Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Bryant: I am sorry to rise to that bait. I am not suggesting that there should be other committees, but that there should be an Ofcom, which is why I intend to vote against the amendment and in favour of the Bill. If I had been here this morning, I would have opposed separate committees on regional television, religious broadcasting and all the rest. It is a load of nonsense.

Michael Fabricant: I would not want to put words into the hon. Gentleman's mouth, but I remind him that, in the previous Parliament, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommended, rightly, that there be a whole panoply—a horizontal tier—within Ofcom to ensure that the interests of particular sectors be maintained within it.

In an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Rhondda asked my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, ''Why have an Ofcom?'' The answer is that it shall co-ordinate in a far better way the activities of the separate bodies. That is why Conservative Members support the general principle of the Bill.

Brian White: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the old adage, ''If you want to get rid of something or sideline it, you set up a committee''? Is not that what he is trying to do?

The Chairman: Order. The amendment specifically concerns the radio sector, so what Ofcom will do overall goes rather wide of the mark.

Brian White: My point related to the amendment, not to Ofcom.

The Chairman: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I think that the Committee will take my point also.

Michael Fabricant: I would never talk about ''an old adage'' because an adage is always an old story, so that would be hyperbole.

Mr. Bryant: Tautology.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda. He is a scholar in such matters, and we all listen to him. That was said with no irony whatsoever. He has made some interesting observations in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and I hope that he will do the same here.

There must be a strong advocate for radio because spectrum is still limited. The Radio Authority has

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found spectrum where it had previously said that it was not available. It has had to fight its case against the BBC, which occupies frequencies, sometimes obstructively. In one instance, BBC local radio was sitting on a frequency that was being used only in Essex, thereby preventing the formation of an entire independent radio network.

The Radio Authority has presented strong arguments against the BBC, and there must be a radio committee to argue that spectrum should be made available for independent radio; and indeed, if the BBC comes under tier 3, to argue that it should be made available for the BBC. It is not simply a question of having spectrum available in the United Kingdom; that is an argument among competing bodies and broadcasters in the United Kingdom, and at times among other countries under the World Administrative Radio Conference.

Miss McIntosh: We are so impressed by the wealth of experience that my hon. Friend brings to the Committee. Does he agree that such a radio committee could also play an advisory role in relation to digital radio, which the Committee has not considered? Analogue switch-off will also have specific implications for digital radio.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I said this morning, there are few digital radios in the United Kingdom. We have to commend the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK that are broadcasting digital radio terrestrially at present. I sometimes think that there are more transmitters than there are receivers to receive the programmes, but it is right that those broadcasters are transmitting digital terrestrial radio, because only that will stimulate the sale of digital radios.

The Radio Authority has seen the expansion of radio, so that we currently enjoy extremely local, short licences that are granted by the Radio Authority; quite a recent innovation. There is regional radio, national radio, AM radio, FM radio and, as I say, digital radio. I do not believe that few, if any, of those advances would have taken place—certainly not at the speed that we have seen—if the radio division were part of the IBA, as it was before the formation of the Radio Authority and the ITC and the death of the IBA.

I shudder at the thought of 25 or 30 radio officials working in this 1,111-strong Ofcom. They will be swamped, not only because the budgets are so much larger in television than in radio, but because there is a fascination with the new technologies. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) has rightly pointed out on a number of occasions, Ofcom will not be simply a broadcasting regulator; it will be there to stimulate internet and broadband communications. Indeed, the reason for the formation of Ofcom is the convergence of technology. If there is not a radio committee, people will ignore poor old radio. Let us remember that it was this Government who rejected the idea of audio facilities being available on television for the blind, which makes a strong voice for radio even more important.

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Miss McIntosh: Is it not appropriate to recognise—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda must not put words in my mouth.

The Chairman: Order. I am desperately waiting for the words to come out of the hon. Lady's mouth. Perhaps she will get on with it.

Miss McIntosh: Mr. Stevenson, I shall not test your patience any further. This will be a short, sharp intervention.

I believe that radio has a special role to play for those who are disabled, particularly those who live in deeply rural constituencies such as the Vale of York and who may be on a low income under this Government. The Vale of York is now among the bottom 10 per cent. of the population and people living there depend even more on radio than on anything else.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Lady makes her point powerfully, with conviction and seductively, as always. However, although she seduces me, she seems to fail to seduce the Minister, despite the strength of her arguments. She is right; radio has an important part to play. When I am doing my Dysoning, I can listen to the radio, but I cannot watch television or use the internet. Although I am interested in the expansion of digital technology—I feel that I have some experience in that field—at the end of the day, I still listen to analogue radio.

Radio plays an important part in all our lives. As my hon. Friend the member for Vale of York said, it plays a more important part in the lives of the disabled, and those with sight disabilities. Whatever its good intentions, it will be natural for Ofcom to overlook radio, just as the IBA did. Some of the finest people who currently work for the Radio Authority may leave, unless they are convinced that Ofcom will concentrate on radio as much as the medium deserves. A radio committee would be an advocate not only for the industry and the medium, but for the millions of people who enjoy and need to listen to radio.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): After a prolonged absence from the Committee, Mr. Stevenson, I thank you for noticing me. Before I make an intervention, I would like to declare some business interests that are not directly relevant to the Bill, but I disclose them for the Committee's benefit. They are in the Register of Members' Interests. One business has software interests in technology resulting from chip development that could affect digital radio.

I would like to reinforce the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. Radio is often an underestimated aspect of new media. One will be able to receive text and visual presentation on digital radio, providing a new wider scope for radio. Given that so much of the talk about new media concerns television, we should not underestimate the enormous potential of digital radio, and the integration of other media. One could be informed about the next programme, or receive a textual analysis of the events related to a particular programme. When listening to music, one will be able to discover who the composer is, the setting and so on.

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Mr. Bryant: That is why there should not be a separate organisation for radio. Everything that the hon. Gentleman refers to would make radio effectively become television. Nearly every office in the country has a receiver for digital radio; a computer. Many people listen to radio via their computers. The hon. Gentleman is arguing against the Bill, not in favour of the amendment.

Mr. Taylor: No; in good Committee fashion, I am seeking to clarify what is often overlooked in the wider debate. The hon. Gentleman is obviously knowledgeable in such matters, but I would hope that he agrees that we often think of the potential of television, but not of radio. It is important that the new committee has an interest in radio. I am not speaking for any separate agency, but there should be a role for the radio sector in the Ofcom arrangements. We have not seen the details of the forthcoming Bill. To some extent, if my remarks are relevant to that, I accept that I am anticipating a future event.

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda put his finger on the problem immediately. I will not reiterate his point because he expressed it clearly. On the other hand, the hon. Member for Lichfield is such a magnificent generator of gas, it is a wonder that he has not entered into a contract with Enron.

Paragraph 14, to which the amendment relates, will enable Ofcom to establish such committees as it thinks fit to carry out its functions or to provide advice on matters relating to those functions. The debate will have contributed to that by sending the message that the Committee thinks that radio is important.

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Hon. Members, on several occasions, have made their concern clear that radio must be properly represented in Ofcom. The days when radio could be regarded as a Friday afternoon job when it came to regulation are long gone. There have been great changes in the radio sector in recent years, and it is a strong, thriving part of the communications industry. Ofcom will want to ensure that radio's interests are given full weight in its deliberations and activities, and the Bill will enable it to do that.

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