Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Inglewood: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, for in his customary manner arguing so forcefully the interests of the disabled. It goes without saying that we warmly welcome the Disability Discrimination Act. I am aware that the provisions of the Act, and in particular Section 21, will apply to broadcasters just as they apply to other service providers.

However, I must confess that I see little that would be gained from writing these provisions into the current Bill or into the licence conditions of the ITC's licensees since by definition they apply already to those licence holders. As a general rule, using two statutes where one will do, would seem to be something worth avoiding. I hope that having replied to the matter in the Chamber I have made clear the position and have underscored the rules as they apply to broadcasters. In view of that explanation I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: The Minister will know that deaf, hard of hearing and blind people were anxious for the matter to be raised. The Minister is regarded as one

6 Feb 1996 : Column 174

of the most co-operative in the House and in view of what he said I happily beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Lord Donoughue moved Amendment No. 16:


After Clause 4, insert the following new clause--

Director General of Fair Trading

(".--(1) In exercising any of his powers or duties under this Part the Director General of Fair Trading shall in particular take into consideration whether any situation operates, or may be expected to operate, against the public interest.
(2) In determining for any purposes to which this section applies whether any particular situation operates, or may be expected to operate, against the public interest, the Director of Fair Trading shall take into account all matters which appear to him in the particular circumstances to be relevant.").

The noble Lord said: The new clause is not easy to read but it has great relevance to the issue and is made more prescient by today's developments. It is clear that the Director General of Fair Trading is very important in the regulation of the whole industry in order to ensure, first, that there are no improper practices and, secondly, in order to maintain that the public interest is always secured. That is the intention of the new clause because we are advised that it is not properly secured in the Bill at present.

I do not imagine that it is the Government's intention that the public interest should not be taken fully into account but that is the view of legal advisers and others even closer to the regulatory activities. Therefore, we are trying to help the Government. If they see a way of drafting the provision more helpfully we would be receptive to that.

In order to ensure that the Director General of Fair Trading is legally obliged to consider the public interest in exercising his powers and duties under the proposed legislation it is essential that that should be an express, mandatory, specific requirement of the Bill. That is not to say that the director general will not take into account the public interest. Even without such an express requirement he might decide to do so. Indeed, if the matter went to court it might be construed that it was his duty to do so and was implied.

However, we are advised and believe that it would be helpful to the regulatory authority if the Bill contained an express requirement. All uncertainty would be avoided by making it clear in the Bill that there was a legal obligation on the director general to consider the public interest when exercising his statutory powers and duties.

Requiring him to do that does not mean that he will ignore other relevant considerations. The public interest is only one consideration. Nor does the proposal mean that the public interest will override other considerations. However, as a result of discussions within the industry we are all aware that broadcasting is not an ordinary trading commodity such as hogs or potatoes; it is a special area in which society has a great interest because of the cultural and political significance of broadcasting. Therefore, there is always a public interest and one which might be

6 Feb 1996 : Column 175

ignored or betrayed if matters were left only to the market. The market does not have to take into account public interest. We believe that it is not the view of the whole Committee that market forces alone should be involved but that the public interest should be taken into account. We are advised that it is most desirable that there should be an obligation on the director general to take into account the public interest. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. The changes that the Bill presupposes in the broadcasting world, the multi-channel world of digital technology, and the changes in ownership which are also contained in the Bill have created a situation in which the public interest as regards those issues will be significant. At a later stage in Committee I shall seek to move amendments relating to media ownership but I prefer not to lay down percentage rules that are too rigid and to keep as free as possible the circumstances in which the market place can operate. I believe that we should apply to that a rigid test as regards where the public interest lies. In such circumstances, it would frequently fall to the Director General of Fair Trading in the first instance to express a judgment about where the public interest lies. Therefore, it is important to have a description of his duty in the Bill. I do not know whether the wording of the proposed new clause will command the Minister's support but the purpose behind it is important. I am happy to give strong support to the amendment.

Lord Inglewood: I am extremely grateful to noble Lords for explaining their support for the amendment. It is obviously the case that as regards broadcasting the Director General of Fair Trading has no specific duties under the Broadcasting Act. While there might be disagreement about the nuances, there is clear agreement across the Committee that we must deal with this part of the economy in a manner different from the way in which we deal with hogs and potatoes. The Government's approach is that the specific separate controls on broadcasting, the media and so forth, if and when needed, should be policed by the ITC and the Radio Authority and not by the Director General of Fair Trading.

