Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I feared earlier that I would be unable to persuade my noble friend the Minister this afternoon. I listened with great care to what he said. I also listened with care to what others have said and I am very grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, Lord Donoughue and Lord Chalfont. There is support for this amendment from all around the House and I hope that my noble friend recognises that fact.

A couple of points were raised by my noble friend Lord Caldecote who asked why a review was needed if these things were not happening. The simple answer is that there is a review taking place by the OFT. There have been complaints and it is looking at informal assurances made by BSkyB to OFT. That is one of the reasons that the review is needed. There are current complaints.

My noble friend Lord Colwyn said that it was new regulation and spoke of a "cavalier" approach. I am not making any new regulation. I am just taking the Government's own exact regulation and saying that it must cover analogue as well. My noble friend said that no one had been turned away, and that may be true. But if there is any market abuse--I do not say that there is at all--it is not a matter of people being turned away but of the terms and conditions on which they are allowed to join. That is what is important. My noble friend also said that the amendment might affect credit card operators and the like. That was suggested to me by BSkyB and I have to say that it is a little piece of mischief-making by that organisation. My amendment does nothing of the kind.

My noble friend Lord Colwyn said that there were European systems which could be used by anybody wishing to broadcast in this country. Of course there are European systems, but that means that anybody who wanted to see them would have to get a new black box. One of the purposes of the Bill is to look forward so that no one has to have stacks of black boxes on top of or below the television.

15 Feb 1996 : Column 752

The industry and the consumer need protection. My noble friend said that some could make a challenge in the courts. But consumers cannot do that. They do not have the ability. Parliament must protect those people. He also said that digital satellite broadcasting was likely to be introduced in a couple of years. But that is a claim that not even BSkyB makes. It is unable to say when it will start broadcasting satellite digital programmes and certainly it cannot say when it will cease broadcasting satellite analogue programmes.

I accept that I have been unable to persuade my noble friend. But I listened carefully to what he said and felt that there were some points between us that we might take forward between now and Report stage. I realise that this is an area where we transgress onto the DTI's policy. But if the DTI believes that analogue is yesterday's technology and if that is its understanding of broadcasting, perhaps, after all, I should have named the ITC as regulator--I see the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, nods his head--and not Oftel.

I shall not give up now. I shall not press my noble friend. I hope he will agree that between now and Report stage he will let me come and persuade him and his colleagues of the necessity of my amendment. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 188 and 189 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 190 not moved.]

5.30 p.m.

Lord Donoughue moved Amendment No. 191:

After Clause 66, insert the following new clause--

Regulation of television programme services

(" . After section 194 of the 1990 Act there is inserted--
"Regulation of television programme services.
194A.--(1) The Secretary of State shall when it appears appropriate to him review the exercise by the Commission and the Authority of the duties placed on each of them under Parts I, II and III of this Act with a view to determining the effectiveness of the regulation of television programme services, local delivery services and independent radio services.
(2) In carrying out the review under subsection (1) above the Secretary of State shall consult with such bodies or people as he considers appropriate.
(3) In carrying out the review under subsection (1) above the Secretary of State shall have regard to the duties and functions of the following in relation to the provision of programme services--
(a) the BBC;
(b) the Welsh Authority;
(c) the Director General of Fair Trading;
(d) the Director General of Telecommunications,
and shall have regard to technological changes in the methods of delivery of programme services.
(4) In subsection (3) above "programme services" has the same meaning as in section 201 of this Act but includes programme services provided by the BBC and the Welsh Authority.
(5) The Secretary of State shall lay a report on the outcome of the review undertaken under subsection (1) above before both Houses of Parliament.".").

15 Feb 1996 : Column 753

The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment. Our objective is to elicit the Government's views on the general future of regulation in broadcasting and telecommunications. The amendment would give the Secretary of State a duty to review the regulatory process when he considers it appropriate to do so and to lay a report of that review before both Houses of Parliament.

Perhaps I may tell the Committee the background against which we propose the amendment. There are very many organisations involved in the regulation of broadcasting and telecommunications--organisations such as Oftel, the ITC, the Radio Authority, the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. With convergence of technologies--a feature often referred to in our discussions on the Bill--there is likely to arise confusion, contradictory decisions and overlapping responsibilities within the regulatory bodies.

