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Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. The automatic disqualification of ITV regional companies acting as independent producers should be removed but I agree that that should be left to Ofcom.

I was intrigued when the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said that a precedent had been set with Wales and the Welsh channel. The important point is that this is an opportunity to amortise the capital costs of running a small regional ITV operation. I refer not only to the capital costs but also to the human costs. One is able to retain good staff if there is an outlet for people's talents outwith the station. I recognise that in giving them that outlet, they may well end up cutting the umbilical cord and moving off on their own. One hopes that they will not do so outwith the area, although I regret that most of them will probably be on the high road to London and that all the best attempts to stop the inner-M25 region growing out of all proportion will fail.

There should be no automatic prohibition on an ITV regional company being regarded as an independent unless it is clear that it is acting not as an independent but as part of a concert party. That involves saying, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", and a contractual relationship with another ITV company. Ofcom is perfectly capable of seeing through that concert party arrangement. That should not be automatic; it should be judged on a case-by-case basis. I support the noble Lord.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I rise to my feet again with great trepidation because I am, so far, in a minority of one. I see that the noble Baroness nods in assent—I

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always look forward to that; it gives me great pleasure. The four noble Lords who have spoken so far are extremely expert in this subject—much more so than I am. Those noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Crickhowell—I stand in great awe of him—have taken root and are part of the Bill's family, if that is not too disgraceful a thing to be. They were nurtured in the Select Committee and came here already very knowledgeable. The noble Lord has other sources of information.

All I am trying to say, in my lame way, is that I differ from those noble Lords only with the utmost diffidence and doubt, and I must face the virtual certainty that I may well be wrong. That is because the Bill, as far as I am aware, does not for one moment allow for the possibility of Ofcom not being aware of its responsibilities to the regions. I am astonished to note that my noble friend, who knows so much more about the Bill than I do, should wish to increase its volume by adding the amendments, which I regard as unnecessary.

I find myself in the difficult position of disagreeing with those with whom I normally agree. It is not always that I have the pleasure of agreeing, as I apparently do, with the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, on the Front Bench. That is a privilege that I rarely enjoy with some discretion. Nevertheless, I enjoy that very much on this occasion. I hope that she will correct me if I am wrong, but the Bill as it stands does not allow for the possibility of Ofcom ignoring its duties to the regions. My knowledge of the regions ever since I have been in Parliament suggests that if Ofcom were to dare to disregard the interests of the regions, Wales and Scotland, the possibility of Ofcom not becoming a serious, if not fatal, casualty of the battle that ensued would be remote. I cannot believe that the Government would welcome the amendment.

Lord Lipsey: The noble Lord unnecessarily disparages himself. He is so knowledgeable about the matter that he even knows the answer that my noble friend the Minister will give before she has given it. Some might say that the noble Lord does not fully appreciate that the clause is aimed at an extremely specific question—that is, the regional production capacity of ITV companies—and not at the general duties of Ofcom with regard to the "indies".

When is an indy not an indy? We found out recently and quite dramatically when it turned out that Endemol, which was previously an indy, on being taken over by a Spanish television company, ceased to be an indy. As a result the BBC missed its quota targets for last year. The Government were helpful to the BBC in that regard and have rushed to change the definition so that being owned by a Spanish television company is not a disqualification from being an indy. I certainly do not wish to dispute that decision.

Also I do not necessarily want to argue that all ITV companies should be regarded as indies. There are strong regional arguments where they should be, but there are no doubt strong arguments on the other side. The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, which I strongly support, does not

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say that they should or they should not be regarded as independents. It says that Ofcom should look at that. With the changing definition, and the difficulty of definition, that seems to be no more than common sense. I hope that the Minister will disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, but please the great majority of noble Lords who have spoken in the debate by giving the amendment a sympathetic reception.

