§ House again in Committee.
§ Clause 7 [Multiplex licences]:
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 21:
Page 6, line 35, at end insert —
("( ) specifying a prescribed proportion of education and social action programming to be provided on each digital programme service to be broadcast;").
§ The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 21, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 22 and 30. Amendment No. 22 provides for a single digital programme service to be dedicated to education and social action programming. Amendments Nos. 21 and 30 provide, as a fallback, that each digital programme service shall include a minimum proportion, to be prescribed (as with Channel 4), to be dedicated to education and social action programming.
§ The importance of terrestrial broadcasting to education and training is the fact that it delivers free to people at the point of use without additional financial cost, in particular to those whose educational and social needs are greatest.
§ Later this month, on 22nd February, the UK will launch the European Year of Lifelong Learning. I declare an interest as chair of the Education and Training Committee of the Committee of the Regions and I was present last weekend at the European launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning. It was a pleasure on that occasion, in the presence of the Minister, Mr. Paice, to hear the commissioner responsible for this area of the Commission programme work, Edith Cresson, compliment the United Kingdom on its outstandingly high quality of educational materials from radio and television. These amendments will protect the facilities necessary to maintain and develop those outstanding provisions —in European and world terms —made by educational broadcast makers in the United Kingdom.
§ Our country is committed to lifelong learning and to the need for building a learning society. Recently there has been agreed a new, ambitious, national training and education targets programme to achieve that. It cannot be achieved without the help of broadcasting and other new technologies. Neither will many of those most in need of more education or training be able readily to afford subscription services. Such services are very good for those who, already knowing what they want, also have the resources to obtain them. But, if we are to equip the population as a whole with the skills necessary to meet the needs of the coming century, it is essential that all groups in society have full access to education and training opportunities, starting with those provided in the area of basic education where it is needed for adults.
§ Groups involved with the education and training of adults are concerned that there is no requirement in the Bill to place any new education/training obligations on any new digital terrestrial provision other than the simulcasting of existing services. They propose that an 196 education/training requirement should also be written in within the new services, and that those programmes should be available clear to air for all licence payers.
§ Given that the duration of a multiplex licence is to he 12 years, with a possible extension for a further 12 years, and that this outlasts the current length of arrangements for those channels with public service education obligations —the BBC and Channel 4 —a situation could arise that analogue broadcasting, with its digital simulcast, is withdrawn, leaving no continuing educational obligations in place. That would be a tragedy and would be quite irresponsible, since it is expected that broadcasting will need to play an increased and not a lesser role, particularly in respect of the education and training of adults over the next decades. What is wanted is an extension of channel space which will allow a large number of education and training providers to add variety and choice to the current provision.
§ It is a pleasure to be able to pay tribute to the work done by professionals in this field. I hope the Minister's response will indicate that the Government are prepared to give serious consideration to protecting its quality and range and providing for an expansion in this vitally important area. I beg to move.
§ Baroness David
I should like to support this group of amendments. I thought that my name was going to appear on all three of them. In fact, it appears on only two. The amendment I shall speak to more particularly, Amendment No. 22, does not have my name on it. But I do not think that matters very much. It is the most important amendment in the group. It is the one we think is really vital. The other two are fall-backs. Amendment No. 22 is the one I hope the Minister will consider very carefully indeed and agree to support.
The proposal in Amendment No. 22 is that the ITC should be required to license one digital channel as a specialist education and training channel, not to be owned by the BBC or by Channel 4 but to be managed by a non-profit consortium of education and training providers. The task of running it could be put out to tender and awarded to the highest and most efficient bidder. It could house current users, such as the OU and colleges' and schools' programming, broadcasting the types of material which are increasingly being shifted to night-time. We have talked before about what has been happening to night-time broadcasting. The channel could assist in retraining and updating teachers, and in helping parents to help their children to learn. This is an important area and one in which a lot of people are doing very good work, including those who work at City Lit. in London. It is an area which can be expanded and it is one where broadcasting could help very much indeed.
Above all, the channel could house a new user, the University for Industry, which needs to reach, free at the point of use, every home, library, educational institution and workplace if this country is to raise the level of skills and be competitive with other countries, and get anywhere near reaching the national training and education targets which this country has set itself. The channel could target workplaces, colleges and 197 community sites in the day-time and home learners in the evening. North America has several such channels already running on satellite.
The BBC's new agreement requires in paragraph 3.2 (e) that the home services,contain programmes of an educational nature (including specialist factual, religious and social issues programmes as well as formal eduction and training programmes)".Channel 4 is also required to provide a given proportion of programmes of an educational nature for adults. If the new digital terrestrial channels are to be of such significance, then it is in all our interests for the new multiplex arrangements to make a contribution to the education and training needs, and hence to the future, of the country.
The option offered by Amendments Nos. 21 and 30 is to place a certain obligation on all multiplex holders to include some proportion of education and social action programming, following the example of the obligation originally laid upon Channel 4. Channel 4's remit to be distinctive in character, to provide a given proportion of educational programming and to cater for tastes not otherwise catered for on ITV has been carried out to general acclaim and has not prevented the channel being a commercial success.
After the debate on the BBC Charter and Agreement, the Minister wrote to me. He said in his letter:We agree that education should continue to form a key object of the Corporation".I hope that his feelings about education forming a key object of the corporation will also extend to all the new arrangements. I hope that his enthusiasm for education, which seemed to be expressed in his letter to me, will he followed by very favourable consideration of the amendment which my noble friend Lady Farrington moved and of the amendments to which I have spoken tonight. I particularly commend Amendment No. 22. That would be our best option.
§ Lord Inglewood
I begin by welcoming the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, about the high quality of educational television in this country. The Government are very pleased about that and pay tribute to all those concerned. It is recognised on both sides of the Committee as providing real quality and as being a world leader.
Digital terrestrial television will provide tremendous opportunities for the provision of all types of programmes, catering for the tastes and interest of all types of viewers. Both noble Baronesses have made eloquent speeches about the value of educational and social action programming from which we do not dissent. These programmes are of real value and interest to viewers of all ages, in all parts of the country. They are very important as part of an educational process which can no longer be confined just to early years but which goes on through life. They help us to be aware of a whole range of matters, including industry, social and community issues, and how to respond to them.
However, we do not believe that, merely because something is good and should be encouraged, its attainment must therefore he brought about by statute. 198 I believe that the wisdom of this approach —let us not forget that TV can be turned off, rendering valueless the programme being shown —is well substantiated by experience. Despite the lack of statutory requirements, educational programming is well established on satellite and cable because it is programming for which there is a clear demand. The Discovery and History Channels show that the market at work does not simply produce soaps and game shows, as some would have us believe. And of course the educational and social action programming currently provided by the existing terrestrial broadcasters will all he translated onto digital and thereby be entrenched and be freely available for all, with opportunities for more on the spare capacity they have been offered.
The kind of ideas referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady David, are precisely the kind of ideas that might well have a place on multiplex. The multiplex licensee, in putting together his bouquet of programmes —that is the technical phrase —has to provide as much variety and choice as he can. That is one of the licensing criteria. We must not overlook that the digital terrestrial revolution will be very expensive. It is difficult to anticipate how a multiplexer would be able to provide, in the way in which the noble Baroness rather sanguinely hoped, capacity. However, it is quite possible that these things can be funded either by advertising or sponsorship.
We have made the variety of services to be offered on digital one of the key criteria for the ITC to take into account when awarding the licences. It is clear that to win them applicants will have to provide a range of services catering for all interests. That will include, as I said, educational and social action programmes which, as I have described, hold their own on their own merits. As the number of channels increases there is less and less need to proscribe certain types of programme. With a new and unproven technology, an audience of zero, facing billions of pounds in investment, I suggest to the Committee that in those circumstances to accept this amendment would increase the likelihood of nothing happening at all with digital terrestrial. That would be in nobody's interests and would guarantee that there is no educational and social action programming at all. I know that that may be unwelcome comment to the noble Baronesses, but having heard it, I hope that they will agree not to press the amendment.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
It would be difficult to interpret the Minister's reply as satisfactory or favourable. However, it is necessary to take time to read the detail of the reply. It is possible to have a bouquet with variety. but still be missing the English rose. We agree that that the English rose is one of the areas of perfection. At this stage we do not propose to press the amendment, but having read the Minister's reply, we may return to it at a later stage.
§ Baroness David
Perhaps I may make one comment. I do not believe that the Minister referred to quality. It is important that there should be some stipulation about 199 the quality of what is provided. I hope that will come into the dimension when he is thinking about these amendments.
§ Lord Inglewood
I do not wish to pre-empt the debate that we shall have somewhat later in the evening, which is specifically on the question of quality. The criteria which apply to the programmes are the same as those which apply to satellite and cable.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 22 not moved.]
§ Lord Donoughue moved Amendment No. 23:
Page 7, line 11, at end insert —
("( ) such information as they may require as to the programmes to be included in the digital programme services to be broadcast").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, perhaps I may speak also to Amendments Nos. 34 , 38 and 39.
§ Baroness Trumpington
Amendment No. 23 stands alone. Amendment No. 24 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 28, 36, 38 and 39. If that is a mistake there have been others in the list this evening. I can only apologise. The noble Lord can do whatever he wants.
§ Lord Donoughue
We have all been under great pressure on this matter. I am totally sympathetic on that point. I believe that Amendment No. 23 goes naturally with Amendments Nos. 34, 38 and 39. Since we are not going to press any of them to a vote, perhaps at this stage we can take them together. Is the Minister happy with that?
