HL Deb 25 July 1990 vol 521 cc1451-60

3.15 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.—[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 93 [Applications for national licences]:

Baroness Young moved Amendment No. 265A: Page 75, line 34, after ("service") insert ("having taken into account evidence of demand,").

The noble Baroness said: I have not so far taken part in this important Bill. However, the amendment that I have tabled is important and its purpose needs to be aired. As I am sure are many Members of this Chamber, I am a great listener to the radio. One of the facts that one notices about the Bill, and from reading about it, is that the part relating to television seems to be much greater than that relating to sound radio. Yet sound radio is of immense service to millions of people in this country.

This is a probing amendment. I am seeking to find out the Government's intentions in this field. The effect of the amendment is to require the Radio Authority to take into account the evidence of demand when it advertises the three new national radio services. The nature of two of those services is specified in Clause 80(2)(a). As I understand it, one is: a service the greater part of which consists in the broadcasting of spoken material". The second is a service: which consists, wholly or mainly, in the broadcasting of music other than pop music". The nature of the third service is left unspecified. However, there is a clear inference that it might be a channel for some kind of popular music.

As I understand the preamble to Clause 80(2)(a) it would still be required to be different from existing popular music services and thus be required to meet the Government's external diversity requirements for independent national radio. However, as drafted, the Bill seems to place some duty on the Radio Authority to advertise the two specified services of speech and light/classical music before any other. My right honourable friend in another place, Mr. Mellor, and the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, have both spoken as though the Government intend to make sure that the services are of spoken material and music other than pop, and that those are the first to be advertised.

The purpose of the amendment is to ask the questions: what is the reason for that? Is that what we believe the public want? Have we attempted to find out whether that is the case? Indeed, is it what the market wants? Is there any evidence that there would be significant advertising support for such radio services? I understand that United Kingdom radio companies are undertaking research on those issues. Their views and findings will be expressed in letters of intent for the ILR by 14th August 1990, as requested by the Radio Authority. The purpose of my amendment is to place a duty on the Radio Authority to pay heed to those and other significant indications of the demand for a new national radio service in the UK media market-place.

I understand that it is the intention to allocate one of the two services specified in Clause 80 to the single available stereo FM channel while the other services will be on AM, which is not currently available in stereo. Therefore, it is less suited to the broadcasting of music. Can my noble friend confirm that?

It would also be helpful if my noble friend could indicate the Government's intentions. That would go some way towards ensuring that, while properly meeting the Government's requirements for diversity, the new national radio services in the United Kingdom will meet the expressed intentions of public demand. It would have the effect of increasing competition for national radio licences. The present basis on which they are to be set up leaves many radio companies uncertain about whether they are worth applying for. Therefore, a second important point is involved and I shall be interested to hear my noble friend's reply. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

It is a pleasure to hear my noble friend Lady Young take part in the debate on the Bill. It was interesting to hear her views and the reasons why she tabled this probing amendment. There will be three new national services. One will be non-pop, another will be speech-based and the third will be open to offers. The chances are that it will be pop because often that is the most lucrative category. However, the Bill deliberately leaves open the third option.

My noble friend's amendment puts an obligation upon the Radio Authority to delay an advertising licence while it seeks the evidence of demand. I understand the reasoning behind it, but the Bill deals with this aspect in the audience research provisions in Clause 91. The clause puts the authority under a duty to arrange to ascertain the types of programmes which members of the public would like to be included in licensed services, including national services.

Recently the authority demonstrated that it is thinking along the same lines. It has invited those who may wish to apply for a national licence to send it a letter of intent by 14th August. That will enable the authority to assess the extent and nature of the likely demand to run the national services. Naturally, no commitment is involved at this stage. Those expressing an interest now will not be obliged to apply in due course; nor will anyone be excluded from applying if they do not register their interest at this point. The invitation is for people to set out, confidentially if they wish, the format and broad content of the service which they are contemplating. They should also state any preferences over the waveband and size of population to be served, together with brief details of the potential applicant group's background and resources. From the applications and their content will be determined the likely demand not only as regards the provider but also the listener.

