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Ilois People

15. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): If he will conduct an environmental and ecological assessment in those areas of the Chagos archipelago and Diego Garcia which have been uninhabited for 30 years, before considering facilitating the return of Ilois people to the land of their ancestral graves. [141975]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): I am p]eased to inform my hon. Friend that we have already completed the first phase of a study into the possibility of settlement on the outer islands of the Chagos archipelago. The study identified the significant difficulties in establishing a resident community after three decades in which the islands have been uninhabited. We are now preparing the second and third phases of the feasibility study. They will include an assessment of how best we protect the rich ecology on islands that have long been left undisturbed.

Mr. Dalyell: In light of the document of 13 November 1970, which was recently released under the 30-year rule and which I have given my right hon. Friend, do not the Ilois and, indeed, my right hon. Friend and I, who asked questions, and the House of Commons as a whole, have a right to feel aggrieved and deceived at the cynical attitude of the Foreign Office of those days? In the light of the documents revealed in the Public Record Office, do not we owe it to the Ilois to make it up to them?

Mr. Cook: I would have to agree wholly with my hon. Friend's comments on the document, which I have read. The only accurate sentence that I can find in it is the one that says:

That was 30 years ago. In the recent court case, we were open in disclosing hundreds of documents from that period. I am grateful to Lord Justice Laws for commending the openness of the Foreign Office of today, perhaps compared with that of 30 years ago.

We have accepted the judgment; we are not appealing against it. We are now looking hard at whether it is feasible to restore a settlement on the outer islands of the archipelago. That is the best way in which we can take the matter forward and do the justice for which my hon. Friend asks.

EU Co-operation

17. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): What recent discussions he has held with his French, German and Italian counterparts about reinforced co-operation between member states of the EU. [141977]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): Several.

Mr. Wilkinson: In his statement yesterday, the Prime Minister took pride in the fact that there are issues on which some EU member states can move ahead faster than others. At the same time, however, that process will be subject to the national veto. How are those positions

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compatible, particularly since any grouping of member states comprising more than 38 per cent. of the population of the EU can, in effect, go ahead and do what it wants?

Mr. Vaz: Not on defence.


18. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): What discussions he has had with his counterpart in Cyprus regarding inter-community relations; and if he will make a statement. [141978]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): During his most recent meeting with the Cyprus Foreign Minister on 3 October, the Foreign Secretary welcomed the progress made so far in the on-going United Nations-Cyprus proximity talks. The discussions also covered the necessity for both sides to remain fully engaged in the UN proximity talks, aimed at securing a just and sustainable settlement in Cyprus, which will benefit both its communities. The United Kingdom remains strongly supportive of the UN process and is working hard to ensure that all involved

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continue to co-operate fully with the UN Secretary- General's efforts to achieve a comprehensive settlement in Cyprus.

Mr. Love: My hon. Friend will be aware that Mr. Denktash, the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, has indicated that he will not take part in further proximity talks. What efforts are the Government making to ensure the continuation of dialogue between the two communities in Cyprus, and what pressures are they bringing to bear to ensure meaningful dialogue leading to a resolution of the conflict on the island?

Mr. Vaz: I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he has done on this issue and on the number of times that he has raised it in the House. It is vital that dialogue continues between the communities, and we have every confidence in the abilities of our special representative, Sir David Hannay. My hon. Friend will know from his meetings with Sir David and others involved in this sensitive process that we want all groups to participate. As the Prime Minister said on 23 December 1998, we want to see a just and lasting settlement for Cyprus.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: After the statement, sir.

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Communications White Paper

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): I should like to make a statement on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and myself on the communications White Paper "A New Future for Communications", which was published today and produced jointly by our Departments. Copies have been placed in the Library, and the White Paper is also available on the world wide web.

We are living at a time of revolution in the ways in which we communicate. The worlds of telephony, broadcasting, mobile communications and the internet are changing and converging with astonishing speed. Meanwhile, our current regulatory framework was designed for a different age. We need to update the framework of regulation, and put in place a system that recognises the current fast-changing picture and can cope with the inevitability of change in years to come. The White Paper prepares us for that future, and will set up modern regulation for a modern world.

