HC Deb 30 November 1984 vol 68 cc1281-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

2.30 pm
Mrs. Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

Contrary to popular belief among my colleagues, my purpose is not to bring a single case for special pleading about the licensing of local radio, but to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look urgently at the present system of regulation and licensing in local, independent radio to see whether it fits the principle of encouraging market forces to determine what can be allowed.

There is more and more interest in that matter and increasing pressure is being brought to bear on the issue. The present situation, in which several pirate radio stations are operating outside the law—which, I hasten to say, I in no way condone—must surely indicate that there is something wrong with our licensing procedures. Obviously, the answer to illegal action is to act vigorously, and the Independent Broadcasting Authority is urging the Government to close such illegal stations, but when I read the reasons given by the IBA for the crackdown I found myself wondering whether the IBA was more interested in shouting "Foul" because those independent local radio stations which it has licensed cannot compete as a result of the huge and over-bureaucratic regulations which the IBA imposes.

I am sure that there will be some agreement between my hon. Friend the Minister and myself if I say that when providing a service in the commercial world the first consideration is a proper endeavour to satisfy the customer. At the same time, however, no commercial operations can afford to work unless there are some simple rules within which they operate. Therefore, when looking, for example, at the situation of local independent radio in London today, we note that guidance is needed to prevent overlap in the spectrum; to avoid interference with essential services such as ambulance, fire and police, and even defence. Having said all that, we should look at the constraints that exist, laid down by the IBA, and try to see why only Capital and LBC can operate in London, with 8 million people to serve.

First and foremost, I maintain that the financial arrangements are prohibitive. If the independent radio stations are to compete in the true sense of the word, to raise revenue on a per capita basis of the listening population, and to add on additional levy to the Exchequer on top of the transmitting equipment fees, quite obviously precludes all but the most financially "secure" of operators from entering the independent radio field. In other words, radio stations such as Capital have a clear run because they take in so much revenue from advertising because, in turn, competition is strictly limited.

Regulation of content is another bone of contention, and it is the nub of my concern that the Government should look again at the whole operation. As the newspapers have found, there is a growing demand for local information. By "local" I mean local communities within 10 to 15 minutes' drive of each other. Therefore, in London it is not local to announce to an audience in Mitcham and Morden that the coming Saturday will see the advent of Christmas fayre at a certain church hall in Chingford, or vice versa. However, it is local news to point out that certain primary schools are holding their Christmas pantos on certain days and that the funds raised will go to local charities. That is of considerable interest to local communities. It is also helpful to broadcast information for different groups—whether the young, the elderly, the disabled, ethnic minorities or even local business men who, in addition to benefiting from that, would also be paying for it.

I wish to discuss the allocation of space in the spectrum. The radio spectrum is a resource owned by the country and it has a finite capacity in each area—although at a far higher level than the present broadcast usage in the United Kingdom. It is proper and generally agreed that a licence fee should be charged. I want to suggest a new approach. Fees could be based on a simple multiple of transmitter power and the number of hours on the air. At 50p per watt and 20p per hour, a women's institute or a scout group could broadcast four hours of programmes every Sunday evening over three miles for £21 a year. A music station broadcasting for 12 hours a day, every day, for 15 miles would pay £22,000 a year. I believe that 12 hours a day should be the maximum, as that would discourage stations wanting a 24-hour service.

Providing the channels for that would be a simple engineering decision. On VHF, the entire 200-channelwide band from 88 to 108 MHz is allocated by international agreement to FM broadcasting. There is no adequate reason why Britain is uniquely unable to join the remainder of the world and use the whole band. Twenty channels, perhaps from 106 to 108 MHz, should be designated for new, unprotected broadcasters.

The position is more complicated for medium wave, as certain channels are already used that are scattered over the whole band. The solution is to allow unprotected broadcasters to operate on any frequency that is three or more channels away from BBC or IBA stations, with published coverage maps of the area in question. More power is needed for a similar coverage to VHF and a power tariff on one tenth would reflect that.