§ Lord Donoughue
Good. Basically these amendments are about set-top boxes in general principle. In our view the Broadcasting Bill, as currently drafted, does not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure that a single set-top box or receiver will be able to access all digital terrestrial television programme services on offer. One way of achieving that is by consensus within the industry. I believe that the ITC is trying to achieve that and we encourage it towards a satisfactory outcome. We need to look at the Bill in order to secure that.
As drafted, the Bill would allow incompatible receiving equipment to be developed for different multiplex services without any obligation on the multiplex providers to share the technical information necessary to enable each type of equipment to receive the whole package of multiplex services available in a given area. We are concerned that we do not end up with people having to buy —which they will be unable to afford —different black boxes if they are to have access. I noticed in a newspaper today that the Germans are very well advanced in the movement towards industry consensus for a single set-top box receiver.
200 We believe that the Bill should he strengthened. We are suggesting the amendments I have mentioned as a way forward. They introduce the need for co-ordination between multiplex providers so that they are co-ordinated and agree on a single box. Under the Bill as it stands, each multiplex provider is treated on a stand-alone basis. There is no provision for modifying proposals made by the successful applicant for one multiplex licence in the light of those made by successful applicants for other multiplex licences.
In practice, certain issues, most particularly the single receiver issue which we are focusing on here, need to be co-ordinated. These amendments are about co-ordination as regards the single black box. The matter needs to be co-ordinated on a system-wide level and these amendments are devised to secure that. Perhaps I may add that they refer at the moment only to the services licensed by the ITC. The participation of the BBC in the co-ordination would need to be secured and presumably that can be done by the Secretary of State. I am asking the Minister to give thought to giving power to the ITC to co-ordinate multiplex providers so that in the end we can have a single set-top box. I beg to move.
The Earl of Stockton
I welcome this package of amendments by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I take them further because if a person is one of those particularly square-eyed people for whom television is the be-all and end-all of life, one might be in the position of needing not only a multiplex decoder but a satellite decoder and, very possibly, a cable decoder. The reason for its considerable expense is that the multiplex digital decoder unit has a seriously large memory in it. It is to all intents and purposes a small computer. We should be able to persuade the industry, which has adopted a European stance on decoders, that it can provide add-on chips according to which of the services one wishes to take.
If the Government are as determined as they appear to be to persuade us all to go digital as soon as possible, the prospect of the television manufacturers introducing a completely comprehensive set without a box on the top if it has to have five or six different systems is remote indeed. However, if we can write onto the face of the Bill that there has to be a single compatible system (in the same way as the banks have agreed to a single compatible system for their hole-in-the-wall operations, where one uses different cards in a wide variety of holes) I do not believe that we cannot achieve the same technical standard and security, which is one of the issues of interest to the multiplex providers. We are talking about paying for our television and one has to be absolutely certain that people cannot get round the system. Therefore, it must he incumbent on the Committee to try to persuade the suppliers of equipment, boxes and services, to have a compatible system. I hope that my noble friend will look very carefully at this matter before we reach the next stage of the Bill and consult both manufacturers and broadcasters on the issue.
§ Lord McNally
We were talking earlier today about reasonable men doing reasonable things. One would 201 have thought that manufacturers and broadcasters would do what is reasonable in relation to the consumer, the viewer. But experience shows us that that is not always so. The noble Earl mentioned the experience of the banks. I have some experience of that in the 1980s when we were trying to persuade the banks to agree on EFTPOS. It was not an easy task to achieve any kind of compatibility because individual manufacturers of technology, individual banks and others saw small levels of commercial advantage here and there which worked against compatibility. The same may happen here. It may he thought that, once a viewer has signed up to a piece of technology, he has literally become a captive audience.
Therefore, I agree with the noble Earl and the noble Lord. Lord Donoughue, that it is not sufficient for the Government to take a passive approach. If the Government remain passive, matters will fragment and we shall not achieve the compatible system to which the viewer is entitled.
§ Lord Inglewood
I am grateful to the noble Lord for explaining how his amendment addresses the issue of a single set-top box for digital terrestrial television. Clearly the amendment would ensure co-ordination between multiplex providers on a single set-top box criterion for the award of a multiplex licence and would allow the ITC to set minimum requirements to be met by all applicants seeking those licences. Of course, implementation of the measures proposed for co-operation would then become conditions of the licence.
I have yet to speak to anyone who sees a successful future for digital terrestrial television involving more than one set-top box. After all, does anyone really imagine that viewers will be prepared to invest in a box which gives them only one half, one-third or one-sixth of the services coming on-stream? That just does not make commercial sense.
It is in the interests of every part of the industry to make digital terrestrial television as a whole attractive to the viewer. For example, last week I was discussing that very point with the Digital Television Group, which is an expanding group of manufacturers, broadcasters, transmission providers and prospective multiplexers. Members of that group told me, with no dissenters, that the only way that digital terrestrial television would get off the ground would be through co-operation. That is happening already. That is the rationale for the DTV group. That group came together spontaneously, not at the behest of government.
I find myself in complete agreement with the noble Lord about the end result. Again, it is the means to that end which may divide us. There are different ways to achieve a single set-top box for digital terrestrial television: the common interface is one, allowing viewers to purchase cheap add-ons to the basic box to accommodate additional access systems; there is also simulcrypt, which is a system which allows different types of conditional access systems to be receivable through a single box. At this stage, neither we nor the ITC can predict which conditional access arrangements will emerge for digital terrestrial television.
202 We believe that it is for the industry and not for the legislator or the regulator to determine the industry's solution. The industry does not need to he forced to co-operate: it is co-operating. European standards have been agreed and the television standards directive already requires that all services transmitted in clear must be receivable by all receivers. I do not see the need to go further and risk forcing what may he the wrong solution —and a costly solution —on an industry which is already seized of the commercial realities of digital television.
However, I understand the anxiety expressed by Members of the Committee that we should do all we can to ensure that applicants for multiplex licences are looking to contribute to the success of digital terrestrial television as a whole. I bear in mind also the need for multiplex providers to co-operate in implementing their proposals for promoting and assisting the take-up of receivers. Therefore, I am prepared to look again at whether there may be advantage in allowing the ITC, when it considers applications, to take into account the extent to which the applicant's proposals will contribute to the successful launch of digital television. I hope that that provides some reassurance to the noble Lord.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
That sounded helpful. Germany is proceeding in that way and, as the Minister said, there is the European television services directive. I suggest that, if there is no standard as regards set-top boxes, that will both inhibit the development of the market and risk again bringing in a monopoly control. We see that at the moment in relation to satellite. Ideally there would be one set-top box that would cover both digital and satellite. That would be ideal for the consumer, and the service provider would benefit by providing for the use of a smart card or whatever access arrangements may be in place. Is the Minister saying that he is prepared to consider a change to the Bill which will allow —not require —the ITC to take that into consideration in granting multiplex licences? As the Bill stands, it is silent on that issue.
§ Lord Inglewood
It is important to be clear that, in relation to additional access systems, we propose that it should be stipulated that there should be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory access to them. The DTI recently published a consultation document on the subject of conditional access. It is proposed that we should deal with the nuts and bolts of the licensing system as regards access to digital conditional access systems through legislation under the European Communities Act. Many of the noble Baroness's anxieties are dealt with outside the framework of the Bill because we are dealing with the matter in that different way.
I am prepared to look at the criteria that are to be applied by the ITC in determining who might be a successful multiplex licensee. As has already been mentioned by Members of the Committee, the key issue is to get the market to take the digital services. One of the characteristics that we are seeking to identify with 203 potential multiplex operators is the steps that they are taking to ensure that there is a successful roll-out of the system.
We feel that it may be appropriate to outflank some of the anxieties that Members of the Committee have expressed. We wish to meet their anxieties while at the same time ensuring that the market works properly. We do not know which way this will go. It would be extremely foolish to put a corset round the industry which might, with the best will in the world, lead to the industry going down a cul-de-sac. That is one of the surest ways of killing the whole thing stone dead. We feel that it may be possible to help to provide some kind of framework by looking at this matter along the lines that I have suggested.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 24 not moved.]
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 25:
§ Page 7, line 26, after ("achieved") insert ("including phasing-in arrangements and considering the potential impact on existing analogue services, especially those currently provided for people with sensory disabilities").
§ The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may link Amendment No. 26 with this amendment, because in both amendments we are seeking to link applications for licences to provide multiplex services. A technical plan has to be provided under the Bill with a timetable showing when the planned coverage will be achieved. The amendments highlight the need for existing provision for disabled people on analogue to be maintained until it is certain that equal provision is available on digital, and that disabled people have access to it in a given time to be able to afford digital receivers, and that they are made aware of that.
§ Anticipating the problems, and preparing to deal with them, are the keys to the provision of successful services. The reason for tabling the amendments is that we want to move from one system to another better one, but we want to ensure that all the advantages of the previous system are not lost. It will not be good enough merely to say that the advantages gained by the move are so great for the majority that it does not matter if there are losses for the minority.
§ If that loss happened to be a loss of text subtitling for deaf people, or talking teletext for blind people, the consequence would be to deprive them of television if they are severely impaired. So it is essential that the application for a licence should include in it a timetable for the phasing out of present analogue provision and proposals to protect the interests of disabled people. There must be no loss of the valuable text provision for both deaf and blind people.
