HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc759-62

.—(1) If the IBA provide additional teletext services, then, for the purpose of enabling a teletext contractor to make charges for the reception of transmissions containing material provided by him and broadcast in such a service, the IBA may, notwithstanding anything in the 1981 Act, broadcast the transmissions in such a form (whether scrambled, encoded or otherwise) as will prevent any person from receiving them unless he obtains from the contractor the means of doing so.

(2) In this section and in the 1981 Act "additional teletext service" means a teletext service (other than a DBS service) which is additional to those already provided by the IBA under the 1981 Act. —[Mr Hurd.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hurd

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 100, 102 to 112, 123, 127, 130 144, 155, 174, and 176 to 178.

Mr. Hurd

I accept the criticism of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) which I rejected in another context earlier. This new clause arrives at a late moment and I need to explain why.

The IBA recently asked us whether we could provide it with powers to provide new teletext services. In particular, it was thinking of providing new information services to specialist occupational or professional groups, such as doctors or farmers, on a subscription basis. We agreed with the IBA, and I hope the House will too, that it should be able to take advantage of the developing technology of teletext in which Britain is in a strong position. Therefore, we thought it right, rather than miss the bus, to make this small addition to the Bill to enable the IBA to provide additional teletext services in encoded form so that a subscription can be charged for them. The services will he for general reception so that any member of the public could become a subscriber, although the services are likely to be intended for specialist groups.

Mr. Gorst

Does my right hon. Friend envisage the possibility that the IBA may now, in a back door way, be entering the interactive services of cable television? For example, suppose somebody wished to disseminate a stock exchange and Fleet street service using cable, and the IBA came along with its coded service on teletext, would that not be a back door way in which it would be entering into this business? Has my right hon. Friend any objection to that if indeed it turns out to be the case?

Mr. Hurd

I shall have to look at that specific example, but the general proposition that the IBA has put to us is that it wishes to provide additional teletext services. Of course it already provides uncoded ones. It wishes to provide teletext services in encoded form so that a subscription can be charged. I see no objection in principle to that. If my hon. Friend sees an objection perhaps he will say so. On the whole, it seemed to us that this was a reasonable proposition that should not be made impossible by the law.

The IBA will have the power to provide DBS teletext services if it so chooses. Such services should be on all fours with the DBS programme services so that a DBS teletext service should have a contract life of 12 years as opposed to the eight-year life of a terrestrial contract, and it should be subject to whatever levy provisions apply to DBS services rather than to the levy requirements on terrestrial teletext services.

Therefore, the amendments to clauses 37, 39, 40 and 51 are technical amendments to define a DBS teletext contractor, provide that DBS teletext services may be broadcast in an encoded form so that a subscription can be charged, and bring them within the ambit of the levy arrangement proposed for the IBA's DBS services as a whole.

The amendments to clause 44 and schedule 4 make it clear that the Satellite Broadcasting Board can provide teletext services. The amendment to schedule 5, which defines programmes as including linking material, teletext and so forth, is a minor drafting amendment.

Mr. Bermingham

This clause is yet another example of the Government bringing something into the Bill at the last moment. They appeared to be making up the Bill as it progressed through Committee. Be that as it may, the Opposition note what the new clause brings, welcome the extension of the IBA and understand the reason for the applications being made.

At long last, the real value of cable is beginning to dawn on those who are advising the Government on this matter. It is in the provision of such services that cable has its real value. In Committee, it was said on more than one occasion, by myself among others, that the entertainment side of cable is but an adjunct to its real value. Clearly the IBA is beginning to take that on board with As consideration of the provision of specialist services. Not only will it provide specialist services to doctors, far example, and perhaps to those who want, as the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) suggested, to follow the stock market, but to various other practices and professions. For example, in the legal profession a scheme is being created whereby one can get an update on legal decisions by an interactive system. If the IBA wishes to enter into such services through cable, that would be an enhancement and an advantage in the use of cable.

In the creation of the cable system, the real value of such services to our society in the coming years lies in their availability. The provision of information technology by means of interactive services is the way that we should have been going. That is why some of us have argued that the Department of Trade and Industry's input into this Bill should have been greater. The Home Office interest lies in control and regulation of the content of the entertainment services that will flow down the cables. The real value to society is the information that the cables can transmit, by interactive services, between the consumer and the producer. In that way, the technology and information that are needed to develop our society and industry can be that much more easily available to us.

Once again, at the 23rd hour, 59th minute, yet another series of ideas has been introduced into the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) suggested that we are on version five or six of the Bill. Those of us who have kept a score sheet of the changes in direction and the alterations are getting confused as to whether this is the 10th, 11th or 12th version. Perhaps by the time that we reach Third Reading, new ideas will have been thrown in.

