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3 Dec 2002 : Column 807—continued

Mr. Bryant: In that case, would the hon. Gentleman also remove the restriction on political parties having broadcasting licences?

Nick Harvey: There is a big difference between the two, and more people would see the sense in the political ban than would see the sense in the religious ban. However, as the Secretary of State implied, the days of the political ban may be numbered.

On telecommunications, which is clearly an important part of the Bill, we are now in a period of rapid technological progress, which is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, the role of the regulator in that market will be vital. It is important that Ofcom use the various tools that the Bill puts at its disposal, such as the provisions on significant market power and on privileged suppliers. We welcome also the universal service conditions, and we hope that they will be used progressively to ratchet up the requirement on telecoms providers to make sure that broadband becomes increasingly available in rural areas. It will be a serious blow to constituencies such as mine and those of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends if there is two-track progress on that and rural areas are left out. It is important that that not be allowed to happen and that Ofcom use the powers at its disposal.

The Government should consider whether there should be more scope for self-regulation in advertising. I welcome the provision of the consumer panel but I

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regret that it will not be more independent. The Government were wrong to turn down the idea of the Secretary of State appointing the panel. It will not work as well as it could if it is a creature of the regulator.

There are various issues concerning disabled consumers of communications, who are not given the priority in the Bill that they should receive. It is interesting that although the Government have included provisions, they are only modest; for example, the requirement for 10 per cent. of audio description in any given week. Would not it make sense to give Ofcom a power, or indeed to impose on it a duty, to increase some of those proportions over time? That would not have to be done at an unrealistic speed. Simply to include requirements in the Bill and then wait for years until another Bill is introduced seems to indicate a rather relaxed attitude.

In conclusion, we welcome the Bill, and we hope that some of the problems can be ironed out in Committee. The Bill undoubtedly provides a framework that could be effective in regulating these crucial industries for many years to come.

6.49 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Like everyone who has spoken so far, I welcome the Bill. It must be the first Bill to receive so much scrutiny before hitting the Floor of the House, and I suspect, and hope, that it will be a model for future legislation.

There is certainly a logic in creating one regulatory authority. The media are constantly and quickly changing, and we have different means of conveying news, gathering information and providing entertainment.

That is a far cry from the original vision of Lord Reith when the BBC was created. In fact, he would not recognise broadcasting provision today. In an ever-changing world with overlapping media and a convergence of different types of media, it is sensible that a light-touch regulatory authority should look at the principles of regulation, rather than the detail. Inevitably, anything that we discuss in the House today and over the coming weeks in Committee may be out of date by the time it receives Royal Assent.

I was pleased that the Secretary of State reaffirmed in her opening speech that public service broadcasting would be given a new lease of life by the Bill, as I support it strongly. Because we have a tradition of such broadcasting in the UK, we have a high standard of broadcasting which is the envy of the world. When we talk about public service broadcasting, everyone assumes that we are talking about the BBC but of course we are not—we are talking about the ITV channels, Channel 4 and Channel Five. I now have access to a range of channels through satellite—I finally gave in and got it last summer—but it is to terrestrial channels that I turn for most of my viewing, simply because most of the others offer repeats of stuff that I have already seen. Most innovative, exciting and new work is produced by the public service broadcasters.

In my own area of Aberdeen, the regional identity that is an important component of public service broadcasting is delivered not by the BBC, but by Grampian TV and Northsound Radio.

Pete Wishart: Does the hon. Lady share my disappointment that there is no representative from

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Scotland on the Ofcom board, although we previously had a place on the Independent Television Commission? Does she not think that our strong regional identity in Scotland may be lost because we do not have that position any more?

Miss Begg: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman lives, but to have a place specifically for someone from Scotland on a board of nine would be overgenerous. The Scots get everywhere. I cannot believe that nine board members serving a national body there will not include at least one Scot. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is an exception, because she has a place in Cabinet, but the hon. Gentleman's proposal is equivalent to saying that we want a special seat for a Scot. If anything, the problem is usually the reverse—people from the English regions are always complaining that they do not get a say in anything because the dominant voices are from Scotland—[Interruption.] Indeed, and Wales as well. There will be nine people on the board, and I hope that they will include Scots who can reflect Scotland's views.

As I was saying, it is important that the content rules of public service broadcasting include the promotion and protection of local and regional content. In my own area of Aberdeen, that regional identity is catered for most capably by Grampian TV and Northsound radio. However, I am concerned that there may be a loss of that regional identity. While I accept that it may be desirable for Granada and Carlton TV to merge, and understand the wish for a strong ITV and perhaps a single ITV channel competing with the BBC, I am concerned that Grampian's specific regional identity may be lost. It is important that the content rules deal with that—it is not just about a pan-Scottish identity but about narrower identities within Scotland.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Is that not a classic example of the Secretary of State having to examine her reassurance that it is not ownership but regulation that matters? In the Scottish Media Group's takeover of Grampian, the ITC had to work hard to apply the spirit as well as the letter of the regulations.

Miss Begg: Indeed, it did so successfully. Now that the Scottish Media Group has put The Herald up for sale, there are concerns that it and The Scotsman will be owned by the same people. There are therefore anxieties about the possible narrowing of media ownership, as well as worries about the opening of media ownership to people from non-European Community countries. In Scotland, the worry is not that more people will own more media outlets but that those outlets will be in the hands of fewer people. The Bill's proposed liberalisation, which would allow foreign ownership of media outlets, may, notwithstanding the concerns that many of us have about some individuals involved, result in a broader range of media owners in Scotland.

The Bill deals not just with television but with radio. I have given Grampian and Northsound a few plugs today—I commend both of them on their good sense in deciding to locate new headquarters in my constituency. Very often, local commercial radio stations cater for

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local identity. They have a good community spirit and are active in the community. While the UK overall may be frightened that too much output comes from London, people in the north and Scotland are frightened that too much comes from the central belt, so it is important that we make provision for regional differences.

Time is moving on, so I shall make one more point on the Xmust carry, must offer" controversy. I shall not go into what money should change hands if that provision comes into force, but it is crucial that both Xmust offer" and Xmust carry" are included in the Bill. When the analogue signal is switched off, the only platform from which some people, particularly in rural areas, will be able to receive a signal is satellite. It is unlikely that everyone in this country will be able to receive a digital signal from the usual transmitter system, so they will have no choice but to access digital television through satellite platforms. If that is the case, it is incumbent on the satellite platforms to ensure that they carry all the public service broadcasting channels. People currently have choice in certain areas but, crucially, that may not be so in future. I therefore hope that the Government will ensure that there are backstop powers in the Bill.

The Bill is important, as I have said. It has had a lengthy gestation, and hope that all the discussion that preceded today's debate will result in a better Bill rather than, as one wag said to me last night, a longer Bill made even longer. I commend it to the House.

6.58 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): In one sense, I had hoped that the Bill would be slightly longer, as it would have been nice if it had been a consolidated Bill. It is a bit like the Maastricht treaty—you read the ruddy Bill but cannot understand it because it keeps referring to earlier legislation, in this case, the Broadcasting Act 1996.

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