HL Deb 08 November 2004 vol 666 cc608-10

2.44 p.m.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they accept Ofcom's recent proposals to reduce regional ITV output to particular areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, the second phase of Ofcom's public service television review, published on 30 September, is out for consultation. In it, Ofcom has proposed that ITV1's regional programming obligations for the English regions should be reduced from three hours to one and a half hours a week. No reduction has been proposed for regional news obligations or regional programming within peak hours. At the same time, Ofcom proposes to increase the quotas for out-of-London production on the ITV network. Following the consultation, Ofcom will finalise and publish its conclusions and recommendations. It is not appropriate for the Government to comment during Ofcom's consultation.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware of the widespread concern in the regions that the implementation of such a proposal would cause a number of job losses and the closure of many independent TV production companies?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am aware of concern that has been expressed very considerably in the media. However, my Answer said that Ofcom proposed to increase the quotas for out-of-London production, which is, after all, where any job losses might lie. I am sure that Ofcom will take that into account in the response that it will give to the consultation.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that, while the voters in the north-east have recently roundly rejected the opportunity to have a regional assembly with virtually no executive powers, those same voters, if asked, would undoubtedly reject any proposal to reduce regional programmes produced by, for instance, Tyne Tees Television?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, without necessarily accepting the premise, I accept the conclusion.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, can the Minister go a little further on an aspect of the proposals that extends a little from the Question on Ofcom's suggestions about ITV's public service remit obligations? Is it not suggested that, as well as there being a reduction of those obligations, a discount will also continue in terms of ITV's access to the airwaves? How will that work? It continues what already exists, obviously as a quid pro quo for it having its public service obligations.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not sure that I fully understand the noble Viscount's phrase about a discount for access to the airwaves. Two sets of licence negotiations are in progress. One is for the digital replacement licence, on which a decision has to be reached by the end of this year. In some cases, there is the issue of the extension of the existing analogue licences. However, those are carried out without particular reference to the very limited reductions that Ofcom proposes in non-news off-peak regional programming.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, I must declare an interest as a former religious affairs adviser to Yorkshire Television. Does the Minister accept that there is a risk in placing too heavy a burden on the BBC's local coverage, not least in the duty to maintain a proper balance between private and public provision in the area? That clearly has an impact on the potential delivery of religious broadcast services. Will he ask Ofcom to bear those concerns in mind in making the proposals?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I entirely agree. It certainly ought not to be left to the BBC to cover regional programming. Our position has always been that a plurality of public service broadcasting obligations is not only desirable, but necessary. It is not for me to make that suggestion to Ofcom, because it is listening and consulting, but it has already been done through the right reverend Prelate's question.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, what effect would the proposals have, if adopted, on the percentage of high quality public service broadcasting programmes currently available to children?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think that there is a single answer to that. Clearly, that is one of the issues which Ofcom will consider. I should say that Ofcom has published a very detailed volume as part of the second stage of its review, entitled Reshaping television for the United Kingdom's nations, regions and localities, which contains not only detailed factual analyses of what is on offer and the nature of the audiences, but a good deal of attitude research about people's views on these matters. I recommend the document to those who are concerned with this issue.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, does the fact that people in England seemed less enthusiastic than the Government had hoped regarding thinking of themselves as living in regions, would Ofcom not be wiser to talk about locally produced, rather than regionally produced, broadcasting? That sounds much more attractive and much more likely to bring in the viewers.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, again, without accepting the premise, I have just read out the title of the Ofcom consultation paper, Reshaping television for the United Kingdom's nations, regions and localities. If the noble Baroness looks at that document, she will find that she is right in the sense that people do have a strong identification with localities—in some cases a stronger identification with localities than with regions.