries already have laws limiting foreign state ownership, and why we are creating a new regime which will prevent foreign states having any stake in a UK newspaper or news magazine.

These amendments will amend the Enterprise Act 2002 to create a new foreign state intervention regime for newspapers and news magazines, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean has put his name to Amendment 1, which leads the amendments in this group. Getting from a regret amendment on the Media Bill to joint signatures on this Bill in a matter of weeks is testament to the collaboration we have had across your Lordships’ House in our discussions, and I thank him for that.

Under the new regime, the Secretary of State will be obliged to give the Competition and Markets Authority a foreign state intervention notice where she has reasonable grounds to believe that a merger involving a UK newspaper or news magazine has given, or would give, a foreign state or a person associated with a foreign state ownership, influence or control. The CMA will be obliged to investigate and provide a report to the Secretary of State on the merger or potential merger. If it concludes that the merger has resulted or would result in a foreign state newspaper merger situation, the Secretary of State will be required by the statutory provisions to make an order to block or unwind the merger.

Our amendments expand the definition of “foreign power” to capture a wide variety of actors, including senior members of a foreign Government and officers of a governing political party acting in a private capacity. The legislation will also apply to mergers involving persons associated with a foreign power to ensure that we are capturing all possible ways in which a foreign state could seek control or influence over a UK newspaper or news magazine. Direct investment in newspapers of any size will be banned in future under this new regime.

It is, however, essential that these new measures do not have undesired effects in relation to wider business investment in UK media. We will therefore introduce an exemption for investments where the stake is below 5% of the total investment being made. This would apply to passive investments by established and pre-existing sovereign wealth funds, pension funds or similar.

We will introduce this threshold by regulations made under the affirmative procedure, giving noble Lords and Members in another place the opportunity to scrutinise the detailed proposals. We will bring these regulations forward after Royal Assent to this Bill. My colleagues and I would be very happy to engage with noble Lords as we do so.

I make it clear that the regime brought about by these amendments, and the exemption which will be provided for in secondary legislation, applies only to newspapers and news magazines in order to safeguard our free press from government involvement, whether domestic or foreign.

As I have set out before, we already have a robust media mergers regime, which enables the Secretary of State to intervene if she believes that public interest considerations are, or may be, relevant to a merger. This new foreign state ownership regime works in parallel and complements the existing regime. Our focus is not on foreign investment in the UK media sector in general but is targeted specifically —noble Lords have rightly made the distinction—at foreign state investment in newspapers and news magazines.

Of course, the Government remain committed to encouraging and supporting investment into the United Kingdom. We recognise that investors deploying capital into this country rely on the predictability and consistency of our regulatory regime. The UK remains one of the most open economies in the world, and investment is crucial to our plans for growth and jobs, and for our prosperity. The UK has the highest stock of foreign direct investment in Europe. The recent Global Investment Summit signalled investors’ confidence, with nearly £30 billion in investment commitments being made. These amendments will not change the UK’s investment potential. As I said, we are targeting foreign state investment in a narrow but important part of the UK market to safeguard the health of our democracy.

As I noted on Report,

“the Secretary of State is currently considering a live merger case under the Enterprise Act regime on which I cannot comment further today. With regard to any live case, if it is still ongoing when the changes come into effect, the Secretary of State will continue to follow the process set out in the existing regime and will also apply the new measures”.—[Official Report, 13/3/24; cols. 2042-43.]

In tandem, I can confirm to your Lordships’ House that we will be consulting on expanding the media mergers and the new media foreign state ownership regime to apply to online news websites. This will bring the regimes up to date in order to reflect modern news consumption habits and better protect the freedom of our media.

I am grateful to my noble friends Lady Stowell and Lord Forsyth, to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and to others opposite and from across the House for their constructive engagement and collaboration on these amendments. I hope that they will enjoy your Lordships’ support.

Finally, I will briefly mention Amendment 4, tabled by my noble friend Lord Offord, which is not related specifically to foreign state ownership of media enterprises, but which is part of this group. Amendment 4 is a minor and technical amendment relating to other amendments made by Schedule 4 to the Bill. It clarifies how certain sections of the Enterprise Act 2002 are applied for the purposes of deciding if a special merger situation has been created under the special public interest merger regime. I beg to move.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend and his officials for the time and attention they have given this matter since Report. I know that officials have worked very hard, including over weekends, so I am truly grateful to them. I also pay tribute to the Media Minister, Julia Lopez. When I first met her to discuss my amendment three weeks ago, she gripped the issue immediately. I believe it is because of her energy and support for the clear objective of protecting press freedom that the Government have got behind her in bringing forward amendments in such a short space of time. Julia Lopez deserves much credit.

On the Government’s amendments, for me, the best way to understand their proposed way forward is to see it in two stages. Stage 1 deals with the block to foreign powers owning, controlling or influencing UK news. Stage 2 is the exemption for investment in UK news from legitimate foreign state investment funds. Both those stages, or parts, are important to the sustainability of the UK news industry.

I support the Government’s amendments as they relate to stage 1, and noble Lords will see that I have not retabled my own amendment. I am satisfied that they are in line with the promises my noble friend made from the Dispatch Box two weeks ago. In my view, they deal with the legal uncertainty that the RedBird IMI-proposed deal to buy the Telegraph titles and the Spectator has exposed when it comes to the involvement of foreign powers in our news media. It is worth restating that, as concerning as the UAE financial backing via IMI in that case is, the issue is bigger than that one deal and is a matter of principle.

As I understand the government amendments and what my noble friend has just said, the Government have broadened the definition of “foreign power”, and any individual or entity now captured by that definition will be blocked completely from owning, controlling or influencing our newspapers or news magazines. These provisions will take effect immediately once the Bill receives Royal Assent. Once completed, stage 1, as I might describe it, protects press freedom from the control or influence of foreign powers. Stage 2, which provides the exemption for legitimate, indirect foreign state investment funds to make passive investments in our news industry, will be covered by secondary legislation to follow once the Bill is enacted.

This exemption is important for obvious reasons, as my noble friend has already said. The news industry needs investment just like any other, and we must not exclude perfectly legitimate foreign state investors such as sovereign wealth funds or state pension funds that are not directly government controlled. As I said on Report, foreign state investment funds such as the Norwegian sovereign fund already invest in some of our news organisations.

I think I heard my noble friend set out the Government’s commitment to the threshold for this category of foreign state investors in the news industry being set at 5%. It is worth reflecting on that, because, at 5%, it is still above the approach of such funds which typically invest around 1 to 2% in corporations within any sector, yet it is a lower threshold than what is permitted by the CMA to prevent material influence, reflecting the fact that we are seeking to prevent any foreign state influence in UK news. I welcome the 5% threshold.