§ The second amendment draws attention to the affordability of new systems. Many disabled people have low incomes. When the valuable old systems are dropped, they must be replaced by new ones which are affordable. Otherwise, we shall be benefiting the prosperous at the expense of the poor. I am sure that 204 both sides of the Committee and the Government would find that unacceptable. Nothing can be more confusing than new technology. The enthusiasts love it, but the rest of us just want straightforward information about how it benefits us and what, if any, are the snags. The amendment emphasises the need for that to be provided. It is as simple but as important as that. I beg to move.
§ Lord Inglewood
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for tabling the amendment. As I understood it, he spoke to Amendments Nos. 25 and 26. Therefore it might be appropriate for me to telescope my remarks to cover the two amendments. It provides me with an opportunity to give the Committee some assurances regarding the specific point that he raises and more general matters surrounding the future of analogue transmission.
The introduction of digital television will not mean that anyone —I emphasise anyone —loses access to existing analogue services. In the longer term, we hope that the coverage of digital terrestrial television can be increased to levels similar to that of current analogue transmissions. That in turn will open up the attractive possibility that when, and only when, the vast majority of the population has acquired digital receiving equipment, the frequencies currently used for analogue transmission might be released for other uses. The Government intend that to happen as soon as reasonably practicable and will, five years after the introduction of digital terrestrial television or once 50 per cent. of the population has digital receivers, whichever is the sooner, review the scope for setting a date on which analogue transmissions will end. But we do not propose to deprive people of the television services they currently receive by turning off analogue before they have the necessary equipment to receive digital, upon which programmes will be carried in parallel.
There will therefore be no effect on analogue services, including ancillary services such as subtitling, arising from the roll-out of digital equipment. On a minor point, and taking the amendment word for word, the timetable referred to in Clause 7, subsection (4)(b) will, in practice, need to cover any phasing-in arrangements.
I shall now deal with Amendment No. 26. The points the noble Lord makes here are at the very heart of the matter. If digital terrestrial television is to take off, it is going to need to be both affordable and accessible. But I believe our proposals as they stand address these points adequately.
Those who wish to run multiplexes will need to submit detailed licence applications which will be judged on three main criteria. One of these is their technical plan for the roll out of infrastructure. The greater proportion of the population their services will reach within a reasonable time —in other words the greater number of people who will be offered access to their services —the more chance they will have of being awarded a licence. That is a key element of accessibility.
Another criterion is the applicant's plans to remote or assist the acquisition of receiving equipment. One of the key issues here, indeed perhaps the key issue, will be 205 offering that equipment at an affordable price. If applicants can show they will be able to do that, it is more likely that they will get a licence.
There is also, as the noble Lord mentioned, the question of the affordability of any pay —TV services which are offered by digital broadcasters. Of course, as in any market, it will be in the interests of the suppliers of such services to ensure that they are affordable. Otherwise they will not be in business for long. And subsections (4)(c) and (4)(h) of Clause 7 allow the ITC to require information on the characteristics of the digital programme services to be provided and on the applicant's financial plans respectively. Under each of those areas, the commission could require information about the pricing of pay services.
I should mention, too, that the Bill stipulates that multiplex providers' licences will include conditions preventing them from showing undue discrimination for or against particular broadcasters. That will help to ensure that broadcasters pay fair prices for access to multiplexes and, in turn, that viewers pay fair prices for services. The proposals in the consultation paper, The Regulation of Conditional Access Services for Digital Television will introduce similar conditions in the licences to be issues to conditional access providers.
I suggest that it would be over-regulation to seek to impose on applicants for multiplex licences further requirements of the sort mentioned in the amendment, which would largely have the same effect as requirements already applicable. The bottom line is that those entering the digital terrestrial television market need to make their services affordable and accessible to all sections of the community if they are to succeed, and the Government, through the criteria which will be applied for the award of licences, will be giving them the strongest possible encouragement to do just that.
Having said all that, I fully understand the noble Lord's concerns, which closely reflect our own. I hope that my explanation of the way in which the matter will proceed will have reassured the noble Lord.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
I am most grateful again for the Minister's most constructive response. When I was trying, not very well, to read economics at university, great theorists used to tell me that there was such a thing as perfect competition. When they had explained that at great length, they would end by saying, "Of course you realise that there is no such thing as perfect competition". Having spent months trying to understand perfect competition, I could not understand the great academic minds —nearly as great as that of my noble friend Lord Donoughue —which were trying to explain those concepts.
When the Minister says to us that it is in the interests of the suppliers of the equipment to ensure that the equipment is affordable to everyone —that is a perfect market of course —let us assume that there are some deaf people and some blind people who, despite the noble efforts of the suppliers, cannot afford the new equipment. There are some very poor deaf people and some very poor blind people: what will happen to them?
§ Lord Inglewood
The point that the oble Lord makes falls into two parts. The first is related to 206 economic theory. In respect of that, I hope that he will look carefully at the remarks I made earlier when I was explaining the macroeconomic framework within which we believe the digital terrestrial revolution —that is what it is —will proceed. In particular, perhaps he will look at that part of it which relates to the criteria by which the multiplex licences are to be assessed and the actions that the applicants are meant to take to secure their licences.
The second point which the noble Lord made is different. It is a problem which always faces society: as long as something costs something, there is a possibility that someone who has less money than the item costs will be unable to afford it.
The right way to deal with the problem identified in the second part of the noble Lord's remarks is to study it in that context rather than in the context of establishing digital terrestrial television. I hope that those remarks are helpful.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 26 not moved.]
§ 9 p.m.
§ Lord Donoughue moved Amendment No. 27:
§ Page 7, line 29, leave out from ("broadcast") to ("areas") in line 30 and insert ("as to the quality of those services, as to the range and content of those services, and as to the regional").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 31, 32, 35, 37, 41, 43, 48 and 53. Amendment No. 27 deals with the issuing of multiplex licences. It provides that the ITC shall have power to ascertain the applicant's proposals as to the quality of its planned services. The subsequent amendments deal with the wish to insert a quality criterion.
§ A number of criteria are set out, including range and variety, mainly in terms of investment and technology availability. We are most concerned that quality should exist as a criterion. It appeared in the 1990 Act, which provided for a quality threshold. Viewers will expect high quality from digital television as they do from analogue. British television viewers have been blessed with television of the highest quality and they will expect that to continue. However, the Bill does not provide that the new digital services must meet the quality criterion. In our amendment to Clause 8 we require quality in some but not all services. We accept that at the beginning it would be too onerous to expect that in all services.
§ I can see that, from the Government's point of view, there is a question of balance. One needs flexibility and not too onerous requirements in order to get the whole revolution off the ground. When that happens we want the broadcasts to be of quality. I believe that the difference between the Government and myself is how one adjusts that balance. The Government's inclination is to dilute the quality requirement in the hope that that will encourage and make it easier for digital to get off 207 the ground. We do not want digital television without quality and, furthermore, we do not believe that it will get off the ground without quality.
§ We are seeking to introduce quality. We believe that the ITC would welcome the requirement that it should seek quality. That would ensure the high quality of the future services, which is what we are pursuing. Can the Minister give the Committee any comfort in that respect or is he saying that provided the new digital service can meet various technological requirements the quality does not matter? We would not be happy with that.
The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, says that the amendment is about quality. Having looked at the amendments in the group I believe that it is about much more than quality. Indeed, it introduces new aspects into the digital service. Amendment No. 31 provides for,high quality, new and original".
How are we to define what is new and what is original? I believe that if digital is to get off the ground we must not have too many thresholds because that will mean that we never have the service. How is the ITC or any other body to judge the originality of a programme? Amendment No. 48 provides for,of high quality…new and original…made within the area for which the programmes are to be provided".That is a most stringent threshold but the most bizarre requirement is the next, which is,calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests".What on earth does that mean? How does one define what is calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests?
We must be clear about the fact that the new channels, whether cable or satellite, have not been able to compete with existing mainstream channels. They have been able to enter new markets dedicated to films and so forth. We all want quality as such, and I believe that one can argue that some of the present satellite channels are of a high quality. However, in the end it is for the viewers to decide, and the purpose of the digital service is that we have choice. The proposal would give the ITC a role which goes further than we have ever considered in broadcasting. When there was a limited number of broadcasters it was possible to say to Channel 4, for example, that such and such was its remit. However, the digital service involves lots of channels and lots of people out there. I believe that the provision is so prescriptive that it will put people off.
§ Lord Donoughue
Perhaps I may answer the point raised by the noble Viscount. It is true that a number of requirements are made. We might have chosen to take each one separately and debated it at some length. I am not sure how popular that would have been with the Government Front Bench. We believed that at this stage, when we are probing the whole issue, it would be helpful to the Committee in progressing the Bill to put together a group of related matters. They are aspects related to quality, including new and original, even regional.
208 Secondly, in relation to ITV, the ITC already applies a number of criteria; indeed, it has quite strict requirements put upon it as does the BBC. We do not believe that it is appropriate that the digital sector should have significantly less requirements placed upon it. However, as I said, it is basically a probing amendment. We look forward to hearing from the Ministe, with any comfort that he may be able to give us on the matter.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
We are discussing a most important, sensitive and subjective area. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is right to say that one can be too prescriptive in terms of new developments. However, I was rather surprised to note that, as a former Minister of broadcasting in this Chamber, the noble Viscount was astonished by the proposed wording in Amendment No. 48 which refers to the necessity of catering for a wide diversity of "tastes and interests". He said that that was an astonishing definition and that it would be impossible to achieve it. However, I believe that I am right in saying that they are the immortal words of the BBC Charter and of successive broadcasting Acts. Indeed, that requirement has been the duty of broadcasting authorities over the years.
