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Question agreed to.

Charities Bill [ lords] [money]

Queen’s recommendation having been signified——

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): For the convenience of the House, I shall take motions 4 to 10 together.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

26 Jun 2006 : Column 100


Contracting Out

Northern Ireland

Representation of the People

Question agreed to.




Post Offices

8.25 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I have great pleasure in presenting to the House the petition of Mrs. Joy Crofts and other customers of the Grafton Underwood sub-post office near Kettering in Northamptonshire.

The petition of 66 signatures declares:

To lie upon the Table.

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Pirate Radio Stations

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

8.26 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight the serious and increasing problem of illegal radio broadcasting and the criminality associated with it. I choose those terms advisedly, as the description “pirate radio” does not convey a real sense of the activities undertaken by those involved.

Many people retain a nostalgic view of the pirate radio broadcasters of the 1960s—the Radio Carolines of the era, which challenged the BBC with their line-up of cheesy disc jockeys, who are now part of radio history. Indeed, the Minister for Industry and the Regions recalled that era of broadcasting during a recent debate on the Draft Wireless Telegraphy (Pre-Consolidation Amendments) Order 2006. When she was asked by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) whether Radio Caroline could be brought back, she replied:

As the Minister’s comments show, there is still a perception that pirate radio is a bit of harmless fun. I am not referring to the Minister in particular, but the traditional attitude towards illegal broadcasting is a significant part of the problem of tackling that serious issue. Of course, Radio Caroline was not illegal; it was just not regulated because it broadcast from offshore—my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) nods in concurrence.

The real world of pirate radio stations nowadays is very different from the romantic and nostalgic picture of the 1960s. The reality is that illegal stations do real harm to the communities they purport to serve. They are operated with wanton disregard for the health and safety of others and, in many cases, are highly profitable operations that feed other criminal activities. They cause significant disruption and damage to legitimate businesses that have paid significant sums to the Government in licence fees for radio frequencies that are in large part unusable. Many illegal stations are tied to the drugs trade and are used to promote events where drugs can be bought or sold. A report in the The Times last November summarised the position well when it said:

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the measured way in which he is contrasting the care-free days of Ronan O’Rahilly and the offshore stations, and the present reality. It is not just drugs and raves that are the problem with
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pirate radio stations in my part of the world. Typically a pirate radio station occupies a squatted council flat with steel doors. It is a living embodiment of contempt for the law. I am as a romantic as the next person and as affectionate for Radio Caroline and Radio London, but I entirely endorse the points that he is making and I wish him God speed, because this is a real problem. It is not about music; it is about menace.

James Brokenshire: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will certainly come on to some of the issues that he has highlighted and will give some examples of the real misery and danger that is caused by a number of the operators, because that is a serious point. The links to crime are demonstrated by an example that Ofcom, the regulator, gave to me of a raid that was undertaken in the course of the past month. This is an example of what he was saying:

Illegal broadcasting, by its very nature, is entirely unregulated. It feels no prohibition on playing music that glamorises gang violence and drug culture. It is accountable to no one for what it broadcasts. It abides by no programming codes on taste or decency and it operates without any regard for the consequences of what may be said on air.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Is my hon. Friend also aware that, whereas in the old days people complained that somehow Radio Caroline would interfere with the radio for air traffic control, which 30 years ago was absolute nonsense, in this instance sloppy engineering by many of the pirate stations creates harmonics? In other words, they end up transmitting not only on the main frequency, but also, inadvertently, on other frequencies. That interferes with legal broadcasters such as BBC Radio 4, Radio 3 and commercial broadcasters, as well as with emergency transmissions used by the fire service, the ambulance service and, I understand, air traffic control.

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend’s point about the engineering that goes into the transmission equipment is right. The equipment poses dangers in the way he has alluded to. In addition, the way in which it is installed is highly dangerous for residents living in the high-rise blocks where such pieces of equipment can often be found. I will go on to illustrate in more detail some of the points that he has raised in his timely intervention. A recent example is germane to the wanton disregard for safety and the issue of the implications of what is said. It has been alleged that pirate radio was the trigger behind the Lozells riots in October 2005 because it incited racial tensions in Birmingham by spreading false rumours that a black woman had been raped by Asian men. That example shows the serious nature of the unregulated environment that pirate radio stations operate within.

There are other ways in which pirate radio can cause harm in the manner that has been indicated in the interventions. Illegal broadcasting causes interference
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to safety-of-life radio networks, such as those used by air traffic control, the fire service, the ambulance service and the police. It is interesting to note that in 2005, Ofcom responded to 41 safety-of-life cases. One example was on 14 July 2005, when, following contact from the Civil Aviation Authority, the Ofcom investigation team were mobilised to east London to investigate serious interference with the ground-to-air communication system in use at London City airport. The source was traced to a pirate radio station in the Hackney area. The offending transmitter was subsequently removed by Ofcom staff. The problem was reported as being

because London City airport was about to close as it had no alternative means of reliable communication with the aircraft seeking to land at the airport. In the wake of that shocking incident, during a week long operation in London last October, 53 illegal broadcast transmitters were seized and 17 further transmitters and aerials were disabled—all in just seven days.

