Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness O'Cathain: Exactly.

Lord Inglewood: We intend to ensure that that does not happen. However, we are not clear at this stage that the matter requires further specific regulation beyond the provisions of the Bill as drafted and of existing European and domestic competition law.

A corpus of European law directly relevant to the issue has evolved with respect to computer systems supplied by airlines and used by travel agents to select flights. That has established that the criteria used for ranking service offerings on a display screen should not depend directly or indirectly on the identity of the operator and the supplier of the software; in other words, the airline. Thus it is anti-competitive always to show the airline which built the system first in response to every inquiry. That is exactly the kind of issue raised by electronic programme guides.

As I have already explained in debating earlier amendments, the Office of Fair Trading also has extensive and effective powers under general competition law. Further--and this is an important point--a digital EPG would, under the Bill as drafted, require an additional services licence. Thus the ITC would have the means to regulate EPGs should that prove necessary.

Of course, I can assure Members of the Committee that the Government will keep the question under close review, as the use of EPGs begins to develop. Indeed, we have recently issued proposals for the regulation of conditional access systems--to which I have referred--which are closely linked with EPGs, and will wish to consider the responses to those proposals. Should it become clear that more is required, we will look at how to include an appropriate response within the regulatory framework.

As I said in Committee on Tuesday, the Government are in agreement with my noble friend and other noble Lords in that we want to see that the public service channels continue to be available to all. As I have explained previously, I think that they will have an important role to play in generating demand for new programming services and that consequently cable and satellite companies will wish to carry them. For the same reasons, the public service broadcasters will have a strong negotiating position with regard to the presence of their services on EPGs. However, to mandate that

8 Feb 1996 : Column 361

such carriage should always be on the first page might be interpreted as contrary to the principles established by the European provisions, which I mentioned in connection with airline reservation systems.

That takes us back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Chelmsford. In those circumstances, I hope that my noble friend and other Members of the Committee will agree that it would, perhaps, be more appropriate to allow the channels to negotiate their own arrangements for presence on electronic programme guides, subject always to the provisions of competition and broadcasting law. I see that my noble friend wishes to intervene. I give way.

Baroness O'Cathain: I am much obliged. I should like to question my noble friend the Minister as regards relating the reservation systems for airlines to the electronic programme guide. The nub of my problem with EPGs is the fact that we are concerned with public service broadcasting. Perhaps I may repeat what I said in Committee on Tuesday:


    "The BBC Charter ... obliges the BBC to carry government information at times of war or in a national emergency. That requirement is obvious, necessary and makes sound commonsense. 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".--[Official Report, 6/2/96; col. 177.]
I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that it is slightly different to compare that requirement to a schedule for airline travel which is really not a national public service broadcasting-type requirement, if I make myself clear. For example, if there are flights, say, between Brussels and Rome, and if the system is actually owned or run by Sabena, I can understand why it should not, under European legislation, put its flights on screen first simply because such flights operate from Brussels. Indeed, it should also display British Airways or Alitalia flights if such flights operate.

However, we are talking about national responsibility. There is no national responsibility for any airline to carry passengers from A to B; but there is such a responsibility on our public service broadcasters actually to be there and to give information to the public at times of national emergency. That is my real concern. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister could comment on that particular issue. I really do not think that we are comparing like with like on this occasion.

Lord Inglewood: I am most grateful to my noble friend for explaining her concern in more depth. I believe that there are two slightly separate points at issue. First, there are other public services broadcasters in this country apart from the state-funded service. Secondly, if my noble friend is concerned about the dissemination of information in emergencies, I am not convinced that the avenue down which she proposes to go in the context of EPGs will necessarily take her to the destination that she desires.

However, I should like further to consider the wider point raised by my noble friend; namely, that we are talking about a medium which transmits information. Perhaps we should think about it in that way. The question of national emergencies does not arise in the present context. Public service broadcasters, and others,

8 Feb 1996 : Column 362

will be required under other provisions in the Bill to make their capacity available in such circumstances. I had hoped to be able to say that at the beginning of my response, but I did not have chapter and verse before me.

We have had a certain amount of debate about the reception problems in the Crystal Palace area. Since we began proceedings today, I have received some information on the subject. It will take a minute or two to outline it to the Committee, but it indicates the type of problems with which we are faced.

Videotron supplies television services in the area around the Crystal Palace transmitter. Customers who opt for a full cable television service receive signals through a special set-top box with its own handset and with access to all the cable channels offered. They include the four terrestrial channels, which are in fact carried twice. One set of the terrestrial channels can be tuned to the handset which comes with the television, so they appear on buttons one to four of the television handset. The other set of those channels is tuned to buttons on the handset which comes with the set-top box; that is, the cable handset. Therefore, the customer can switch between the four terrestrial channels using his TV handset or the cable handset.

It is indeed extremely complicated. I can see that I am losing the attention and patience of Members of the Committee. However, in summary--and I hope that I have understood it correctly myself--there has been a re-tuning of the response that the person who is holding the handset gets from pressing particular buttons. If I have understood the position alright, the re-tuning means that, if you slightly re-tune the handset, you will actually achieve the state of affairs sought by my noble friend. Information was distributed by the cable company explaining how that should be done. A considerable number of complaints were received, so the previous arrangement was reinstated. An additional publicity drive was mounted to explain what was proposed, and the change that was originally withdrawn has now been reinstated.

However, I imagine that there are still a few people who are in a muddle about it. That is the kind of difficulty that we face both when dealing with the nuts and bolts of the electronic age and when trying to legislate to ensure that consumers receive a system which they can find their way round.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I wonder whether the Minister is aware that I am actually on the verge of taking a decision on whether or not I should sign up with Videotron. I am bound to say that I am not wholly clear as regards whether his response encourages or discourages me.

Lord Inglewood: I should be willing to let the noble Lord have sight of the document. Of course, I am in no position to be for or against Videotron in the matter.

Baroness O'Cathain: I should like, first, to thank all Members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate and who supported the amendment. We have indeed had a most interesting discussion and I am

8 Feb 1996 : Column 363

especially grateful to my noble friend the Minister. However, on the last point regarding Videotron, I have to say that, if I were one of its subscribers living in the lee of Crystal Palace and I received such an explanation, I would probably give up television viewing altogether and go back to reading books.

However, if I could take my noble friend the Minister outside and show him a video on how complicated the operation of Videotron in Crystal Palace is, I should be delighted to do so--

Lord Inglewood: For Lord Thomson as well!

Baroness O'Cathain: Yes, indeed.

I realise that I have not really got my point across. I can see the problems about which we have had a graphic description. I should especially like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for the rather chilling picture that he painted. If we are to have 200 television channels, someone trying to locate, say, BBC 1 for a particular programme and having to scroll through 167 programmes or whatever, might well give up. There is probably a great future for this process. If this amendment, or some variation on it, is not accepted by the Government, there will probably be a great switch from television to radio. Perhaps that is not a bad thing.

However, as the Minister has said, this topic is important. I can see that much additional explanation will have to be given on the matter, and there will have to be additional research into the various possibilities. I warn the Minister that I shall return to this matter on Report, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 [Promotion of equal opportunities]:

5 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde moved Amendment No. 71:


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page