Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


8.  Joint Memorandum submitted by the Welsh Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  This memorandum has been submitted jointly by the Welsh Office and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and is based on the key issues outlined in the Welsh Affairs Committee's Press Notice of4 August.

  1.2  The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for the regulation of broadcasting, and will retain this responsibility following the creation of the National Assembly for Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales is responsible for the establishment of the National Assembly.

  1.3  The Secretary of State for Wales intends that the proceedings and affairs of the Assembly should be conducted in as public and transparent a manner as possible. This was made clear in the Government's White Paper "A Voice for Wales" (July 1977); and the Government of Wales Act 1998 (Section 70) places a number of requirements on the Assembly to ensure that it operates in an open way.

  1.4  The consultation paper of the National Assembly Advisory Group (NAAG) in April 1998 recognised that the way in which the majority of people would be able to keep most closely in touch with the Assembly and its work would be through television and radio coverage. NAAG therefore proposed (paragraph 7.11 of the consultation paper) that broadcasting facilities should be planned as an integral part of the development of the Assembly's main home and wider network; and that as much as possible of the Assembly's proceedings should be available to as wide a public as possible. NAAG's final report, published in August 1998, recommended (at paragraphs 4.2 and 5.3 respectively) that the Assembly's plenary sessions and those of its committee meetings held in public should be accessible to broadcasters wishing to record the proceedings.

  1.5  The Secretary of State for Wales shares these views and believes that the practical task of creating the National Assembly offers a unique opportunity to use modern communications, including broadcasting, to encourage the people of Wales to take a close and participative interest in the Assembly and its work.

2.  BROADCASTERS PLANS FOR COVERING THE ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS

2.1  Party political broadcasting

  The Government is not responsible for the allocation of party political broadcasts for the Assembly elections. Party political and party election broadcasts are matters for the broadcasters and the political parties, who will have to devise a formula for deciding the number of party political broadcasts to which each party is entitled in the course of the Assembly election campaign. (In parliamentary elections, party political broadcasts are allocated according to the number of votes each party won at the previous election). The Registration of Political Parties Bill provides for party political broadcasts to be restricted to political parties.

2.2  Voter education/Additional Member System

  The Government will be launching a public information campaign, nearer the time, on how to vote under the new Additional Member System. Consideration is being given to the best medium, or mix of media, for communicating this information.

2.3  Coverage of the Count

  The Assembly elections, on 6 May 1999, will be combined with the unitary authority elections on that day. The Secretary of State for Wales has accepted the recommendation of the Assembly Elections Working Group (comprising Welsh Office officials and representatives of the returning officers and elections administrators in Wales) that the counting of the two votes in the Assembly elections (constituency and electoral region) should start on the Friday morning after polling day ie 7 May 1999. This is designed to ensure that the Assembly counts are carried out as efficiently as possible, with a co-ordinated Friday morning start throughout Wales. It will be for the relevant returning officer to decide when to hold the unitary authority counts. It will be for the broadcasters to decide how to cover the counting and the announcement of results on 7 May.

3.  BROADCAST COVERAGE OF THE ASSEMBLY ITSELF

3.1  Welsh Office Task Group

  The Welsh Office is working in close partnership with the principal Welsh broadcasters: BBC Wales, HTV Wales and S4C. The Department established a task group earlier this year, which includes representatives of the broadcasters and written press in Wales, to advise the Secretary of State for Wales on the detailed arrangements for broadcasting the Assembly and subsequently to ensure that those arrangements are in place by the time the Assembly first meets in 1999. It will then be for the Assembly itself to revise or adjust those arrangements as it sees fit. The terms of reference and membership of the Department's Task Group on Assembly Broadcasting are at Annex 1.

  3.2  The Task Group has submitted to the Secretary of State for Wales its recommendations on the principles and rules of coverage for broadcasting the proceedings of the Assembly (Annex 2). He will be referring these issues for consideration by the all-party Assembly Preparations Group, which he has recently established to ensure continuing political consensus on a range of practical matters relating to the establishment of the Assembly.

3.3  Other broadcasters

  In addition to the broadcasters represented on the Task Group, the Welsh Office has also sought to establish the intentions of other operators concerning coverage of the Assembly. There has been a limited response to date but the Chairman of the Independent Television Commission has offered the Commissions' active support in encouraging the network broadcasters to report the work of the National Assembly in a full and proper way. The Secretary of State for Wales welcomes this, since he believes it to be of fundamental importance that the Assembly should be reported as widely as possible throughout the UK and beyond, as well as in Wales.

4.  COSTS OF COVERAGE AND MANAGEMENT ARRANGEMENTS

  4.1  The Welsh Office is also working in a spirit of close partnership with the broadcasters on the associated financial and management arrangements. To provide for a continuation of that partnership under the Assembly, and to safeguard the legitimate interests of both the Assembly and the broadcasters, the arrangements are likely to be on a similar basis to those operating at Westminster. This means that a contract will be let to a host broadcaster who will then produce the signal for the Assembly and the broadcasters to use. On present thinking, these arrangements would be overseen by a management board comprising representatives of the Assembly and the broadcasters.

  4.2  The broadcasters have been consulted on the specification for the host broadcaster and are represented on the tender evaluation panel. The Welsh Office aims to award the contract in October 1998. The cost of managing the broadcast signal will be known once the contract has been awarded. The Welsh Office is currently discussing with BBC Wales, HTV Wales and S4C how these costs will be apportioned.