Obviously, we have yet to see the details of the secondary legislation, and Parliament will have to scrutinise that carefully before it can be approved. I welcome my noble friend’s commitment to engage Parliament before those regulations are laid. I think I heard my noble friend correctly, but can he reassure me that my understanding is correct that any individual or entity blocked at stage 1 will not qualify for exemption at stage 2? In other words, the exemption at stage 2 is for an entirely different kind of entity from that which will be blocked at stage 1.

I am pleased that my noble friend has reminded the House that any live regulatory case will be captured by the new legislation once it is enacted, and I am also pleased that he has confirmed that foreign state ownership of online UK news websites will be dealt with swiftly, also via secondary legislation and the affirmative procedure, once the Government have completed their consultation. There remains the question of foreign state ownership of our commercial public sector broadcasters and other commercial UK news channels. That said, of course, there are some regulatory protections already in broadcasting because of the Ofcom licensing regime. It would none the less be helpful if my noble friend could say whether the department is reviewing policy in this area also.

In conclusion, I will make three simple points. First, none of these legislative changes affect general foreign investment in or ownership of UK newspapers or news magazines, which is and will remain very welcome. Secondly, the exemption for legitimate investment by foreign state investment funds is important to the financial sustainability of our news industry. Finally, just to be clear, the UK remains open for business in the same way it has always been. All that Parliament is doing by making these changes is ensuring that our fundamental principle of press freedom is not up for sale.

I look forward to my noble friend’s replies to my questions, and we will, of course, review the secondary legislation carefully once it is ready. But, overall, I commend my noble friend on the Government’s work in recent weeks and I thank him for it.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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No, it is just to newspapers and periodical news magazines.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken for their support and for the powerful speeches that they have given, and I am very grateful to my noble friend for his clear and comprehensive explanation of the Government’s position, and their firm intention to bring back an amendment at Third Reading to address that simple objective that I outlined at the start of this debate.

Because my noble friend covered such a lot of ground and this is quite complex stuff, for the benefit of other noble Lords and anyone else following this debate, I shall play it back at him a little bit, perhaps in plainer English, if I may—although noble Lords must forgive me if some of it is not as plain as it would be if I was speaking outside the House.

What we have heard is that the Government will bring forward an amendment at Third Reading that will expand the definition of foreign power beyond that in the National Security Act to include individuals who might not otherwise be adequately captured. That is something that has been of particular interest and concern to some of the legal noble Lords who have been following and commenting on my amendment. The amendment will expand the definition of “newspaper” in the Enterprise Act to include news magazines explicitly. The amendment will give the Secretary of State a new power to issue a foreign state intervention notice if she is notified or becomes aware at any time of possible foreign state involvement to own, control or influence a newspaper or news magazine. Once her order is issued, the CMA must investigate and, if it establishes that it is a foreign state, as newly defined, any investment or takeover will be blocked—or, if the investment has already happened, the Secretary of State will have the power to unwind that investment. All that will come into force once the Bill gets Royal Assent, and it will apply to any live regulatory case alongside the existing procedure that the Secretary of State is following.

In addition, at Third Reading, the Government will bring forward an amendment to create secondary legislation, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure. Those regulations will define what kind of indirect foreign state entity might be allowed to make a passive investment, such as a sovereign wealth fund of a democratic state, and include a very low threshold below which such an entity could invest. The purpose of those regulations will be to preserve the opportunity of legitimate foreign investment in news media. For example—and I think that it helps to get an example to understand what we are talking about here—it has been pointed out to me that the Norwegian state investment fund has single digit investments in News Corp, Reach, which is also known as the Mirror Group, Paramount Global, which owns Channel 5, and Comcast, which owns Sky.

To me, what my noble friend has outlined today, on my simple interpretation of it, makes sense. I am very grateful to the Minister for emphasising the very low-level investment that the Government are considering for the secondary legislation that will come forward, but the precise percentage will matter. I know that he will not be able to commit now to bringing forward the regulations in draft at Third Reading, because there is a lot of work for officials to do between now and then, but I hope that he can commit to doing as much as he can at Third Reading to provide the detail that we will need to be properly satisfied that what then follows will meet all our concerns.

Media Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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If I may, I will point the noble Lord to the answers we have given which set out some of the timelines; there are different timelines under the different Acts and the work that Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority do. I will set them out, rather than try to give them off the top of my head, but I have answered questions from this Dispatch Box before and will continue to do that and through Written Questions where possible.

I pointed my noble friend Lord Forsyth to the Enterprise Act and the National Security and Investment Act, which cover the actions available to the Secretary of State, including where she has concerns about media freedom and freedom of expression. As my noble friend indicated, his lively discussions with the Public Bill Office and his resorting to this regret amendment reflect that this is not a matter for this Bill, but, as the contribution from our noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston showed, she has had more success with tabling an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. I would certainly encourage them both to continue their conversations with my noble friends Lord Camrose and Lord Offord of Garvel.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful for what my noble friend has just said, but am I to take it from what he said to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the DCMS is not going to engage in this matter at all? Am I to direct my questions to the noble Lords who are responsible for the DMCC Bill?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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As it falls to my noble friends Lord Camrose and Lord Offord to take that Bill through, it will be more fruitful to have the discussions with them—they will be having them on behalf of the whole Government. But, as my noble friend will appreciate, because my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role, she is limited in what she can say, and so it limits what we can say. I am very happy to continue to answer questions on the process while my noble friends continue their discussions with my noble friends who are answering for the Government on the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. I look forward to the discussions with my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who I hope will not press his regret amendment this evening. With that, I beg to move.

Telegraph Media Group: Proposed Sale to RedBird IMI

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Wednesday 31st January 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions and welcome him to the ranks of Telegraph and Spectator readers—I hope he will enjoy what he sees in their pages. He will understand that the Secretary of State is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity following the provisions laid out in the Enterprise Act 2002. She is considering whether mergers raise media public interest concerns. She has issued public interest intervention notices, reflecting the concerns that she continues to have that there may be public interest considerations in this case: the

“accurate presentation of news; and … free expression of opinion”

as set out in Section 58 of the Enterprise Act, which are relevant to this planned acquisition. I hope the noble Lord will understand that, as she is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, it is essential that she does not take into account, and that there be no perception that she has taken or is taking into account, any political or presentational considerations. I therefore find myself in the same position as my honourable friend Julia Lopez in another place yesterday in being limited in what I can say while that quasi-judicial process unfurls.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, alluded to, the strength of feeling against this deal in the House of Commons yesterday was widespread and from all quarters of that place, and I would be surprised if there was much support in this House for the deal going ahead. Notwithstanding what my noble friend said about the Secretary of State acting in a quasi-judicial capacity in considering this matter, could he none the less give us an indication of how soon the Secretary of State can reach her decision? It seems to most people that the reasons for objecting to this deal are fundamental and points of principle, not necessarily points of technicality, and it should not require a great deal of time for her to reach her decision.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The public interest intervention notices which the Secretary of State issued trigger the requirement for the Competition and Markets Authority to report to her on jurisdictional and competition matters and for Ofcom to report to her on the specified media public interest considerations. She has asked them to submit their reports by 9 am on 11 March 2024.

