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3 Dec 2002 : Column 784continued
Tessa Jowell: I am sure that there are plenty of XYou bets" on both sides of the House on that matter. I shall come to that matter later, if the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will forgive me.
Tessa Jowell: I certainly will not forget. In relation to the hon. Gentleman's first question on the differential treatment, we do not intend to regulate the internet, butas he will understand more fully once he has heard more of what I have to saywe intend broadcasting to be subject to a tough content regulatory regime.
Lord Puttnam's Committee reported in August and the Government responded in October. We accepted more than 120 of its 148 recommendations, includingto pick up on the point raised by the hon. Member for Buckinghamthe recommendation that Ofcom should be able to fine the BBC for breaches of tier 1 and tier 2 obligations. The Committee's conclusions also led to our redrafting aspects of the Bill to clarify Ofcom's duty
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I believe that this is the first Government Bill that the Secretary of State responsible has been unable to sign off as being compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. Will the right hon. Lady assure us that all its clauses will be fine, and will not be struck down in the courts after we have enacted the Bill?
Tessa Jowell: I will come to a full explanation of why the Bill is, in one particular respect, not compatible with the European convention on human rights, and set out for the House the way in which I intend to deal with that.
I shall run quickly through the new provisions in the Bill. It now includes provisions for a new newspaper merger regime that strikes the right balance between deregulation and the protection of essential public interests. On local radio ownership, to allow greater consolidation, we have moved to a minimum of two plus one local radio owners from the three plus one in the draft Bill. As a result of the reorganisation of the spectrum on the multiplexes following the relicensing by the Independent Television Commission, we have also been able to remove the restriction on religious bodies holding national digital radio service licences. I know that there has been a tremendous amount of correspondence with hon. Members on both sides of the House about this. We always said that the restriction was created because of spectrum scarcity, and, now that there is more available spectrum, we have lifted that restriction.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I am pleased to hear of the changes on local radio ownership, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Bill remains proof against the continuing attacks of the large radio industry on the ownership, content and diversity measures, particularly clause 302 and schedule 14?
Tessa Jowell: Yes. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that point, which, again, is a concern to the House. We are determined that deregulation of ownership, which we believe is right to promote investment, should not in any way compromise standards, the discipline of adhering to licence conditions or what is defined in the Bill as localnessthe quintessential nature of local radio. Ofcom will have powers to check, or dipstick, in areas where radio consolidation has taken place to ensure that the local character of local radio has been preserved.
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): I have written to my right hon. Friend on this point. She has said that provision will be made for faith organisations to go on the airwaves, but what about those organisations that do not have faith, such as the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, which are denied access to Thought for the Day on the XToday"
Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I am willing to consider further. I hope that it is aired in Committee, and if necessary, I shall offer further definition in the light of his intervention.
Tessa Jowell: One of the Bill's objectives is to promote the increase in digital radio, and one way to achieve that is through Government action. A year ago I approved seven new BBC digital radio stations. My hon. Friend will be aware that the price of digital radio equipment, which was very high, is beginning to fall. Take-up of digital radio is still low, but it will be driven by the fact that there will be stations worth listening to that are available only through digital. They will be the drivers for digital radio take-up, just as such stations are the drivers for digital television take-up.
I must make progress on the Bill's content now, if I may. In the light of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee's report we clarified Ofcom's general duties. We strengthened the independence of the consumer panel and gave it powers to set up its own committee. We also limited its sphere of interest to companies with fewer than 10 employees.
Also, in relation to the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee's concerns about the capacity of the independent production sector, I asked the ITC to undertake a review to establish the facts about the market and its likely growth, and to make an assessment of issues that might adversely affect its long-term development.
That was prompted by the Committee's concern about the timetable forbut not the principle ofthe lifting of the restriction on foreign ownership. We have now received the ITC report, and copies of the summary have been made available to Members. I give notice that we may wish in due course to amend the Bill further after considering the ITC's proposals in more detail.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The right hon. Lady helpfully explained the scrutiny process relating to independent television production, but why did not the Committee, and why does not the Bill, examine the thorny question of independent radio production quotas? The right hon. Lady will know that the BBC has set itself an internal requirement to produce a minimum
Tessa Jowell: That is a fair point, which we will consider in the context of the programme supply review. We do not, however, want to be too restrictive. We do not want to impose new obligations on radio that might constrain its growth. That is the framework within which a proposition that I know to be in currency will be considered.
In practice, use of the BBC licence fee as venture capital for the nation's creativity means ensuring a healthy market in programme supply and a vibrant, creative independent sector. I was pleased that the ITC report was welcomed by, among others, Lord Puttnam and the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television. That welcome is well deserved, reflecting the enormous amount of work that the ITC has done. It makes an extremely strong case for the integral role that an independent market will play in the future of broadcasting, especially given the changes in media ownership and the proposals to maintain production quotas. As I have said, we are considering the report carefully, and will amend the Bill further if necessary.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Content regulation is censorship by another name. What guarantee can the Secretary of State offer that her actions will not give rise to a very interventionist system that would perpetuate the tyranny of the politically correct? What we want, and what all freedom-lovers want, is a diversity of views to be heard on the airwaves.
Tessa Jowell: That is an interesting point. We are avowedly not returning to what might arguably be described as the pre-ITC censorship regime, when the regulator decided which programmes should be shown. We are placing that responsibility on the broadcaster, which is where it should be.
Let me say something about political advertisinga point that was touched on by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). I have been unable to make a statement of compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998 in respect of one provision in the Bill. This is the first time since the Act came into force that the Government have made such a statement at the outset of a Bill's passage. I consulted the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) earlier, gave him notice of the fact, and gave both Opposition spokespersons briefing.
Although there will of course be an opportunity for this matter to be debated fully in Committee, I wanted to explain the position to the whole House. The decision to proceed with a Bill containing a provision of this kind was obviously exceptional, and was made only after careful deliberation and a full examination of both the legal arguments and the policy alternatives.
For many years, successive Governments have maintained a complete ban on advertising of a political nature on television or radio. The Government's intention in this case is to continue with the current bana ban that was supported by the Neill committee in its 1998 report on funding of political partiesand to define more precisely what is meant by Xpolitical", so
However, a potential complication exists in the form of a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights against Switzerland, which maintained an apparently similar ban. That point was also noted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in examining the draft Bill, and I should like to place on the record my thanks to it for its helpful comments on the draft Bill in its 19th report. In response to the ECHR's judgment and to the Joint Committee's concerns, we looked hard at the current ban to see whether some minor changes would make it more certain that it was human rights compatible. Unfortunately, any such change would still allow substantial political advertising, and I hope that there is cross-party agreement that that would not be a desirable outcome. By denying powerful interests the chance to skew political debate, the current ban safeguards the public and democratic debate, and protects the impartiality of broadcasters.
Having examined all the facts, and following extensive legal advice, I have concluded that very strong arguments could be advanced in favour of the ban contained in this Bill being compliant with the ECHR.