HC Deb 09 May 1990 vol 172 cc325-9 11.30 pm
Mr. Mellor

I beg to move amendment No. 422, in page 61, leave out line 19 and insert— '(a) a diversity of national services each catering for tastes and interests different from those catered for by the others and of which—

  1. (i) one is a service the greater part of which consists in the broadcasting of spoken material, and
  2. (ii) another is a service which consists, wholly or mainly, in the broadcasting of music other than pop music; and'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we will take amendment No. 581, in page 61, line 24, after 'of', insert 'national'.

Government amendments Nos. 423 and 424.

Amendment No. 588, in clause 92, page 69, line 43,

leave out 'the service to be provided' and insert 'they believe it is technically possible for a service to be provided and which will be at least the same as the area covered by an equivalent national service provided by the BBC'. Government amendment No. 425.

Amendment No. 573, in page 69, line 4, at end insert— '(iii) the type of service to be maintained and the nature of the differentiation between it and other national radio services.'. Amendment No. 590, in page 70, line 10, at end insert— '( ) In association with the notice referred to in subsection (1) the authority shall publish illustrative guidelines which shall include an indication of the range of programmes which the Authority expect applicants to include in their programme services.'. Amendment No. 589, in page 70, line 11, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 574, in page 70, line 19, at end insert— '(c) The need for variety in radio services and the nature of the audience to which each national service is to be primarily directed.'. Government amendments Nos. 428 and 431.

Amendment No. 94, in page 70, line 26, after 'interests', insert 'and which shall include in particular, news and current affairs, religious and social action programmes in such form as may be appropriate to the general nature of the service provided.'. Government amendments Nos. 440 and 441.

Mr. Mellor

These amendments are important because they deal with quite major changes to national commercial radio. With the approbation of the House, we have moved away from an internal diversity test under which we might have ended up with three national radio channels broadly the same and not necessarily with great breadth to them. We have substituted for that an external diversity test with requirements set by the Radio Authority so that one will have to be a largely speech-based station, one will have to be a station consisting of music other than pop music—I make no bones about hoping that that means classical music—and the last station is not specified but almost inevitably will broadcast pop music.

Mr. Fisher

That is defeatist.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) may call it defeatist, but we must acknowledge that there is a large audience for pop music.

The effect of the proposals is that we have a remit for national commercial radio to which people can look forward and think will make some considerable use of the potential of the airwaves that have been vacated for that purpose. We could not have been so confident about that under the old arrangements and I am pleased to have made that change.

Mr. Maclennan

I remember our debate in Committee on this subject and how the minds of members of the Committee moved from internal diversity requirements to the arrangements outlined by the Minister. The arrangements will be widely welcomed because they promise that the public will be able to identify more readily, as they can with BBC national radio channels, the kind of programmes to which they want to listen.

I wish to refer to an issue contained in amendments Nos. 588, 589 and 590 which stand in my name. I am concerned by the language of the clause which sets up the national independent radio channels in that it is envisaged hat transmission may not actually be national. My amendments are designed to ensure that national radio channels are indeed national and that they provide at least he same cover as that provided by the BBC. As the Bill is drafted, there are strong hints that a national station could effectively opt out of transmitting to far-flung areas, because of the cost of transmission.

My amendments seek to make it a statutory requirement that coverage should be as far as technically possible, as opposed to what is financially most beneficial. I shall be relieved if the Minister assures me that that is what is intended. However, as the Bill is drafted, it appears that a national provider could opt out of covering parts of the country which at present enjoy national BBC coverage.

Mr. Fisher

The House will welcome what the Minister said about defining the characteristics and remit of the three stations. Before that is completely cast in stone, will he bear in mind the case that we put in Committee for putting the remit of one of the national stations on a Channel 4 publishing house basis? Not only has that worked well in television—there is no reason to suppose that it would not work well in radio—but it does several other things.