BBC: Funding

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Wednesday 17th January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, the convention in this House is to shout “Stowell”, but I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Vaizey for his support. The Communications and Digital Committee published a report on BBC future funding 18 months ago, in which we found that the status quo is not an option. Decisions about how to fund the BBC in the future are becoming increasingly urgent. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, for this review to be meaningful, it is important that the BBC itself sets out its proposals for its role in the next 10 to 15 years and how it will change to fulfil that role? What is happening to meet that need as part of the Government’s efforts?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My noble friend and the other members of the committee she chairs do valuable work in scrutinising and adding to the thinking for both the BBC and the Government. The BBC is obviously independent, and it is for it to decide how to take forward the recommendations that the committee makes. However, we would like to understand the BBC’s perspectives and make sure that they are clearly understood and factored into the review and, ultimately, any decisions on the BBC’s funding model. We look forward to working closely with the BBC and my noble friend and her committee as we do that.

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to noble Lords for their further scrutiny of this important but complex area, and for the engagement that we have had in the days running up to it as well. We know how child sexual exploitation and abuse offenders sadly exploit private channels, and the great danger that this poses, and we know how crucial these channels are for secure communication. That is why, where necessary and proportionate, and where all the safeguards are met, it is right that Ofcom can require companies to take all technically feasible measures to remove this vile and illegal content.

The government amendments in this group will go further to ensure that a notice is well informed and targeted and does not unduly restrict users’ rights. Privacy and safety are not mutually exclusive—we can and must have both. The safety of our children depends on it.

I make it clear again that the Bill does not require companies to break or weaken end-to-end encryption on their services. Ofcom can require the use of technology on an end-to-end encrypted service only when it is technically feasible and has been assessed as meeting minimum standards of accuracy. When deciding whether to issue a notice, Ofcom will engage in continual dialogue with the company and identify reasonable, technically feasible solutions to the issues identified. As I said in opening, it is right that we require technology companies to use their considerable resources and expertise to develop the best possible protections to keep children safe in encrypted environments. They are well placed to innovate to find solutions that protect both the privacy of users and the safety of children.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Just to be clear, am I right to understand my noble friend as saying that there is currently no technology that would be technically acceptable for tech companies to do what is being asked of them? Did he say that tech companies should be looking to develop the technology to do what may be required of them but that it is not currently available to them?

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, the amendments in this group consider regulatory accountability and the roles of Ofcom, the Government and Parliament in overseeing the new framework. The proposals include altering the powers of the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom, issue guidance to Ofcom and set strategic priorities. Ofcom’s operational independence is key to the success of this framework, but the regime must ensure that there is an appropriate level of accountability to government. Parliament will also have important functions, in particular scrutinising and approving the codes of practice which set out how platforms can comply with their duties and providing oversight of the Government’s powers.

I heard the strength of feeling expressed in Committee that the Bill’s existing provisions did not get this balance quite right and have tabled amendments to address this. Amendments 129, 134 to 138, 142, 143, 146 and 147 make three important changes to the power for the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom to modify a draft code of practice. First, these amendments replace the public policy wording in Clause 39(1)(a) with a more defined list of reasons for which the Secretary of State can make a direction. This list comprises: national security, public safety, public health and the UK’s international obligations. This is similar to the list set out in a Written Ministerial Statement made last July but omits “economic policy” and “burden to business”.

This closely aligns the reasons in the Bill with the existing power in Section 5 of the Communications Act 2003. The power is limited to those areas genuinely beyond Ofcom’s remit as a regulator and where the Secretary of State might have access to information or expertise that the regulator does not. Secondly, the amendments clarify that the power will be used only for exceptional reasons. As noble Lords know, this has always been our intent and the changes we are tabling today put this beyond doubt. Thirdly, the amendments increase the transparency regarding the use of the power by requiring the Secretary of State to publish details of a direction at the time the power is used. This will ensure that Parliament has advance sight of modifications to a code and I hope will address concerns that several directions could be made on a single code before Parliament became aware.

This group also considers Amendments 131 to 133, which create an 18-month statutory deadline for Ofcom to submit draft codes of practice to the Secretary of State to be laid in Parliament relating to illegal content, safety duties protecting children and other cross-cutting duties. These amendments sit alongside Amendment 230, which we debated on Monday and which introduced the same deadline for Ofcom’s guidance on Part 5 of the regime.

I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, with whom I have had the opportunity to discuss these amendments in some detail as they follow up points that she and the members of her committee gave particular attention to. I beg to move.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak to the amendments in this group in my name: Amendments 139, 140, 144 and 145. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, for signing those amendments and for their continued support on this group. I am also grateful to my noble friend the Minister and his team for engaging with me on the issue of Secretary of State powers. He has devoted a lot of time and energy to this, which is reflected in the wide- ranging group of amendments tabled by him.

Before I go any further, it is worth emphasising that the underlying concern here is making sure that we have confidence, through this new regulation regime, that the Bill strikes the right balance of power between government, Parliament, the regulator and big tech firms. The committee that I chair—the Communications and Digital Select Committee of your Lordships’ House—has most focused on that in our consideration of the Bill. I should say also that the amendments I have brought forward in my name very much have the support of the committee as well.

These amendments relate to Clause 39, which is where the main issue lies in the context of Secretary of State powers, and we have three broad concerns. First, as it stood, the Bill handed the Secretary of State unprecedented powers to direct the regulator on pretty much anything. Secondly, these powers allowed the Government to conduct an infinite form of ping-pong with the regulator, enabling the Government to prevail in a dispute. Thirdly, this ping-pong could take place in private with no possibility of parliamentary oversight or being able to intervene, as would be appropriate in the event of a breakdown in the relationship between executive and regulator.

This matters because the Online Safety Bill creates a novel form for regulating the internet and what we can or cannot see online, in particular political speech, and it applies to the future. It is one thing for the current Government, who I support, to say that they would never use the powers in this way. That is great but, as we know, current Governments cannot speak for whoever is in power in the generations to come, so it is important that we get this right.

As my noble friend said, he has brought forward amendments to Clause 39 that help to address this. I support him in and commend him for that. The original laundry list of powers to direct Ofcom has been shortened and now follows the precedent set out in the Communications Act 2003. The government amendments also say that the Secretary of State must now publish their directions to Ofcom, which will improve transparency, and once the code is agreed Ofcom will publish changes so that Parliament can see what changes have been made and why. These are all very welcome and, as I say, they go a long way to addressing some of our concerns, but two critical issues remain.

First, the Government retain an opt-out, which means that they do not have to publish their directions if the Secretary of State believes that doing so would risk

“national security or public safety”,

or international relations. However, those points are now the precise grounds on which the Secretary of State may issue a direction and, if history is any guide, there is a real risk that we will never hear about the directions because the Government have decided that they are a security issue.

