Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I shall not conduct another Second Reading debate, although I am not happy with the broadcasting landscape described in this Bill, a landscape increasingly dominated by commercialism and the commercial giants, where quality values are bound to be diminished. However, I want to thank everyone involved in the conduct of the Bill. I join in the thanks to the Minister for the courtesy and positive way in which he has handled it and for the few concessions we have managed to wring out of him--not enough, but I thank him for what concessions there are. I thank the draftsmen who have drafted the Bill, and especially I would like to thank my own team who have done most of the work. Most of them are now, quite sensibly, in bed--

Lord Renton: They are watching television!

Lord Donoughue: They are watching television? Maybe--except my noble friend Lady Dean who, as always, is here to the sleepy end.

It made the Bill more interesting that it came here first and not to the Commons. Someone said to me that that was because it was non-controversial. I was intrigued by that. I have never before seen such a volume of briefing and lobbying. Technically the Bill was complex and involved much homework, which on this side is unpaid homework. It was in some ways a political minefield. The media pressure groups were remarkable to see because they care very much about what we do in their area. It was not possible to please all of them and I am delighted to say that we upset some of them. We had only two Divisions, which is not many for a large Bill. But they were good Divisions. There were 209 votes for the Government and 327 against. That seems to me to be about right, and long may it continue.

Our big vote was on sport, which ironically was not in the Bill at all. The other issue--the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, referred to it--was conditional access. It was painful that we did not pass the amendment, but I am sure that another place will return to the issue. If we can knock some sense into the Department of Trade and Industry--I know that is a thought of fantasy--we may get progress. There is work still to be done, but the House can be pleased and proud of itself that we have cleared the way. We have identified some of the landmines. There is still the unbundling of sporting highlights to be put right. But I should like to thank all concerned for their contributions to the Bill.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, this Bill will provide a framework for the development of digital terrestrial broadcasting and provide new freedoms for media companies to grow and succeed in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

In introducing the Bill, I pointed out that it covers an enormously complex range of issues, and looked forward to listening to your Lordships speaking with the

19 Mar 1996 : Column 1265

plurality of voices we in government are keen to encourage. Our debates have shown that this House fully reflects the range of views that have been aired in the wider world.

I also expressed the hope that our debates would proceed on a non-partisan basis. I believe that this wish has been realised, and I thank all your Lordships, but in particular, the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson of Monifieth, for that. While it may often seem that the apparatus of government is largely switched to "transmit", it can also be tuned to "receive". I hope I have shown the Government's willingness to listen and respond to well reasoned suggestions for improving our proposals, which we brought forward with some speed to enable digital terrestrial to get off to an early start in this country.

Time does not permit me to cover all the contributions that have been made to the debate. Although it may be thought invidious to single out particular individuals, it would be equally remiss of me if I failed to acknowledge the main protagonists and to put a number of points on the record. Perhaps pride of place should go to the movers of the first amendment at Committee stage, whose efforts on behalf of sport briefly secured them pole position in the Bill. They gave the Government a clear indication and they achieved a notable victory in the Division Lobbies which more or less coincided with the Leader of the Opposition drafting the death warrant of your Lordships' House in its present form--or so he hopes. It was an emphatic response which your Lordships gave to our consultation exercise and gave a very clear indication of which of the options in our consultation document your Lordships favour. I believe that the amendments which were agreed earlier today show that the Government have taken heed.

This is a Bill to take broadcasting into the next century. Digital technology will revolutionise broadcasting. There will be more channels and more choice. For the legislators, I fear, that could mean more opportunities for getting it wrong. Our debates on the provisions relating to digital terrestrial broadcasting have shown how difficult it is to legislate for technologies whose potential is as yet unrealised and sometimes unclear. But I believe that Parts II and III of the Bill have been improved in ways which will help give digital terrestrial broadcasting the best possible prospects when it is launched.

There was a danger that these debates might have allowed the technophile sheep to gambol in the glorious fields of digital multiplexing and non-switched broad-band communication, leaving the technophobe goats to shake their heads and retreat elsewhere to more convivial pastures or even to watch television. I am pleased that that did not happen. Certainly, several of your Lordships have moved from analogue to digital, sometimes simulcasting and sometimes on new specialist channels. I would like to mention in particular my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, with her determination to understand the issues at the technical level in the interests of the lay audience, and on the Benches opposite, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Gilmorehill

19 Mar 1996 : Column 1266

who displayed a comprehensive grasp of the complexities of digital audio broadcasting in her first contributions to your Lordships' House.

One of the most important things about our debates was that we did not allow ourselves to be seduced by the technology. Properly, we focused the interests of viewers and listeners, and the future prospects for the British broadcasting industry. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, in his customary forthright and vigorous style, cogently argued the interests of those with disabilities, while many others, equally trenchantly, drew attention to the proper interests of various categories of viewer and listener. There is a balance to be struck between their particular interests and the need to ensure that we create the right framework for investment in digital terrestrial broadcasting, without which nothing will happen. I believe that the Bill, as it leaves this House, has achieved that balance.

I am afraid that pressure on parliamentary counsel's time--not least in drafting the 5½-page sports rights amendment--has meant that it has proved impossible to table the proposed amendment dealing with analogue switch-off. I assure my noble friend Lord Stockton--and I have written to him to this effect--that the Government will bring forward the necessary changes in another place. Similar considerations apply to the proposed amendment allowing S4C to develop commercial services on digital. Again, that deficiency will be remedied there.

