HL Deb 23 May 1995 vol 564 cc930-43

3.38 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about media ownership.

"Because of the extreme market sensitivity of this issue, I arranged for the substance of the Government's decisions to be announced by my department before the Stock Exchange opened for business this morning. I am making this Statement at the earliest opportunity thereafter. I hope that the House will accept this way of proceeding, for which there are clear precedents, and which discussed last week with the honourable Member for Islington South and Finsbury, as well as the honourable Member for Caithness and Sutherland and the right honourable Member for Manchester Gorton.

"Following the relaxation of some of the restraints on the ownership of ITV companies in December 1993, the Government announced in January 1994 that they were to review the existing rules governing media ownership. I am now in a position to announce the Government's conclusions on this issue. I am today publishing a policy document which sets out our proposals. Copies are available in the Vote Office. In developing these proposals, we have taken account of advice, ideas and comments from a wide variety of sources. I am grateful to all those who wrote to us and participated in the constructive debate on this issue.

"Media ownership policy must balance two key objectives. First, it must underpin the diversity of viewpoint that is necessary in any healthy democracy. The Government believe that this requires additional safeguards on plurality of ownership, beyond those required by competition law alone. Secondly, it must ensure that the media industry is able to respond to the changing demands of the marketplace, and in particular, that it is able to take advantage of the market opportunities which flow from accelerating technological change.

"Technological convergence is not only bringing together functions that have traditionally been separated, but it is also creating an enormous variety of new products and markets. It is inevitably difficult to predict the exact nature and pace of this change. But, as different media sectors converge, media ownership regulation needs to look at the media market as a whole if its core objectives are to be delivered.

"The importance of developing a new approach will be reinforced by the introduction of digital broadcasting over the next few years. This will lead to more channels, more choice for viewers and listeners, and more opportunities for media companies. The Government will be following up my announcement today by publishing their proposals for digital broadcasting later in the summer.

"Against the background of these changes, I am putting forward for consultation a long-term proposal for the future regulation of media ownership which has three main features. First, the media market would be treated as a whole. Secondly, market share thresholds would be established below which media ownership would be regulated only by normal competition law. Thirdly, a regulator would be established who would be empowered to restrict concentration above the thresholds where he or she deemed such concentration to be contrary to the public interest.

"For the purposes of consultation, I propose total media market share thresholds at 10 per cent. of the national media market; 20 per cent. of a regional market; and 20 per cent. of the individual press, radio or television sectors.

"Such a model would provide a flexible and durable framework which would better accommodate the dynamics of the media industry, while continuing to safeguard the public interest in diversity and plurality. I also believe, however, that the substitution of the existing structure by an entirely new framework of rules must be based on full consultation and widespread acceptance that the new structure is fair. I shall therefore welcome views from all interested parties on this proposal.

"In the meantime, action is required now. The Government therefore propose to introduce a package of immediate measures to remove unnecessary restrictions on the growth of media businesses. This will contain two elements.

"First, I am today introducing a package of proposals for change through secondary legislation. I am laying before the House an amendment to the Broadcasting (Restrictions on the Holding of Licences) Order 1991, which, subject to the overarching 15 per cent. threshold set by the points system set out in part IV of that order, will raise the number of local radio licences that may be held by a single person from 20 to 35, and relax the subsidiary limits on the holdings of radio licences in urban areas with a population between 1 million and 4.5 million.

"I am also consulting the ITC and BBC with a view to amending the Broadcasting (Independent Productions) Order 1991. I propose to raise the equity ceiling between independent producers and broadcasters from 15 per cent. to 25 per cent.; and to amend the definition of an independent producer so that the ownership of any broadcasting interests outside the European Union do not disqualify an EU company from independent status within the United Kingdom.

"In addition, my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade has agreed to amend the newspaper merger provisions of the Fair Trading Act by doubling the threshold for automatic reference to the MMC from a circulation of 25,000 to a circulation of 50,000.

"These changes will allow greater consolidation within the radio industry; encourage greater investment and stability within the independent production sector; and reduce the costs of small mergers within the newspaper industry.

"The remaining short-term changes I am proposing today will require primary legislation, which will be brought forward at the earliest available opportunity.

"Subject to two important safeguards, the Government propose that newspaper companies with under 20 per cent. of national newspaper circulation will be able to control up to 15 per cent. of the television market, including up to two regional ITV licences, or one regional ITV licence and the Channel 5 licence. Newspaper companies with more than 20 per cent. of circulation share will be free to expand in satellite and cable up to 15 per cent. of the total television market, but regulation will continue to prevent them from owning more than 20 per cent. of any terrestrial ITV or Channel 5 licence.

