They affect our business at its most fundamental level. They prevent us being heard by potential listeners. We have four pirates on an adjacent channel with poorly configured equipment which blocks our signal. We have clear evidence that advertisers who would use us do not do so because they are aware of the intermittent service. Barking and Dagenham council who have advertised with us in the past are currently not doing so because they cannot receive the station in their offices whilst the pirates are broadcasting.
Interference from pirate radio is ruining listening enjoyment for LBC listeners and having a potentially significant impact on LBCs business. One pirate station has been on-air on an adjacent channel to ours for many months and continues unabated, despite being a clearly well-organised determined outfit with its own website, promotional events and even phone-in number. The confiscation of pirate transmitters is of negligible value to LBC. Last time it happened, the offending station was back within hours on a new transmitter.
Therein lies one of the problems. Ofcom has to mount a continual battle against illegal broadcasters, and it is not being given the back-up that it needs in terms of resources and the support of other agencies.
Although there is the right to sentence such a person to two years imprisonment, and an unlimited fine for unlawful broadcasts, even when Ofcom secures a conviction, offenders get little more than a slap on the wrist. There were 58 convictions last year, but the average fine was a paltry £563, with average costs awarded to Ofcom of just £452 per case.
It has been suggested to me that illegal radio broadcasting offences are treated as little worse than not having a TV licence. Against that backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the Commercial Radio Companies Association has resorted to using its own funds to take out private injunctionsat a cost of several thousand pounds per caseagainst twice-convicted pirate broadcasters, in an attempt to reduce reoffending. But it is absurd that it should be forced into taking such action.
Given that illegal broadcasters are making as much as £5,000 a week, such absurdly low fines can almost be viewed as a minor business costassuming that they ever get paid. Ofcom is currently dealing with £58,000-worth of unpaid court debts relating to illegal broadcasts; some of those debts are connected with cases that concluded many years ago. Illegal broadcasters are employing more elaborate methods of securing their equipment, and the result is that the cost of enforcement has increased significantly.
The Government have not given this issue sufficient attention to date. The Ministers Department needs to make a more significant contribution in the battle to reduce the impact of illegal radio broadcasts, but only a co-ordinated approach will work. I understand that the possibility of a summit meeting is being discussed which would bring together all interested stakeholdersincluding broadcasters, the Government and law-enforcement bodiesto agree and implement a real solution to the pirate problem. Will the Minister commit to her officials attending such a meeting?
In concluding, I have a few further questions for the Minister. Will the Government grant Ofcom additional powers, if they are needed, to make it more effective in dealing with pirates? For example, will they allow it to act more quickly to shut down telephone numbers known to be used by pirates? Indeed, will the Minister undertake to review the funding made available to Ofcom to enable it to pursue its enforcement activities? I understand that the licence fees paid by radio operators are merely a statutory fee for the grant of the licence. The money is not Ofcomsit goes directly to the Treasury, and Ofcoms spectrum management and enforcement activities are funded by grant-in-aid, via the Department of Trade and Industry.
If dealing with the increasing costs associated with enforcement gives rise to resource issues, that needs to be examined very carefully. If the Minister is unable to commit to providing additional resources, I hope that she will at least commit tonight to examining the funding for enforcement activities undertaken by Ofcom. In addition, will the Government encourage the police to make dealing with pirate radio a higher priority, and to work with Ofcom on devising enforcement solutions and increasing the arrest rate for pirate broadcasters? Will the Government review sentencing guidelines for pirate radio offences and encourage magistrates to impose stiffer penalties on convicted pirates? In many ways the problem is one of perceptionthe perception that pirate radio is harmless. I hope that my comments this evening have given the lie to that and highlighted the need to take this sort of criminality much more seriously.
The co-operation of the BBC is also essential if any co-ordinated approach is to work. The BBCs attitude to pirate radio is, to a large extent, unknown. Will the Government commit themselves to including in the new BBC charter and agreement a duty to work with Ofcom and commercial radio broadcasters to discourage illegal radio broadcasting activity?
Pirate radio is a serious problem in terms of crime, the dangers that it poses to public safety, and the significant business damage that it causes to legal and legitimate radio companies. It is not a case of Smashie and Nicey; more one of Dangerous and Nasty. As
policy makers, we need to tune into the debate on the steps needed to tackle this criminal activity. I hope that the Government will be on the right frequency.