What concerns me in the matter is that, with all the new channels, new problems will develop and one accepts that there will be difficulties. Indeed, there is no doubt about how far one can go. However, if we look back to the proceedings on the Broadcasting Bill 1990, it will be remembered that many of us feared the absolutely damaging process that the Government of the day imposed of bidding for television franchises. That created the great danger of lowering standards in quite a dramatic way. Partly as a result of the campaign which was launched during the Committee stages of that Bill and partly because of the way that the ITC then interpreted the legislation we finally emerged with the quality threshold that was laid down.
Although, in my view, standards in ITV have dropped compared to what they were in the days when I was chairman of the IBA —hut then I would say that —I believe that the ITC performed a great service in imposing in quite a severe way the quality threshold that mitigated what might have been the totally damaging effect of simply giving a franchise to the highest bidder. I draw from that experience the lesson that, in the face of new technology, one has to do one's best in terms of legislation. It is the Government's responsibility to try to get the framework right and to get what might be called the countervailing forces in operation.
I return to an earlier debate this evening when the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, talked about a rather different subject in which I was most interested; namely, guaranteeing the access of public service channels on cable. The noble Baroness is, if I may say so in her absence, a very distinguished free-marketeer. I was most impressed that, as a free-marketeer, she seemed to he singularly unimpressed by the Minister's assurance that all was well because it could all be left to the market and that it would be in the great interests of the cable operators to provide full access to those channels. However, that clearly was not happening on Sydenham Hill.
209 It is very difficult to know where to draw the line. However, the lesson to be learnt is that the Government have a very high responsibility to try to get the ITC of the future (which will have to deal with all these new developments) empowered on the face of the Bill with some sort of strength so as to ensure that quality standards are sustained in the face of what will be very contrary market forces. Getting the balance right is important. It is also most important to give the public authority the necessary resources and legal powers so that it can try to get the balance right.
Perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. I do not disagree with much of what he said. However, I was trying to point out that, if we are to have these new channels, they will not necessarily mirror the channels that we have had before. Therefore, they might not be calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes; indeed, they might be very specific and calculated to appeal to a very narrow band of tastes because that might be the market for those channels. I do not disagree with anything that the noble Lord said about quality, I was merely saying that in my view the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, would go too far.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
I should tell the noble Viscount immediately that I entirely agree with what he said as regards a multi-channel situation. A channel may be of high quality but deal with a very narrow area of taste. I fully accept that possibility. It is the totality of the matter that is important.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
In responding to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, I should point out that Amendment No. 27 is grouped with quite a few other amendments to which I believe the noble Lord was speaking, although he did not, in fact, touch upon them in any detail. Therefore, with the leave of the Committee, I propose to confine my remarks to the generality of what the noble Lord said and thereby keep to a straight and narrow path.
In moving the amendment the noble Lord has shown his concern to ensure that digital terrestrial television provides programmes of high quality appealing to all tastes and interests. He also rightly emphasises the opportunities which digital affords for expanding regional programming and for providing new and original programmes. We share the aspirations of the proposers of the amendments. We share their enthusiasm for the new technology which promises so much. However, I fear we do not share the belief that those concerns can only be met, or even best met, and that opportunities will only be taken, if government decide what is best for the viewer, any more than government can or should with the printed word. Indeed we fear that that would sound the death knell for digital terrestrial television. Of course, if it does not happen, it will not show programmes to anyone.
I now wish to consider quality. One of the things we can be rightly proud of in Britain is our existing terrestrial television channels: the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 210 and, in Wales, S4C, which all produce programmes of great variety and high quality. That is the product of a statutory framework placing specific requirements on independent broadcasters who had a privileged place on the limited amount of spectrum available with regard to quality and diversity of programming —a framework which will also apply to Channel 5 when it is launched.
As the Committee will know, the Bill ensures that these channels with their public service broadcasting characteristics will be safeguarded arid translated into the digital age. Each of the existing terrestrial channels, and Channel 5, is being offered a guaranteed place on a digital multiplex. They are being offered those places on condition that their existing services —or, in the case of S4C, Welsh language programmes —are to be simulcast. All of the positive programme requirements placed upon independent broadcasters now will continue to apply in the digital future to these channels. There is absolutely no relaxation of standards or statutory requirements. The remits for Channel 3, Channel 4 and S4C continue. And, of course, the BBC will get a whole multiplex for BBC1 and BBC2.
This is a real and lasting commitment to quality television. It means that the broadcasters who have brought us "Survival", "The Trials of Life", "Equinox", and "Inspector Morse", "The Animated Shakespeare" and "Wallace and Gromitt" —that programme is popular with my children —all have a core place entrenched in broadcasting in the 21st century. Our guarantees to existing broadcasters mean that public service broadcasting is not merely safe but will be enhanced. But extending quality thresholds to the new services possible on digital terrestrial television just indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening. The whole point about digital is that the context for the regulation of terrestrial broadcasting changes with the increased availability of spectrum.
Our existing framework for terrestrial television is a response to extreme scarcity. There are, after all, only four channels. If one went on using analogue transmission, there would only ever be five channels. With digital there is the opportunity to provide three or four services where previously there was only one. This means 18 or more traditional terrestrial television channels. But the flexibility of the technology allows the multiplex provider to ensure that the spectrum is used much more efficiently, hour by hour and even second by second. This might well mean that at times and depending on the nature of the programme content there could be many more than 18 services being broadcast. Over time, as the technology improves, the possibilities will increase.
The effect of all this is that the introduction of digital technology means a new era for terrestrial television. It is not an era of expansive abundance like satellite and cable where perhaps 100, 200 or even more channels might be available. But it is no longer an era of real scarcity. We therefore need to consider most carefully the nature of the regulatory framework appropriate to the new services that digital technology makes possible.
In considering this new state of affairs, two particular concerns were uppermost in our minds. We wanted to ensure that digital terrestrial broadcasting was a business 211 proposition that added up. If it does not, no one will do it and the public will miss out. We also wanted to ensure that there really is a broadening of choice for the viewer. For digital terrestrial television to succeed, investors need to be able to put on the programmes that people want to watch and will be prepared to pay to watch. If statute and the regulator force them into a tight corset having to meet a galaxy of minimum standards for this, that and the other, they simply will not bother. They will not invest. That means that digital terrestrial television will not happen. It will remain a concept so fine and so pure that no actual service violates it, as there will not be any. The best can always be the enemy of the good, and in this instance, we believe, would slay it.
It is for that reason that the regulatory regime for the new services is light touch. I emphasise light touch, not easy touch. Each and every one of the licence conditions to maintain standards of taste, decency and impartiality are there to be enforced by the ITC just as they are for all broadcasters now, terrestrial, cable or satellite. But we do not think it appropriate to go beyond that and introduce positive programme requirements into licences for the new services. Apart from adding costs, that is, making the viewer pay more —if, as I said earlier, it did not have the effect of strangling digital terrestrial television at birth —it would assume that we know what is best and that viewers who will pay cannot make up their minds about what they want to spend their money on. Therefore, even where quality is guaranteed, all new material must also be passed through a rigorous quality-vetting process deemed unnecessary by Parliament for satellite or cable services.
Competition —and I do not use that word in any emotive sense —will be for the new services on digital terrestrial broadcasting. If digital terrestrial broadcasting does not take off, many of those services will be on satellite and cable channels. If such requirements were imposed, digital terrestrial services would be placed at a clear competitive disadvantage where the existing licensing regime has already proved itself successful in encouraging investment and expansion and in providing new programmes that people want to watch. It satisfies the public and has not engendered widespread moral degradation and corruption the length and breadth of the country.
As I said, the amount of digital terrestrial capacity available will not be limitless. To ensure that there is real diversity and choice for the viewer we have made a variety of programming services one of the main criteria for the ITC to apply in awarding multiplex licences. That will ensure that the proposals coming forward truly reflect the wide spread of tastes and interests of television viewers. It means that digital terrestrial television cannot be all of a kind, with head-to-head contests between rival channels offering the same material to the detriment of choice for the viewer. It means that multiplex providers and broadcasters will need to consider the needs and interests of every section of the television audience —news, entertainment, education, sport, community, local interests and so on.
212 I do not want to go into further detail on that subject because that is covered by other amendments and we have agreed that we shall leave them on one side for now.
I should like to conclude by referring to the telling point made by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. He said that precisely because digital services will not get off the ground without quality, broadly conceived and approved in general terms by the ITC, it must follow that we do not need to regulate for it.
I very much hope that what I have said has been helpful to the Committee and explains why the Government have taken this position on this matter. I very much hope that the Committee will consider that point, and will conclude that it is not appropriate to seek to press the amendment.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
The Minister has described the problem fairly and thoughtfully. However, is it not a fact that the ITC has pressed the Government for stronger provisions in the text of the Bill in respect of quality control?
§ Lord Inglewood
As is implicit in what I said, we do not agree with the ITC on this matter. We believe that to go down the road along which some siren voices are calling us might jeopardise the very existence of digital terrestrial television.
§ Lord Donoughue
The Minister has been very helpful. We have secured what we wanted in probing at this stage. The difference between us is that the Government see what we define as quality as an obstacle to digital television getting off the ground while we do not see it getting off the ground without some quality requirement. We say that for the ITC to have that requirement will raise the sights of the initial digital operators. I do not believe that it will in any way raise their costs or that it will deter anyone. In my view, we are well shot of anyone who is deterred by a quality requirement.