"The new rules will also apply reciprocally, allowing television companies to acquire interests in newspapers on the same basis.

"Proposals for cross-control between television and newspaper companies will be subject to two safeguards. First, any such investment will require the consent of the Independent Television Commission, which will have power to restrict transactions which they deem to be contrary to the public interest. Secondly, no cross-control will be allowed between newspaper and television companies where the newspaper company's regional titles account for more than 30 per cent. of regional newspaper circulation in the relevant ITV region.

"The Government also propose that these arrangements to liberalise cross-investment between newspaper and television companies should be replicated for cross-investment in the radio sector. In addition, the Government will take the opportunity to remove the numerical limits on the holding of local radio licences, but retain the overall 15 per cent. limit on the number of points in the radio ownership system.

"The Government will also abolish the rules which limit ownership between terrestrial television, satellite and cable. Terrestrial broadcasters will therefore be allowed to have controlling interests in satellite and cable companies, provided their total interests do not exceed 15 per cent. of the total television market. Satellite and cable companies will also be able to have outright ownership of ITV or Channel 5 licences, subject to the 15 per cent. market limit and the two licence limit.

"These principles will apply subject to one condition. The current rules for ownership of non-domestic satellite broadcasters and cable operators have already allowed for a much higher level of investment by newspapers in those sectors than in terrestrial television. The Government therefore propose that those satellite and cable companies which are more than 20 per cent. owned by a newspaper group with a national circulation share of more than 20 per cent. should continue to be restricted to a 20 per cent. holding in one ITV or Channel 5 licence, and 5 per cent. in any further ITV or Channel 5 licence.

"Finally, as part of the review, the Government have looked again at the ownership arrangements for ITN. We have decided that the principles underpinning the Broadcasting Act remain sound and that the 20 per cent. limit on individual stakes in ITN should remain. However, in order to give more ITV companies the opportunity to invest in ITN, we shall remove the 50 per cent. limit on total ITV holdings.

"Madam Speaker, our media industry is on the threshold of a new era. We cannot pretend that the changes in technology, and their impact upon the marketplace, are not taking place. We have an obligation to create the legislative framework which allows the industry to respond to these changes. At the same time, we must protect the diversity of our media, which is an essential element of our democracy.

"The approach which I have outlined today does two things. First, it suggests a fundamental long-term reform of media ownership in Britain, and allows time for the implications of this proposal to be properly considered. Secondly, it proposes some more immediate changes which balance more liberal ownership regulation with the introduction of a new provision for public interest scrutiny of the growth of media businesses. I commend it to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the production of this White Paper after long and almost elephantine gestation, and especially for the earlier than usual chance to read it. That was a great courtesy and very welcome. We as an opposition cautiously welcome it—which I believe in political code means that we think it rather good. We like the long-term approach; we approve of the broad points system of treating the media market as a whole while retaining separate assessments for each market sector; and we congratulate the Minister on the suggestion of a maximum 10 per cent. ceiling share for the whole media market. The Secretary of State clearly defeated those free market jungle predators who wanted to allow a free rein for the media mogul monopolists. We congratulate the Minister on that.

In general, we welcome the retention of a system of modest regulation. The reality and the irony to economists is that an unregulated market in the media would actually promote monopoly, or certainly dominance. Regulation is therefore not state censorship, but is a means of ensuring pluralism, diversity and choice in the media market. The Government always have a duty to promote plurality of ownership in order to protect plurality of sources of information and comment, and a duty to prevent the emergence and dominance by over-mighty companies who could exercise excessive and unaccountable influence on the political process.

I must state categorically that to me the media is not just another market: it is crucial to the workings of democracy, and its power has significantly increased in recent years. It is perhaps now the First rather than the Fourth Estate. So ownership of the media operates centrally in both a political and also in a cultural context and is quite different from any other industry.

Of course, we accept the need for change, which is well set out in this paper. Technological change makes regulatory change inevitable. The advent of cable and satellite TV, the development of digital technology, meaning no longer a spectrum scarcity, and the convergence of the various media sectors, means that we have a multi-channel environment without the traditional sector boundaries. That means that we must revise how and what we regulate. But full technological revolution will not happen overnight, so it is correct that this regulatory adjustment should be gradual. The technological convergence which is taking place means a potential convergence of control of the common carriers of information and comment. So the questions of media dominance and media access—and indeed of individual privacy—become more and not less important.

