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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I too support the amendment most strongly. The "must carry" provisions are an essential component in guaranteeing viewers access to public service broadcasting. Unfortunately, the Minister appears to believe that viewers have that access guaranteed for a long time. He gave that impression during the Committee and Report stages. However, I believe that he is deceived by appearances.

I am sure that some people who will be using cable television in the digital age will not wish to have additional aerials. They are unsightly, they can be expensive and they must be erected. There is a great deal of trouble and bother to which some people--not all and not even the majority--will not attend. As regards aerials, there is a risk that public service broadcasting will be lost to some people.

The problem which may arise does not stem from the decisions of the viewers but from the decisions of the cable companies. As has been indicated, they are willing to transmit public service broadcasting because it is in their interests to do so. They are trying to attract viewers. However, it would be unwise to assume that that will always be the case. In fact, the reverse may be the case and they will not want such viewers in the future. There is an increasing risk that as competition grows cable companies will be tempted to exclude public service broadcasters. Therefore, viewers who falsely assumed that they had perpetual access to the BBC and ITV channels could find themselves deprived. If that is the case, and I believe that it will be the case, the consequences for viewers will be regrettable. However, the consequences for the BBC and ITV companies will be catastrophic. Therefore, I must decide whether to accept the Minister's assurance that the fair trading authorities can deal with such a manoeuvre if it happens or after it has happened, or whether we should prevent it by legislation. Obviously, prevention is better than cure. Therefore, I hope that the principle of prevention can be accepted by the House and the Minister.

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I have no doubt that it is a tribute to the Minister's good nature that he regards me as cynical. In fact, on Report he called me cynical for suggesting that cable companies could act in that way by excluding the BBC and ITV. I believe that I am being realistic and that that is how the cable companies will operate. If the Minister cannot accept the detail of the amendment, I hope that he will accept the fundamental principle behind it and take steps to ensure that the BBC and ITV have guaranteed access on those wavelengths.

Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I support the amendment moved so ably by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. I wish to emphasise one point. Everyone who owns a television set must pay a licence fee to finance public service broadcasting. It would be extremely inequitable and it would be resented if people who had paid that licence fee could not receive public service broadcast programmes. Therefore, I strongly support the amendment for the reasons which my noble friend gave, but I wished to emphasise that point in particular.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, without wishing to make the noble Baroness too big-headed, I must say that I agree with almost everything that she said at the beginning of this debate and I shall not add very much to that. The case that she made was overwhelming. Knowing the good nature of the Minister and his willingness to accept sensible amendments, I am sure that he will accept this one because the idea of this "must carry" amendment is so overwhelmingly sensible that it could only have been put forward by the noble Baroness.

I hope that in his customary manner, the Minister will agree that that is the case. The noble Baroness said so much that seemed to me to be so strongly in favour of the amendment that I have nothing more to add except to say that I hope the Minister will accept it.

Lord Hayhoe: My Lords, first, I endorse all the compliments which have been paid to my noble friend. But I wish to introduce another reason as to why the use of roof aerials is not always appropriate. When I served in another place, my constituency was very close to Heathrow. However good the aerial on the roof, when aircraft passed over, if they were passing on the sightline between the roof aerial and the transmitting aerial, there were wild fluctuations in the pictures. Therefore, to people in that area cable has brought the enormous benefit of the reception of steady, high-quality pictures.

Indeed, I live in a geographical dip where, however high the aerial was placed, one tended to encounter difficulties. If the wind began to blow or pigeons decided to alight on one's tall aerial, that had devastating effects. Therefore, when cable television came to my area, for the first time in 20 years or more we enjoyed clear pictures on all four channels. Therefore, I believe that the arguments which my noble friend has adduced are extremely powerful and I hope that the Minister will respond in a constructive and positive manner.

Lord Monson: My Lords, I hold no brief for the cable companies. Apart from anything else, like most people who live in London, I have been infuriated by the traffic and parking chaos caused by their cable-laying activities.