We are not talking of lofty cultural ambitions. We are talking about the ITC having the power and authority, and a requirement, to make inquiries and to establish certain basic standards. I still believe that that is a desirable objective. I believe that the ITC would welcome it. It is our experience that the ITC would not abuse such a requirement; it has a great commitment to see this measure succeed.
We may have to return to this matter. We have had a general but useful discussion. We shall consider returning to the issue at Report stage and may have to take the view of the House on it. The debate has clarified matters and has been helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 28 not moved.]
§ Clause 7 agreed to.213
§ Lord Desai had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 29:
§ After Clause 7, insert to following new clause
§ COMMON CARRIAGE SUBSCRIBER MANAGEMENT SERVICE ARRANGEMENTS
BETWEEN QUALIFYING DIGITAL MULTIPLEX LICENSEES
§ (" . —(1) This section has effect with respect to the making of arrangements which—
- (a) apply to all independent analogue broadcasters in the award of digital multiplex licences, and
- (b) provide for programmes made, commissioned or acquired by or on behalf of one or more of the holders of such licenses to be available for subscription in identical substantive circumstances by all customers of multiplex operators,
§ being arrangements made for the purposes of enabling digital television (taken as a whole) to be able to compete effectively with other television programme services in the United Kingdom. and in free, fair and effective competition one digital programme service with another; and any such arrangements are referred to in this section as "SMS common carriage arrangements".
§ (2) Any application from a independent analogue broadcaster for a digital multiplex licence shall, in addition to being accompanied by any such proposals as are mentioned in Clause 8 below, be accompanied by the applicant's proposals for participating in SMS common carriage arrangements made under this section; and where a person has duly made such an application, the Commission —
- (a) shall send details of his proposals for participating in such arrangements to the Director General of Fair Trading, and
- (b) shall not proceed to consider whether to award him the licence until the Director General of Fair Trading has communicated to the Commission his satisfaction with the proposed arrangements.
§ (3) If the Director General of Fair Trading is dissatisfied with the SMS common carriage arrangements at any time, whether before licence award, prior to commencement of services, or during the lifetime of the licence, he shall be empowered —
- (a) to alter the terms of the licence, or
- (b) to revoke it in its entirety.
§ (4) The provisions of subsection (3)(a) are to be exercised subject to a six months' period of notice, following consultation with the licensee and the Commission.").
§ The noble Lord said: I am in somewhat of a quandary as regards the amendment. I put it down rather late yesterday. I note that Amendment No. 187 in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, my noble friend Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, covers similar territory. In order to save everyone's time I shall not move the amendment.
§ [Amendment No. 29 not moved.]
§ Clause 8 [Award of multiplex licences]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 not moved.]
§ Lord Donoughue had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 32:
§ Page 8, line 33, at end insert ("and the extent to which such services (taken as a whole) may be expected to include programmes of high quality").
§ The noble Lord said: In our general misunderstandings about groupings, I had grouped this amendment with our discussions on Amendment No. 27. I should be happier if Amendment No. 32 were taken as grouped.
§ [Amendment No. 32 not moved.]
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 33:
§ Page 8. line 33, at end insert ("and to be accessible to persons with a sensory impairment:").214
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 33. perhaps I may make a few comments on Amendment No. 42.
§ It is extraordinary that after the vigour and tenacity displayed by disabled people in their fight for anti-discrimination legislation, this vital section of the Bill should have been drafted without mention of access for those with sensory impairment. It refers to the award of multiplex licences. The amendments put that right. The Bill as drafted makes nonsense of the fine words spoken by Ministers on the Disability Discrimination Act when they are compared with the omissions of this Bill.
§ When the Minister replies to the amendment, perhaps he will tell the Committee whether the question of access to the new broadcasting world for those with sensory difficulties was ever considered. If so, was it rejected; or was it felt to be unimportant? Let me assure the Minister that deaf people now, at last, enjoy television through sub-titling. They would not tolerate its absence on digital television. There would be marches in the streets if they were so deprived. I am sure that the Minister will do all he can to ensure not only that such access is provided for but is extended to digital television. Nor will deaf people tolerate that access being provided on a minority of the many channels that we are expecting.
§ There is no question that the provision of sub-titling is a matter of primary concern to sensory impaired people and it should be for those awarding the new multiplex licences. Quite frankly, I have the feeling that the people who are applying for the licences have not given this matter a great deal of thought. I am sure that the ITC is aware of it. I am sure that the Minister is aware of it. Organisations for the deaf and blind feel very strongly about the amendment. I have no doubt that many who are familiar with its implications will feel equally strongly.
§ Amendment No. 42 allows the commission to vary the conditions unless the appeal of the programme to a variety of tastes is unacceptably diminished. That is what the Bill says. However, once again the interests of those with sensory disabilities have been ignored or rejected by those drafting the Bill. The amendment seeks to remedy that. It is important to make clear to those who seek to vary the conditions of their licence —and I am sure they will for all kinds of reasons —that it will be a dereliction of duty to permit a diminution in the access of people with sensory problems to an unacceptable level. That would be intolerable. Accepting the amendment solves the problem. If the Minister can give a favourable response, many deaf and hard of hearing, blind and sight impaired people will be reassured. I hope that he is able to give such an assurance tonight. I beg to move.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
I am sure all noble Lords have every sympathy with the noble Lord's concern to ensure that digital television services are accessible to those who have a sensory impairment. The Government wish to do all they reasonably can to increase access to 215 television services for people with disabilities and also to encourage broadcasters to provide programmes of particular interest to those groups. I shall refer to those with visual or hearing disabilities. I am aware that broadcasting can provide valuable services to people with other disabilities as well. According to the latest figures from the British Deaf Association and the Royal National Institute for the Blind, there are 6.5 million deaf or hard of hearing and over 1 million visually impaired people in Britain —important groups, whose needs should be catered for by the media. Television and radio are a lifeline to some of those people, a large percentage of whom are aged over 60. They may be less mobile and rely more on broadcasting for information, entertainment and access to society. I think I can, in all honesty, say that the Government's record on this issue is a good one. The Broadcasting Act 1990 placed extensive but reasonable subtitling requirements upon broadcasters, and as a result over 50 per cent. of programming on the BBC and Channels 3 and 4 is now subtitled. That proportion will increase substantially over the next few years. The requirements will, of course, apply to their digital simulcast services.
We want to ensure that, where practicable, subtitling is provided for the new digital television services. The Bill therefore requires the ITC to publish a code giving guidance as to the appropriate nature and extent of such measures. Before doing so I expect the ITC to consult the broadcasting industry and groups representing the communities concerned. That will certainly include some of those represented today. I am confident that broadcasters and programme makers will recognise the importance of addressing those groups' needs and that they will look for new and imaginative ways to do so. We shall have a fuller opportunity to discuss the code in the context of the noble Lord's later amendments.
I spoke about subtitling. I am very much aware that subtitling, while invaluable to many, is less helpful to those deaf or hard of hearing people who, for reasons connected with their disability, do not have the fast reading skills necessary to read captions which may appear on screen only for two or three seconds. For many of those people, access to many programmes can he further improved by the provision of on-screen sign language interpretation which is already provided for some special interest programmes and which will be facilitated by digital technology. I hope very much that broadcasters will take advantage of this. Again, it will be within the scope of the ITC's code.
Technology known as Audetel is currently under development. By providing a narrative sound track allowing them to hear descriptions of scenes and action at times when there is no dialogue, this could significantly enhance the ability of visually impaired people to enjoy television. Digital technology will allow a programme to be broadcast with more than one sound track and this may provide added potential for such a service to be offered. I understand some existing broadcasters are studying the scope to do so. I am sure the ITC will take account of this in drawing up the code 216 of practice for digital television broadcasters to which I referred and more widely in carrying out its licensing remit.
I must, however, sound a cautionary note. The Government, the ITC and the broadcasters have taken a firm but gradual approach to the expansion of subtitling services and this has paid dividends. We have been able to work together to achieve a level, and quality, of service of which the broadcasters are justly proud, and we shall be building on that success to increase still further the percentage of programmes which are subtitled. Throughout this process we have had to hear in mind the cost of these services, and the need to train people to provide them. It would have been counter-productive suddenly to impose, out of the blue, onerous requirements on broadcasters. Similarly, we must bear in mind when looking at the new digital services that, if these services are to take off, enormous, and risky, investments will have to be undertaken by broadcasters and multiplex providers.
As I think everybody agrees, there is therefore a balance to be struck if we are not to risk holding back the development of digital terrestrial broadcasting. So far as hard of hearing and visually-impaired people's interests are concerned, the requirement in Clause 19 for the ITC to issue a code of practice is a good way of striking that balance. It would be in nobody's interests to place, from the start, obligations on new broadcasters so stringent that, combined with the need to finance new transmission infrastructure and to make receivers available at an affordable price, those obligations detracted from their ability to make programmes people want to watch, or indeed, discouraged them from investing in digital at all. I believe a similar effect would be occasioned by including, as a criterion for judging applications for multiplex licences and as the amendment proposes, the applicant's proposals for providing services for hearing or visually impaired people. Meeting such a criterion from the beginning, as well as being a significant additional cost which might detract from programming, would mean a departure from the principle that terrestrial broadcasting licences should be granted on the strength of programming proposals and on the capacity of the applicant to sustain the necessary expenditure to provide the service as widely as possible. Moreover, the money that licensees spend on, for example, subtitling might he money they cannot spend on keeping down the cost of receivers, or on rolling out transmission infrastructure. No amount of subtitling of digital programme services will be of use to the deaf viewer if he or she is not reached by the digital transmission signed or cannot afford a digital set.