Looking at the suggested points system, we must assess whether it does deal with that critical issue of monopoly or market dominance. What is suggested is sophisticated and complex, but it has the advantages of flexibility and future modification. I do not wish today to get involved in a discussion of the micro-mechanics of the points system although we are sympathetic to the broad approach. We particularly welcome the 20 per cent. newspaper circulation ceiling on TV ownership, which appears to prevent the existing giants from expanding further into television. We are also pleased that the proposals seem—I should like the Minister's help on this—to be based on an audience percentage, since if it were based on the share of the advertising market we would have to question that, since that is not in any way central to the burgeoning satellite broadcasting where subscription and not advertising provides up to 80 per cent. of revenue.

The central point in these new proposals is the suggestion of a regulator with powers to govern media ownership. That is a very interesting and critical suggestion. The White Paper appears open-minded on whether that person is a new creation or whether, say, the existing Director-General of Fair Trading is used. We shall look at that. But we must avoid the danger of using a normal industry regulator who might view the media as a normal industry, which it is certainly not. The definition of public interest criteria will also be very important and not easy. The regulator will have great power. We shall need to know who appoints him; from where; and to whom he or she is accountable. We must make sure that such a regulator understands the special characteristics of this industry. He must be full time and of great authority.

As regards the relationship between newspapers and television, I ask the Minister to confirm whether any national newspaper, except the top two groups, can buy any two regional TV stations—not London stations. Our worry is that that might erode the regional character so valuable in the smaller ITV franchises. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. Perhaps he will also say something about foreign ownership. I did not spot that. Of course, at present Disney owns 25 per cent. of GM-TV, and predatory Europeans could own 100 per cent; but no British company is allowed to do so. Does the Minister have any comment on foreign ownership?

On the important question of the satellite encryption decoding system, the Minister will know that our concerns are that at present the encryption decoding system, which is the gateway to satellite distribution on Astra, is controlled by a body which is also the major programme supplier to that satellite television. It can therefore price the entry—and indeed presumably refuse the entry—to competitors offering competing programme channels. Has the Minister any proposals to ensure the freedom of entry there? I was not sure what the White Paper was saying. Do the Government incline towards a statutory code guaranteeing equal access?

As regards ITN, we accept that the combined ITV holdings can go above 50 per cent. and we welcome the re-statement of the 20 per cent. limit on individual stakes in ITN. We welcome the suggestion in relation to independent producers. We have been very concerned to maintain a British TV programme production industry. We do not wish to see it abandoned like the film industry. So the proposal for greater investment in individual producers seems to us immediately a sensible one. Has the Minister any more assurances on protection for British TV production? Has he any comment on the European proposals, quotas or guaranteed minimum UK content?

On this side of the House we approach this very important media ownership issue with certain basic principles, objectives and priorities in mind. We firmly believe in the desirability of plurality of ownership, and we oppose the concentration of ownership which threatens to produce dominance in any media. We believe in the need to protect and promote diversity in the sources of programming and writing. We believe in the prime importance of quality and also in the importance of regional strength.

This White Paper addresses those issues. It is interesting and challenging. Our final and measured response will depend on how far we ultimately believe that it satisfies those criteria and priorities. My first instinctive response is that it is encouraging.

4 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in thanking the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement made in another place and particularly for the courtesy of giving us an advance copy of the paper which he has produced. That was immensely helpful.

The Department of National Heritage has been knocked a little over recent months as being the "Department of Nothing Happening". I am bound to say that it has lived down that reputation with this White Paper with its complex proposals for dealing with media monopoly.

The Statement is rightly based on the premise that the landscape of the media has changed out of all recognition over recent years. Within the nation state of the United Kingdom the old traditional frontiers between the print media and the broadcast media have been fast disappearing, as have the international boundaries. We are in a global marketplace. The Statement and the document that lies behind it are complex and will require more detailed study before we can come to a considered conclusion. Basically, however, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said.

The Government have been grappling in a serious and constructive way with some difficult problems. I should like to address one or two aspects of those problems and seek some response from the noble Viscount. I turn first to the question of regional monopoly, particularly in the areas of television and commercial radio. The regional aspect is of critical importance. As I understand the document, it suggests that if a regional newspaper owner has 30 per cent. of the newspaper circulation in his area, he would be entitled to move on to 100 per cent. ownership of a regional television station in the same area and to 100 per cent. ownership of local radio stations. The question of regional monopoly needs the most rigorous consideration. I know from my own experience how damaging regional monopoly could be to the interests of the viewers, listeners and readers. It could also damage the interests of the advertising industry in that area.

