Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Laurence Robertson: I shall try to help my hon. Friend, who has been so helpful to me. Is he referring to United Christian Broadcasters?

12.15 pm

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, as ever. It was indeed United Christian Broadcasters. In the past, I have made myself unpopular by opposing the idea of religious broadcasters in this country. I received part of my education in the United States of America. I confess I have a home there, which I get to very rarely. In fact I have not been there for the past three years. Unlike Rachman, who made good use of his homes, I have made no use of mine.

The Chairman: Order. Mr. Rachman has nothing to do with the subject of the debate. Will the hon. Gentleman come back to order?

Michael Fabricant: I rather welcomed that intervention.

I am concerned about the idea of giving licences for religious broadcasting, because with a limited radio spectrum, fair coverage of different religions might not be achieved. Also, because of my experience of religious broadcasting in the United States, I have concerns about certain types of religion or sect that might not use religious broadcasting in the United Kingdom for the benefit of mainstream religions or the listeners.

Things are changing. Eventually, digital radio will expand in this country. Let us not kid ourselves. There are only 45 digital radio receivers currently in operation in the United Kingdom, even though the technology is in existence and digital radio is being broadcast throughout the UK. That does not include people listening via satellite or similar means. Individual digital radio sets are not currently available, although I believe that Blaupunkt does a very expensive one for cars. However, there is not wide coverage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York rightly pointed out that there are currently pressures on existing broadcasters in the United Kingdom to sideline religious programming. I read in one of the religious newspapers—not The Tablet, the other one—that there was pressure on the head of religious broadcasting at the BBC to transfer all religious programming from BBC 1 to one of its two digital channels, BBC Knowledge or BBC Choice. That

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would be plainly wrong because of the many people, mentioned by my hon. Friend, who are unable to go to church.

The Chairman: Order. This is not a general debate on religious broadcasting. If the hon. Gentleman reads the amendment, he will find that it is about whether

    the Secretary of State shall take into account the need to secure appointments of persons with experience of

a number of things. It is not a general debate on those things. Will the hon. Gentleman return to the scope of the amendment?

Michael Fabricant: Thank you for that advice, Miss Widdecombe. My point has been to try to justify the inclusion of the various items on the list. If there were no argument about whether there was controversy over religious broadcasting, it might well be asked why the Secretary of State should appoint anyone with skills in that respect. I want to establish that religious broadcasting is a controversial issue at the moment, and that there will be problems for Ofcom to deal with. It was wise of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York to include religious broadcasting in the list, because of the issues that I have mentioned.

However, let us rapidly move on to paragraph 5(c); the competition aspects of media ownership. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East rightly pointed out that ownership is not really an issue with regard to the provision of programming. On the other hand, we would not want the situation in this country to be like that in Italy, where Berlusconi enjoys incredible power because of the extent to which he owns the media. Similarly, Ofcom may well take the view that the number of people owning the media in the United Kingdom should be controlled.

However, I must ask my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York whether such issues would not be better dealt with by the Office of Fair Trading and the other existing competition bodies. Is this really an issue for Ofcom?

Miss McIntosh: The Minister may wish, when responding, to explain why the Bill does not cover that point. I am deeply uneasy—several bodies have made powerful representations to me on the matter—that the relationship between Ofcom and the OFT is not referred to at all in the Bill.

Michael Fabricant: That issue must be tackled and I sincerely hope that the Government will have tackled it by the time they publish the draft communications Bill. Clearly, the Government must address the matter, because if media ownership were too diverse, ITV would be damaged, as would the expansion of media interests in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, it would be unwise to permit any one organisation or individual to control 90 per cent. of the media.

Let us move briefly on to paragraph 5(d); mobile phones. There are many issues, about which I could talk at inordinate length, relating to mobile phones and why they should be included in the amendment. However, I will just quickly outline those issues that immediately come to mind. First, during the past few days, the issue of mobile phones as a health hazard has been dealt with on television. A load of twaddle is

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talked about that subject, particularly with regard to the siting of masts. However, as I do not want to receive hundreds of letters—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straining my patience very considerably. Would he please note that the amendment does not deal with mobile phone masts or his opinion of mobile phones? It deals specifically with the Secretary of State's appointments. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is clever enough to bring his remarks into order.

Michael Fabricant: Thank you, Miss Widdecombe. I take that as a compliment.

The Secretary of State should indeed take into account the need to appoint people with experience of mobile phones, because mobile phone growth in the United Kingdom is a major influence on this country's long-term economy and its phone companies. It could be argued that with their huge investment in G3, some telephone companies have, with hindsight, not shown themselves to be as clever as was originally thought.

Ofcom will have to address such issues, particularly because, as the Select Committee report pointed out, the rate of convergence is increasing. In the future, mobile phone technology may be used to transmit television pictures, and television technology, such as video compression, may give us better mobile phone coverage. Although we currently think of the mobile phone as primarily an audio device, in the future it may be not be like that at all.

That brings us on to paragraph 5(e); broadband technology. This concerns not only the delivery of broadband through the use of cable or low satellite constellations, which enable us to use mobile phones anywhere in the world, including the north pole, where there are no phone masts—

Mr. Robertson: Not yet.

Michael Fabricant: Not yet. If the technology were to be properly exploited, it would enable us to have an internet link anywhere in the world. The technology is there now, but it has not, in my opinion, been exploited adequately. I hope that Ofcom will not just be a light regulator, but will promote technology in the United Kingdom for the betterment of the individuals who use such technology and for the good of the British economy. I will not make myself out of order by asking why Nokia is a Scandinavian company. Ofcom should encourage the establishment of many more such manufacturers in the United Kingdom.

Brian White: Finland is not a Scandinavian country, as the hon. Gentleman knows only too well. It is a Nordic country.

The Chairman: I call Mr. Fabricant, but the issue at hand is not geography.

Michael Fabricant: I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He has got it the wrong way round and I will talk to him later about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York talked about regulation of the internet. On that, I must disagree with her. I do not believe that there is a way to regulate the internet.

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Miss McIntosh: I apologise if I misled my hon. Friend. I was trying to say not that the internet should be regulated, but that the Government should use the creation of Ofcom, and its subsequent role as set out in the communications Bill, to encourage people to get online and to enhance digital television. That might enable the Government to bring forward the analogue switch-off.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend has reassured me. I knew her judgment to be perfect and total, and she is right in what she says. In any event, one could not regulate the internet; a load of twaddle is talked about that as well. When one has access to the internet, one has access to websites from all over the world. I do not know how a website provider from outside the United Kingdom of the European Union could be regulated. I gather that commercial websites are being set up in Costa Rica, primarily aimed at English-speaking countries. Again, I feel that someone on the board of Ofcom should have expertise in the internet; that they should know not only how to promote the medium, but what they can and cannot do about regulating it.

Finally, I would like to talk about paragraph 5(g); the radio sector. I feel strongly that a person with expertise in that sector should be appointed. As I have said before, I used to work in radio and I was conscious of how the medium was sidelined in the old IBA by the dominant force of television. That is why—as I have said before, so I will not go on about it—the ITC and the Radio Authority were conceived as two separate organisations to replace the IBA. There is a real concern that radio will again be sidelined if it becomes part of a giant Ofcom.

The radio spectrum is a limited resource and that is an important issue. That is not so much the case with television now, because of the development of digital television, for which the signal can be compressed so that many more programmes can be broadcast within a particular frequency. Besides, with cable television, the radio spectrum is not even used. The strength of radio is that one can hear it while on the move; radio is best listened to in those circumstances.

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