Let me add that, once digital broadcasting has taken off and broadcasters and multiplex providers are showing a profit, it would be reasonable to expect them to increase their obligations towards people with disabilities and other disadvantaged sections of the community. I expect the ITC to take into account the profitability of digital terrestrial broadcasting every time it updates the code, which it will do regularly. I believe that taking this long-term approach will in the end result in a better service for those concerned than would asking broadcasters to do everything at a stroke.
217 Moving on very briefly to the amendment to Clause 11, referring to conditions on which the ITC will agree to variations in licences, subsection (3) of that clause is drafted with the intention of achieving a balance between multiplexers' and broadcasters' need for some flexibility in determining the nature of their programme services, in particular in order to react to market signals, and the ITC's need to ensure that licensees do not depart too far from the proposals contained in their licence applications.
Clearly, in assessing whether a particular variation in licence conditions would unacceptably diminish the capacity of the digital programme services broadcast to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests, the ITC will have regard to the tastes and interests of those with a sensory impairment. A multiplex provider will certainly not be able to get away with including in his licence application proposals to provide particular programmes or other services to particular groups, only to drop such commitments once he has safely been awarded a licence. However, I have set out why I do not believe it would he sensible to compel applicants for multiplex licences to include specific proposals for services such as subtitling in those applications or for applications to he determined according to that criterion.
I have deliberately taken time to set the scene, to give a clear picture of what we believe is the appropriate state of affairs. For the sake of completeness I should add that the Disability Discrimination Act already applies to broadcasters. What is proposed here is in a sense an additional tier of specific obligation and responsibility over and above that applied by the general law.
I very much hope that in the light of my remarks the noble Lord will feel reassured by hat we believe will happen.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
The noble Lord has taken a great deal of trouble, and I appreciate that. I do not intend to respond to him now, as he took us over ground to be covered by the next batch of amendments, which I shall move in some five minutes' time. Then I shall ask for specific figures to take the matter further. The Minister refers to a code of guidance, whereas we want a code of practice. He speaks of sign language and I shall go into detail on that. He spoke about audio description, which is also mentioned in the next batch of amendments. Therefore, I will not deal with those matters now.
The noble Lord spoke of the cost of subtitling. I should like him to bear in mind that for totally deaf people there is no television without subtitling. Unless they have wives as wonderful as mine, they simply cannot follow television. They must have someone to make notes and explain to them. When they do not have that, and if they are totally deaf and there is no subtitling, television does not exist for them. It is as simple as that. It is unbelievable that television in the 1990s does not exist for deaf people unless there is subtitling. That is the cost to deaf people. To speak of costs to people who are multi-millionaires is a little out of focus. I hope that the noble Lord will bear that in mind.
218 The noble Lord said that when digital takes off there will be an increase in subtitling. Perhaps I may tell him that today there is very little subtitling on satellite television. It has nothing like what is done by the BBC and ITV. Sky television has taken off but it does not do as much subtitling as others. The Minister does not put forward a very powerful case. I know that he presents it in good faith and I respect his views very much, but I should not like him to be misled into believing that everybody acts in that same good faith. In view of what he said, I ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The Deputy Chairman (Lord Skelmersdale)
I understand that the following amendments are not to be moved. If I am wrong, I am sure that I shall be stopped at the appropriate place. The amendments are Amendments Nos. 34, 35, 36 and 37.
§ [Amendments Nos. 34 to 37 not moved.]
§ Clause 8 agreed to.
§ Clauses 9 and 10 agreed to.
§ Clause 11 [Conditions attached to multiplex licence]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 38 and 39 not moved.]
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde moved Amendment No. 40:
§ Page 11, line 4, at end insert —
§ ("( ) that, while the licence is in force, digital capacity is available on favourable terms to encourage local, regional and national digital programme services and that these terms are to be published").
§ The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment. Under Clause 11 there are provisions for conditions attached to multiplex licences, and those conditions are listed. The amendment seeks to ensure access for small screen regional and local digital services so that they are not marginalised and so that we do not see undue pressure coming from the large screen service providers.
§ We all know a little about this Bill now. We know that wide screen provision takes up far more space than small screen provision. That is the top of the range that will be sold to the public. That will be the area that will attract a lot of resources. We are concerned that the broadcasting system in the United Kingdom should not lose the availability of local services —getting local services off the ground —as well as regional services, and that they are not marginalised.
§ I suggest that the Bill encourages large media companies. That is said quite overtly. The reasoning behind it is that they need to compete. In order to he able to compete in this new information world of entertainment and information education, the ownership of broadcasting companies needs to be allowed to expand. Understandably, there has been very strong concern expressed not only from these Benches but elsewhere that that might mean —though not intentionally in the Bill —the loss of the small local companies.
§ This amendment provides that it he a requirement of the ITC when looking at conditions attached to multiplex licences to require favourable terms to 219 encourage local, regional and national digital programme services and that those terms themselves are to be published. I beg to move.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining the nature of the amendment. She referred at one point to something akin to regionality. With the agreement of the Committee, I shall leave my comments on that until we reach Clause 63.
The amendment relates to a wish to ensure —or rather to ensure —more programming that reflects the interests of communities, local, regional or national, which in turn will be subsidised by the multiplexer and hence indirectly by the public and the other channels to be broadcast. I have three specific worries about the approach reflected in the amendment.
First, I fear that requiring multiplex providers to offer favourable terms to particular types of broadcaster would be to interfere far too much in matters which should be left to the commercial judgment of the multiplex provider and of the broadcasters with whom he is collaborating. I believe that there will be plenty of opportunity for all sorts of programming to be part of a multiplex. The variety criterion which we introduced will ensure that that is the case. I have not the slightest doubt that, quite apart from the activities of the public service broadcasters in this area of activity, local, regional and national programming will emerge naturally alongside many other types of service catering for all tastes and interests. There is no need to require it and so risk discouraging multiplex providers from applying for licences because they find the terms offered are so circumscribed and rigid that they feel it better not to get involved at all.
Secondly, it is unrealistic to expect every multiplex provider to find space for any one specific type of programming, which is the implication of the amendment. Indeed, that seems to work against the growth of diversity and variety which I believe all Members of the Committee hope to see in the digital age. In the future, I anticipate that multiplexes of a regional or local nature may well become available in addition to the six multiplexes currently planned. Those will be particularly appropriate for local, regional or national services.
Thirdly, the amendment is at odds with Clause 11(1)(f) which requires multiplex licence holders to show no undue discrimination against, or in favour of, a specific programme service or additional service providers. Members of the Committee apparently welcome that provision, yet we now see an amendment which cuts right across it. In that regard there appears to be some inconsistency. I hope that I have explained our thinking and that the noble Baroness finds my remarks helpful.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
I thank the Minister for sharing those worries with us. This is a probing amendment. We do not see the inconsistencies referred to by the Minister. But life is full of inconsistencies and we manage to live with them.
220 The Minister referred to matters of commercial judgment. I have seen commercial judgment operate sometimes to shut the small player out and ensure that the large operator has a ring fence for its own systems and services —in this case programmes. I listened carefully to all that the Minister said and will read his remarks tomorrow in Hansard. This is a probing amendment; we may return to it at a later stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 41 to 43 not moved.]
§ Lord Donoughue moved Amendment No. 44:
§ Page 11, line 20, leave out subsection (6) and insert —
§ ("(6) No order under subsection (5) shall be made unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.").
The noble Lord said: I can be brief. Basically, the amendment concerns the powers of the Secretary of State to unaccountably alter the whole nature of the Bill. The Committee will be aware that at the relevant point in the Bill, Clause 11(1)(j) says that,
at least 90 per cent. of digital capacity on the frequency or frequencies to which the licence relates is available for the broadcasting of digital programme services or qualifying services".
That is important. Subsection (5) says:
The Secretary of State may by order amend subsection (1)(j) by substituting for the percentage for the time being specified there a different percentage specified in the order".
§ That may be 3 per cent. We suggest that no order —for example, changing 90 per cent. to 3 per cent. —should be made unless a draft of it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament. In this House that is not a major constraint, but it is a protection. Several similar amendments are tabled and how we approach those will be conditional upon what the Minister tells us now as to whether the Secretary of State is exercising rather wide powers. I beg to move.
§ Lord Inglewood
The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, commented that the Bill contains a number of order-making powers. That largely reflects the continuing technological and commercial uncertainty of what is a fast changing world.
I was pleased to see that in its report on the Bill your Lordships' Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee concluded that it was in general satisfied that the powers delegated by the Bill were appropriate. This order-making power was one in respect of which the committee concluded that, on the material available to it, the negative resolution procedure appeared to be appropriate. Our rationale for providing that in the Bill was that the likeliest reason for using it was technological change altering the amount of spectrum needed to deliver services of various kinds, so that weighty policy issues would not be involved. Nevertheless, I accept the noble Lord's argument that an order which reduces the extent to which the broadcasting spectrum is actually available for programme services might well raise substantial issues, for which the affirmative resolution procedure would he justified.