My Amendments 139 and 140 would require the Secretary of State to at least notify Parliament of the fact that a direction has been issued and what broad topic it relates to. That would not require any details to be published, so it does not compromise security, but it does give assurance that infinite, secretive ping-pong is not happening behind the scenes. My noble friend spoke so quickly at the beginning that I was not quite sure whether he signalled anything, but I hope that he may be able to respond enthusiastically to Amendments 139 and 140.

Secondly, the Government still have powers for infinite ping-pong. I appreciate that the Government have reservations about capping the number of exchanges between the Secretary of State and Ofcom, but they must also recognise the concern that they appear to be preparing the ground for any future Government to reject infinitely the regulator’s proposals and therefore prevail in a dispute about a politically contentious topic. My Amendments 144 and 145 would clarify that the Government will have a legally binding expectation that they will use no more than the bare minimum number of directions to achieve the intent set out in their first direction.

The Government might think that adding this to the Bill is superfluous, but it is necessary in order to give Parliament and the public confidence about the balance of power in this regime. If Parliament felt that the Secretary of State was acting inappropriately, we would have sufficient grounds to intervene. As I said, the Government acknowledged in our discussions the policy substance of these concerns, and as we heard from my noble friend the Minister in introducing this group, there is an understanding on this. For his part, there is perhaps a belief that what they have done goes far enough. I urge him to reconsider Amendments 144 and 145, and I hope that, when he responds to the debate on this group, he can say something about not only Amendments 139 and 140 but the other two amendments that will give me some grounds for comfort.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend for his constructive response to my Amendments 139 and 140. I am sure he will do me the honour of allowing me to see the Government’s reversioning of my amendments before they are laid so that we can be confident at Third Reading that they are absolutely in line with expectations.

Could I press my noble friend a little further on Amendments 144 and 145? As I understood what he said, the objection from within government is to the language in the amendments I have tabled—although as my noble friend Lady Harding said, they are incredibly modest in their nature.

I was not sure whether my noble friend was saying in his defence against accepting them that issuing a direction would have to be exceptional, and that that led to a need to clarify that this would be ongoing. Would each time there is a ping or a pong be exceptional? Forgive me, because it starts to sound a bit ridiculous when we get into this amount of detail, but it seems to me that the “exceptional” issue kicks in at the point where you issue the direction. Once you engage in a dialogue, “exceptional” is no longer really the issue. It is an odd defence against trying to limit the number of times you allow that dialogue to continue. Bearing in mind that he is willing to look again at Amendments 139 and 140, I wonder whether, between now and Third Reading, he would at least ask parliamentary counsel to look again at the language in my original amendment.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am certainly happy to commit to showing my noble friend the tidying up we think necessary of the two amendments I said we are happy to accept ahead of Third Reading. On the others, as I said, the code could be delayed repeatedly only if the Secretary of State showed that there remained exceptional reasons once it had been modified, and that high bar would need to be met each time. So we do not agree with her Amendments 14 and 145 because of concerns about the drafting of my noble friend’s current amendment and because the government amendments we have brought forward cater for the scenario about which she is concerned. Her amendments would place a constraint on the Secretary of State not to give more directions than are necessary to achieve the objectives set out in the original direction, but they would not achieve the intent I think my noble friend has. The Bill does not require the direction to have a particular objective. Directions are made because the Secretary of State believes that modifications are necessary for exceptional reasons, and the direction must set out the reasons why the Secretary of State believes that a draft should be modified.

Through the amendments the Government have laid today, the direction would have to be for exceptional reasons relating to a narrower list and Parliament would be made aware each time a direction was made. Parliament would also have increased scrutiny in cases where a direction had been made under Clause 39(1)(a), because of the affirmative procedure. However, I am very happy to keep talking to my noble friend, as we will be on the other amendments, so we can carry on our conversation then if she wishes.

Let me say a bit about the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan. His Amendment 218 would require the draft statement of strategic priorities laid before Parliament to be approved by resolution of each House. As we discussed in Committee, the statement of strategic priorities is necessary because future technological changes are likely to shape harms online, and the Government must have an avenue through which to state their strategic priorities in relation to these emerging technologies.

The Bill already requires the Secretary of State to consult Ofcom and other appropriate persons when preparing a statement. This provides an opportunity for consideration and scrutiny of a draft statement, including, for example, by committees of Parliament. This process, combined with the negative procedure, provides an appropriate level of scrutiny and is in line with comparable existing arrangements in the Communications Act in relation to telecommunications, the management of radio spectrum and postal services.

My noble friend’s other amendments would place additional requirements on the Secretary of State’s power to issue non-binding guidance to Ofcom about the exercise of its online safety functions. The guidance document itself does not create any statutory requirements —Ofcom is required only to have regard to the guidance —and on that basis, we do not agree that it is necessary to subject it to parliamentary approval as a piece of secondary legislation. As my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe pointed out, we do not require that in numerous other areas of the economy, and we do not think it necessary here.

Let me reassure my noble friend Lord Moylan on the many ways in which Parliament will be able to scrutinise the work of Ofcom. Like most other regulators, it is accountable to Parliament in how it exercises its functions. The Secretary of State is required to present its annual report and accounts before both Houses. Ministers from the devolved Administrations must also lay a copy of the report before their respective Parliament or Assembly. Ofcom’s officers can be required to appear before Select Committees to answer questions about its work; indeed, its chairman and chief executive appeared before your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee just yesterday. Parliament will also have a role in approving a number of aspects of the regulatory framework through its scrutiny of both primary and secondary legislation.

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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When we publish the wording, we will rightly have an opportunity to discuss it before the debate on Report. I will be happy to discuss it with noble Lords then. On the broader points about economic policy, that is a competency of His Majesty’s Government, not an area of focus for Ofcom. If the Government had access to additional information that led them to believe that a code of practice as drafted could have a significant, disproportionate and adverse effect on the livelihoods of the British people or to the broader economy, and if it met the test for exceptional circumstances, taking action via a direction from the Secretary of State could be warranted. I will happily discuss that when my noble friend and others see the wording of the changes we will bring on Report. I am sure we will scrutinise that properly, as we should.

I was about to say that, in addition to the commitment we have already made, in the light of the debate today we will also consider whether transparency about the use of this power could be increased further, while retaining the important need for government oversight of issues that are genuinely beyond Ofcom’s remit. I am conscious that, as my noble friend Lady Stowell politely said, I did not convince her or your Lordships’ committee when I appeared before it with my honourable friend Paul Scully. I am happy to continue our discussions and I hope that we may reach some understanding on this important area.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am sorry to interrupt, but may I clarify what my noble friend just said? I think he said that, although he is open to increasing the transparency of the procedure, he does not concede a change—from direction to a letter about guidance which Ofcom should take account of. Is he willing to consider that as well?