Equipment of adequate specification can be assured through the same procedures that have been established for local citizens band transmitters. Stations would pay on their transmitter output power, leaving the siting, aerial design and choice of channel—all of which determine coverage achieved—to the competence and ingenuity of each station. Every hour, the station should announce its licence details, revealing such particulars as, "This is XYZ radio on 107 VHF, using 10 watts from North Hill lane, licence No. 123, for three hours every evening." Such arrangements would allay the understandable fears among established broadcasters that their prominence and quality of signal coverage will be at peril when new stations are legalised.

Being an unprotected broadcaster means that there will be no assurance of the coverage available—unlike the position for the BBC and IBA stations. The more stations that come on the air in one locality, the smaller will be the coverage of each service. It is a familiar feature in other kinds of radio communication. The time has now come for it to be accepted in specialist, small business, ethnic and voluntary broadcasting. A start on that must be made immediately by the issue of some experimental licences.

The last point of argument lies in the content of output. I am constantly asked whether I want endless pop music on independent radio. My answer—and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me—is that the stations are not for me to regulate; they are there for the consumer. Ultimately, the market will dictate listening requirements.

The notion that the Government or their appointed bodies can continue closely to regulate local broadcasting will survive for only as long as the idea that printing presses should be allowed to produce only the Bible and approved texts. While equipment has become cheaper and smaller, there has been no movement in licensing provisions in Britain. There is no clear thought from the various lobbies that would prove flexible enough to cope with potential demand.

On news and magazine stands there are all sorts of offerings from all sorts of publishers. The more titles that we have, the less the prominence of each one. Part of radio will eventually be the same and the need now is to devise a licensing procedure to allow orderly progress.

I ask the Minister seriously to consider the possibility of making a start by issuing some experimental licences in the London area as soon as possible on the basis of the suggestions that I have outlined.

2.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) for having raised on the Floor of the House the interesting issue of local community broadcasting and for giving me the opportunity to outline the Government's views. As my hon. Friend is aware, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), the Minister of State, Home Office, is the Minister with responsibilities for broadcasting. He has ministerial and parliamentary engagements in the north of England today, and as I was engaged in a debate on licensing earlier it seemed that I should reply for the Government in this debate. I hope that she will accept my apologies for a substitution which, I hope, is not entirely distasteful to her.

I shall outline briefly the basis on which our broadcasting services have developed. It has been the policy of successive Governments—it has been endorsed by Parliament on many occasions and by various committees of inquiry, most recently the Annan committee—to entrust broadcasting to independent but publicly accountable authorities, and under these arrangements only the BBC and the IBA are licensed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 to operate transmitters for broadcasting. This approach is not a matter of tradition. The two authorities act as trustees of the public interest and are accountable, through my right hon. and learned Friend, to Parliament, which is important. Certain obligations are placed on the broadcasting authorities, including the requirement to be impartial in matters of controversy and requirements as to the content of material that they broadcast.

People are rightly exercised—we still hear a good deal of this—about broadcasting standards whether on radio or television. In the United Kingdom we have been able to maintain high standards to the point that most of us have experienced the envy of many overseas visitors about the quality of our broadcasting services. I suggest that that has been achieved only because of the bipartisan policy that I have described. The existing framework has served us well and should not be lightly cast aside or undermined, even though it allows for expansion. Of course, expansion is something to which successive Conservative Governments have been devoted.

We do not regard the existing arrangements as fixed or immutable. There is some scope for the development of local broadcasting services of the sort for which my hon. Friend has been asking. Nor do I think we can regard the present arrangements as providing just a cosy duopoly for the two broadcasting authorities.

In independent local radio, companies compete with one another for the independent local radio franchise for a particular area. Once the IBA has awarded a contract, the contractor faces competition for audiences from BBC local and national radio, other ILR stations and television. There is competition for advertising from local newspapers and the ever-increasing number of free sheets with which my hon. Friend and I are familiar in south-west London. There are no fewer than four free sheets circulating in the borough in my constituency.