Baroness Young

I thank my noble friend for that response. I fully appreciate the point that he makes about Clause 91 and the audience research. However, can he confirm that it has been decided to establish two channels before the audience research has taken place? Can he further say whether he is satisfied that, before the research is carried out, companies will bid for the licence in the belief that they will be able to make it pay?

Earl Ferrers

My noble friend is right in saying that two categories of broadcasting have been allowed for. One is a speech-based service and the other is non-pop. That is because we did not want all three national radio services to be allocated to the category where the profitability is likely to be greatest; that is non-stop pop, or pop as a whole. Therefore, it was decided that one broadcasting category should be non-pop and another speech-based. We hope that the full range will be covered by the three systems.

Baroness Young

I shall read carefully my noble friend's reply. I am not absolutely sure that he has answered my point. I accept the importance of diversity as regards radio and I have no reason to think that others do not, because it is a valid point. Clearly, the question is how that will be determined. I do not wish to pursue the matter further this afternoon and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bonham-Carter moved Amendment No. 266: Page 76, line 40, after ("provided") insert ("which shall be the same as an equivalent national service provided by the BBC").

The noble Lord said: I do not understand why the amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 267, which relates to a different topic. I shall speak to my amendment and I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Thomson and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will speak to Amendment No. 267.

Amendment No. 266 contains a relatively simple but important point. It seeks to provide that the authority has a duty to ensure that national services are what they claim to be; that is to say, national. We have raised the issue because in another place the then Minister of State indicated that under this Bill the national services would not be expected to cover more than 70 per cent. of the country. That is not a satisfactory state of affairs. The fact that 30 per cent. of the country would not be covered by services which claim to be national is deeply unsatisfactory. That is what happens if one allocates on a purely financial auctioning basis services that have been regarded as public. In that process the nation becomes smaller and 30 per cent. of it will be left out because it is not lucrative.

The Minister indicated that the transmission costs will be too high. I suppose that the noble Earl will reply that they will be looked after by the BBC. Therefore, we shall return to the position that we had yesterday and on Monday. We shall be told that when any person is neglected and any service is not provided the BBC, so beloved by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, and others, will pick up the tabs and do the job which the commercial companies are not prepared to undertake. That is deplorable.

Unless the amendment is accepted the Government will allow a company to run a service in competition with local radio and with much greater rewards at its disposal. It will not have to pay the costs nor will it have to carry out the obligations involved in running what we on these Benches would call a national service.

I hope very much that the noble Earl will feel able to consider this point in the same way that yesterday he kindly said that he would consider the point brought to his attention by my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth in connection with the pricing policy for rural local stations in difficult terrain. This is the same kind of point. Either the cost paid by the successful bidder must be reduced or some assistance must be given so that a national radio station covers, broadly speaking, the nation; and certainly an omission of 30 per cent. seems to me to be too high. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

I wish to support Amendment No. 266. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, I do not see what connection that amendment has with Amendment No. 267 except its geographical contiguity. That seems to me to be a rather odd method of grouping amendments.

This amendment ensures that the new national radio services have the same universal transmission coverage as the equivalent BBC national services. Without this amendment it is possible that, like Channel 5, the independent national radio channels could have a limited coverage because of the heavy transmission costs of providing a truly national service.

If the national radio services are expected to compete directly with BBC services, they should not be allowed to escape from the public service obligation of universal coverage. If they do not have to provide a national coverage, then the outlying areas in Wales and Scotland, particularly the south west, would not be able to receive the new services. For reasons of geography and terrain, in rural Highland and Island areas, transmission is costly and listeners are fewer and more scattered. Such areas are more vulnerable.

We believe that national commercial services should be equally available to all and that no one should be disadvantaged purely by reasons of geography. Therefore, the amendment ensures that such services are specifically required to match the universal or near universal coverage of equivalent BBC services. That would ensure that real choice in radio is available to all citizens of the United Kingdom.