221 If the noble Lord will forgive me, I should like to refrain from definitively agreeing to his amendment this evening. I should like rather more time to consider its ramifications. But I am in principle disposed to agree to it and to bring forward a later government amendment accordingly. On that basis, I hope he will agree not to press it today.
§ Lord Donoughue
I thank the Minister for that very positive reply. I shall indeed accept what he says and that will he my approach on other similar amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 45 not moved.]
§ Clause 11 agreed to.
§ Clauses 12 to 14 agreed to.
§ Clause 15 [Duration and renewal of multiplex licences]:
§ [Amendment No. 46 not moved.]
§ Clause 15 agreed to.
§ Clauses 16 and 17 agreed to.
§ Clause 18 [Duration and conditions of digital programme licence]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 47 and 48 not moved.]
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 49:
§ Page 18, line 11, at end insert —
§ ("( ) that in each year not less that 10 per cent. of the programmes are presented in British Sign Language").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 50 to 52. All parliamentarians know that there are well-intentioned policies in the clauses of any Bill but without precision and detailed targets they can be meaningless generalities which can easily be evaded. I regard these points as among the most important that I am able to digest in the Bill.
§ The deaf and hard of hearing and visually impaired people do not want a Bill exuding goodwill and glowing with good intentions. They want one that guarantees beneficial action. This amendment seeks to do that. It is undoubtedly necessary, especially in view of the Government's initial regrettable willingness virtually to bypass in the Bill the interests of sensorially disabled people. The Government have yet to show that they intend action to protect and promote the interests of sensorially disabled people, despite the welcome assurance from the Minister tonight. We know from experience that targets are essential. They are virtually the only way to get action.
§ Before the 1990 Act television was a nearly barren area for deaf people. Ninety per cent. of programmes were not subtitled. I pay tribute to the Minister involved, David Mellor, who was marvellous throughout the discussions on the Bill. That Act required Channel 3 to subtitle 50 per cent. of its programmes by 1998. The BBC and Channel 4 are conforming and Channel 5 will follow.
§ We now have 32 per cent. of programmes which are sub-titled, and next year it will be 37 per cent. The broadcasters are clearly following what is prescribed in 222 the Act —no more and no less. Nevertheless, it is progress. It is too slow, but it is still exciting for deaf people. It has already made a vast difference to them. There is now tremendous expertise in sub-titling and I congratulate the BBC and ITC under David Glencross for raising the quality of sub-titling for news and current affairs programmes to really splendid heights.
§ But the sub-titling of other programmes should he greatly expanded. The purpose of these amendments is to lay down targets for digital television. We should he clear —I hope the Minister will agree —that if no targets are specified in the Bill there will be no duty at all to provide sub-titles. It is essential not only that there is a duty, but that it is laid equally on all broadcasters, because sub-titling, as he said a few moments ago, imposes an additional cost. Therefore, logically, it would be quite unfair for some television people to bear that cost and others to evade it. I look forward to the Minister assuring the Committee that everyone who presents television programmes will be taking his fair share of the burden of the cost of sub-titling.
§ The target is for 100 per cent. sub-titling. The technology is available and the target of 100 per cent. is not unreasonable because it is only by that figure that we shall have equal access. Basically, that means equal opportunity. I recognise the need for phasing. We are not demanding that kind of figure overnight, but, unless that figure is in the Bill and phasing is understood and recognised, we shall get nowhere.
§ Digital technology will also give new opportunities to the more than 60,000 people born profoundly deaf and who rely on sign language. At present there is only one hour of sign broadcasting a week. I recognise that one reason why hearing viewers object to signing on screen is that it is visible to them and they do not need it. But, with digital technology, it is possible to have "a channel within a channel" so that the signer is only visible to those people who need it. This opportunity to give signing deaf people access to the television world should be taken. The 10 per cent. specified in this amendment is, if anything, too reasonable a figure and we should build on it.
§ The second amendment calls for up to 50 per cent. of output to be made available through audio-description for those with a visual handicap. It is now technically possible to provide a spoken explanation, as the Minister mentioned a few moments ago, during the gaps of dialogue and the actions of people in the scenes on television. That effectively makes the visual world of television meaningful for blind people. This method of audio-description is marvellous for blind people. It is wonderful, very simple and subtle and also very helpful. In giving a figure of up to 50 per cent., I again believe that we are being far too modest, but as a modest person, I am only asking for something which is very reasonable. I am tempted to believe that the Minister will condemn me for being far too modest. I hope that he will build on it and add to what I am suggesting.
§ I conclude by saying that Amendment No. 52 has a very simple and straightforward intent: that is, to give backbone to the code dealing with provisions for deaf and blind people.223
§ We all recognise and agree that codes are very slippery, like eels, and they can very easily wriggle away. Their value in establishing and publicising what can be done can he debased or destroyed if there is no commitment and no sanction. Just one major evasion of a code can lead to it losing all value because if one evasion is allowed, others will very quickly follow.
§ I am sure that all new licence holders will profess dedication to the cause of access for those with sensory disabilities. I hear them say that already. But I am sure also that they will testify dedication to other causes —for example, profits —to which they may give priority. The cause of the sensory disabled can be protected only by Parliament ensuring that a licence condition requires adherence to the code of practice. Licensees will take note of licence conditions. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond constructively to those positive amendments. I beg to move.
§ 10 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
My understanding is —no doubt the noble Lord will correct me if I misrepresent his intentions, and if I do so, it is unintentional on my part —that his amendments will require all digital television broadcasters to subtitle their programmes using close caption subtitles. Sign language interpretation would be required for another 10 per cent. and up to 50 per cent. would be accompanied by audio description. I shall deal with the amendments as a group because the same fundamental issues apply.
It goes without saying that the Government welcome the recent significant increases in the proportion of television programmes which are accompanied by Ceefax and Teletext subtitles. Those improvements are as a direct result of the provisions in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. I believe that they are an excellent illustration of what can be achieved by a sensible and gradual approach undertaken in full co-operation with the broadcasters. The virtues of such an approach are reflected in the proposals in Clause 19.
Those proposals require the ITC to draw up a code giving broadcasters guidance on promoting understanding and enjoyment of programmes by people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or partially sighted. Interested groups of viewers as well as broadcasters will be consulted by the ITC before the code is drawn up. That will provide an opportunity for full and frank discussion on exactly how the interests of people with sensory impairment can best be served.
I am sure that the Committee will agree that real achievements have taken place as a result of the codes and the work that has been done in connection with them. We believe that to state on the face of the Bill percentages of the sort proposed would be both arbitrary and inflexible. The great characteristic of the code is that it will be drawn up after extensive consultation and will he flexible in the light of technical and commercial developments. For example, if automatic voice-activated stenography were to be feasible in the future and adaptable to sub-titling technology, live sub-titling will become easier.
224 The noble Lord's next set of amendments affect the status of the code as regards whether it is to take the form of guidance or whether it is to be mandatory. That is obviously a crucial matter. But the achievements of the codes in the past give rise to great optimism. We believe that the code will continue to be an effective, flexible and adaptable device for achieving the kind of results which the noble Lord seeks.
I hope that he will agree also that, pending discussion, it is not appropriate at this stage for percentages of the kind which he suggests to appear on the face of the Bill. We believe that the way in which we are approaching the matter will best serve the interests of those who are suffering from sensory impairments. I hope that that will give some indication of the way that the Government's mind is working in that respect.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
I feel strongly about these figures and targets, but the Minister is being constructive and I appreciate that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 50 to 53 not moved.]
§ Clause 18 agreed to.
§ Clause 19 [Code relating to provision for deaf and visually impaired]:
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 54:
§ Page 19, line 15, after ("review,") insert ("following consultation with persons who have sensory disabilities").
§ The noble Lord said: It may he for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendments Nos. 55 to 57. In view of the lateness of the hour, I propose to do so in 60 seconds. The purpose of the amendments is, first, to strengthen the code by making it a code of practice rather than one of guidance. Secondly, they call for the code to be in such a format that those whom it is intended to help —deaf and blind people —can read it; and, thirdly, they propose that in the drafting and reviewing of the code there should be consultation with those whom it affects.
§ This is a simple and straightforward group of amendments. I hope that the Minister can accept them. I beg to move.
§ Lord Inglewood
I understand that some amendments may have been grouped with Amendment No. 54, but, as the noble Lord spoke to that amendment, I shall take it by itself. I have already made clear in a speech to the Media Trust that I expect the ITC to consult organisations representing the sensory impaired as well as broadcasters before drawing up its code. I am happy for that requirement to go on the face of the Bill if that is what the noble Lord would like to see happen.
I defer also to the noble Lord as regards the terminology to be used to describe those people with reference to whose understanding and enjoyment the ITC's code will be issued. I am therefore prepared to accept in principle, subject to full consultation with 225 lawyers, the inclusion of the term, "persons who have sensory disabilities". I hope that the noble Lord finds that encouraging.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 55 to 57 not moved.]
§ Clause 19 agreed to.
§ Clauses 20 to 24 agreed to.
§ The Earl of Stockton moved Amendment No. 58:
§ After Clause 24, insert the following new clause —
§ CESSATION OF ALL ANALOGUE TERRESTRIAL TELEVISION TRANSMISSIONS
§ (". —(1) The BBC and independent broadcasters shall cease all analogue terrestrial television transmissions fifteen years from the commencement of digital terrestrial transmissions.
§ (2) The BBC and the Independent Television Commission shall report to the Secretary of State on the progress of and prospects for digital terrestrial television every five years from the commencement of digital terrestrial transmission until analogue transmissions cease.