There are also other health and safety implications. An illegal broadcaster will identify a slot in the FM broadcasting band. It will then locate its transmitter on high ground, usually on the roof of a local authority building, which will typically be a residential tower block. To feed the transmitter, the illegal broadcaster will tap into the building’s power supply, often by diverting electricity from the lift motor room—in the process, putting the lift out of action for the residents. In some cases, illegal broadcasters will place their transmitters on mobile phone masts.

Increasingly, illegal broadcasters are placing obstacles in Ofcom’s path to thwart enforcement activities. Ofcom has told me that it has recently encountered: the placement of transmitters down ventilation flues, or chimneys, and on rooftops, with access to the device being restricted through the use of scissor-type car jacks; the attachment of live 240 V electric cables to the access doors on rooftops in an attempt to cause shock or injury; the utilisation of scaffold poles to jam main access doors on rooftops; the changing of locks on perimeter fencing and electrical cabinets; the attachment of barbed wire to structures around the transmission equipment; and, in some instances, the detachment of the main access ladders. The illegal broadcasters can cause significant damage to rooftops when installing apparatus. The pirates have also been known to intimidate the caretakers and their families in an attempt to gain access to high-rise blocks. As we have heard, the transmitters are crude in construction and are not electronically safe.

All that can have a direct impact on the safety of people living in the blocks of flats that have been hijacked by the illegal broadcasters. One example given to me by Ofcom was of a woman living in a top floor flat who had to be evacuated following a carbon monoxide leak into her home. A crack had appeared in her kitchen wall following the installation of a transmitter that had been located in an adjacent gas ventilation flue. The incident was caused by an expanded car jack. Some £7,000 of damage was caused and the fumes from the flue were allowed to leak into
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her premises. I fear that it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed as a result of illegal broadcasters’ activities.

There is a misconception that the people behind illegal radio stations are just enthusiasts with an interest in music and broadcasting. Some claim that they break the law because they want to serve a community need, but Ofcom provides an outlet for that through the new community radio licences that it is advertising. The licences are awarded regularly throughout the country to meet that unfulfilled need.

Michael Fabricant: In the past, regulators such as the radio division of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the Radio Authority and Ofcom used to say that there was a lack of frequencies. However, owing to digital audio broadcasting multiplexing and the extension of the FM band from 104 to 108 MHz, frequencies are available, albeit with some limitations. As my hon. Friend said earlier, if Radio Caroline was to ask for a two or four-week local broadcast licence now, it would probably get one.

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the use of the spectrum. Indeed, there are various ways in which communities can promote different types of music or reflect a community need, whether that is through restricted service licences for the time periods that he suggests, or the new community licences. I have had the privilege and pleasure of supporting my local community radio station: Link FM in Havering. I am pleased to report that it has now been given a full-time community radio licence. That demonstrates that if people wish to undertake legal broadcasting, there are the means and method to achieve that in a regulated environment.

One of the most famous cases of a pirate going into a regulated environment was probably Kiss 100. The station had its roots in the pirate tradition, but was then able to broadcast music that had perhaps not been accessed before lawfully and with a licence on FM. The station is now very successful. Those who argue that pirate radio is about giving a voice to, or promoting music among, a wider community should be aware that the means exist to do that. Given the expansion of internet broadcasting, too, it is now even easier and more cost-effective to produce such output and reach a wide audience.

The truth is that the majority of illegal broadcasters are motivated by money. The turnover of an illegal station can be significant. Set-up costs are minimal; a transmitter costs about £350 and a good-quality studio can be assembled for just £2,000. According to Ofcom, a large illegal radio station can generate up to £5,000 a week in cash, without the need to pay tax, licence fees or copyright charges for the music played. Such stations advertise parties, clubs, records and the like. A good number even have websites with discussion groups. The stations are full-blown black market businesses and the licensed broadcasting industry is bearing the direct economic cost of the illegal competition.

It is interesting to note that many of the broadcasters and DJs who appear on pirate radio stations actually pay for the privilege. They are often
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teenagers and young people who may be impressionable. The pirates often prey on that and charge them as much as £20 an hour to broadcast on the stations.

It is the mainstream stations that bear the brunt of the problem because their signals are scrambled and interfered with. It is interesting that Paul Brown, the outgoing chief executive of the Commercial Radio Companies Association, says:

Locally, the experience of Time FM 107.5, which serves the London boroughs of Havering, Barking and Dagenham—it covers my constituency and that of the Minister for Industry and the Regions—is a good example of the direct impact that illegal stations can have on the ground. As Neil Romain of London Media Company, which owns Time and several other stations, puts it:

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