In Committee the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, introduced the debate on the media ownership provisions in the Bill by saying,

    "we have now entered the Schedule 2 world of ceilings of 15 per cent., 20 per cent., 25 per cent. and 50 per cent. ... and of point systems beyond my capacity to calculate".
Having heard the quality of the debates, I do not believe that the necessary complexity of our proposals proved a barrier to constructive debate, although I suspect that the noble Lord's arithmetic is rather less modest than he may have tried to suggest.

My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, joined forces with my noble friend Lady O'Cathain to argue for a relaxation in the rule limiting local radio stations to one service on each waveband in areas of significant overlap. I hope that the assurances I have given them tonight will demonstrate that we have taken on board the points made in debate.

One of our main aims is to allow British media companies greater scope to respond to technological change while maintaining diversity and plurality at regional and local as well as national level. Some of your Lordships, most notably the noble Lord, Lord Harris, argued for a simpler and even more relaxed regulatory regime than we propose, while the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, invited us to reflect on whether the Mirror Group should benefit from higher thresholds. It will come as no surprise to hear that I believe that we have got the balance about right.

I should like in particular to thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, for so helpfully bringing his long experience of broadcasting into the debates, not only on digital issues, but also on amendments relating

19 Mar 1996 : Column 1267

to particular arrangements in the 1990 Act. Similarly, my noble predecessor, my noble friend Lord Astor, repeatedly put forward helpful suggestions on a variety of topics.

A number of your Lordships--and here I mention the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, my noble friends Lord Kinnoull, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Arran, and the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Prys-Davies, rightly sought to protect the distinctive regional programming which has proved so successful in enriching the lives of viewers and of listeners.

Clause 68 has been widely welcomed for the protection it affords to regional programming and production where there is a change of ownership in a Channel 3 company. Noble Lords will recall that, rather rashly as it turned out, I promised to bring forward at Third Reading several amendments strengthening the clause in line with suggestions by my noble friend Lord Kinnoull and others. Again, regrettably, pressure on our legal draftsman have made this impossible. It remains our intention--I emphasise this to my noble friend Lord Arran and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies--to bring forward these amendments at the earliest opportunity. I have written to noble Lords who have shown an interest in the clause to explain our proposals more fully.

I should also like to thank noble Lords from Wales for their contributions to our discussions on S4C, which for me, a non-Welsh speaker, were particularly helpful.

The question of Channel 4 funding has generated much discussion and numerous written representations from all sides. Without wishing to understate the importance of this issue, I pause only to acknowledge the powerful contribution to the debate made by my noble friend Lord Stockton.

I should offer a further apology to your Lordships that the clauses relating to independent local radio are not yet ready for consideration. However, as I have indicated previously during the passage of the Bill, we shall be making provision for renewal of ILR licences. In addition, we intend to bring forward an amendment to clarify the circumstances in which the Radio Authority need not re-advertise an expiring ILR licence under Section 104(5) of the 1990 Act. It will provide for the authority to invite expressions of interest in an expiring independent local radio licence and for such parties to demonstrate their firm interest with a financial bond. Those amendments will also be introduced in another place.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, for bringing to the House's attention the issue of the provision of news on Channel 3 which has in general been supported on all sides of the House. In the Report stage debate on his amendment, Amendment No. 165, on the provision of news on Channel 3, I said that the Government agreed with the purpose of the amendment and were persuaded that there were significant benefits in requiring Channel 3 to have a single news provider. I undertook to take away the noble Lord's amendment and to introduce a government amendment at Third Reading which would enable the ITC to nominate as

19 Mar 1996 : Column 1268

many news providers for Channel 3 as it deems fit, but would require the ITV companies to choose a single provider from among those to meet their news requirements. Again, I apologise that the clause is not yet ready and I regret the inconvenience that that may have caused. The amendment will be introduced in another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, my noble friends Lord Caldecote and Lord Orr-Ewing and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, raised a number of important issues relating to the merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. I am grateful to them for their detailed, reasoned and tenacious contributions to the debate, where their views were equally tenaciously opposed by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. They raised matters of considerable importance relating to how broadcasters in general, and in particular the BBC, should be regulated. They focused particularly on the important matter of impartiality.

I very much hope that the clarification in the BBC's Charter and Agreement and the recent exposition of the way in which the BBC handles such matters now will provide reassurance that the method which the Government believe is right for the regulation of the BBC--that is to say, self-regulation by the governors--not only works but works properly. I should like to emphasise that these, and particularly impartiality, are matters about which the Government and the Secretary of State are very concerned and which they will not allow to pass out of their minds when this piece of legislation leaves Parliament for the statute book.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, played a significant role in our debates and in particular, on the basis of her experience as a member of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, has made a number of helpful suggestions which we have been pleased to take up.

I should like to give special thanks to my noble friend Lady Trumpington, who I am sorry is not with me on the Front Bench on the final leg of our journey. Without her indefatigable support and guidance my task of piloting the Bill through your Lordships' House would have been far more difficult.

Finally, I should like to record my thanks to the officials in the department who have done so much work, and to parliamentary counsel, whose life this Bill, and the changes that your Lordships' persuasive arguments encouraged me to accept, have made somewhat fraught over the past few weeks.

In conclusion, I am confident that the Bill has been improved and I thank your Lordships for that and for the constructive and helpful way in which it has been achieved. It remains to be seen what further amendments may flow from its consideration in another place, but we believe that the British viewer and listener, the broadcasters and the wider industry will benefit from what has been achieved in this House. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.

        House adjourned at ten minutes past ten o'clock.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page