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, His Majesty’s Government are committed to defending the invaluable role of our free media. We are clear that our online safety legislation must protect the vital role of the press in providing people with reliable and accurate information. That is why this Bill includes strong protections for recognised news publishers. The Bill does not impose new duties on news publishers’ content, which is exempt from the Bill’s safety duties. In addition, the Bill includes strong safeguards for news publisher content, set out in Clause 14. In order to benefit from these protections, publishers will have to meet a set of stringent criteria, set out in Clause 50.

I am aware of concerns in your Lordships’ House and another place that the definition of news publishers is too broad and that these protections could therefore create a loophole to be exploited. That is why the Government are bringing forward amendments to the definition of “recognised news publisher” to ensure that sanctioned entities cannot benefit from these protections. I will shortly explain these protections in detail but I would like to be clear that narrowing the definition any further would pose a critical risk to our commitment to self-regulation of the press. We do not want to create requirements which would in effect put Ofcom in the position of a press regulator. We believe that the criteria set out in Clause 50 are already strong, and we have taken significant care to ensure that established news publishers are captured, while limiting the opportunity for bad actors to benefit. 

Government Amendments 126A and 127A propose changes to the criteria for recognised news publishers. These criteria already exclude any entity that is a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000 or the purpose of which is to support a proscribed organisation under that Act. We are clear that sanctioned news outlets such as RT, formerly Russia Today, must not benefit from these protections either. The amendments we are tabling today will therefore tighten the recognised news publisher criteria further by excluding entities that have been designated for sanctions imposed by both His Majesty’s Government and the United Nations Security Council. I hope noble Lords will accept these amendments, in order to ensure that content from publishers which pose a security threat to this country cannot benefit from protections designed to defend a free press.

In addition, the Government have also tabled amendments 50B, 50C, 50D, 127B, 127C and 283A, which are aimed at ensuring that the protections for news publishers in Clause 14 are workable and do not have unforeseen consequences for the operation of category 1 services. Clause 14 gives category 1 platforms a duty to notify recognised news publishers and offer a right of appeal before taking action against any of their content or accounts.

Clause 14 sets out the circumstances in which companies must offer news publishers an appeal. As drafted, it states that platforms must offer this before they take down news publisher content, before they restrict users’ access to such content or where they propose to “take any other action” in relation to publisher content. Platforms must also offer an appeal if they propose to take action against a registered news publisher’s account by giving them a warning, suspending or banning them from using a service or in any way restricting their ability to use a service.

These amendments provide greater clarity about what constitutes “taking action” in relation to news publisher content, and therefore when category 1 services must offer an appeal. They make it clear that a platform must offer this before they take down such content, add a warning label or take any other action against content in line with any terms of service that allow or prohibit content. This will ensure that platforms are not required to offer publishers a right of appeal every time they propose to carry out routine content curation and similar routine actions. That would be unworkable for platforms and would be likely to inhibit the effectiveness of the appeal process.

As noble Lords know, the Bill has a strong focus on user empowerment and enabling users to take control of their online experience. The Government have therefore tabled amendments to Clause 52 to ensure that providers are required only to offer publishers a right of appeal in relation to their own moderation decisions, not where a user has voluntarily chosen not to view certain types of content. For example, if a user has epilepsy and has opted not to view photo-sensitive content, platforms will not be required to offer publishers a right of appeal before restricting that content for the user in question.

In addition, to ensure that the Bill maintains strong protections for children, the amendments make it clear that platforms are not required to offer news publishers an appeal before applying warning labels to content viewed by children. The amendments also make it clear that platforms would be in breach of the legislation if they applied warning labels to content encountered by adults without first offering news publishers an appeal, but in order to ensure that the Bill maintains strong protections for children, that does not apply to warning labels on content encountered by children. I beg to move.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome the amendments the Government have tabled, but I ask the Minister to clarify the effect of Amendment 50E. I declare an interest as chair of the Communications and Digital Select Committee, which has discussed Amendment 50E and the labelling of content for children with the news media organisations. This is a very technical issue, but from what my noble friend was just saying, it seems that content that would qualify for labelling for child protection purposes, and which therefore does not qualify for a right of appeal before the content is so labelled, is not content that would normally be encountered by adults but might happen to appeal to children. I would like to be clear that we are not giving the platforms scope for adding labels to content that they ought not to be adding labels to. That aside, as I say, I am grateful to my noble friend for these amendments.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am sorry; in my enthusiasm to get this day of Committee off to a swift start, I perhaps rattled through that rather quickly. On Amendment 50E, which my noble friend Lady Stowell asked about, I make clear that platforms will be in breach of their duties if, without applying the protection, they add warning labels to news publishers’ content that they know will be seen by adult users, regardless of whether that content particularly appeals to children.

As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and others noted, we will return to some of the underlying principles later on, but the Government have laid these amendments to clarify category 1 platforms’ duties to protect recognised news publishers’ content. They take some publishers out of scope of the protections and make it clearer that category 1 platforms will have only to offer news publishers an appeal before taking punitive actions against their content.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, asked about how we define “recognised news publisher”. I am conscious that we will debate this more in later groups, but Clause 50 sets out a range of criteria that an organisation must meet to qualify as a recognised news publisher. These include the organisation’s “principal purpose” being the publication of news, it being subject to a “standards code” and its content being “created by different persons”. The protections for organisations are focused on publishers whose primary purpose is reporting on news and current affairs, recognising the importance of that in a democratic society. I am grateful to noble Lords for their support.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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What my noble friend said is absolutely fine with me, and I thank him very much for it. It might be worth letting the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, know that Amendment 127 has now been moved to the group that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to. I thought it was worth offering that comfort to the noble Baroness.

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I wonder whether I can make a brief intervention—I am sorry to do so after the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, but I want to intervene before my noble friend the Minister stands up, unless the Labour Benches are about to speak.

I have been pondering this debate and have had a couple of thoughts. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I am reminded of something which was always very much a guiding light for me when I chaired the Charity Commission, and therefore working in a regulatory space: regulation is never an end in itself; you regulate for a reason.

I was struck by the first debate we had on day one of Committee about the purpose of the Bill. If noble Lords recall, I said in that debate that, for me, the Bill at its heart was about enhancing the accountability of the platforms and the social media businesses. I felt that the contribution from my noble friend Lady Harding was incredibly important. What we are trying to do here is to use enforcement to drive culture change, and to force the organisations not to never think about profit but to move away from profit-making to focusing on child safety in the way in which they go about their work. That is really important when we start to consider the whole issue of enforcement.

It struck me at the start of this discussion that we have to be clear what our general approach and mindset is about this part of our economy that we are seeking to regulate. We have to be clear about the crimes we think are being committed or the offences that need to be dealt with. We need to make sure that Ofcom has the powers to tackle those offences and that it can do so in a way that meets Parliament’s and the public’s expectations of us having legislated to make things better.