Viscount Astor: I support my noble friend's amendment. It cleverly covers the arguments that were put against making ITV part of the independent sector during the early stages of the Committee. Noble Lords who were against such an amendment at that stage were concerned that the large ITV companies would simply be able to call themselves independent, and that it would not help the small regional companies, such as that of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg—Border. The great advantage of the amendment moved by my noble friend is that the decision will now be left to Ofcom. It can make that decision and give us the best of both worlds, because it will not only encourage the independent sector, but will allow those within the ITV network—particularly the smaller players—to be considered by Ofcom as to whether they can be part of that independent production sector. The amendment is sound because it covers all the arguments that were put against that process at an earlier stage.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I rise to intervene very briefly on hearing the unexpected words from the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that he might be mistaken in his views on the matter. I suggest that in this case he is unusually mistaken. The truth of the matter about production in that field is that the development of independent production—one of the major developments in British television broadcasting over the last decade or so—was itself very healthy. However, it was a highly centralised development despite all the efforts that were made at various times by various regulators. It was the great Wen of the M25 that was the fatal attraction for independent producers. There has been deprivation of opportunity for television production in smaller regions of the country. That needs positive and vigilant action by Ofcom when it takes on fully its responsibilities. It is production centres such as that of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, of Border or Grampian that I used to see much of in Scotland, and other small regional television areas, where having a special place in the independent sector would be a necessary countervailing force to the way the independent operation of television has worked.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: When we debated these matters on 29th April in those halcyon days at the beginning of the Committee stage, I was an ally of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in opposition to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell and my noble friend on the Front Bench who had moved the relevant amendments about the regional producers. However, I feel appreciation and gratitude to my noble friend

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Lord Crickhowell for moving the amendment. When the Minister wound up in the last minutes of that hour-long debate on 29th April she alluded to the ITC UK programme supply review and said that the ITC had noted that they did not think that there was a case at present for changes in qualification criteria. The words were "at present" and she went on to claim for Clause 273 that it aimed to ensure that independent producers:

    "would continue to make a significant contribution to the programme supply market in the UK as well as allowing the Government the flexibility to make some changes as circumstances dictate".—[Official Report, 29/4/03; col. 686.]

As I said in that debate, I was impressed by the representations made by the independent producers when I was the relevant Minister 10 years ago. However, it seems that the regional companies also need their day in court. The virtue of my noble friend's amendment is that it confers a procedure under which those days in court could occur.

Lord McNally: I supported the absent noble Lord, Lord Alli, when he moved his various amendments in favour of the independent producers. I could well imagine his concern at the tenor of this debate because those who were on the pre-legislative committee remember that it was the persuasive advocacy of PACT and the other independent producers that made us call so strongly for an examination of the case for more help to the independent producers.

That produced rapid action from the Government and the ITC against a background where the feeling was that the approach to independent production by the big battalions had been one of ceilings rather than floors in terms of encouragement. I can well imagine that the independent producers, having made the breakthrough with the pre-legislative scrutiny committee and the ITC, and seeing those new opportunities opening up before them, suddenly saw them being closed just as rapidly by the perhaps newly consolidated ITV companies who used that consolidation to appear as champions of regionality while simply underpinning their own power bases. I am trying to guess at what fear might be expressed. I accept the advocacy of the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Bragg, in such matters and have a gut feeling that there is a case to be examined.

As has been hinted at, not all the independent producers are the barefoot boys and girls waiting for crumbs dropping out of the limousines of ITV and BBC moguls. There are a variety of power bases. My guess is that there is scope for greater encouragement for the independent production sector. Several Members of the Committee also expressed the realisation that by getting production out into the regions and supporting the creative industries, we do a great deal both for the local economies and the self-esteem of those regions. There is a danger of concentration.

As my adopted county is Hertfordshire and around St Albans there are support services for television and film production, I can say to the independent producers that they can come up north to St Albans

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and be outside the M25 and avoid all the strictures that are made in that regard. In relation to regional and independent production, there have been accusations that the BBC and large ITV companies, rather than approach the matter with generosity of spirit and attempt to get production out into the independent companies and the regions, sit down and think, "How can we get around these regulations?".

There is a case for further study. The amendment is sensible and modest because many of the arguments the noble Lord, Lord Alli, put forward at an earlier stage remain valid. Furthermore, the ability to help regional production and the smaller ITV companies needs careful study and Ofcom is well suited to carry out that study. We support the amendment.

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