Both Opposition and Conservative Members have expressed anxieties about the financial future and viability of community stations and some local radio stations. A Channel 4 type national radio station would provide a marketplace and national forum for programmes all over the country and allow them to be broadcast. It would also provide a marketplace for those companies and a source of income and promotion. At the same time, it would provide a marketplace for independent producers in radio.

When he was formerly at the Home Office, as well as in his present incumbency, the Minister has been in the forefront of promoting the cause of independent producers in television. There is also a great future, both in Britain and internationally, for independent producers in radio. The only way to release the potential of independent radio production companies, which could even be subsets of independent television producers, would be to create a Channel 4 type structure for one of the stations. I commend that idea to the Minister. Perhaps, as the Bill passes through its remaining stages, he will give it further thought. Both on cultural and economic grounds, there is a good case to be made for that remit.

Mr. Mellor

With the leave of the House, may I say that I am grateful for the comments of both the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). In reply to the latter, there is nothing to stop someone applying on the basis that he desires. The question whether we should prescribe it is more difficult. I should like to reflect on what he said. There will be nothing to stop someone casting their application in that form. That would certainly be an interesting form in which to do it.

I understand what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland means. He rightly wants to protect the interests of his constituency, which is in an area which is not one of the easiest to transmit to. I too should like to see a national station with universal coverage. However, that was not achieved overnight by BBC radio. Some people find the economics of national commercial radio rather doubtful. Therefore, it is a matter that we shall leave to the Radio Authority, which is presently considering the complex question of coverage planning for the new national networks. It is a matter for it, not for me. I envisage that it will want coverage of about 70 per cent. immediately. As the station becomes successful, it is hoped that it will build up the coverage.

The matter can be explored further with the Radio Authority. I do not want to be the bringer of bad news but it would not be easy to guarantee 100 per cent. coverage straight away. It would be wrong of me to stand at the Dispatch Box and mislead the hon. Gentleman on that point.

Mr. Maclennan

With the leave of the House. I find the Minister's answer rather disturbing, and it will take a number of people by surprise. What have been heralded as three new national radio stations are, initially, to cover only 70 per cent. of the country. I hope that another place will give serious consideration to the implications of that.

I wonder whether a reason for such coverage is the unwillingness of the Government to entertain other amendments that I moved at an earlier stage on the cross-subsidy of transmission costs. It is desirable that we should use our existing transmission arrangements. If it is technically possible to carry signals from one end of the country to the other, I hope that that will be done, notwithstanding the attenuation of some of the lines.

It is clearly too late in our deliberation on the Bill to effect a change in the Government's mind, but I hope that the matter will be considered in another place with great interest.

Mr. Cryer

Powers are included in the Bill for the Secretary of State to amend clause 79(2)(a), which allows certain variations on the national services. The proposed amendment No. 422 is welcome. What is even more welcome is the fact that any amendment to the Bill must come back to the House and be subject to an affirmative order.

I commend the Minister's attitude to other Departments that seem to want to change primary legislation—too often, I fear—without, in some instances, a further reference to the House. If a change is made via an affirmative order, it means that the Minister remains accountable to some degree, and that is welcome.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 417, in page 61, line 27, leave out 'between persons providing licensed services' and insert 'in the provision of such services and services connected with them.'.

No. 423, in page 61, line 28, at end insert— '(4) The Secretary of State may by order make such amendments of subsection (2)(a) as he considers appropriate—

  1. (a) for including in that provision a requirement that one of the national services there referred to should be a service of a particular description, or
  2. (b) for removing such a requirement from that provision;
and (without prejudice to the generality of section 178(2)(b)) any such order may make such consequential amendments of section 92(1)(b)(iii) as the Secretary of State considers appropriate. (5) An order shall not be made under subsection (4) unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

No. 613, in page 61, line 28, at end insert— '(3A) Subsection (3)(b) shall not be construed as affecting the discharge by the Director General of Fair Trading, the Secretary of State or the Monopolies and Mergers Commission of any of his or their functions in connection with competition.'.—[Mr. Mellor.]

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