The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to debate with him on something other than the Company Law Reform Bill, to which we will return with all energy tomorrow morning.
I come to the debate as a radio addict, rather than an addict of other media. I have the radio on every moment I canalthough not, I hasten to add, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on my mobile in the Chamber. The radio brings us massive benefits, including music and drama, news and information. We can follow our football or cricket team in action, or listen to entertainment such as quizzes, games and conversation. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been talking with LBC; he, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) have spent much time over the years in the LBC studios participating in creating radio broadcasts.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch spoke at length and I do not think that I disagreed with a word of his analysis of the problem. I admit to having been a Radio Caroline fan in the days before it was banned, by Harold Wilson, I believe.
Many of those who have now become household names learned their trade in the pirate radio industry and the ships that were anchored offshore in the 1960s, and some of todays stations, such as Kiss FM, that started and were nurtured in the pirate radio world now provide a high standard of entertainment. However, that is a partial view, and I accept what the hon. Member for Hornchurch said about it taking no account of the damage that pirate radio can do. It is important that we do not allow the ring of excitement about the term pirate radio to blind us to the importance of ensuring that use of the radio spectrum is effectively managed. In that, I disagree with the hon. Member for Lichfield. The spectrum is a limited and extremely valuable asset. One of the tasks for Government, and through that Ofcom, which has the
job of ensuring that there is the best use of our spectrum, is to maximise the benefit to all our citizens from the allocation of spectrum throughout the media, so it is not that readily available.
However innocent pirate radio may seem to the listener, it is not innocent. Misuse of the radio spectrum will cause interference to other legitimate radio users. It can have extremely serious consequences. Some illegal broadcasters claim that they break the law because they want to serve a community need. Ofcom enforcement officials believe that the majority of illegal broadcasts, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch said, are motivated by money. If it is possible to generate in excess of £5,000 a week in untaxed revenue that comes from a mixture of local advertising and charging young and often impressionable DJs to appear on the station, it is an ill-gotten business from which there are ill-gotten gains.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch is right that owners of illegal radio stations have often been found to be part of wider criminal families. The joint Ofcom-police raids on stations have uncovered things such as drugs and weapons when they have closed down pirate stations. Those involved with this criminal activity have been known to threaten and intimidate neighbours and communities to obtain access to rooftops as transmission sites. Sometimes, they have even booby-trapped aerials by wiring to the mains electricity.
As has been said, in the absence of regulation there is much harmful and offensive content in transmission. This can be broadcast through illegal broadcasterspirate radio. This includes racist and offensive material that can be put on the air.
I shall talk about Ofcoms role as the regulator. It is Ofcom that takes action. Funding is not necessarily the issue. Ofcom currently spendsthe hon. Member for Hornchurch may not knowless than 1 per cent. of its current income on shutting down pirate radios. It may be that within its budget it will want to consider that issue. Even in my first few weeks in this ministerial role, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that Ofcom has to deal with various abuses of information in the form of faxes, telephone calls and so on. A great deal of work is undertaken in tracking abuse within systems by illegal operators. Pirate radio stations have to be seen in the context of all the other regulatory activities in which Ofcom has to be engaged in tracking down abuse. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that. I am not sure that money is particularly the problem.
Pirate radio is much more of a problem in the UK than it is in the rest of Europe. Ofcom has estimated that there are more than 150 illegal broadcasters operating in the UK. We can listen to the radio at any time and find that there is often an interruption. At any one time there are probably about 60 illegal radio stations clogging up the radio spectrum.
The main problem is concentrated around the London region and Birmingham. Ofcom responds to that appropriately and most of its resources are focused on those areas. It has established a separate investigative team to try to tackle some of the misuse of the spectrum by pirate radio stations. Eighteen out of the 21 staff in the investigative team are located in London and Birmingham.
James Brokenshire: I have been listening attentively to the right hon. Ladys points about resource and where people in Ofcoms enforcement department are allocated. There is a perception, at least in the commercial radio sector, that the issue is about funding and support in terms of the ability to ensure that enforcement is dealt with effectively and seriously. I heard what the Minister said, but I would be grateful if she made a commitment to examine the situation. Will her officials discuss funding problems with Ofcom, and determine whether other funding can be secured so that radio operators can be sure that their licence fees provide value for money?