Earl Ferrers

I thought I detected a minor flutter of irritation from the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, because Amendments Nos. 266 and 267 are grouped together. As they have spoken only to Amendment No. 266, I am content to do the same. Nothing pleases me more than to make them happy.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, was rather hard on commercial radio. He said that commercial radio would not be prepared to go to the trouble of broadcasting to 100 per cent. of the population. Clause 93(2) aims to strike a balance between securing sufficient coverage to justify the use of a scarce national resource and limiting the demands which this coverage would make so that the operators have a reasonable chance of running a viable service.

We must remember that the BBC has been building a number of new transmitters each year for many years, as a result of which a near universal coverage has been achieved. It would not be remotely feasible for a new operation to match that coverage from day one and it would certainly delay arrival on the air while the network was being built. That is why Clause 100 recognises that coverage might reasonably be expected to grow over a period. It allows the authority to require such growth where it considers it reasonably practicable.

The main point is that if we were to impose what is commonly known as a universality requirement on independent national radio stations comparable to that for the BBC, the likelihood is that we would kill them off at birth. In the case of the new FM service, in particular, universality would not be economically viable and would use up a large number of allocations within the national network which could otherwise be used for community radio. The position is not quite the same in the case of the two AM networks because those are being taken from the BBC. However, there may well be options for using some of the frequency allocations which are designed to improve the night-time reception of the services or for community radio. It does not follow that the new operators should necessarily be burdened with the full transmission obligations borne by the BBC.

The Radio Authority is now turning to the complex question of possible coverage planning for the new national networks. It is likely to be reasonable to expect each of the three new services to attain at least 80 per cent. coverage. However, at this stage we should not seek to anticipate the authority's judgment as to whether a higher minimum would be compatible with Clause 93(2).

The position is that 70 or 80 per cent. would be covered from about 15 different sites. To attain 100 per cent., large numbers of relay transmitters would have to be installed and some might reach only a very few people. Once one is in the area of 90 per cent. coverage, the cost of ensuring that the last small percentage of people are covered becomes quite over-burdening. If the noble Lord seeks to pursue his argument, that would make commercial radio inoperable and non-viable from the start.

Lord Bonham-Carter

I thank the noble Earl for agreeing to treat this amendment separately from the subsequent amendment. That makes sense. I am grateful that he has said that although coverage will not be any higher than is suggested on day one—and I agree with the noble Earl that you cannot expect to have 100 per cent. coverage on day one—it is hoped that in the course of time it will be the aim of the so-called national services to achieve national percentages which are higher than 80 per cent. I imagine that with the advances in technology that will be made easier and cheaper. However, it is important that that should not be left entirely to the commercial judgment of the Radio Authority and that that objective of maximum coverage should be made clear to those bidding as the objective for which they should aim.

Having said that, I do not propose to press this amendment and I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth moved Amendment No. 267: Page 77, line 6, at end insert:

("( ) a programme schedule which shall act as an illustrative guideline, and which shall include an indication of the range of programmes which the Authority expect applicants to include in their programme services; and").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is similar to that moved at an earlier stage in our proceedings in relation to television contracts. It seeks to make a provision in relation to the new national radio contracts similar to that provided for television.

There is quite an important difference between the three new national television contracts and the various regional television contracts; namely, that the new national commercial television channels are a very important and major innovative development in British broadcasting. However, that is rather taking place on a blank sheet of paper.

We all welcomed the fact that the Government agreed that there should be broad specifications to distinguish one national broadcasting channel from another. One is to be predominantly speech and one of a non-pop kind, and presumably the third will be open to music of a more popular kind. So far, so good. However, it would be an advantage if the Radio Authority were to spell out matters in rather greater detail by asking those who apply for the ownership of the channels to provide a programme schedule and an illustration of the kind of programmes which they would provide. It is for the Radio Authority to set the broad parameters in order to ensure that in the public interest there is a reasonable diversity of subject matter between the three channels, and that therefore they genuinely broaden and enhance the range of taste available in this form of sound broadcasting.

