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House of Lords

Thursday, 23rd July 1998.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Exeter): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Lord Gretton--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Lord Craigmyle--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Radio Authority: Licence Terms

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the performance of the Radio Authority in consenting to departures from the terms of independent radio licences.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Radio Authority is responsible under the provisions of the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996 for the award and regulation of independent radio licences in the UK, including any variations in licence terms. Those are not matters on which it is appropriate for the Government to comment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware of anxiety that a considerable number of small, local, independent radio stations have been merged into larger groups? As a consequence, many locally produced programmes have been transferred into network programmes mainly produced in London. Does he agree that that undermines the whole purpose of local commercial radio stations? Does he agree also that the Radio Authority is showing yet again that regulatory agencies are too close to the producers and not close enough to the interests of the users?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is certainly the case that the 1996 Act made it possible for major players in the commercial radio field to expand their area of operations. Some of us observed the matter with disfavour at the time. However, at the moment we do not have an opportunity to introduce primary legislation. On the other hand, there are some improvements in transparency. From the autumn the authority will have to give reasons for its award of a licence. It will have to widen its Promise of Performance so that it covers the statutory duties to secure the character of services. I do not expect that to be sufficient consolation for my noble friend because it is certainly the case that the amount of purely local programming in some parts of the country has declined.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, perhaps I should declare a past interest as a former chairman of the Radio Authority. Is the Minister aware that I, for one, welcome

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his assurance that the authority will be allowed to get on with its job under the Broadcasting Act without too much interference from government? But does he believe it is wise that the authority should give reasons for the award or non-award of licences? Also, can he say in more specific terms in what form of consultation the authority will engage before it changes the important Promise of Performance regime?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my description of the position as it stands at present is an accurate reflection of the facts. The whole question of regulation of radio for the longer-term future is discussed in the Green Paper on convergence which we published recently. There is no reason to assume that in the longer term it will necessarily be right to have the same regime of regulation--for example, for local and community radio--as for national radio. In that sense, though we have no immediate plans for legislation, we are opening out the field. The noble Lord queried whether it is right for the authority to give reasons for its decisions. I should have thought that that was an essential part of transparency in regulation.

Lord Ewing of Kirkwood: My Lords, in his original reply my noble friend said that these are not matters upon which the Government should comment. Being the simpleton that I am, then why is my noble friend commenting?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend is the most subtle simpleton that I know. I have not commented and refrain from commenting on any specific decision of the Radio Authority. And I shall resist any temptation to make me do so.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, bearing in mind the experience of successful commercial operations owned and operated by local authorities or consortia of local authorities--for example, Manchester International Airport--can my noble friend tell the House whether it is possible for local authorities or groups of local authorities to own commercial radio stations? If it is not possible, have the Government any plans to allow it to become possible?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, one of the matters which we are discussing and which is covered in the Green Paper is increased opportunities for all forms of community radio, whether they are local authorities, hospitals or student radio; for example, in educational establishments. We hope that there will be an expansion of this kind of community radio which can be carried on frequencies that have limited geographical scope.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, before asking my question I should declare an interest in a company which is interested in acquiring radio licences. Is the Minister satisfied with the progress that is being made towards the coming on to air of digital terrestrial radio, and can he say when he expects the multiplexers to be broadcasting?

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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord and other noble Lords will be aware that the Select Committee in another place was keen that we should go for a "big bang" approach to digital radio and television. In our Green Paper we have taken a much more evolutionary approach. We believe it is likely that progress towards digital radio and television will be market-led and take a considerable time. We are not in a position to make forecasts of when that will happen.

England/Scotland Road Link: Status

3.9 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have yet approved upgrading to motorway status, as part of the M.6, of the stretch of trunk road now confined to two lanes each way from the Scottish Border to Junction 44 near Carlisle.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the Government are currently undertaking a review of the roads programme in line with our manifesto commitment so to do. A decision on the future of this scheme will be made as part of that review. We plan to publish the results before the parliamentary Recess.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Does she recognise that this is the missing link in the motorway system on the west side of Britain; that is, the gap between the M.6 in the south and the M.74 which starts at the Scottish Border? Since upgrading is supported by all concerned, and particularly by businesses in Scotland, will approval be granted soon, whether or not as a result of the review, by the Minister responsible for roads in England?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am the Minister responsible for roads in England. We are making decisions about the schemes, including this one, against the criteria which we set out: integration, economy, accessibility, the environment and safety. I am well aware of the particular importance placed on this scheme and on completing the motorway link to Scotland. I have discussed these issues with colleagues at the Scottish Office. However, I have to say that, in terms of the roads review, we have to make sure that all schemes are properly assessed against those criteria.

Lord Renton: My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether any further road construction would be needed in order to achieve this purpose? Is it not a fact that all that would be needed really is the alteration of road signs?

Baroness Hayman: Would it were that simple, my Lords. The scheme under review is to provide a dual-three rather than a dual-two stretch of road. Once one has a motorway it is not simply a matter of changing the signs from green to blue because certain traffic is not allowed

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to go on motorways. Therefore, the access roads that currently go into a dual carriageway road have to be changed; and in order to give access to settlements on the current road, slip road arrangements have to be made. That ends up being a quite large construction scheme.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, in view of the establishment of the assembly in Cardiff, will my noble friend take immediate action to improve the road from north Wales to south Wales?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, in reviewing roads within England I have been well aware of the cross-Border issues with both the Principality and Scotland. As well as having discussions about the integration of roads on either side of the Border with colleagues in the Scottish Office, equally I have discussed these matters with Mr. Peter Hain who, as my noble friend will be aware, is looking at roads solely within Wales.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, bearing in mind the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and also the surge of nationalism and separatism which events in Scotland have recently precipitated, does the noble Baroness agree that the reason for improving up to the higher standard links between the north west of England and the south of England and the Continent involves an overriding political imperative above and beyond the normal transport considerations?

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