HC Deb 16 April 1991 vol 189 cc131-2W
Mr. Moss

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement about ultra high frequency television coverage and the future of the relay programme in the light of the prospective privatisation of the transmission operation system previously owned and operated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

The announcement made on 4 July 1989 by the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), confirmed that it was our intention to privatise the transmission networks owned and operated by the BBC and the IBA as soon as we were in a position to do so. The IBA welcomed the proposal and the Broadcasting Act provided for the IBA's replacement by two new regulatory bodies—the Independent Television Commission (ITC) and the Radio Authority—and a transmission company which is to be privatised. The transmission company, National Transcommunications Limited (NTL), started trading on 1 January this year. The position of the BBC's transmission operation will be reviewed in the run-up to the expiry of its royal charter at the end of 1996.

The existing BBC and independent television services currently reach about 99.4 per cent. of the United Kingdom population. The BBC and the IBA have shared responsibility for a rolling programme of relay station construction. The current policy on the relay programme was announced on 20 May 1980 by the then Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw, who said that approval had been given to proposals to extend UHF coverage to groups of fewer than 500 whenever it was reasonably practicable to do so. Because of the varied nature of these small groups, there could be no obligation on the BBC and the IBA to provide a service to them and a precise lower limit could not be specified. In practice, groups of fewer than 200 have not benefited from the programme.

In addition, the 1980 statement announced new arrangements for self-help television schemes, generally serving groups not qualifying under the relay programme. There are now over 300 groups covered by the scheme. The BBC and the IBA have provided advice on the new schemes which are continually being established.

It is our aim to see existing UHF television coverage of the four main terrestrial channels maintained and increased where appropriate. We have agreed that the existing programme of up to 25 relay stations a year should be maintained until 1996 when we will reconsider the position, including alternative forms of delivery. We have also agreed that the BBC and the ITC should continue to be responsible for providing advice on new self-help schemes, with assistance from NTL.

The BBC will continue its part of the relay programme as at present. The ITC will work with the BBC to determine the order and rate at which the stations are to be constructed, co-ordinating with the ITV companies or Channel 3 licensees, Channel 4 or S4C as appropriate. Responsibility for the IBA's share of relay planning and construction will fall to NTL. Until 1993 the necessary additional coverage requirements will be implemented by means of the contracts between the ITC and the ITV companies, and the contracts between those companies, Channel 4, S4C and NTL. From 1993, the Broadcasting Act provides for the ITC to set technical standards of quality, coverage and reliability in the Channel 3 and 4 licences and for the Welsh Authority to provide S4C to high technical standards. NTL will be obliged by its own Telecommunications Act licence to provide services enabling the ITV, Channel 3 and Channel 4 companies and S4C to meet the required standards of coverage which will include the continuation of the relay programme until 1996, or as then further decided.

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