That point underlines the great importance of the arrangements with regard to regulation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, about the importance of the regulator who will emerge from the second stage of the Government's proposals. However, I am not at all clear about who the current regulator is. I was happy to note that the Independent Television Commission will have a regulatory role in determining whether cross-ownership between television and the press is in the public interest, but I should be grateful for further amplification on that point.

I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, that what lies at the heart of this is the fact that the media industry is a very special industry. It has tremendous economic importance and is now of some international importance to us as an export industry. However, it is much more than that. The raw materials of the media industry are not only physical, but encompass the culture and climate of opinion in our society. Therefore, its regulation requires particularly careful handling.

I should like to mention two other matters in passing. I very much welcome the proposals about Independent Television News. We fought a long and hard battle in this House—I believe that the same thing happened in another place—to persuade the Government of the wisdom of allowing the ITV companies to have a majority shareholding. There was the most stubborn resistance to that, so I warmly welcome the Government's repentance on the matter.

The problem of encryption of satellite and subscription broadcasting is also important. However, I do not see any mention of it in the papers that I have had the opportunity to read. Did the Minister notice that the chief executive of the Independent Television Commission, Mr. David Glencross, said the other day that the situation was now so serious that the voluntary arrangements were patently failing? He called explicitly for some statutory provision to ensure that the gatekeepers of the new subscription services should not at the same time be the programme providers and therefore in a dominating position where they could interfere with the reasonable prospects of new entrants to the industry.

I should also like to know about the arrangements in your Lordships' House for dealing with these matters. Many of the immediate proposals are to be the subject of secondary legislation. Can the Minister say something about the form of that? Will such legislation take the form of an order that requires affirmative resolution? Will we have an opportunity to scrutinise some of those arrangements? Is there the possibility of a general debate on these very important proposals?

Finally, I should like to say a word about the legislation which the Minister has promised for the autumn, I presume. Perhaps I may reiterate an earlier plea. Not only is the new charter for the BBC on the stocks, but we now have major new proposals for cross-media ownership. I think that that presents the opportunity for a really comprehensive piece of legislation which can deal with some of the major flaws in the present Broadcasting Act at the same time.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome that has been given to the White Paper by the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson of Monifieth. In welcoming it, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said that it was rather good. I am grateful for that. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said that the department is known as the "Department of Nothing Happening". The noble Lord now knows what we have been up to for the past few months.

Both noble Lords asked a number of questions with which I shall try to deal. I turn first to the importance of the regulator. Obviously, that is an extremely important point. In the short term, the regulators will remain the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority. However, the document makes clear that we shall consider whether we need an ITC or something more similar to the regulator for the competition authorities. We shall look at that point in the future, but in the short term that role will be fulfilled by the two regulatory authorities that exist at the moment.

Both noble Lords asked about regional policy. Again, that is an extremely important issue. We must not forget the advertisers out there and that they must have a choice. Our proposals are that no newspaper owner whose regional titles account for more than 30 per cent. of any regional market would be allowed to buy or control the Channel 3 licence for that region. However, it is important to remember that the ITC's programming requirements for those ITV licences ensures that there is regional programming. It will be up to the ITC to ensure that regional programming still exists.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asked about foreign ownership. There is no change to the position on foreign ownership that is set out in the Broadcasting Act 1990. The existing rules will stay. They prohibit non-EU ownership of terrestrial licences whether by an individual or a corporate body. That remains the position.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, asked about encryption. That is an important area. We believe that competition law is the first line of defence and that this is a matter which the competition authorities will consider if they wish to do so. It is extremely important that the markets are operated properly.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, also asked about ITN. We have had some debates on ITN in your Lordships' House and I am glad to say that the Government listened carefully to all the views that were expressed by noble Lords on all sides of the House, including those on my own Benches. We took those views seriously and have brought forward proposals which I trust that your Lordships will find acceptable.

The noble Lord also asked about the legislation that we are bringing forward. It will be by affirmative resolution and will therefore be brought before your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asked about the quotas for independent production. We want to increase investment in independent production and hope that our proposals will achieve that. With regard to EC quotas, obviously that is not part of this review and our work on that is being taken forward separately. I remind your Lordships that we have said in the Statement that this summer we shall be issuing a further document on digital broadcasting.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend say a bit more about the position of the regulator? First, is there to be one regulator covering the whole area or, as he seemed at one stage to be suggesting, different regulatory authorities? Secondly, when is it proposed to appoint the regulator or regulators? Have the Government in mind the desirability of getting, first, the right man for this immensely difficult job; and, secondly, getting him into authority early so that he has time to look at the situation before the whole impact of the matter falls upon him? In other words, will my noble friend expand a good deal on what he said about the position of the regulator or regulators?

