Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not think that I can take up the direct challenge made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. However, I am told that the technology is readily available and that some manufacturers are looking at producing the appropriate equipment. It is not a matter that the Government can command manufacturers to do.

Lord Addington: My Lords, yes, and apparently there have been manufacturers interested in audio-description ever since the first broadcasts were made. That is what is behind it. I suggest that there is some way in which the Government can improve matters.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 227 [Report in anticipation of new licensing round]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 27:


On Question, amendment agreed to.

8 Jul 2003 : Column 200

Clause 239 [Television multiplex services]:

Lord Avebury moved Amendment No. 28:


    Page 216, line 9, at end insert—


"( ) When making an order under this section the Secretary of State shall require OFCOM to—
(a) do what it can to sustain the availability of a digital frequency for an existing analogue Restricted Services Licences channel;
(b) consult with existing local television channel Restricted Services Licences licensees about transitional arrangements for broadcasting on Digital Terrestrial Television in their local area; and
(c) begin the digital local television licensing process prior to digital switch-over."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment concerns the availability of frequencies for existing local television services which are broadcasting under restricted services licences. In Committee I gave the example of Channel M in Manchester. The problem is that when the switchover to digital occurs, there is no guarantee that spectrum will be made available for these services. The then Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said that it was,


    "for Ofcom to determine, within the framework of its statutory duties, what spectrum should be available for those different types of services".—[Official Report, 20/5/03; col. 753.]

The RSL broadcasters were not reassured by that statement and we fear that when digital local frequencies come to be allocated, which may not be until after 2010, their current situation of operating on low-power, poor-quality frequencies will be perpetuated. In the past, the frequency planners have leaned towards the interests of the bigger organisations at the expense of independent local channels. That could easily be repeated in the digital spectrum.

The RSLs are not represented on the spectrum planning committee and have not been asked for an opinion by the planners. We therefore hope that the Government will require Ofcom to do three things: first, to provide digital frequency for existing analogue RSL broadcasters; secondly, to consult with them on transitional arrangements for DTT broadcasts in their local areas; and, thirdly, to begin the process of allocating digital frequencies for local TV now, so that existing broadcasters do not have to face years of uncertainty which would make it impossible for them to attract investment. We understand that there have been helpful discussions on these matters between most of the RSL TV channels and officials of the DCMS in which assurances have been given, but it would be useful to have those on the record. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in practical terms, this amendment seeks to give existing television restricted service licensees a guarantee that they will be able to continue after switchover. That would not be appropriate or fair. In fact, it might not even be realistic. I say that it would not be appropriate because paragraph (a) of Amendment No. 28 would mean that Ofcom was required to do what it could to ensure that spectrum is available for existing RSLs. We have never

8 Jul 2003 : Column 201

given such a guarantee to any other commercial service, nor to any other spectrum user. However, we did decide that Ofcom should have a general duty to manage the spectrum as efficiently as possible. Having done so, we tried not to tie its hands by introducing more specific requirements.

I also feel that it would not be fair. As we said on Report, holders of the current RSLs were perfectly aware that the licences they applied for were restricted in duration and came without any spectrum guarantee. They knew the rules of the game. It is likely that the other operators who decided not to compete for those licences would have responded to an application for long-term licences or for short-term ones that had such a guarantee for the future. It would not be fair to change the rules after the game has begun.

It might turn out that it is not possible to give such a guarantee. Until our spectrum plans are finalised and have international clearance where we need it, we will not know what frequencies will be available on top of those necessary for the six multiplexes. Although it is perhaps unlikely, we might find that in a particular area securing a frequency for an RSL will be possible only if that frequency was not given to one of the six national multiplexes. Would that provision mean that Ofcom would have to give a small RSL priority over a multiplex?

Paragraph (b) of Amendment No. 28 would impose a requirement on Ofcom to consult RSLs about transitional arrangements for broadcasting on DTT in their area. Not only is the drafting of this provision rather unclear but it is also superfluous. As part of the good regulatory practices that it is required to follow, Ofcom will consult all the relevant parties. Therefore, we must oppose this amendment.

However, we understand that there is an issue to be addressed here. Operators have taken the risk of investing in these licences. Yes, they knew the risk beforehand, but they took it, and some of them not only built successful businesses but have created genuinely attractive local services which are now greatly appreciated by their audiences.

Ideally, we would like it if these services were able to continue, while seeing new ones develop. We recognise that if they are willing to invest in developing high quality programmes and play their role in social inclusion, licensees will want to be given as much security as possible for their future. Much as we would like to be able to provide this now, we are simply not in a position to do so, nor will we be until we have a clearer idea of how best to use the available spectrum.

For the time being, therefore, I can do little more than repeat what we said before. After switchover there will, of course, be more spectrum available, principally coming from the 14 frequency channels that will be cleared. However, it may well be inappropriate to use high-value national frequencies for local broadcasting. A preferable solution may be to use the interleaved spectrum that will become available within the frequencies used for the six national multiplexes. This interleaved spectrum could create new opportunities for local television services after switchover.

8 Jul 2003 : Column 202

Once the spectrum plans for these multiplexes have been finalised, Ofcom will be able to switch its attention to this interleaved spectrum and prepare for its allocation. Once it has done so, I would expect it to consult fully all the stakeholders and present them with a list of options. In addition, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry will undertake a major public consultation exercise on switchover in spring next year and I can assure all concerned that the issues of the availability of local television services and the continuation of existing restricted service licences will be given careful consideration in the course of that exercise.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance and for repeating what I believe was the substance of what was said to the RSLs at a meeting at the DCMS on 30 June. There was only one point on which the Minister's remarks did not appear quite to tally with the assurances that the industry thought it had received at that meeting—the early advertisement of suitable digital frequencies, identified in areas where local television licences were already operating. The industry thought that that early advertisement of digital licences might be accompanied by a presumption that the existing incumbent would be preferred. However, the Minister seemed to tell your Lordships that the competition would be completely open and that newcomers would have the same chance of having that spectrum as the incumbents.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we will consult before we make any order affecting the licensing regime for local television services, and one of the questions that we will need to address will be the extent to which previous experience as a local broadcaster has to be taken into account when assessing competing applicants.

Once our spectrum plans are finalised, and the orders on the licensing regime for local television have been made, Ofcom will be able to advertise licences for local television services. It may decide to do this before the relevant digital spectrum actually becomes available, in order to ensure, where appropriate, continuity of existing services, or a smooth start for new ones. However, we do not want to tie Ofcom's hands and the matter must be left to its discretion.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, perhaps we had better pursue the matter through Ofcom, because the RSLs were under the impression that the existing licence holders would be given preference in the allocation of the new digital frequencies, and that did not quite emerge from the Minister's remarks. However, I thank the Minister for the rest of his remarks, which will be useful. I hope that the industry finds that they enable it to plan with greater assurance for the future. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8 Jul 2003 : Column 203


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page