I do not suggest anything very detailed; I do not suggest that the Radio Authority should seek to lay down in any great detail particular types of programmes. But in a broad way it should sketch out the character that each channel should have and the kind of programming one would expect from it. For example, it would be comparatively easy to have a speech channel that consisted largely of phone-ins, which is one of the cheapest forms of radio entertainment. There is a proper place for phone-ins, but one does not want an endless stream of them.

Presumably the formula for the speech channel would include a reasonable mix of quality news and current affairs together with phone-ins. It should also include a wide range of speech-based programming. It is that general distinctive character for each channel that we seek by this amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Birk

I rise to support the amendment from these Benches. Although not explicitly on the face of the Bill, the ITC should be required to issue similar guidelines to applicants as is now the case with Channel 3. No doubt the Minister will argue that with regard to Channel 3 applicants the requirement is not on the face of the Bill; the difference is that with Channel 3 applicants there is a quality duty written in that is not written in here. Perhaps noble Lords who were here as late as some of us last night will remember that we divided the Committee on the question of quality. Unfortunately we lost the Division. Therefore quality is not defined in the Bill; it is not in this part of the Bill at all. It makes one think that the Government have something against the word "quality" which they are prolonging.

The amendment also implies that each service should offer a range or diversity of programmes, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, pointed out, in order to guarantee that the service is not exclusively popular music, news or current affairs. The idea is that the three national services will be speech: news and discussions; classical music with a light touch (that is the best way I can describe it)—it is not meant to be heavy classical music; and there will also be some kind of pop station.

Without clear guidelines it is likely that commercial pressures in the form of competition for audiences and revenue may force licence holders in the direction of lowest common denominator programming produced at minimum cost. Any kind of programming which is seen as potentially more expensive or less attractive to a mass audience is likely to be given a low priority. I do not say that that has to happen, and I hope that it does not happen. But in legislating for the future of broadcasting in this country it is our job to ensure that we make every effort to prevent those things which we all agree would be bad for broadcasting; in this case bad for radio.

That is why there should be at least a duty to provide an illustrative guideline. It is a mild and sensible amendment which we on these Benches heartily support.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

If I may I should like to give a little Back Bench support to the amendment. It may generally be argued that a radio programme supported by advertising is necessarily and inevitably inferior to public service broadcasting. However, I suggest that that is not necessarily so. It has certainly been so in this country so far, but I should like to see the Bill make some attempt to raise the level of commercial broadcasting. On the whole it has been abysmally low.

For example, commercial radio in this country has not made the slightest attempt to match the BBC in any serious way. There has been no attempt to match the output of the BBC radio drama department. The department is remarkable and produces more plays than anybody else in this country; some are of good quality. The programmes have an audience of around 1 million. That figure is not to be despised. I am sure that many Members of the Committee and their families enjoy the BBC's output of radio drama. Is there any inherent reason why radio, because it is broadcasting at the expense of advertising, should not have such a programme? I venture to suggest not. Television manages it, and some pretty good material is produced from time to time.

I hope in answering the amendment that the noble Earl will say that more detailed information will be required from people putting forward programmes. We might wish them to state in greater detail what it is they intend to do before giving them a licence. I hope that that will be borne in mind, and that the authority responsible for giving a licence will not assume, "This is commercial so we do not have to bother about it. It is supported by advertising and will necessarily aim at a massive audience"; and that is the end of it. If that is said it will be a condemnation of the system as a whole.

If Members of the Committee think it is possible for broadcasting supported by advertising to produce good quality radio, a wide range of programmes and the kind of programmes I have mentioned, this is the time and the place to achieve it. I therefore support the amendment.

