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Lord Inglewood: The point that the noble Lord makes falls into two parts. The first is related to

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economic theory. In respect of that, I hope that he will look carefully at the remarks I made earlier when I was explaining the macroeconomic framework within which we believe the digital terrestrial revolution--that is what it is--will proceed. In particular, perhaps he will look at that part of it which relates to the criteria by which the multiplex licences are to be assessed and the actions that the applicants are meant to take to secure their licences.

The second point which the noble Lord made is different. It is a problem which always faces society: as long as something costs something, there is a possibility that someone who has less money than the item costs will be unable to afford it.

The right way to deal with the problem identified in the second part of the noble Lord's remarks is to study it in that context rather than in the context of establishing digital terrestrial television. I hope that those remarks are helpful.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I am grateful to the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 26 not moved.]

9 p.m.

Lord Donoughue moved Amendment No. 27:


Page 7, line 29, leave out from ("broadcast") to ("areas") in line 30 and insert ("as to the quality of those services, as to the range and content of those services, and as to the regional").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 31, 32, 35, 37, 41, 43, 48 and 53. Amendment No. 27 deals with the issuing of multiplex licences. It provides that the ITC shall have power to ascertain the applicant's proposals as to the quality of its planned services. The subsequent amendments deal with the wish to insert a quality criterion.

A number of criteria are set out, including range and variety, mainly in terms of investment and technology availability. We are most concerned that quality should exist as a criterion. It appeared in the 1990 Act, which provided for a quality threshold. Viewers will expect high quality from digital television as they do from analogue. British television viewers have been blessed with television of the highest quality and they will expect that to continue. However, the Bill does not provide that the new digital services must meet the quality criterion. In our amendment to Clause 8 we require quality in some but not all services. We accept that at the beginning it would be too onerous to expect that in all services.

I can see that, from the Government's point of view, there is a question of balance. One needs flexibility and not too onerous requirements in order to get the whole revolution off the ground. When that happens we want the broadcasts to be of quality. I believe that the difference between the Government and myself is how one adjusts that balance. The Government's inclination is to dilute the quality requirement in the hope that that will encourage and make it easier for digital to get off

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the ground. We do not want digital television without quality and, furthermore, we do not believe that it will get off the ground without quality.

We are seeking to introduce quality. We believe that the ITC would welcome the requirement that it should seek quality. That would ensure the high quality of the future services, which is what we are pursuing. Can the Minister give the Committee any comfort in that respect or is he saying that provided the new digital service can meet various technological requirements the quality does not matter? We would not be happy with that.

Viscount Astor: The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, says that the amendment is about quality. Having looked at the amendments in the group I believe that it is about much more than quality. Indeed, it introduces new aspects into the digital service. Amendment No. 31 provides for,


    "high quality, new and original".
How are we to define what is new and what is original? I believe that if digital is to get off the ground we must not have too many thresholds because that will mean that we never have the service. How is the ITC or any other body to judge the originality of a programme? Amendment No. 48 provides for,


    "of high quality...new and original...made within the area for which the programmes are to be provided".
That is a most stringent threshold but the most bizarre requirement is the next, which is,


    "calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests".
What on earth does that mean? How does one define what is calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests?

We must be clear about the fact that the new channels, whether cable or satellite, have not been able to compete with existing mainstream channels. They have been able to enter new markets dedicated to films and so forth. We all want quality as such, and I believe that one can argue that some of the present satellite channels are of a high quality. However, in the end it is for the viewers to decide, and the purpose of the digital service is that we have choice. The proposal would give the ITC a role which goes further than we have ever considered in broadcasting. When there was a limited number of broadcasters it was possible to say to Channel 4, for example, that such and such was its remit. However, the digital service involves lots of channels and lots of people out there. I believe that the provision is so prescriptive that it will put people off.

Lord Donoughue: Perhaps I may answer the point raised by the noble Viscount. It is true that a number of requirements are made. We might have chosen to take each one separately and debated it at some length. I am not sure how popular that would have been with the Government Front Bench. We believed that at this stage, when we are probing the whole issue, it would be helpful to the Committee in progressing the Bill to put together a group of related matters. They are aspects related to quality, including new and original, even regional.

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Secondly, in relation to ITV, the ITC already applies a number of criteria; indeed, it has quite strict requirements put upon it as does the BBC. We do not believe that it is appropriate that the digital sector should have significantly less requirements placed upon it. However, as I said, it is basically a probing amendment. We look forward to hearing from the Minister with any comfort that he may be able to give us on the matter.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: We are discussing a most important, sensitive and subjective area. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is right to say that one can be too prescriptive in terms of new developments. However, I was rather surprised to note that, as a former Minister of broadcasting in this Chamber, the noble Viscount was astonished by the proposed wording in Amendment No. 48 which refers to the necessity of catering for a wide diversity of "tastes and interests". He said that that was an astonishing definition and that it would be impossible to achieve it. However, I believe that I am right in saying that they are the immortal words of the BBC Charter and of successive broadcasting Acts. Indeed, that requirement has been the duty of broadcasting authorities over the years.

What concerns me in the matter is that, with all the new channels, new problems will develop and one accepts that there will be difficulties. Indeed, there is no doubt about how far one can go. However, if we look back to the proceedings on the Broadcasting Bill 1990, it will be remembered that many of us feared the absolutely damaging process that the Government of the day imposed of bidding for television franchises. That created the great danger of lowering standards in quite a dramatic way. Partly as a result of the campaign which was launched during the Committee stages of that Bill and partly because of the way that the ITC then interpreted the legislation we finally emerged with the quality threshold that was laid down.

Although, in my view, standards in ITV have dropped compared to what they were in the days when I was chairman of the IBA--but then I would say that-- I believe that the ITC performed a great service in imposing in quite a severe way the quality threshold that mitigated what might have been the totally damaging effect of simply giving a franchise to the highest bidder. I draw from that experience the lesson that, in the face of new technology, one has to do one's best in terms of legislation. It is the Government's responsibility to try to get the framework right and to get what might be called the countervailing forces in operation.

I return to an earlier debate this evening when the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, talked about a rather different subject in which I was most interested; namely, guaranteeing the access of public service channels on cable. The noble Baroness is, if I may say so in her absence, a very distinguished free-marketeer. I was most impressed that, as a free-marketeer, she seemed to be singularly unimpressed by the Minister's assurance that all was well because it could all be left to the market and that it would be in the great interests of the cable operators to provide full access to those channels. However, that clearly was not happening on Sydenham Hill.

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It is very difficult to know where to draw the line. However, the lesson to be learnt is that the Government have a very high responsibility to try to get the ITC of the future (which will have to deal with all these new developments) empowered on the face of the Bill with some sort of strength so as to ensure that quality standards are sustained in the face of what will be very contrary market forces. Getting the balance right is important. It is also most important to give the public authority the necessary resources and legal powers so that it can try to get the balance right.


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