We will be creating a new regulator--an Office of Communications, or Ofcom. The new regulator will cover all communications--telecoms, television and radio. It will help to give the United Kingdom a world lead by creating a new framework for those fast-moving industries. It will simplify and rationalise the regulatory system. It will provide a broadly lighter-touch approach, giving the industry the opportunity to act with responsible freedom. However, it will robustly uphold important standards of quality and protection for citizens.

For citizens and consumers, it is essential that we provide some certainty in what, for many, will be a world of bewildering change. We therefore aim to protect the high quality of broadcasting which we all tend to take for granted. So we are strengthening our commitment to public service broadcasting, to investment in the distinctive voices and needs of the regions, and to the importance of rules such as the watershed, to make sure that parents and citizens can protect children and vulnerable people from unsuitable broadcast material.

The challenge is both to free our industries from outdated rules, helping to promote competition in these markets, and to balance that with a framework which puts the needs of the citizen at its heart. If we are to meet this challenge, we need to think beyond the traditional compartments of broadcasting and telecommunications, of content and carriage.

That is why Ofcom will regulate the broadcasters--both radio and television--and the telecommunications sector; both content and the communications networks that carry services. It will jointly regulate competition policy with the Office of Fair Trading. It will also manage spectrum, thus covering the range of responsibilities at present exercised by the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority, Oftel, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Radiocommunications Agency.

The White Paper sets out a number of specific proposals, which are encapsulated at the end of the document, and also in a summary leaflet which we are publishing simultaneously. In this brief statement I can do no more than select some of those which I think will be of most concern to the House.

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In developing the policies for the White Paper, my right hon. Friend and I set three main objectives: first, to ensure universal access to a choice of diverse services of the highest quality; secondly, to make the United Kingdom home to the most dynamic and competitive communications and media market in the world; and thirdly, to ensure that the interests of citizens and consumers are safeguarded.

Everyone should continue to have easy access to public service television and radio channels, as now, free at the point of delivery. The White Paper therefore sets out our proposals to ensure that television channels currently available free to air are carried on all platforms--satellite and cable, as well as through the television aerial. We intend both a "must carry" obligation on UK-based network providers, and a "must provide" obligation on the public service broadcasters.

Other communications services should be available to all at an affordable price, and we shall build on the universal telephony service obligations and Oftel's work to secure competition, so that people can increasingly benefit from new services, including the internet and higher bandwidth services. The Prime Minister has already made clear our commitment that everyone who wants it should have access to the internet by 2005. We are committed to ensuring that there is no digital divide, and that everyone should benefit from the information opportunities that are opening up.

In a world of increasing choice of channels and other sources of information and entertainment which digital technologies are bringing us, our fundamental belief is that public service broadcasting will become more, not less, important to society. It will be important especially as a forum for informed public democratic debate, to ensure that a plurality of views and perspectives is available; to ensure that high-quality educational material is available to all without extra charge; and to help to drive the transfer from analogue to digital.

We propose a new three-tier approach to the regulation of broadcasting, to provide a more level playing field between different broadcasters depending on the extent of their public service remit.

In the first tier, all broadcasters will be subject to basic rules on minimum content standards, impartiality in news, provisions on the protection of minors and access for people with disabilities. We will require Ofcom to give due weight to the need for improvements in such access for people with disabilities. We also intend that Ofcom should act as a final backstop one-stop shop for complaints for all broadcasters.

The second and third tiers will apply to public service broadcasters. In the second, regulated by Ofcom, those obligations that are readily measurable will be included: independent and original programme production quotas; requirements for regional productions and programming; and the availability of news and current affairs in peak time. We shall amend the BBC's agreement to include such a formal requirement for the first time.