§ (3) Provision shall be made for the use of public funds to assist in the supply of digital decoders to such individuals or groups of individuals who can demonstrate financial hardship that would preclude them from purchasing such a decoder.").
§ The noble Earl said: With the leave of the Committee, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 62.
§ This new clause seeks to assist the Government, the broadcasters and the manufacturers by fixing a firm date at which the frequencies currently reserved for the five analogue channels can be released to allow the issue of additional multiplex licences and the provision of other services on the expanding digital network.
§ In framing the amendment I have had consultations with the principal broadcasting organisations, and with BREMA, the trade association of the equipment manufacturers. They endorse the Government's stated objective to bring about the transfer of television and radio broadcasting to the digital system as rapidly as possible. Like the Committee, they applaud the decision to act now, which will mean that Britain is in the forefront of the new technologies in this area, some years ahead of all our competitors in this growing field.
§ On 15th December last year, my right honourable friend the Member for Surrey South-West announced that she would be reviewing the date for switching off analogue frequencies once 50 per cent. of UK households were able to receive digital television, or after five years of the first multiplex licence period, whichever was the sooner.
§ The merit of that approach is that it recognises that digital transmission is a desirable long-term objective, since analogue transmission is an extremely inefficient use of the spectrum. For instance, it requires 16 separate frequencies for BBC1 alone to cover the UK. This transition from analogue to digital is more significant and of greater benefit to the public than the previous move from black and white to colour.
§ The drawback to the softly-softly approach is that it does not, in itself, bring about a more rapid transition to all-digital television transmission. It prolongs the 226 inefficient use of scarce spectrum resources, and defers the economic boost to the UK manufacturing, transmission and telecommunications industries that the Bill places in an enviably advantageous position. It also involves the broadcasters in prolonged increased costs from dual-running their transmissions on the two systems.
§ Perhaps of greater interest to my noble friend the Minister is that it also delays significant revenue streams to the Government from licensing alternative uses of the spectrum for new national, regional and local broadcast services, wireless, telecommunications and data broadcasting. Even if his own department may he cautious on the issue, were he to agree to these proposals he would find himself basking in the warmth of the Treasury's approbation, which is not, I imagine, an every day occurrence.
§ In welcoming the decision to go digital, the manufacturers and broadcasters have expressed concerns about the seriousness of the Government's intentions. They need to be sure that digital terrestrial television is going to happen and preferably within a time scale that allows for investment planning if they are going to make the very large financial, planning, design and marketing commitments required for set-top boxes, digital television sets and associated equipment. In developing their services and their distribution strategies for the next millennium, the broadcasters also need certainty and an assurance that they will not be bearing the duplicate running costs of simulcasting for an indefinite period.
§ To them, and to me, the disadvantage of the proposals announced by the Government, and not to be found on the face of the Bill, is that they merely put off the evil day. Indeed, it may be that the end-date may not be any different from that suggested in this new clause, but there will be an ugly rush as D-Day (D for digital) approaches. I would, for instance, encourage manufacturers to label products with a warning that the equipment will not be able to receive digital transmissions after a certain date; a sort of sell-by-date. There would be justifiable outrage if people bought analogue sets and then found the Government subsequently announced an end-date to occur during the life of their new television set.
§ Members of the Committee will share my concern that the closure of analogue broadcasting may potentially deprive those who are unable to afford the upgrade to digital reception equipment. This, I believe, may not be such a major problem. With a firm end-date the manufacturers will have an interest to go into mass production and marketing as soon as feasible with inevitably a considerable reduction in price. A closure date of 2012 gives plenty of time for most households to change sets as they would in the normal course of events. The industries assure me that the average life of a set is between 10 and 12 years. Lower income groups, who are the most intensive television viewers, have already shown a willingness to upgrade equipment, as evidenced by the penetration of satellite dishes and by the fact that more than 80 per cent. of UK households now have a video-cassette recorder.227
§ By the latter part of the period there will be an active second-hand market in set-top boxes, released from households as they gradually purchase digital television sets. This pattern was one of the features in the transition to colour receivers of a few years ago. I am also certain that a number of charitable and community projects will assist exceptional cases by recycling digital receivers and set-top boxes.
§ The penetration of new technologies is not easy to predict. If the take-up of digital terrestrial television is rapid, then there will be the need to consider bringing forward the termination of analogue transmissions. If, on the other hand, the take-up is much slower, then the Government would reserve the right to postpone the analogue end-date. This is why I have suggested setting two review dates after the introduction of digital terrestrial broadcasting. The Secretary of State would require the BBC and ITC to report on the take-up of digital receivers. This is work that they will be doing anyway as part of their audience research and programme planning.
§ There may be certain areas of the country where the transition to digital needs to receive special funding. An example would be areas of Wales where, because of the topography and the need to carry Channel 4 and S4C, there is already a shortage of frequencies to carry planned digital broadcasts. In my Amendment No. 62 the Secretary of State for Wales would be empowered to permit householders in those areas to be converted to digital reception on condition that they did not lose any of the services currently being received and that all the conversion costs were borne by the commercial beneficiaries; for example, the multiplex operators and new users such as data distributors and mobile telephone companies. I beg to move.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
I am most grateful to my noble friend for the way that he has moved his amendment. I should like to explain the Government's position briefly now and subsequently write more fully on the matter to my noble friend. We are certainly happy further to consider the issues that he has raised, with the possibility of bringing forward a government amendment. We have already announced our intention to review the prospects for analogue switch-off in five years, or when the household market penetration of digital terrestrial receiving apparatus reaches 50 per cent.
First, I believe that it is a mistake to set a firm date for switching off analogue transmissions at this stage. Secondly, it is our view that the timetable for reviews of progress needs to have explicit regard to the rate at which viewers, of their own volition, acquire additional digital equipment and to give an adequate notice of the proposed switch-off date.
Finally, Clause 15(4) of the Bill explicitly empowers the ITC to require multiplex operators seeking to review their licences to furnish a revised technical plan. The Government are not convinced of the case for 228 subsidising the take up of digital receivers from public funds or from the funds of those who might then use for other commercial purposes the spectrum which analogue switch off would release. However, I have indicated in my response to my noble friend that we are prepared to consider the matter further and, as I said, write more fully to my noble friend in that respect.
The Earl of Stockton
I thank my noble friend the Minister for that assurance. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 25 [Provision for broadcasting of services provided by independent analogue broadcasters]:
§ Lord Prys-Daviesmoved Amendment No. 59:
§ Page 23, line 27, at end insert —
§ ("( ) In exercising his power to issue a direction under subsection (2) the Secretary of State shall ensure that S4C Digital shall at no time be disadvantaged compared with other broadcasters in Wales; and before making such direction the Secretary of State shall consult with the Welsh Authority.").
§ The noble Lord said: My noble friend Lord Cledwyn has asked me to move the amendment. He regrets that he is unable to be in the Chamber at this late hour. The Minister will know that with this amendment we arc returning to an issue that we raised on Second Reading. It remains one of the principal concerns of S4C that it should be able to offer viewers programmes which are technically as attractive as any offered by their competitors. However, it is our understanding that the present arrangements, which are obviously not in the Bill but in the White Paper, fail to do just that.
I understand that S4C is advised by its engineers that the one-quarter multiplex solution will not allow S4C, or Channel 4, to deliver services in Wales to an acceptable standard. When the Minister dealt with the matter on Second Reading he was sympathetic up to a point. He said that the Government would,
not fail to take any future opportunity to increase the [digital] capacity available to S4C and Channel 4 in Wales should a practical possibility present itself". —[Official Report, 16/1/96; col. 562.]
§ Those words are loaded with qualifications. If one studies that response carefully it does not even promise that a practical possibility will ever be available. Does that represent the best engineering advice available to the Government? Alternatively, can the Minister give us an approximate indication of the later stage when the additional capacity can be made available? Perhaps I should say not necessarily "made available", but we would like a commitment that it would be available to S4C when the first practical opportunity presents itself. The word "first" is missing from the Minister's Second Reading response.
§ If S4C is not to be given a first opportunity, I should like to know why. Why is it not to be given a first priority? Is it correct that when the extra capacity becomes available it may be given to new channels before the needs of S4C and Channel 4 in Wales have been fully satisfied? Those are the concerns which have been expressed by S4C. I appreciate that the amendment229
§ was not tabled until yesterday and that therefore we may well have to return to the matter at a later stage. I beg to move.
§ Lord Inglewood
In view of the lateness of the hour I do not wish to speak for long. We believe that what we propose is the best compromise available to us in the circumstances. We are providing guaranteed places for S4C and Channel 4 in Wales. This will bring both services to more people. S4C will be able to add to its schedule once it is free of the need to broadcast Channel 4 programmes. I am extremely happy to give the noble Lords who tabled this amendment my assurance that we shall look carefully at the results of the frequency planning exercise, and review the position should it not turn out as I have indicated. I am also happy to assure them that we shall continue to keep S4C's position 230 under review should extra capacity become available in the future. I hope that that will provide appropriate reassurance for the noble Lords.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
In the light of the Minister's response today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Inglewoodmoved Amendment No. 60:
§ Page 23, line 42, leave out from beginning to ("and") in line 44.
§ [Amendments Nos. 61, 62 and 63 not moved.]
§ Clause 25, as amended, agreed to.
§ House resumed.
§ House adjourned at twenty-two minutes past ten o'clock.