I did not follow my noble friend's reference to foreign ownership. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, seemed to think that foreign owners would have certain advantages in certain areas. Is that so? If it is so, what are those advantages? I rather hoped from what he was saying that he was disputing what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, had said. Perhaps he will make it clear whether foreign owners are in the same position as British owners. Finally, will he say when your Lordships will have an opportunity to debate this matter?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about the regulator in reply to the questions asked by my noble friend. We have two regulatory bodies at the moment—the ITC and the Radio Authority. We intend to use those two bodies.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, both?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, both those bodies. We do not necessarily intend to create a new long-term regulator in the future. We suggest that the existing competition authorities might be given media-specific guidelines from which they can act. That would leave the ITC and the Radio Authority free to concentrate upon broadcasting issues, but that is very much for consultation and we shall be listening carefully to the views of your Lordships, the industry and the two existing regulators.

With regard to foreign ownership, we do not propose any change to the current rules. Under the Broadcasting Act 1990, an individual or a body corporate which is not resident in the EEC cannot be a Channel 3 licence holder. As I am sure my noble friend will know, there have never been ownership restrictions on newspapers in this country, and we have no intention of changing that. We must emphasise that we share the majority view that because of the media's ability to influence opinion and engender political debate, the industry cannot be treated as just any other industry; for example, manufacturing industry. For the foreseeable future, special rules are required to ensure diversity of opinion and plurality of ownership.

My noble friend asked me when we would be able to debate these changes. That is a matter for my noble friend the Chief Whip. When we debate the instruments will depend on how quickly they come from another place.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, will the Minister help the House about timing? He said that for the purpose of consultation the Government were proposing a 10 per cent. threshold. Does he think that that 10 per cent. will be in force by the time the licence for Channel 5 is granted? If it is not, will they delay the granting of the Channel 5 licence?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Channel 5 licence is being granted according to the existing rules and regulations under the Broadcasting Act 1990. The Channel 5 licence will be granted upon the basis of those rules. That must be the case. We have proposals for the future, but those proposals will not come into force until a Bill goes through both Houses of Parliament and becomes an Act.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, it is a little difficult to absorb everything straightaway, but does this affect the BBC in any way? Will it be limited in joining forces with private enterprise companies—something upon which it has already started? Does this proposal control the BBC? Perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend on saying that flexibility is of considerable importance. The one thing we can be certain about is that ways around the regulations, whatever they are, will be found. It will be difficult, and so we must be flexible and stop some of the rat holes, which will clearly appear, before they damage the whole structure and we find ourselves with a monopoly. Flexibility and some time to think this out are needed. I hope that we shall have a considerable debate in the House because a great deal depends on how we structure all the competition which will exist with the new technologies.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. This is an extremely complicated area. The document we published is long and difficult to take in at first glance. My noble friend asked about the BBC. Of course the BBC is not the subject, as such, of the paper because this is a cross-media ownership paper, and of course ownership of the BBC does not come in to the matter. The ownership of the BBC is based upon its Royal Charter. No one owns it. My noble friend made the important point that where the BBC goes into business or partnership in some form of joint venture with a private or public corporation in the media world, that joint venture would of course be subject to regulations under our cross-media proposals.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me for expressing some anxiety over the Statement. I tend always to be a little anxious when there is complete cross-party agreement on such matters because I have had experience in a different context, upon which I do not propose to enlarge this afternoon, of what at the moment I conceive to be the disastrous results of unanimity in that field.

My difficulty is that the degree of unanimity in your Lordships' House today to some extent corresponds with wide areas of agreement in the political and economic field about which one reads now from day to day between the leaders of my own party and the leaders of other parties. That may be symptomatic of an altogether different relationship between the parties than that to which we in this House have become accustomed over the centuries. We are all agreed on one thing: that the media are very, very powerful indeed, taken as a collective. Therefore, one has to ensure that the arrangements that are apparently in train now will cover eventualities in which the inherent antagonisms within society can be expressed in a less passive form than they are today.