In the third tier--where the general public service provision of high-quality varied schedules will rest--we propose to rely primarily on transparent self-regulation, but with backstop powers in place in the event of failure. Each broadcaster within this tier will be required to make a statement of programme policy updated each year, and to report on subsequent success. Each broadcaster will of

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course have a distinctive remit, and the backstop power will rest with Ofcom in the case of the commercial broadcasters, and with the Secretary of State and Parliament in relation to the BBC.

We place particular emphasis on the regional dimension of public service broadcasting. There is a further aspect to that, of which hon. Members are aware and which they have raised with me on a number of occasions, concerning anomalies in regional coverage whereby, for technical reasons, some parts of the community do not receive the relevant regional programmes. We therefore propose to work with broadcasters and with local communities and their Members of Parliament to find new ways of resolving such difficulties with the advent of digital technology.

An important part of the public service mix is, of course, Channel 4 and we have rejected suggestions that it should be privatised. Channel 4 is a highly distinctive and successful service, much valued by viewers. The present structure of a statutory corporation works well. We will therefore maintain Channel 4 as a public sector broadcaster and ensure that it continues to be distinctive and innovative, providing both complementarity and competition to the BBC and ITV.

In the commercial sector, our view is that increased competition allows us to depend more on Competition Act 1998 powers rather than those specific to the sector, in order to secure diversity of ownership and competition in the relevant markets, such as advertising. We propose to replace the rule preventing anyone from holding two or more licences which attract 15 per cent. or more of the total TV audience share, and we propose to revoke the rule prohibiting single ownership of the two London ITV licences. We will consider changes to the points system for regulating radio ownership. We will also seek to boost the role of local community broadcasting in the digital environment, exploring the suggestion of an access fund for community radio, under the aegis of Ofcom.

We believe that sector-specific rules to promote competition will still be needed in the communications field, but we will make sure that the stronger sectoral rules will be applicable only to companies having significant market power, with lighter-touch regulation for most companies.

Ofcom's powers must enable it to address new competition challenges as these emerge from advancing technology and changing business models. For example, the increasing need to rely on electronic programme guides leads to a new risk that they might be used to limit competition and consumer choice. Ofcom's powers to promote competition and protect consumers will therefore apply to access to EPGs and similar new systems. And we shall take specific powers to ensure that public service channels to which access is essential for full social inclusion can benefit from "due prominence" on all relevant EPGs. Services which we require to be universally available must also be readily accessible.

Communications depend either on wires or on the use of the electromagnetic spectrum. The spectrum is an essential resource which must be managed in the public interest and in innovative ways that meet the needs of developing technologies. Because of the central importance of spectrum management to the development

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and success of the UK's communications industries, we shall bring within Ofcom the responsibility for spectrum management.

Ofcom will have a principal duty to protect the interests of consumers. There will be a new consumer panel to advise the regulator, able to research consumer views and concerns about service delivery and to represent those concerns to Ofcom and others. It will be independently appointed, decide its own research objectives and publish its findings and advice.

Ofcom will have a crucial role in ensuring that our interests as citizens are properly respected by the world of communications. It will maintain content standards in the broadcast media and ensure that the risk of harm, especially to the vulnerable and to children, is minimised in all electronic media. Ofcom will therefore be responsible for maintaining arrangements such as the watershed on free-to-air channels and for promoting better understanding of media messages and the use of new mechanisms such as rating and filtering systems that can assist the safe use of the internet.

We have carried out extensive consultation in preparing for the White Paper. In response to our request for views in February, we received some 160 replies. We have heard many views in person and we are very grateful to all who have contributed, including the group of experts who provided some clear thinking in the crucial early stages of preparation. I pay special tribute to the boards and staff of the current regulators, who have worked in an open and constructive way to help us to develop the policies that we are announcing today.

Broadcasting and telecommunications affect all of us every day. We have set out in the White Paper our proposals for a new framework for regulation, which we believe will preserve the best of the past and prepare the UK to take advantage of the new technologies of today and of tomorrow. Alongside our firm policy proposals are some on which we invite further views. I look forward to hearing the views of hon. Members, and I commend the White Paper to the House.

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