Audience figures testify that the pressure on local radio has increased with the introduction recently of breakfast television. It seems likely to increase further as we contemplate other great broadcasting developments, such as independent national radio, which interest many, satellite and cable services and community radio, with which my hon. Friend is primarily concerned.

I have referred to some of the obligations that are imposed on broadcasting authorities. I do not think that we can get away without various obligations being imposed for as far ahead as we can see. It is necessary that independent stations should have to meet the engineering and other standards that are laid down by the IBA as well as meeting the standards of broadcasting quality to which I have referred.

It is important, when understanding the ability of the offical ILR stations to compete, to recognise some of the other constraints under which they operate. In addition, they have to pay substantial sums in royalties to the copyright authorities and comply with agreements on the amount of recorded music broadcast. On the other hand, pirate operators observe no common standard, pay no royalties and frequently plagiarise news broadcasts in an endeavour to give themselves broader appeal. However much one is aware of the fact that one or two pirate operators want to regularise their position, one starts by having to say that it is not surprising that their much lower overheads permit them to offer advertising at a much lower rate than an ILR station. One can understand why the legitimate broadcasters do not always consider that to be fair competition, indeed, far from it.

Against that background, I ask my hon. Friend to look cautiously at the periodic appeals by pirate operators to an ethos of opportunity and a free market, because those appeals need to be looked at more closely. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed to free enterprise and competition. I think that we can say that we have done more than most to create a climate in which free enterprise and competition can flourish and to encourage the development of new small businesses. We are committed also, however, to the rule of law. We are committed to a framework of responsible broadcasting which requires rules and someone to enforce them. We do not subscribe to notions of competition that are unfair as well as illegal.

The question of competition cuts both ways. Some 51 independent local radio stations are in operation, and it is open to all the pirates to compete for those franchises. I think it is fair to say that they have not chosen to do so, even though many ILR stations were founded by small business men and are not just part of a much larger set-up.

My hon. Friend rightly stressed local needs. I think that they are important. A point made in favour of licensing pirate operators is that they fulfil local ethnic or other specialist needs. What constitutes a local need and whether it is being met are plainly in the eye of the beholder. Although my hon. Friend has been scrupulously fair in not promoting one station, I know that she has one station in mind which operates from her constituency. I know that station well because many people in my constituency listen to it and make it clear to me that they enjoy it. It gives me no pleasure to have to be critical of that radio station, but I know that my hon. Friend understands, just as I hope does any sensible person outside Parliament who is hearing this debate, that no Government Minister can do other than deprecate the position of a service outside the law.

Those who take the law into their own hands must expect to pay such penalties as are imposed. There can never be a position, however free and easy one may wish to be in the interests of the widest community involvement in a radio station, where there is not firm regulation of the air waves. The air waves are an important intrusion into people's homes, with a capacity for evil as well as good. There must be regulation if standards are to be maintained. I keep returning to that point, but I think it is the answer to the suggestion that just a lot of stuffy bureaucrats are preventing the flourishing of small stations which, as seen by the very fact that so many people listen to them, are plainly meeting a need that the other stations do not meet. I believe that there is more to the matter than that.

I turn to the vexed question of licensing. The operation of a radio station without a licence is, as my hon. Friend knows and has properly been made clear, a criminal offence against the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, because it is likely to cause interference to other users and can deprive some people of the services they now receive. It is also a deliberate departure from the regulations on broadcasting which Parliament has, at the instigation of successive Governments, established under the international radio regulations, which have the status of solemn treaties between Governments. All broadcasting stations require international clearance, and the Government have an obligation to do what they can to prevent illegal broadcasting. To that extent, we have no choice but to take an attitude that is opposed to the existence of pirate stations.

Moreover, as my hon. Friend knows, the radio spectrum is a scarce resource, and the pirates have preempted frequencies that are in many cases earmarked for future use. It cannot be an excuse that there is room for more, because the heart of what I am saying is that further frequencies can be permitted only in the context of planned and properly regulated growth. That is why the Government do not believe that it would be sensible or fair to issue pirate broadcasters with licences to broadcast. To do so on the basis suggested by the pirate broadcasters would be progressively to undermine the broadcasting structure that has evolved over the years.