What I am a little troubled about is the existence of a large underclass in our country; the large social differences that exist within our society; and the potential for conflict if the existence of the underclass goes on for a long time or is accentuated in the future. Within the comparatively placid political atmosphere of the times, in which there is such a large measure of agreement, how can we be sure that that will be sufficient to carry us into the future? I have the greatest doubts about that. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, is the occasional dissenting voice not on subjects such as this but on the EU. However, he raised an important point, which is: what do we want the media industry to be? How large do we want it to be? How large should it be? We have looked long and hard at the matter and have put forward the 10 per cent. and 20 per cent. proposals.

If we are to have a strong, independent media—whether broadcasting, newspapers, satellite, radio or cable—it is important that it is a viable industry. It must be able to invest, expand and compete on a European basis and in world markets If we have a viable industry the section about which the noble Lord was concerned will find its voice. It will not find its voice if we have a weak industry that cannot make its voice heard.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most people will wish to know what effect the proposals will have on the independence of broadcasting producers, news editors, programme directors and so forth? Will he assure the House that the independence of such people will be maintained and will not be influenced by those who are investing in the various independent television companies.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. Of course, newspapers and television companies have different policies: historically newspapers have a view and a strong editorial policy but broadcasters do not. According to the regulation of their licence, broadcasters are required not to present the views which newspapers present; they are required to have independence and balance. That is extremely important and it is important that we maintain the position. That is the role of the ITC, and I am sure that it will continue as such.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the exchanges and I do not refer to my noble friend Lord Renton, who has just intervened. However, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I remind them of page 81 of the Companion to the Standing Orders which states: Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions for clarification from all quarters of the House are allowed, such statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate". As always, I am in your Lordships' hands, but I hope that the House will remind itself of the wisdom of what is contained in our red book.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, for several years I worked in the European Parliament on the EU Commission paper dealing with this subject. Luckily, it was not accepted. Therefore, I congratulate the Government on producing these long-awaited and important proposals on such a complex subject. They were so right to have taken their time and not to have rushed into making the proposals. They are so important because today the media have such enormous power and influence in the world.

Here is a fine example of a government legislating for the future—and an exciting future. Will the Minister urge the Secretary of State at the next EU council meeting to make certain that this fine example will be followed and will not be tampered with in any way?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the EU is at a relatively early stage of its consultations and might not put forward its firm proposals for some time. We believe that it is important for our industry and for British consumers to act now, and that can lead to a wider debate within Europe. We hope that our proposals will be looked at very carefully by the EU and other countries in Europe which have different rules. Some EU countries have a media controlled by significantly large groups. Indeed, those groups are significantly larger than any of the groups which exist or trade in this country.

We believe that the EU proposals are some way off. We wish to be at the forefront of the discussions in order to ensure that the single market operates in the best interests of the commercial and consumer interests of Europe and this country.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, are the Government considering monopoly practices such as using other money or commercial strength to damage the circulation of an opponent's newspaper, as we have seen in the present price war? Is there a clanger of that happening in the other forms of media; and are the Government concerned about that practice?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is for those in the newspaper industry to decide what price to put on their newspapers. If in any instance there are complaints about unfair practices it would be for the competition authority to decide the matter and not the Department of National Heritage.

We must remember that broadcasters are in a slightly different position; television broadcasters are regulated by the ITC and radio broadcasters are regulated by the Radio Authority. Therefore, there is not the similar read-across as is the case with newspapers.

It is extremely important that nationally and regionally concentrations of regional ownership, whether in Scotland or wherever else, do not exist. The consumers will then have the widest choice and the advertisers, who pay the bills and allow commercial radio and television to survive, will have freedom of choice and the ability to advertise their products in a proper and competitive way.

Viscount Chelmsford

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the start of regulatory convergence. Will the Government remember that "multi-media" is considerably wider than just those two regulators and that there are many more to come? Some of us have been looking at those who can affect various parts of the media in the UK and we have counted up to 20. Four are in Brussels and the rest are in the UK. I hope that this is a first stage and the wider aspects of multi-media will engage the Government's attention significantly.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, one of the reasons for the proposal is the wider aspects of the media and the fact that there is a convergence of different media. It is difficult to see where the overlap begins and ends. That is why, for example, we have abolished the restrictions in ownership between terrestrial, satellite and cable broadcasters. All will be subject to the same ownership regulations. There are numerous delivery systems and therefore one cannot have a regulatory system which regulates one system in a different way from another. What matters to the consumer and to the public interest is what comes out and what is available to the public. That is what we should be looking at and that is how we wish to regulate the system in the future. Whatever the new delivery system, it will always fall under our cross-media proposals.