We would be happy to consider any specific proposals supported by argument as to why that might be appropriate. I say that not necessarily holding out hope that the Government might be persuaded that this is a direction in which they wish to move but in order to investigate fully whether there are those who feel that this is a constructive contribution to the way in which the Bill might go. We would like to look at the matter in order to form our own view of the merits of the proposal. It is fortunate for the noble Lord, Lord

6 Feb 1996 : Column 176

Donoughue, that we have a consultation process under way and we shall be delighted to hear about the particulars of his case.

Lord Donoughue: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am intrigued to know that one more difficult and technical area of consultation is added to the 132 that have already been taken on board for the next two weeks. I should be grateful if he would pursue the matter. I shall be as helpful as possible and provide him with background material. I think that the provision would be welcome in proper quarters. If the Minister comes back with a proposal at the next stage we will look upon it most positively. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 17:


Before Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

Duty of appropriate regulatory authority when awarding licence

(".--(1) It shall be the duty of the appropriate regulatory authority when licensing any person or body to operate a conditional access system, network, local delivery service or other service for analogue or digital broadcasting services receivable in the United Kingdom, to ensure that--
(a) there is fair and effective competition in the provision of such services and the access services connected with them, and
(b) viewers and listeners are provided with automatic access to free to air channels and services whether or not those channels and services are broadcast free to air or encrypted.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 18. The future of British broadcasting will be dependent upon the continuing health of Britain's network channels. Network programmes will continue to provide the foundation for Britain's television production industry with the consequent impact for employment and, indeed, for overseas earnings. It will also continue to provide the foundation for audiences continuing to have access to a wide range of high quality output and British programmes being shown on secondary channels. More important, however, is the maintenance of the worldwide reputation of British broadcasting.

The survival of network television in Britain is dependent upon its services being available to a truly nationwide audience. However, in the digital age, programmes and other audiovisual services will increasingly be distributed through a variety of systems. People can now choose whether to buy into the available cable networks. Industry predictions indicate that as many as 30 per cent. of homes will use cable systems to receive television services by the year 2000. In addition, as the use of our telephone system opens up the option of having television pictures down copper wires, more and more viewers will choose to leave the old rooftop aerials and set-top aerials and opt solely for cable and telephony means. Those are healthy developments. We are not trying to push them back. Genuine choice is making many more services available to more viewers. Often the quality of reception is better. We welcome those opportunities. But unless action as

6 Feb 1996 : Column 177

outlined in the amendment is taken, both the availability and the future of existing public service channels will come under threat. The erosion of their universality would undermine the basis of the BBC's funding through a universal licence fee and the public service obligations already imposed on ITV and Channel 4.

The issue has been addressed in other countries. The mainstream broadcasters regret that the Broadcasting Bill is silent on the topic. They believe that action should be taken in the UK to ensure that British audiences continue to have universal access to public service channels in the digital age. The proposed amendments reflect a number of important measures. The so-called "must carry" and "must offer" requirements are the ones to which I am talking. They would ensure that access is maintained. The "must carry" measure would apply to public service channels and services on wired systems, and "must offer" would guarantee access to public service channels through gateways such as conditional access--black boxes--on satellite systems.

An interesting situation has arisen for users of cable services in south-east London. Many households have opted to use the cable services provided by Videotron. The area is directly in the shadow of the Crystal Palace transmitter. But local hills mean that the TV pictures received in homes with roof aerials have been of poor quality for many years. Shadowy pictures and poor reception have driven hundreds of homes to choose Videotron in order to obtain good pictures. Up to December 1995, buttons 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the hand control unit enabled people to receive BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4, but, in January, Videotron chose to take Channel 4 off the fourth button and move access to it from within the cable system alone.

Viewers in south London must now find button 40 in order to get Channel 4. Nothing has replaced Channel 4 other than a blank Videotron display card stating that the station is no longer available. That exemplifies the issue. The lack of legal requirements on cable or any other providers to give the mainstream channels priority means that they could drop BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 at will and move around access to those channels with no regard to the problems that might be caused for viewers.

Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 seek to put right a situation which needs clarity and regulation. If the public are obliged to pay a licence fee to receive television pictures, they must have access to those pictures with ease. On Second Reading I alluded to the BBC Charter which obliges the BBC to carry government information at times of war or in a national emergency. That requirement is obvious, necessary and makes sound common sense. If we are to be consistent to that requirement in the charter, then all delivery systems should be obliged to carry and offer mainstream services. The amendments protect the healthy availability of the four terrestrial channels. I urge the

6 Feb 1996 : Column 178

Government to accept the principle and the detail of the amendments and to incorporate them in the Bill. I beg to move.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page