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Viscount Astor: The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, was kind enough to mention my amendment which comes later in the Bill and to which the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, attaches his name. It covers a similar area--conditional access--but my amendment is narrowly focused and only covers conditional access on analogue systems whereas the amendments we are debating cover digital and its future technology. It is probably convenient therefore to keep discussion for my amendment until it arises later.

In support of both noble Lords who have spoken, I would agree that conditional access is crucial if we are to have fair competition in the industry. At the moment we have a system whereby those who control the gateway to the system can disbar anybody, though they generally do not do so. There are usually no reasons for doing so, but we do not know what may happen in the future and there must be a robust system in place for dealing with that situation.

The Government came forward with the announcement that Oftel will be the regulator. Oftel is the right body in that regard and I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will be able to assure the noble Lords, Lord Thomson and Lord Donoughue, that the Government take the matter seriously and that they will be robust in the conditions that they place on future licensees of digital services.

Lord Howell: This is a continuation of a discussion we had on Tuesday in relation to Amendment No. 1, in the sense that we are now looking to the future and what it may hold for us all. I repeat that I have an interest as a director of Birmingham Cable and Wembley Stadium, both of which will be interested in future digital developments. The cable industry, which has been an enormous success in this country, will have invested £12 billion by the year 2000, providing 25,000 jobs.

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I remind the Committee of what the Department of Trade and industry said in its consultation document, which I put forward as embracing the views of all three Members who have spoken in this matter. It states,


    "An obligation to provide services to all relevant broadcasters, all multiplex operators who request them and a prohibition of undue preference or discrimination is what they seek. In this context the relevant broadcaster would be one otherwise having access to the delivery system, multiplex or network involved".
I am sure that we all endorse those sentiments.

When we think of the future and the "decoders", as I call them, we must recognise the fact that at the moment they are all owned by News International. That becomes a central question when we envisage that sporting bodies, owners of stadiums and cable companies will wish to produce pay-per-view programmes. Can the Government give us an assurance that, even though News International has access to all those decoders, other organisations will not be precluded in that regard. I am not suggesting that the policy would be to prevent proper access being made available on reasonable terms, but I take it that the purpose of these amendments is to underline the importance of that possibility. On Tuesday I gave the illustration of the Cup Final, which is one of the listed events, and the Test matches. The Test and County Cricket Board has been persistent in its representation to us. Certainly the Rugby League Cup Final, which is not one of the listed events, has strong views about the position the Committee took on Tuesday.

In all those cases, and possibly the Derby and the Grand National as well, I can see in the future that if it were possible to provide pay television to the football organisations and the cricket and horseracing authorities, at a reasonable price--not a prohibitive price--that may be the way forward. That may be a point where the Government, the Opposition and sporting bodies may find a degree of concurrence in their thinking for the future.

I can envisage that the people we were trying to protect on Tuesday--the elderly and the more impoverished--may well be able to find £10 to watch the Cup Final or a Test match, where they cannot afford £300 to take in Sky, as was envisaged. That is an important consideration and one which I have no doubt we shall be exploring together in the later stages of this Bill. There is a reasonable argument that can be put forward for that. As I say to my sporting friends, if millions of people wanted to watch the Rugby League Cup Final, which presented this argument to me rather forcefully, and were happy to pay a reasonable price of admission such as when one goes to Wembley Stadium, the income for Rugby League would be considerably more than it is likely to obtain under the arrangements we were discussing on Tuesday and were so disapproving of.

While I favour the views put forward by my two noble friends sitting on these Benches as to who should be the regulatory authority, I do not feel that that is a matter for which one should go to the stake if the view of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, should prevail. It is important that we obtain from the Government today an undertaking that, whichever route we go down,

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particularly when we come to digital, the ownership of the decoders will not use them to prevent the cable companies, the sports bodies or any such organisation which wants to put out programmes on pay television when the digital opportunities become available, from doing so by making unreasonable demands. If the Minister will give us such an assurance, it will make us happy and content.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: Perhaps I may make a brief contribution to this debate. My noble friend is right to emphasise the importance of sport. But I am sure that he will agree that the anxiety in relation to these amendments goes wider than sport. If an operator controlling the gateway is able to exclude more than just some sports, but the whole of public service broadcasting, that is a matter of concern to the whole nation.

In so far as some operators may be tempted to squeeze out the competition, it is imperative that one of these routes should be taken. The Minister and the Government should be willing to be sympathetic to the amendments. They are in line with competition. If any operator is able to squeeze out the opposition--public service broadcasters or others--by definition competition is reduced and that will be against the Government's principles. I hope therefore that the Minister will look sympathetically at the amendments.

4 p.m.

Lord Desai: I rise briefly to support the amendment. Some noble Lords will recall that on Tuesday I put down Amendment No. 29 which covered similar territory. When I discovered Amendment No. 187 I withdrew my amendment, not realising that Amendment No. 66 also covered similar territory. These are all rather confusing and technical matters so we are learning quite fast.

The principle that there should be a single box to which all the transmitters can have access is the correct one. It is technologically feasible. If one had that box the viewers of BBC, Channel 4, ITV and so on could use a telephone and then be charged appropriately for watching whichever programme they chose. Such technology is not only possible but has already been implemented in Germany. It has decided to have a single consortium to provide such a service. That is the right way to go forward.

This will not hinder competition because competition should be about the services being provided and not about the access technology that is necessary. We do not want to have different boxes for different transmitters. It would be much better to have a single access technology and then have competition confined to service provision.

Lord Chalfont: I intervene briefly to support the suggestion that the ITC is the logical regulator in this case rather than the DTI. As two noble Lords have already said, this is not a matter to go to the stake for. It is not an issue that bring crowds into the streets. But it is worth mentioning that we already have a proliferation of regulators in the broadcasting industry.

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As I have said before, and as I will go on saying until someone listens to me, what we really need is a single overarching regulator to regulate the whole of this extremely complicated and important industry. However, while we do not have that, it seems to me that the case for regulation has been forcefully made by the noble Lords, Lord Thomson and Lord Donoughue.

As to the identity of the regulator, the ITC was set up in 1990 precisely to perform this kind of function. It is equipped to do it and, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, has said, it is by now, six years on, practised in dealing with other regulators and ensuring that broadcasters are not subject to double jeopardy. I would say without any great passion or conviction that if there is a choice to be made between the DTI and the ITC, it is probably the ITC that should be chosen logically as the regulator in this case.

Lord Donoughue: With the permission of the Committee, I should like to intervene again to follow up the points made by my noble friends behind me and to make a point I meant to make earlier but did not. The danger in the monopoly control of the box is particularly acute when the controller of the mechanical system is also a provider of programmes, as is currently the case in analogue. If the provider of the conditional access system is just a technological service with no other interests, there is very little danger. But when, as at present, the controller of Sky also controls the gateway, there is a serious potential danger. Then there is the danger of an incentive to the controller of the gateway to discriminate against the programme competition. That discrimination could take a number of forms. We do not want to be in the position where the provider of some services from satellite can control the access of competing programmes. That is the present position. I believe that some of the cable companies are already being a little squeezed.


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