I hope that the concept behind this Bill is that it is a means of enhancing the way that information and services are made available to the public, whether at home or at work. If we can create a cable system and a DBS system that will enhance such aspects of our life, we shall have done a good job. However, I fear that the Home Office has not yet realised that the Department of Trade and Industry has an important role to play. That can come only when we encourage industry to cable the whole country.

Mr. Gorst

I rise in response to the invitation of my right hon. Friend the Minister to express my view as to whether there are any objections in principle to these proposals. No, there are no objections in principle, but there may be some rather embarrassing anomalies. There may be some confusion as to which authority application must be made. We already have the Cable Authority, the Satellite Broadcasting Board, British Telecom for certain services and the Home Secretary. Now it is possible for somebody who feels that a licence to run a particular service has been unfairly refused by BT and the Cable Authority to have a new avenue—the IBA. It will be able to buy in a service that has been rejected by others without having to refer to the Cable Authority, the Home Secretary, BT or anybody else.

Therefore, there will be a proliferation of authorities or, to put it mildly, a sort of Irish stew of watchdogs. Has my right hon. Friend thought of the implications? I am not against it as a matter of principle. It is highly desirable that the IBA should be involved in communications technology, but should it do so without being required to consult, at the very least, some of the authorities mentioned in the Bill?

7.45 pm
Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I take this opportunity to refer to amendment No. 100, and, in particular, to what I take to be a move by the IBA to explore the possibilities of some originality in the provision of teletext. Like other hon. Members, I am in some difficulty because events are moving so quickly that it is difficult to have an idea of what we are discussing in the provision of teletext by the IBA. I assume that this turns on some of the new thinking within the IBA as a result of the 15 offers on the provision of services that it received by its deadline of 20 June. Anything that my right hon. Friend the Minister can say about that will be helpful.

I invite my right hon. Friend to say a word or two about the definition of teletext. I understand that he was referring to the possibility that the IBA would see opportunities to provide services that are not at present available, such as the internal service for doctors that my right hon. Friend mentioned. This is a different approach from the more traditional teletext of commodity prices, sport, and so on. If we are to have a wider service, which I would welcome, my right hon. Friend should perhaps go further and make that plain. I have an interest in DBS. I declare my interest as a consultant in the British Aerospace space and communications division. My interest is peripheral because I am concerned only with the provision of the basic satellite.

Will the value-added network service that takes up spare capacity, whether the spare capacity is in existing channel usage in daytime or in the downtime overnight, come within the context of teletext? If my right hon. Friend is saying that, he is providing an opportunity for an interesting development that would help the viability of the project as a whole.

I am concerned about some of the knocking copy that has been doing the rounds on the viability of direct broadcasting by satellite. I take it that in amendment No. 100 my right hon. Friend is taking a further step towards showing the viability of DBS, which is greatly to be welcomed. Other countries, such as Luxembourg and France, are looking to see how their footprints will offer them opportunities not only on the continent, but in the southern part of Britain. Inevitably, we shall increasingly be drawn towards an open sky policy.

Therefore, when we discuss the viability of our national project, it is important that we give every possible opportunity to achieve that viability. What my right hon. Friend has proposed is important. I hope that he will expand on what he said earlier, because it could reassure many of those who are seeking to take advantage of what the House is providing. It would also help to overcome some of the difficulties that my right hon. Friend and the Government have had in trying to keep pace with fast-moving technological change. With the establishment of authorities that will help on day-to-day regulatory matters, we are starting on the right track. That is the only way ahead. I hope that my right hon. Friend can answer my questions.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) was initially worried that the IBA might be providing unfair competition to cable by moving into interactive services by the back door. But the IBA is talking about a one-way service, whereas interactive services by cable are, by definition, two-way.

Anything that the IBA provides will, in law, be part of its own services, so there will be no question of people seeking the IBA's permission for their services to be broadcast. They would have to persuade the IBA that it should provide those services. There is no overlap with the duties of the Cable Authority or with the machinery set up under the Telecommunications Act.

I cannot add substantially to what I have told the House about the services that the IBA might propose to provide if our proposals are approved. We are talking about teletext, not additional television services or other value-added services. However, I endorse the basic thought running through the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) pointed out a problem. Throughout the preparation of the Bill and in debates in this House and in another place, new proposals have come forward. Technology, inventors and entrepreneurs do not always respect the parliamentary timetable, and when proposals, such as that contained in our amendments, have been made, there has been a major question for the Government to consider. Do we say "Sorry, it is too late. You have missed the boat and you will have to wait for the next broadcasting Bill", or do we add the proposal to the Bill, accepting the difficulty that we must impose on the House and which I do not deny?

That problem has cropped up several times in the past year and our answer has depended on whether the proposal fitted in with the general policy of the Government and the philosophy of the Bill. We believe that the proposal embodied in our amendments does fit in.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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