I am really asking my noble friend the Minister, when he comes to respond on this, to give us a sense of clarity on the whole question of enforcement. At the moment, it is insufficiently clear. Even if we do not get that level of clarity today, when we come back later on and look at enforcement, it is really important that we know what we are trying to tackle here.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I will endeavour to give that clarity, but it may be clearer still if I flesh some points out in writing in addition to what I say now.

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I will certainly take that point away and I understand, of course, that different Acts require different duties of the same platforms. I will take that away and discuss it with colleagues in other departments who lead on investigatory powers.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Before my noble friend moves on, when he is reviewing that back in the office, could he also satisfy himself that the concerns coming from the journalism and news organisations in the context of RIPA are also understood and have been addressed? That is another angle which, from what my noble friend has said so far, I am not sure has really been acknowledged. That is not a criticism but it is worth him satisfying himself on it.

Channel 4

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Wednesday 11th January 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I look forward to more questions on other aspects of the media Bill’s work than perhaps we have had in recent months. Yes, it is our intention to bring forward the media Bill when parliamentary time allows, so that we can carry forward important reforms that will benefit the whole of our public service broadcasting system.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Select Committee. I welcome the Government’s decision on the future of Channel 4, not least because it reflects so much of what the committee recommended in the report that we published just over a year ago on the future of Channel 4—although it is worth reminding your Lordships that, as a committee which represents all sides of this House, we did not object in principle to the sale of Channel 4.

I was also pleased that the Government recognised, none the less, that the status quo was not an option for the future of Channel 4. Bearing in mind what my noble friend has just said about the media Bill, which will be necessary to introduce the legislative changes and address some other needs of public service broadcasters to ensure their sustainability, perhaps I may push him further. If he will not give us a precise timetable for when the media Bill will come, can he tell us in which order the Bills that the DCMS has on the slate are going to come? The Online Safety Bill is about to come but we are also waiting for the digital competition Bill.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My noble friend will know, as a former leader of your Lordships’ House, that that decision is above my pay grade, but it is our intention to bring the media Bill forward when parliamentary time allows. I am grateful to her and the other members of your Lordships’ committee for their thoughts, which have been part of the evidence that my right honourable friend and colleagues at the department have weighed up.

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Monday 7th November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Your Lordships’ House gives voice to those voiceless victims through the right reverend Prelate and, not least, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who has rightly asked this Question today. I am keen for all those voices to be joined in the debate on the Bill as soon as possible.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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To go back to one of the earlier questions about financial harms, does my noble friend agree that one of the problems facing the Bill is the way in which things keep getting added to it? Once the Bill arrives in your Lordships’ House—the sooner we can get on with scrutinising it, the better—it is important that we all remain self-disciplined, try not to add things to it and just focus on child safety.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My noble friend makes the sort of wise point that one would expect from a former Leader of your Lordships’ House. I think that is the case with any Bill that comes before Parliament. With this one, which has benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, Members of both Houses have been able to look at it and wider issues. I look forward to thorough but targeted debates when the Bill comes forward.

Public Service Broadcasting: BBC Centenary

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Thursday 3rd November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, this has been a very spirited and thought-provoking debate, and a very enjoyable one for my first time back at the Dispatch Box. I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, on securing it. He encouraged me to sign up to speak from the Back Benches and I had done so, but it is a delight to be responding with a bit more time from this position.

The noble Lord’s Motion encourages us to look to both the future and the past, but perhaps I should start with an observation about the present. It seems to me that we in the UK today are very lucky to benefit from a vibrant and diverse broadcasting sector. We have access to hundreds of television and radio channels, each of them unique. These are in turn supplied by a wealth of creative talent and distributed in innumerable ways, some cutting-edge and others which would be familiar even to the late Lord Reith himself—although I wonder whether he might have mellowed in his opinions on jazz.

Moreover, it strikes me, taking the long view, as today’s Motion invites us to do, that that success is due in no small part to the work of the BBC, first as the pioneer of radio, and later television, broadcasting, and then, over time, providing a different role, an important foundation on which so much else of our broadcasting heritage is built.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell said, 1922 was a very special year. It marked the publication of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of which I have read repeatedly and the other of which I am still struggling through, but both of which I have learned a great deal about in this centenary year thanks to the BBC’s programming about them.

However, as we heard, a lot has changed since 1922. The BBC is no longer our only broadcaster; indeed, it is not our only public service broadcaster. Strictly speaking, it is one of six but, taking a more rounded measure of public service, we might also include our eight local television providers and hundreds of local and national radio stations in that list. That does not even include all the programmes created and shown by commercial broadcasters that are nevertheless public service in nature.

The need for public service broadcasting in this country is as strong as ever it was. Whether that is breaking news footage of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, or lessons for children stuck at home during the pandemic, it is vital that our broadcasters understand the positive impact that they can and do have on our life in the United Kingdom: on our culture and values, on our economy and on the very cornerstones of democracy. They play a key role in bringing the nation together at our moments of greatest celebration and our moments of deepest sadness.

In particular, I echo the tributes paid by other noble Lords to our public service broadcasters, especially the BBC, for their thoughtful and respectful coverage following the recent death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, more than half the country, 32.5 million people, watched the BBC’s coverage of the state funeral, and millions more watched it on ITV: a powerful example of what public service broadcasting can and should be about.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Harding that, in Parliament, it is our job as parliamentarians to hold public service broadcasting to account but also to provide a legal and regulatory framework which encourages and supports the contribution that the BBC and others make. Part of that framework, of course, includes the media Bill, which noble Lords in great number have asked about, understandably, today. Let me highlight what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said last night in your Lordships’ House—not in the Chamber but in a reception held here. She said she is fully committed to introducing legislation to make sure that we are regulating in a way that is fit for the modern era, and that we will be coming forward with the media Bill shortly. I am afraid I cannot be more precise than that, but I am happy to echo her words that we will do that soon.

I will start with the legal and regulatory framework for the BBC. In January, the Government announced that the licence fee will be frozen for the next two years and will rise in line with inflation for the following four years. That means that the cost of the licence fee will remain fixed at £159 until April 2024, before rising in line with inflation until April 2028.

Concerns about the cost of living have been echoed in your Lordships’ House today and were central to the Government’s decision. The settlement aims to support households at a time when they need that support most, while also giving the BBC what it needs to deliver on its important remit. Under the settlement, the BBC will continue to receive around £3.8 billion in annual public funding, allowing it to deliver its mission in public purposes and to continue doing what it does best.

We believe that this is a fair settlement which strikes the right balance between protecting households and allowing the BBC to deliver its vital public responsibilities, while encouraging it to make further savings, efficiencies and innovations. The Government’s longer-term road map for reform of the BBC sees two forthcoming milestones as we prepare for the next review of the BBC’s royal charter: the ongoing mid-term review and the planned BBC funding model review. I will address each of those in turn.

