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3 Dec 2002 : Column 842—continued

9.5 pm

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am surprised to be called at long last.

Like many of my colleagues, I am interested in communications and how we feed information to and get it from our constituents. What politician is not fascinated by the political media? However, I am also interested because I have lived through a time in which communication has evolved from print and radio to live satellite broadcasting from the other side of the world. I remember my mother hauling me away from the radio when I was a small child, as I had to do my homework. I contrast that experience with standing in Glasgow airport lounge and watching live on television the second plane as it flew into the twin towers. So much has happened in that short period, and the changes in communication are enormous.

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Those of us with an interest in the Bill have just about disappeared under a mountain of paper, which is interesting as it is about electronics and modern communications. Although our preparations for the debate involved receiving a huge amount of paper, I shall make only a few general remarks before concentrating on this country's music business, which I think is important, although it has not had much coverage.

I am delighted that the Department has taken on board a great deal of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's inquiry and the Joint Committee's deliberations. Ministers have shown their ability to listen, and I am sure that they will continue to do so as the Bill progresses through the House. The pre-legislative scrutiny has set a good example for all other Bills.

On regulation of the BBC, the Bill has achieved the right balance. I put on record my support for the BBC: it is not perfect, but the standards that it sets are a benchmark for high quality broadcasting throughout the world. We underestimate at our peril the importance of news and information provided by the BBC to people all over the world. While it might be good sport for some to knock the BBC, I believe that we should cherish it. We should criticise it when necessary, but we should also value it as one of the best examples of broadcasting in the world. The Secretary of State made the right decision in putting the BBC within Ofcom's remit under tiers 1 and 2 only.

May I speak about the importance of television and radio to the music industry? I am a member of the all-party music group, but I am just beginning to come to terms with and understand the scale of the industry in this country. It is a huge contributor to Britain's economy. Most people are aware of what they see on television—the few people who make a fortune from the music business—but that is far from a true picture, and behind it all a huge number of people, such as the creators of music and the producers, do not earn a fortune. They work hard in an industry that is of great benefit to the country.

That benefit is not translated into huge financial rewards for the thousands of people behind the cultural and economic success of an industry that has been a world leader for the past four decades.

The success of individuals and companies depends very much on opportunities for the creation of music, and also for the broadcasting of music by both national and regional radio and television. The success of Britain's broadcasting industry is inextricably linked to its relationship with the British music industry. It is worrying, therefore, that many local radio stations play the same music all day every day. Modern music must be given a hearing, but not to the exclusion of everything else.

Under the current proposals, Ofcom has a general duty to protect the local content and character of the news and programmes on local radio and television, and I think that that should be extended to music. At present the Bill contains no local requirement relating to music. BBC Scotland and Radio Clyde 1 and 2 are superb examples of local radio stations, and I am sure that many of my colleagues can cite other examples. The newer local stations, however, tend to transmit the same kind of music, mostly pop.

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I enjoy all kinds of music. I enjoy listening to pop music as much as anyone else. But I fear that in creating more local radio stations, we may fail to encourage the promotion of local creative talent and respond to local tastes. I hope the Minister will confirm that the award of licences, and licence review, will depend on licensees meeting a requirement to broadcast music that caters for a range of tastes and interests and matches local audience needs. How would such a requirement be monitored, and how would it be enforced?

Pete Wishart: I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with almost every word that the hon. Lady is saying. Does she agree that the best way of achieving what she wants would be to include a Xcreator" on the content panel—someone involved in the music industry, who would know what it represents, what it is worth and what it contributes?

Rosemary McKenna: Indeed. I recently met Feargal Sharkey. Let me explain, for the benefit of those who do not know, that he was a great entertainer and is a creator of music. He is a member of the Radio Authority, by appointment, and makes a great contribution. Such expertise should indeed be represented on the panel.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I think the Dept has done a wonderful job in terms of pre-legislative scrutiny, and I look forward to participating in the Bill's later stages.

9.13 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna). I am not convinced that the Bill is perfect, however: that is one reason why it must have a Committee stage. It needs fine-tuning. Issues have already been raised that demonstrate the need for detailed examination.

I intervened earlier on the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt). The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that the M25 should take us out into civilization. There seems to be an unwillingness to think beyond the M25, and to conceive of creative genius elsewhere.

The Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television has made that point. It is looking for encouragement for creative producers throughout the United Kingdom. I also welcomed the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey about curbing pornography on the internet.

The Northern Ireland Advisory Committee on Telecommunications is concerned about these matters. Interestingly, to judge by their comments, certain Members from Wales and Scotland—and others—do not seem to think that there is another, remote part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is the only part with a land frontier, which adds to the difficulties. Both the Committee and I sympathise with the concept of having one representative for the three regions, rather than one for each region, in order to provide an understanding of what is going on. Given that representation on the Committee has increased from six to nine, that would not pose a tremendous challenge. The three regions represent 16 per cent. of the United Kingdom, population and it should be possible to find

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one person with the calibre and expertise to represent those regions, as well as dealing with such issues for the nation as a whole.

So far as Northern Ireland and certain other parts of the United Kingdom are concerned, some regulation is needed, because not every region is equally far advanced in terms of competitive communications. It is therefore necessary to provide some regulation; otherwise, the fear is that Northern Ireland will be left behind if it is not effectively and properly funded through regional representation. I welcome the suggestion that the consumer panel and the content board should include representatives from the regions, so that they might make a contribution.

Ours is a relatively small region. However, in dealing with some of the problems, and in listening to discussions on broadband, I have been fascinated to discover that, although we have a good fibre-optic network, we have not yet completed the linking of such communications. I have heard it said that the challenge of broadband can still be met through smaller groupings, and some people are already advancing broadband in rural areas and small communities. As has been pointed out, the tragedy is that, in some areas, even British Telecom has not established the modern communications that would help the development of broadband.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the relevant expertise exists, if the Government really intend that every part of the United Kingdom should have access to broadband, they should make some financial commitment to bring about such access?

Rev. Martin Smyth: I think the people of Northern Ireland would be happier if the Secretary of State, rather than Ofcom, dealt with that issue, because they are frightened by what has happened in the past.

John Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Rev. Martin Smyth: I am sorry but I cannot. I would love to give way to the hon. Gentleman because I have appreciated his practical contributions, but with the limited time at my disposal I want to move from Northern Ireland and the general discussion to an issue that has yet to be covered properly in this debate.

I remind the House that, before publication of this Bill, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted unanimously to call on the Government to permit the broadcasting of Christian radio, including Christian music. Such music cannot be broadcast throughout the nation, because of the restrictions that have been imposed. The general public in Northern Ireland support such a move, and many Members of this House have received letters on the matter. I believe that, on one occasion, 16,000 such letters were sent to Downing street.

I welcome many aspects of the Bill relating to the development of the communications sector, but clause 335 is difficult to understand. The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) said that he finds it

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difficult to understand Welsh, but I am sure that there are those who find it difficult to understand the English in clause 335. It is hardly written in simple English.

Clause 335 lifts some restrictions, for example on local and national digital programme services, but it contains religious disqualifications, as set out in part 2 of schedule 2 of the 1990 Act. They are applied, for example, to local and national digital radio and television multiplexes.

Many issues could be raised in the debate, but I am concerned with the effect on organisations and companies with religious affiliations. Christian broadcasting companies in the industry have suffered from being classified as disqualified persons, and have been prevented from developing and competing in the market place. Although one might not support such organisations, or not like religion at all, or not choose to watch or listen to items that might be produced, that is no reason for disqualification. There are many channels to which I never listen, but I would not deny their right to apply to broadcast.

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