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Against that, I recently received a circular letter from the BBC urging me to support this amendment. It contained no fewer than three glaring spelling mistakes and any number of grammatical errors. That does not make me feel very well disposed to the BBC either. However, when the noble Baroness responds, perhaps she will explain how Channels 3 and 4, as distinct from the BBC, can possibly be described as public service broadcasters in view of the fact that they are financed through advertising and not the licence fee.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, we have already covered in detail in Committee and on Report the issue of introducing a requirement on cable operators to carry the channels provided by public service broadcasters. I have also had extensive and very constructive discussions with my noble friend Lady O'Cathain.

The Government have made it clear throughout that they are reluctant to move the regulatory goalposts by rescinding provisions made in the 1990 Act regarding the conditions of local delivery licences. As I have said both in this context and particularly during our debates on conditional access, we must give a message to industry that the regulatory environment will be stable.

However, as my noble friend and other noble Lords have made clear, their concern is with the digital future rather than with the analogue present. We have said throughout that we are in full agreement with aspirations behind the amendment. We want the services of existing public service broadcasters and, when it comes on stream, Channel 5 to continue to be available throughout the United Kingdom. That is why we are offering them guaranteed places on digital terrestrial television. We continue to believe that that is likely to be sufficient to ensure universal availability in the digital future, given that over 99 per cent. of the population has access to terrestrial television. It seems very unlikely that they will abandon terrestrially transmitted television for that exclusively delivered by cable unless they are sure that they will continue to receive the public service channels. That will give cable companies an enormous incentive, regardless of any regulation, to carry the channels concerned.

Nevertheless, as I have said myself many times during the passage of this Bill, it is very difficult to be absolutely sure of the way in which digital technology will develop, and the effect that will have on the market. The Government are, therefore, prepared to look again at how they might provide safeguards on the face of the Bill which would meet the principal concerns so lucidly explained by my noble friend and other noble Lords who have taken an interest in this matter.

I should stress that that will not mean reimposing requirements on cable operators using analogue technology. Neither will it mean allowing the public service broadcasters an unfair competitive advantage by requiring cable operators to carry any new commercial services which they may provide on digital terrestrial television. And naturally, cable operators would not be required to pay to carry existing services. Finally,

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I make it clear that none of that signals any weakening of the Government's commitment to ensuring that digital terrestrial television is given the best possible chance in the market. Of course, the offer of guaranteed places to existing broadcasters is an important part of that.

Within those parameters, the Secretary of State and I shall be discussing further with our colleagues in government the details of how we might move forward to a solution satisfactory to all concerned. I promise to keep my noble friend Lady O'Cathain closely in touch with our thinking. Given that assurance, I hope that she will be satisfied by that explanation and will agree not to press this amendment.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who supported the principle of the amendment, because we are talking about a principle.

Just as an aside, perhaps I may explain to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that there is a difference between publicly-funded broadcasting--that is, BBC 1 and BBC 2--and public service broadcasting which is BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, Channel 4 and S4C. That is the distinction. The word "funded" is in one and "service" is in the other.

I am most grateful to the Minister. We have had a great deal of discussion about this matter. He has been 100 per cent. courteous and has been a listening and understanding Minister. It has been a delight to deal with him. I am grateful to him for the trouble that he has taken to meet me on this amendment. I am delighted that the Secretary of State and the Minister have decided to work out details regarding how it may be possible to move forward. I presume that the Government will bring forward in the other place a concrete way of ensuring that the concerns expressed so eloquently by Members of this House will be met.

Of course I can give my noble friend the Minister the assurance that the amendment does not deal with analogue; it is only for digital. We would certainly not expect public service broadcasting to have an unfair advantage. If at any time in the future--and, as we all know, the future is extremely uncertain in this area--public service broadcasting actually produced a commercial service, there would be absolutely no requirement under the amendment for the cable companies or satellite companies to carry such services. Again, I should like to thank all those who have taken part in the debate, and particularly my noble friend the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5 p.m.

Clause 19 [Duration and conditions of digital programme licence]:


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