At this point, half way through the charter period, work has already begun on the mid-term review. That will function as a health check, conducted by the Government and examining how effectively the governance and regulatory arrangements introduced by the current charter, such as the move to the new unitary board, are performing, and whether further reforms are required. The Government are interested in the success of the BBC’s governance and regulatory arrangements in enabling progress against our ambitions for greater impartiality, an effective complaints system and a BBC that represents the breadth of the audience it was established to serve.

That is not just about how well the BBC is doing. We also want to look at the effectiveness of the framework by which Ofcom holds it to account. The Government are seeking to conclude the review swiftly and to report on its findings next year. At the same time, the BBC’s funding model faces major challenges, due to how people consume media, as we have heard in this debate. Technology has revolutionised how, when and where audiences can access and watch content. An increasing number of households are choosing not to hold a TV licence as fewer people choose to watch live television or other activities which require a TV licence. If this trend continues as expected, that presents clear and looming challenges to the sustainability of the licence fee.

It is not just the Government who have these concerns. They have been echoed in today’s debate. Licence to Change: BBC Future Funding, the report of your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, whom I had the pleasure of sitting alongside, albeit briefly, in the last few weeks, found that the drawbacks to the current licence fee model are becoming more salient. We must consider how best to fund the BBC over the long term so that it can continue to succeed. It is therefore right that we examine the future of the licence fee. The Government will set out further detail on their plans in due course.

The BBC forms just one part of the UK’s vibrant public service broadcasting system. Our six public service broadcasters provide a wealth of important content—news and current affairs programmes which help us understand the world around us, original, distinctively British programming which shapes our culture and reflects our values, and programmes made in all corners of our nation and broadcast around the world.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and others, were right to praise the important work of the BBC World Service. The Government strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to global audiences in some of the most remote places in the world, particularly those parts of our globe where free speech is limited. The BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, so decisions over its spending and services are a matter for the BBC, but the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is providing the BBC World Service with over £94 million annually for the next three years, supporting services in 12 languages and improving key services, and that is in addition to the nearly £470 million which the Government have already provided through the BBC World2020 programme since 2016.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was right to highlight the bravery of BBC journalists who report for the World Service, particularly in Iran. We regularly raise the harassment of BBC Persian staff directly with the Iranian Government as well as in multilateral fora, but I wholeheartedly agree with his tribute to them. Moreover, our public service broadcasters complement their commercial competitors by raising standards across the industry by investing in skills, boosting growth and taking creative risks. They drive growth in our booming production sector by commissioning distinctive public service content and supporting the hundreds of independent production companies that are the lifeblood of that sector.

This contribution is not limited to television. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, noted, in celebrating 100 years of the BBC, we are celebrating 100 years of BBC radio. Since listeners first tuned in to daily news bulletins on its 2LO service, BBC radio has been a pioneer of public service content, from great drama to ground-breaking comedy, the newest music and the greatest of old, not least through its orchestras and choirs. Radio is also changing, as more and more people consume audio content online. With its unique position in the radio market, I hope we can have confidence that the BBC will continue to evolve to deliver high-quality and engaging audio services to the country and the globe over the years to come.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, and others raised the announcements this week about changes to BBC local radio stations. Again, the BBC is rightly operationally and editorially independent of government, but the Government are disappointed that it is reportedly planning to make such extensive cuts to its local radio output. In an Answer to an Urgent Question in another place earlier this week, my honourable friend Julia Lopez set out that she is meeting the BBC next week and will be conveying to it the views raised in that Urgent Question. We wait to hear more from the BBC on how it expects these changes to affect local communities, including the provision of local news and media plurality.

As noble Lords have noted, it is not just the BBC celebrating an important birthday this year. On Tuesday, Sianel Pedwar Cymru, or S4C, the UK’s Welsh language television broadcaster, celebrated its 40th birthday. S4C is a great example of how our public service broadcasting provides for every part of the UK, not only providing an opportunity for Welsh speakers to access content in a language familiar to them but supporting the Welsh economy, culture, and society.

Channel 4 also celebrated its 40th birthday yesterday. It is an integral part of our public service broadcasting system and a great UK success story. Over the past four decades, Channel 4 has done an excellent job in delivering on its founding purposes, providing greater choice for audiences and supporting the British production sector, including in the diocese of the right reverend Prelate following its move to Leeds. The Government want Channel 4 to continue to deliver for audiences for the next 40 years and long beyond. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is carefully examining the business case for the sale of Channel 4 and will set out further detail on our plans for the future of the channel in due course. As the right reverend Prelate and others said, there is much to be considered. The principal conclusions of the Government’s review of public service broadcasting were set out in our White Paper earlier this year and my right honourable friend will be able to draw on those conclusions when considering her decision.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for giving me the opportunity to correct the record. He is right to pick up on an answer that I gave when last in this post, stemming from a confusion between salaries and total remuneration packages. One of the last things that I did before leaving was to write a letter to the Library of your Lordships’ House setting that out for the record; if it was not sent, I will make sure that it is. I am grateful for the opportunity to do that from the Dispatch Box.

Continuing with birthdays, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will remember particularly well as a former Broadcasting Minister, in March this year Channel 5 turned 25. It continues to make a vital contribution to the UK PSB system through its provision of news and its unique focus on children’s television.

Our two other public service broadcasters, ITV and STV, continue to play an important role both on and off the screen. Last year, STV was the most watched peak-time television channel in Scotland for the fourth year in succession, and in 2019, the most recent year for which detailed data are available, ITV spent more than £250 million outside London, directly employing more than 2,000 staff and indirectly supporting many more. That is not to mention its 3,000 hours of national and regional news, with “STV News at Six” having held Scotland’s number one news programme slot since 2019.

However, despite these ongoing successes, there are also challenges ahead for our public service broadcasters. I have referred already to some of the specific challenges facing the BBC, but in many ways, they are symptomatic of broader changes in the sector, which create both opportunities and risks. One of those is advances in technology. Just as the advent of cable and satellite services revolutionised broadcasting in previous decades so internet-delivered services are revolutionising it now, creating new distribution methods and potential business models. It is notable, for instance, that 79% of households with a television set now choose to connect it to the internet.

Changing consumer habits are also a factor. Today’s viewers now have huge choice in what they watch and how they watch it, and are taking advantage of that choice. Two-thirds of households subscribe to video-on-demand services like Netflix and Disney+, and in September 2021 YouTube reached 92% of online adults in the United Kingdom. Viewers are shifting to different platforms, types of content and modes of viewing: telephones, laptops, short-form, long-form, on-the-go and around the house. To be a successful modern broadcaster, it is important that broadcasters make their content available in a multitude of formats across a wide range of devices and platforms.

