Roger Darlington Roger Darlington, member of the Communications Consumer Panel and author of the blog CommsWatch laments the little progress made in the 14 months since the launch of the Comms Review.

Over a year ago now, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) launched a Communications Review – a wide-ranging examination of Government policy in an area central to the Ministry’s role and a key sector for growth in the British economy. Almost 14 months later, where are we? The disappointing truth is that we are very little further forwatd.

On 16 May 2011, DCMS Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt launched the review, which is intended to lead to a new Communications Act by 2015, with an open letter which was very short and very open-ended. The letter posed 13 questions and invited submissions of no more than four or five pages by 30 June 2011 – a tough task and a tight timetable. On 7 December 2011, the Department finally published the 168 non-confidential submissions to the review. One of those submissions was my own on the regulation  of convergence.

At the time the open letter was published, we were promised a Green Paper by the end of 2011. It did not appear – but it was drafted and circulated around Whitehall. Month after month, publication was rumoured to be imminent. Then, a couple of months ago, we learned that there would be no Green Paper after all, but instead the summer would be used to hold five seminars and this week I attended the first of these events which was held at the DCMS itself.

I’ve been tracking this important review regularly here on CommsWatch and this is in fact my 50th posting on the subject. So, how did the first seminar go?

The title was “The Consumer Perspective” and you will find the agenda here and the 15-page background paper here. The event was chaired by Bob Warner, Chair of the Communications Consumer Panel (on which I have sat since its creation  eight and a half years ago). Some 85 individuals were listed as attendees. However, I was surprised at how few consumer representatives as such were present with Claire Milne, Chair of the Consumer Forum on Communications, particularly endeavouring to put the consumer case from the floor.

The event was opened by DCMS Minister Ed Vaizey who spoke very briefly and said very little. He mentioned the open letter but avoided totally any reference to the one-time Green Paper. This low key introduction seemed to set the tone for an event which felt remarkably sluggish given the importance of the issues and the knowledge in the room.

The introductory overview was given by Chris Taylor, Head of Consumer Policy at Ofcom. As he himself admitted, the data in his slides was necessarily historic, but the Comms Review is supposed to be setting a legislative framework for the next decade or so. Ofcom did not make a submission on the open letter and clearly feels inhibited in engaging on the detail of the review in case it is charged with making policy which is, of course, a matter for Ministers. But Ofcom can and should play a more active role in the process, especially given the diminishing resource available in the DCMS.

At the coffee break, a couple of people left, feeling that the seminar was not really taking us forward.

There was then a panel session with four speakers given five minutes each: Victoria Gaskell, a partner at Olswang; Steve Forde, Head of Viewer Relationship at Channel Four; Adam Sharples, Director of Policy at Which?; and Michael Payne, Executive Director Digital Entertainment at Virgin Media. Some of this material was too focused on one organisation and the current time period. More of the presentations needed to be addressed to the future and the role of public policymaking.

As will be the case with all five seminars, the whole event was filmed and this film and a transcript will be posted on the DCMS Comms Review site here.

At the end of the three-hour seminar, DCMS official Fiona Murray outlined the topics relating to this particular seminar on which the Department is seeking views: switching/porting/slamming, unwanted calls, texts and spam, e-privacy, Net neutrality/Open Internet, data protection, micro payments, accessibility issues, and the proposed Consumer Bill of Rights. As with all submissions relating to all the seminars, the closing date is 14 September 2012.

My growing frustration at the tone and content of the seminar expressed itself when, as the final comment from the floor, I critiqued the whole process of the review. I explained that stakeholders found the Hunt open letter so open that they were looking to the Green Paper to narrow down the issues to where the Government might wish to develop policy and/or propose legislation. Instead we have had no Green Paper and these seminars are raising a whole host of of issues, many of which was current and immediate rather than future and evolving, most of which are already being addressed by various regulatory bodies or stakeholder groups.

I lamented the lack of concentration on a limited number of major themes where the Government was prepared to act either through policy or legislation and very briefly suggested four big topics that need addressing for a forward-looking communications policy:

  1. The need to ensure that the maximum number of citizens are online and using online services with confidence, when a quarter of all homes in the UK is still not on the Net and the Government is moving to a ‘digital by default’ appoach
  2. The need to provide ubiquitous access to super-fast broadband when it is clear that the Governmetn’s objective to have the best broadband in Europe by 2015 is faltering with the Broadband UK programme seriously lacking
  3. The need to find a new framework for the collection, use and protection of personal data in the era when an individual’s use of communications networks can be tracked and used in so many ways
  4. The need to think of a new regulatory framework for content when the world of broadcasting, which is so heavily regulated, collides with the world of the Internet, which is virtually unregulated, with consumers accessing multiple sources of content on multiple devices

After the seminar concluded, so many people came up to me to say that they agreed with my critique of the Comms Review process. One participant from industry e-mailed me afterwards to state: “Can I thank you for perhaps the only useful contribution to today’s session.” I think that this overstates my contribution and rather undervalues some aspects of some of the other contributions, but it captures the sense of unease among many stakeholders that DCMS Ministers have largely wasted a year in the review so far and are still utterly unfocused about what they want as effective outcomes from the review.

Future seminars need to concentrate as much as possible  on topics where Government is willing act in policy or legislative terms and some way has to be found of engaging stakeholders in more detailed and deliberative discussions between the end of the seminars and the publication of the White Paper. And, finality, Ministers do not have to wait for a new Bill in 2015; there is much that they can be doing now to promote the UK communications sector.

This post originally appeared on CommsWatch on July 5, 2012.

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