The cable companies are such an example. The scope for confusion in that regard is considerable. The DTI licenses the telecommunications side of their business but Oftel manages the licences. The MMC can intervene if they are unwilling to accept changes to their licences; the ITC awards and regulates their franchises. Those same cable companies could under other hats deal with other regulators such as the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Independent Committee for Supervision of Telephone Information Services.

At worst it is a jungle, at best a network of regulatory bodies dealing with what is increasingly becoming a unitary technology. The existing regulatory structure was not designed to deal with the convergence of emerging technologies. The Bill does not consider the issue at all. We believe that there should be a review of the existing structure of regulation, and it is that point that the amendment seeks to put forward.

Against that emerges the question of whether there should be a single communications regulator--an issue I floated at Second Reading. I remind the Committee that the All-Party Select Committee on Trade and Industry, when looking at the matter in 1994, concluded and recommended that:

    "the Government review the structure of telecommunications and broadcasting regulation in order to ensure consistent principles and clear responsibilities in all matters relevant to broadband regulation and development ... that there may be an independent review of the powers of regulators and how they could be made more accountable".

The amendment seeks the Government's response and their thinking on the issue and provides the opportunity for debate. I beg to move.

Lord McNally: I support the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and the spirit in which he moved the amendment. I add a warning, however, which may differ from the emphasis he gave to his argument at the end of his remarks.

15 Feb 1996 : Column 754

There may be too many regulatory bodies in broadcasting, but there is a danger in moving towards a single body that that body will become more obsessed with the technology of broadcasting and less concerned with the content. In reviewing those matters, will the Minister keep in mind that the regulation of broadcasting is not just about the regulation of technologies? There need to be regulators who have sympathy for and understanding of programme-making. If that were lost in any consolidation, it would be a loss to broadcasting in general.

Lord Inglewood: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for explaining the probing nature of this amendment.

In introducing this Broadcasting Bill the Government are presenting it, not as a cure for all the ills of the sector, but as an important interim response to the growing tendency in the market for convergence and to the major technological development which digital represents. We certainly think it is too early to present a fully-formed blueprint for the future regulation of the industry. Moreover, we feel that the new institutional structure introduced by the 1990 Act is working well. Radio has flourished under a separate Radio Authority. The ITC has successfully presided over the revised licensing arrangements for commercial television and operates effectively alongside Oftel in regulating cable services. And as we discussed earlier this week, we in the Government think it is wrong to start absorbing the specific regime of media ownership controls into general competition law.

As I have said, in some ways this Bill can be seen as an interim one. The noble Lord argues that by providing this new clause the Government will be able to undertake the review he urges whenever the time seems right. I think it more than likely that in due course the Government may well conduct a review very much along the lines he suggests--indeed I do not see any need for statutory authority to do that and so the amendment does not take the matter forward in that respect. It is also, of course, true that the debate on the means of regulating a very different future structure of information services has already been started, notably in the past year's Oftel consultation document and in the Government's own document, also published last year, about possible models for long-term media ownership controls.

The Government will continue to listen to the debate, and it is entirely right that the noble Lord should have taken the opportunity of ventilating those issues today. However, I should like to add a couple of points about the terms in which he urged his case. He referred to the need for a single independent regulator for broadcasting and invited the Secretary of State to review the regulation of television programmes by the various existing regulators. I rather wonder whether a single all-powerful regulator for broadcasting, or even one whose powers in a multimedia future range more widely, is what we want in a healthy democracy. I must also enter a caveat that I do not think it would be right for the Government to review the operational detail of the broadcasting regulators' individual decisions on a

15 Feb 1996 : Column 755

case-by-case basis, above all as regards programme content. Those are delicate matters which quite deliberately have been put at arm's length from government.

Nevertheless, I entirely accept that the structure of regulation and the regulators' respective responsibilities are very likely to be scrutinised further before too many more years have passed. I hope that that further exposition of the Government's position has served to answer some of the noble Lord's underlying concerns. I hope it has enabled him to achieve his purpose in moving the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page