Earl Ferrers

We are speaking essentially of licences for national radio. Amendments were made in another place to the procedure for licensing the national services. That means that applicants will now have to offer some variety and be different from each other. I do not believe that the case for a statutory requirement to publish illustrative guidelines is the same as for Channel 3, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, agreed. The statutory requirement for Channel 3 is that it must cater for a wide variety of tastes and interests. The requirement for national radio in this part of the Bill is that there should be a variety of tastes and interests.

I have no doubt that the Radio Authority, when it advertises its licences, will indicate the minimum variety of programming elements which will be needed to satisfy the internal diversity test. In the case of two out of the three advertisements, it will state what is needed in order to satisfy the statutory programming categories; in other words, the non-pop and the speech-based categories, and to achieve sufficient difference from an existing service.

There is nothing in the Bill to preclude such guidance. There is no need to go further by referring, as the amendment does, to the provision of illustrative programming schedules. It would be difficult if we prescribed that.

The problem with the amendment is that there would be little for the guidelines to illustrate. The duty of the Radio Authority is simply to ensure that there is some variety—not a wide variety, but some variety—with a small number of extra ingredients. For instance, some news and current affairs, perhaps, on a predominantly non-pop music service. The authority cannot stipulate what the extra ingredients must be. But it can and must stipulate that there should be some extra ingredients. Therefore, I do not see how the guidelines would fit in.

In Clause 93(3)(a) (ii) the obligation is that any application must be accompanied by, the applicant's proposals for providing a service that would consist of a diversity of programmes calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests". In other words, if you wanted to put on a speech-based programme you could not have all speech because you have to accommodate a variety of interests. Equally, if it is to be all classical music with a light touch, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk—that may be her interpretation and assuming that is correct—it does not mean that all the material has to be classical with a light touch; it must appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests.

It will be part of the applicant's application to say what he intends to do. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, was rightly concerned about that. When an applicant makes his application he will say what he intends to do if he is granted a licence. If he is granted a licence the intentions outlined in his application will form part of the licence. In other words, he will be held to transmitting the intentions contained in his application.

Therefore, I believe that it is better to leave it to the Radio Authority to make the judgment. It would be difficult for the authority to say, "In this licence, or another licence, we shall stipulate the variety of programmes that are to be made". It is up to the applicant to propose what the variety should be, and, if his application is successful, that will form part of his licence.

Baroness Birk

Before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps I may put this point to him, because there is one aspect that I do not understand. He twice asked what could be put in the illustrative guidelines. All we are saying is that they should indicate the range of programmes that the authority feels should be transmitted. It is all very well starting with an open mind but the authority cannot start with a completely blank mind.

Earl Ferrers

It is all a matter of approach. The noble Baroness believes that the Radio Authority should state what is expected should be transmitted. We are saying that the Radio Authority must ensure that there is a range of interests. It is up to each applicant to say how he proposes to interpret that. It would be wrong for the Radio Authority to indicate in advance what is expected—how many hours of a certain type of programming should be broadcast. The authority wants to find out how the various applicants intend to interpret this part of the Bill and will then choose the most suitable. Once that has been done, what the applicant puts forward on his application form will be part of his licence.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

It is a matter of degree as to how far the Radio Authority should be expected to go in setting out the formula for the various channels. Clearly, we differ across the Floor of the Committee on how far one should go. Nevertheless, we are grateful to the noble Earl for giving such a closely argued response to our proposals. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 268: Page 77, line 10, leave out from beginning to ("and") in line 12.

The noble Earl said: I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 109. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 269 to 271 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 93, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Winstanley

Perhaps I may use this opportunity to ask the noble Earl a simple and straightforward question. Am I right in my reading of Clause 93, and subsequent clauses which relate to it, that there is nothing in the clause that requires all three national stations to be based in London? I take the view that if we are to have three national radio stations at least one of them should be somewhere in the provinces or regions and not in London. Am I right in my understanding that the clause permits that?

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, is perfectly right. It does not matter where the headquarters of any of the licensed operators exist because they will be connected to a network and therefore their position is relatively irrelevant.

Clause 93, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Reay

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.