Increased competition is also changing the sector. New global players, particularly US-based streamers, as noble Lords have noted, are using their greater financial resources to compete with both our public service broadcasters and our commercial ones. That is not just a question of competition for viewers but for the programmes they show. In 2019, the public service broadcasters in the UK were collectively able to spend just under £2.8 billion on new content. At the same time, Netflix alone spent an estimated £11.5 billion on production globally.

In April this year, the Government set out their proposals for supporting our public service broadcasters, using our new legislative freedoms to deliver a regulatory framework which works in the best interests of the UK. We were able to draw upon much previous work, including the report of the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House, at that time chaired by my noble friend Lord Gilbert of Panteg. As a result, the White Paper contained a number of proposals to support British broadcasters to prosper in this new media environment.

The first of these relates to prominence. An important part of our public service broadcasting system is ensuring that public service content is readily available to as wide an audience as possible and easy to find. But as audiences increasingly watch content online, our broadcasters, including the BBC, are finding it increasingly difficult to secure and maintain their presence on global platforms. We announced in our White Paper plans to legislate for a new online prominence regime, so that PSB content is made available and given protected prominence across designated TV platforms. Building on Ofcom’s recommendations, we believe that legislating for prominence will not only support the future sustainability of public service broadcasters; it will also mean that viewers can continue to find the content they value. We understand, and share, the concerns of our public service broadcasters that action to address this issue is needed as soon as possible. I am glad to hear that echoed in today’s debate.

I also want to touch briefly on the listed events regime, which helps to ensure the free and universal availability of key moments from some of our most loved sports. In recognition of the key role that our public service broadcasters play in distributing content which is distinctively British and of interest to audiences in the UK, the Government have announced their intention to make qualification for the listed events regime a benefit specific to our public service broadcasters. This will ensure that they have the opportunity to show national sporting events such as the Paralympic Games and the Women’s EUROs, both rightly praised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for years to come. We are considering whether digital rights should be brought in scope of the regime to reflect the rapidly changing viewing habits of UK audiences and the growth in on-demand streaming services.

Video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime provide huge value to UK audiences and in many cases significant, and growing, contributions to the UK economy. But these on-demand services, apart from BBC’s iPlayer, are not subject to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which sets out appropriate standards for content, including for harmful or offensive material, accuracy, fairness and privacy. This means that the television-like content which people watch is regulated differently depending on how they choose to watch it. Some services available in the UK are not regulated in the UK at all. That is why we intend to bring larger TV-like on-demand providers, which are not regulated in the UK but which target and profit from UK audiences, under Ofcom jurisdiction. We will also give Ofcom powers to draft and enforce a new video-on-demand code, similar to the existing Broadcasting Code. These changes will mean that UK audiences will be better protected from harmful material and better able to complain to Ofcom if they see something about which they are concerned.

My noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe was right that the people who are moving to these new methods of watching television the quickest are the young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, was right to raise our important responsibility to children. UK-wide television tax reliefs aimed specifically at children’s television programming have since 2015 directly supported more than 500 projects and over £600 million of investment in children’s content. We are grateful to have worked closely with the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on introducing powers for Ofcom to monitor the commercial public service broadcasters and enable them to set criteria for the provision of children’s television programming; and of course, we chose children’s television, alongside radio, to pilot contestable funding, as she mentioned in her contribution. An evaluation of the three-year pilot of the young audiences’ content fund is taking place to determine its impact. The potential for further investment will be assessed against that evaluation and future public service broadcasting needs.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, mentioned smart speakers. Today the whole sector faces perhaps its greatest challenge yet with the emergence of online audio services and smart speakers. I share the noble Viscount’s concerns about the potential impact of these devices on the radio sector. Officials in DCMS are actively exploring potential options for bringing forward legislation to protect the position of radio on smart speakers in a way consistent with the proposals to develop a new pro-competition regime for digital markets.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that it was a Conservative Government who established the BBC. As this is a Liberal Democrat debate, I should say that a Conservative and Liberal coalition presided over its birth. The BBC was founded on 18 October 1922. The following day, Tory Back-Benchers met at the Carlton Club and pulled the plug on that coalition, giving the BBC its first big story to cover. Those were the days when Tory Back-Benchers brought down Prime Ministers from other parties. It was thus a Liberal politician, the Postmaster-General FG Kellaway, who noted:

“If the best use is to be made of this new form of communication, it must touch life at many aspects”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/8/1922; col. 1955.]


I think we would all agree that our public service broadcasters have delivered on that vision. Now is the time, as we have done today, to look ahead to the next century and provide the foundations for future success. I am very grateful to the noble Lords who have given us the opportunity to do so.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Before my noble friend sits down, may I seek a couple of points of clarification on legislation? My noble friend echoed the Secretary of State in saying that the media Bill will be with us shortly. Yet a decision on the privatisation of Channel 4 has yet to be taken. Could he confirm that, if the Government decide not to go ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4, the media Bill will still come forward shortly because it is the non-Channel 4 aspects that are deemed incredibly urgent?

The Minister also made some comment in response to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, on digital competition. However, I am not entirely clear on what he is saying about the prospect of a digital competition Bill. He may remember that I was very keen, if possible, that we should combine the two things, particularly if Channel 4 is no longer on the agenda.

Charities Bill [HL]

Debate between Baroness Stowell of Beeston and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
Thursday 18th November 2021

(2 years, 6 months ago)

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak briefly on this amendment. I am assuming I have understood it correctly—do not look at me like that, Lord Ponsonby! If I have, the amendment seeks to introduce a right of appeal to trustees, after they have arrived at a resolution on a decision. Under the proposals from the Law Commission, it requires that they go to the Charity Commission for formal approval or refusal. If I understand it, this amendment perpetuates the appeals process. That is in contrast to the Law Commission’s proposal, which is that, at the point that the approval is sought from the Charity Commission on a decision reached by the trustees, it is final. This introduces an extra level of appeal.

I offer a few thoughts on this because, quite often with smaller charities—we are talking about small amounts of money here—the underlying problem is a dispute between trustees. A lot of the commission’s time can be eaten up by disputes between trustees over quite small matters. The Law Commission was trying to remove that or force trustees, on these modest matters, to arrive at a decision on their own and take responsibility in the way they are required to and not, therefore, to allow an ongoing battle.

My fear is that if this appeal process is brought in, it would lend itself to those trustees who will never ever give up. That is why I caution against the amendment. I understand the intention behind it and it is of course well-intentioned, but it brings with it a burden that it might not have meant to. I counsel against it.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for tabling Amendment 7, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for moving it, and those who raised this issue in the written and oral evidence that the Committee heard. By way of background, new Section 280A will create a new power for unincorporated charities to amend any provision in their governing documents. This brings the amendment powers available for unincorporated charities more in line with those for incorporated charities, supporting the Bill’s policy to create greater consistency for different legal forms of charities. In a similar vein, charitable incorporated organisations and charitable companies both have the right to appeal a decision by the Charity Commission to give or withhold consent to a request to make a regulated alteration to their governing documents.