4.3  Assembly accommodation for broadcasters and press

  A permanent Host Broadcast Centre will be established in Crickhowell House, adjacent to the temporary main chamber. From this central technical area, the host broadcaster will provide coverage of activities within the main chamber and committee rooms. The host signal will be fed to the various broadcasting organisations for their own editing and use. These organisations will also have permanent space in Crickhowell House.

  4.4  In establishing the temporary facilities for the Assembly, one of the main requirements has been that the design of both the chamber and committee rooms must be suitable for broadcasting. The Welsh Office has commissioned the services of an independent broadcasting specialist to provide the necessary technical input into the building and infrastructure design.

  4.5  Similar care will be taken in the design of the new building. Based on a collaborative document produced by the broadcasting organisations, outline requirements for effective presentation of the Assembly have been included in the New Build Design Inception Brief. This brief will need to be expanded as the scheme progresses into detailed planning later this year.

  4.6  The Welsh Office is currently considering the mechanisms which will also need to be put into place for effective monitoring and regulation of the Assembly's broadcasting arrangements. This could be done by means of the proposed management board, and the working assumption is that these matters would fall within the jurisdiction of the Assembly's Presiding Officer. Again, this is an issue on which the Secretary of State for Wales expects to seek the views of the Assembly Preparations Group.

5.  ASSEMBLY TELEVISION COVERAGE THROUGHOUT WALES

  5.1  For some viewers in Wales, the only television signals they can receive are English broadcasts. In addition, in areas where there is a choice of signal, a significant proportion of viewers choose to receive broadcasts from England in preference to those from Wales. The Secretaries of State would welcome an extension of the potential of Welsh broadcasters to reach audiences in Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales has urged the broadcasters to do all that they can to make this possible, including taking maximum advantage of developing broadcasting technologies such as digital transmission and cable distribution.

  5.2  The increasing integration of information technologies offers opportunities to supplement the interpreted broadcasting of the Assembly's proceedings by distributing both text-based and visual information over various networks, including the Internet, to locations such as schools, colleges, libraries and local authorities throughout Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales is keen to maximise these opportunities.

6.  ROLE OF THE ASSEMBLY IN SCRUTINISING BROADCASTING IN WALES

  6.1  The Government has said that, following devolution, responsibility for S4C and for broadcasting in general will remain with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. There are two important reasons for this. First, although technical changes are creating more opportunities for regional and local broadcasting, such services are increasingly provided by national or multinational concerns. The Government believes that this must be recognised in the making of policy. Regulatory frameworks should be national ones so that the competitiveness of the UK broadcasting industry is not impaired by multiple regulation. Second, the broadcasting spectrum is a scarce resource, which is more efficiently used if allocation is planned on a UK basis.

  6.2  This does not however exclude the Assembly from considering broadcasting matters, and expressing its views, since it is empowered to consider all matters relating to Wales. The Assembly will be able to call witnesses to assist its considerations; and it will be consulted about appointments to the S4C Board and about Welsh representation on other broadcasting bodies. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport also intends to consult the Assembly on all broadcasting issues with distinctively Welsh implications, and to consider how the Assembly's legitimate interest in many broadcasting issues can best be met. The broadcasting regulators will place their annual reports before the Assembly to inform and assist its considerations.

  6.3  In addition, the Secretary of State for Wales will be able to continue to make his or her views on broadcasting issues known within the Government.

7.  IMPLICATIONS FOR WALES OF DIGITAL BROADCASTING

  7.1  Digital broadcasting is a new, more efficient way of transmitting radio and television services. It allows much more information than before to be transmitted on a single frequency channel. As a result, digital transmission can offer viewers and listeners more choice, extra services, interactivity and higher quality picture and sound. Digital test transmissions have already started in some parts of Wales and the commercial multiplexes hope to start full digital terrestrial services before the end of this year. The Welsh transmitters included in the launch plan are scheduled to be fully operational within 12 months of the launch date. The existing analogue services of the BBC, the ITV network, S4C and Channel 4 will be replicated (simulcast) on digital.

  7.2  Nine of the 81 transmitters included in the digital terrestrial television launch plan are in Wales. Spectrum constraints presented by the topography of Wales mean that the three multiplexes carrying the digital simulcasts of analogue services will achieve a coverage of between 63 per cent and 70 per cent of the Welsh population. The bulk of remaining digital services will, when launched, achieve significantly less coverage (again due to spectrum constraints).

  7.3  Cable distribution of television services (including future digital transmissions on cable) is not subject to topographical interference. Cable services are most cost-effective in areas of high population concentration and broadband cable provision has to date focused on South Wales. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) awarded the broadband cable franchise for North Wales and South Cheshire in July to Metro Communications Ltd. This will mean that 30.5 per cent of the population of Wales will be covered by broadband cable provision.

  7.4  The Government is presently consulting on the transition from analogue to digital television. Responses to the consultation document including responses from broadcasters in Wales are being considered. Several respondents have commented on the delivery of digital terrestrial services to areas which will not be reached by the services included in the launch phase. The Government will be taking forward consideration of how best to deliver digital services in Wales in discussion with the ITC, the BBC and broadcasters.

September 1998


 
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