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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con) rose
Estelle Morris: I will give way on this occasion, but shall not do so again, as I have very little time.
Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to the Minister, as I did not get the chance to make a speech. Is she happy with
Estelle Morris: Yes, I am. However, this may be a test case, and I expect Ofcom to act strongly, as I shall explain.
The Communications Act 2003 has given extra protection to regional broadcasters. There is a framework of licences for regional programming and production, and the test will be whether Ofcom, the regulatory body, acts firmly if the terms of those licences are not adhered to. Having listened to right hon. and hon. Members, I believe that there are two particularly important issues. It is not appropriate for me to comment on one of them because the time to do so has passed. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen said, the target or quota for programming used to be higher. There is now a quota of eight and a half hours for regional programming, and there is also a quota for sub-regional news coverage. Ofcom must ensure that those targets are adhered to, but it cannot intervene in respect of a quota that has been changed by agreement with the Independent Television Commission from 15 hours to eight hours. We have set a lot of store by Ofcom's regulations, but the time to comment on them has passed. Whether they are right or wrong, good or bad, and whether the ITC could have come to a different agreement, the time for comment has passed. However, the licence clearly says that Meridian has undertaken to produce eight and half hours of regional programmes, five and a half hours of which must be sub-regional news and three hours non-news. Ninety per cent. of those programmes must be made in the region, because that is one of the quotas in the framework.
Ofcom is considering representations that it has received. If it is thought necessary, it could act to make sure that Meridian keeps to the terms of its licence. The bottom line is that those quotas or targets are in Meridian's licence, and I expect Ofcom to act to make sure that they are preserved. Members from all political parties must surely agree about that. The Government are trying to pull off the trick of giving companies flexibility and freedom to meet the competitive challenges that they face, to make changes to adapt to new technology and digital broadcasting, and to reorganise personnel as times change. Nobody wants things to stand still. My right hon. Friend generously said that Meridian, like any other company needs, from time to time, to make changes. As a media business, it needs to act quickly. No one wants to go back to the days when, to make change to, for example, patterns of employment, companies had to seek permission and jump a series of hurdles imposed by the ITC, Ofcom and the Government. Nobody wants to let that happen again.
There is clearly a deal to be struck. If companies are to have the freedom that they need and want, we must make sure that Ofcom is empowered to act ferociously if they break the terms of their licence. This is a test case. The time to discuss whether the terms of the licence are sufficient to protect regional broadcasting has passed, but my robust message to the House is that I expect Ofcom to monitor the terms of licences and to take action if they are broken. I apologise for not answering all the questions asked by hon. Members, but I accept the importance of this debate. I can assure them that the Government will monitor what happens as far as possible. If things do not go as expected, we will have reason to comment in future.