Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but he may not be aware that he has made only half the point. The other side of his argument is that many people in Wales—the number is estimated to be between 20 and 30 per cent.—cannot get Welsh signals because their antenna is oriented towards the transmitters in England. That is one of the problems of terrestrial broadcasting. The hon. Gentleman foresees the coming of digital television, but again a problem arises in Wales, because of the topography of the country—getting digital television to work in a distinct way that does not impinge on other relay stations. That is a technological problem, in addition to the cultural one mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Michael Fabricant: Yes, and now would be an opportune moment to pay tribute to the BBC, particularly the transmission department, which was based in Warwick and now operates as a separate company. It tried to overcome the difficult problem of the topography of Wales, and the coverage there is

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now nearly 96 per cent. of the population, albeit, as the hon. Gentleman said, not always in Welsh because of the direction in which antennas point.

Nevertheless, the content of Welsh radio and television programming is an issue. It could be argued that internet content is also an issue, because, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East rightly said, it comes under the Bill's ambit. Should the question of Welsh or English programming, or both, being receivable in Wales also come under the ambit of this paving Bill?

The hon. Member for Ceredigion talked about Radio Ceredigion and its change in ownership; I may be wrong, but I think that similar discussions are taking place for Radio Maldwyn. He rightly said that that is often a problem with radio stations that are funded by the community, not just in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and Australia. If a case goes before Ofcom, it must have members with expertise who understand the particular problems encountered by regional and little local radio stations in Scotland and Wales. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that because he holds a particular interest—he represents Pontypridd—

Dr. Howells: Oh yes, so I do.

Michael Fabricant: He is a Welsh speaker—

Dr. Howells indicated dissent.

Michael Fabricant: He is not a Welsh speaker. I therefore suspect that he will oppose the amendment. We must ask ourselves whether he is not only an Anglophone, but an Anglophile. The people of Wales will want to know. Before I get too carried away, I give way to the Anglophonic hon. Member for Rhondda.

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Mr. Bryant: I am almost sad to intrude on such wild divergences. Surely, Ofcom should have a full understanding of the needs of every part of the United Kingdom including rural Wales, the Welsh valleys and the islands of Scotland. On previous amendments, the hon. Member for Ceredigion said that he would not talk about representatives, but these amendments all refer to them. They almost refer to indirectly elected representatives. Why should there be representatives when we are not talking about a representative body? The board will not be a council of all those involved in broadcasting, so I presume that the hon. Member for Lichfield will not support the amendment.

Michael Fabricant: The short answer is no. My answer to the hon. Gentleman is what I was about to say to the Minister. The Minister will probably answer these questions by saying that there will be officers of Ofcom who will understand the peculiar circumstances of rural Wales and parts of Scotland. However, officers will sometimes have to make recommendations to the main board of Ofcom, so it is therefore important—particularly in Wales—that people on that board understand the circumstances when recommendations are made to them.

I will support the group of amendments because I agree with the general principle. There needs to be a broader range of interests on the main board, although it should not be so large as to become unwieldy. Particular problems exist in areas such as Scotland and Wales because of their rural nature. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, only 20 per cent. of the population of Wales has access to the internet. He said that nationally the figure was 30 per cent., but I think that he is wrong and that it is closer to 60 per cent. We and, indeed, the Government should be proud that Britain has a higher penetration—

        It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Widdecombe, Miss Ann (Chairman)
Allan, Mr.
Bryant, Mr.
Fabricant, Mr.
Farrelly, Mr.
Grogan, Mr.
Howells, Dr.
Jackson, Glenda
Kemp, Mr.

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Linton, Martin
McIntosh, Miss
Miller, Mr.
Pearson, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Thomas, Mr. Simon
Watkinson, Angela
White, Brian

 
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Prepared 24 January 2002