That does not mean that the Government are dismissive of community radio. I shall say something of how we see its future, and try to answer the question whether there is a prospect of a new tier of broadcasting on a local or community basis. I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that the Government envisage much scope for progress in that direction, although I would not want my remarks to be interpreted as implying that pirate stations will necessarily be legitimised.

For some time, the Government have been alert to the case for developing community radio. The term is generally used to describe two possible concepts. The first is what might be called neighbourhood broadcasting, which is what my hon. Friend had in mind when she made the valid point that London is more of a region than a community and that there are great differences between what happens in Putney or Morden and what happens in east or north London. The Government envisage low-powered transmitters, broadcasting to localities and perhaps financed and run by the local communities.

The second concept is of stations broadcasting across a wider geographical area, which appeal to a community of interests, such as an ethnic group or the devotees of a type of music who do not hear enough of what they like on existing more broadly based stations.

The issues involved in community radio were first explored in a report of the Home Office local radio working party, which was published in 1980. The working party noted that community radio raised important issues of broadcasting policy, and that if it were to develop it would also raise difficult questions of resources, through the need for additional frequencies and for a regulatory framework. Since then, however, other developments—DBS and cable, provision for which was made in the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984—have had to take priority. I make no apology for that. We do not have the manpower to deal at one go with all the possible innovations in a fast-developing area of broadcasting. We must have priorities, and it would have been difficult not to give cable priority at that time.

The spectrum of frequencies available for radio broadcasting on VHF will increase following the international VHF band II planning conference which is now taking place in Geneva. In preparing our proposals for that conference, we have taken account of the possible needs of community radio, with the aim of avoiding the spectrum restraints that could otherwise apply in the future. Although many of the new frequencies will not become available until 1990 and thereafter, we shall at least be able to give some thought after the conference to the range of services that it might be possible to accommodate in the increased spectrum.

Some community radio enthusiasts may question whether we should have a regulatory framework. My hon. Friend must agree that there should be a basis for the allocation of frequencies—perhaps with provision in appropriate cases for time sharing—and for choosing between competing applicants if, as seems possible, there are insufficient frequencies to accommodate all those who wish to broadcast. If there is no means of deciding those matters, the result will be nothing short of anarchy of the airways, in which those who have the most powerful transmitters will dominate. That cannot be right.

Other questions that must be determined are how the stations should be financed and whether, if they are profit-making, there should be limits on the amount of profit.

Should there be conditions about transmitter power and, if so, who should enforce them? What are the implications for the existing broadcasting structure?

Those matters cannot be lightly pushed to one side. They merit careful thought and it is more than an excuse for inaction to raise them. We want to make progress on them. There is a genuine commitment to that—the same commitment which has made the Government innovative on broadcasting matters. A Conservative Government introduced independent television, a Conservative Government gave the go-ahead for independent local radio and a Conservative Government plan an independent national radio station. We have a proud record of innovation on which we want to build.

We intend to begin our consideration of the means by which community radio can be developed at about the turn of the year, when we shall know the outcome of the Geneva conference. That will give us a basis for planning for the future.

My hon. Friend made her case with typical cogency, moderation and good sense. I hope that I have responded in kind and that she will not be disappointed when I say that the Government cannot license pirate stations as they stand. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the reasons that I have outlined are fair.

However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be encouraged by my view, which picks up some of the points in her speech, that the way forward is to look to the development of community radio as a way of encouraging the development of community identity. However, it must be an orderly development. The Government will seek to remove the obstacles and create the opportunities for community radio stations to develop.

We look to those with interest and enterprise to explore the potential for community radio. Provided that the illegal broadcasters meet the criteria for community radio—we shall try to make them as light as possible, consistent with the maintenance of standards—it will be open to them to apply in the same way as any other group. However, I cannot, on behalf of the Government, offer them preferential treatment, and I do not think that they could expect it merely because they have pre-empted frequencies.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o' clock.