Margaret Hodge: I do not think that I could persuade the Chancellor, other colleagues in the Treasury or anyone else that additional income from the licence fee should be spent on that function. I was trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman that only 0.8 per cent. of Ofcoms budget is spent on such activity, so a small increase in that percentage would have a minimal impact on the total budget. No doubt, Ofcom would argue that it requires more resources, as it has to carry out a great deal of policing in all activities. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but that is not necessarily the key issue.
The hon. Gentleman said that very few people have been taken to court or, indeed, been subject to action. In one time period, Ofcom conducted 770 operations against illegal broadcasters. Most of that work consisted of seizing the transmitters, because by the time that Ofcom staff arrived at the premises, the broadcasters had gone. Only 58 of those 770 operations, therefore, resulted in prosecutions. We can argue about whether sentencing guidelines are appropriateI shall look at the issue to see whether that is the casebut it is difficult to catch the criminals, because they have gone by the time that Ofcom and the police, with whom the regulator co-operates closely, arrive.
In October 2005, Ofcom conducted Operation Crystal in London, in which 18 of its field operation staff worked with 32 Metropolitan police officers. Considerable resources were therefore devoted to that operation, in which 53 illegal broadcaster transmitters were seized and 17 transmitters and aerials disabled. Some 43 mobile and landline telephone numbers linked to illegal broadcasting operations were gathered for further investigation, which led to a 57 per cent. drop in the number of broadcasts that week. However, I do not think that anyone was arrested at all. Similarly, in Operation Clavicord, which ran in Birmingham between 30 November and 1 December 2005, 12 Ofcom field operation staff worked with seven West Midlands police officers. Three people were arrested, and 10 illegal broadcaster transmitters were removed. Six studios were raided, and equipment was seized. Efforts have therefore been made to tackle the problem, and they were recently strengthened when Ofcom restructured its field operation unit. Ofcom is looking at the bigger strategy, too, and it has opened discussions with Kings College London on research to understand the motivation of individuals who choose to manage and operate illegal broadcasting stations. Interestingly, it is considering market research on the radio audience to determine the popularity of pirate radio.
Stephen Pound: I really do not want to appear unnecessarily curmudgeonly, but the thought of spending public or private money analysing why these people want to fill their boots with their ill-gotten gains, sell their drugs and present themselves as figures of importance in their local communities is just about the most total and utter waste of money that I have ever heard of. We have heard from the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) why they are doing it. We do not need a university department to analyse it. What we want is people to kick down the doors and put them out of business.
Margaret Hodge: Ofcom would probably say that what we need to do is kick down the right doors, although when I read that part of my brief the same point did occur to me. Perhaps more important is to undertake research into why people listen to the pirate radio stations and use that intelligence to determine how to allocate spectrum in the future so that one takes away the market and hence the profitability of running a pirate radio station.
The Government of course have a role to play in combating pirate radio, and officials in my Department have recently discussed pirate radio issues among other things with the Commercial Radio Companies Association, in particular in the context of how those illegal operations affected its members. That was followed up with a meeting with the regulators on 18 May 2006 where officials met Ofcom colleagues to go through the general issues around pirate radio as Ofcom sees them and to establish what they are doing on a long-term strategic basis to try to reduce the problem.
If a summit is organised to consider these issues, it is appropriate that a Government official should be present, and if and when we receive details, I will ensure that somebody attends. This matter is a high priority, and I repeat that the policing of all these offences in relation to the communications industry is important to individuals who receive unwanted telephone calls or faxes. That creates more of a postbag for me and probably other hon. Members than perhaps the pirate radio issue, although I do understand the concern that that causes to the industry.
James Brokenshire: The CRCA is using its own resources to back up the enforcement activities through the courts. I hear what the Minister says, but if the CRCA is having to use its own money to obtain injunctions to add to the court process to make the enforcement stick, clearly there is an issue there.
Margaret Hodge: Clearly we need to keep the regulatory framework under constant review. I noted from the hon. Gentlemans contribution how the CRCA is perhaps more effective than Ofcom in tracking down the individuals concerned because the difficulty in the policing exercise is that it is easier to confiscate the equipment than it is to identify and charge the individuals. Again, if there is something that we need to learn from the CRCA activity we shall consider that.
No one expects the romantic view of pirate radio to disappear overnight. The association of the 60s DJs and pirate radio is deep set in some of our minds. But by continuing to investigate, raid and prosecute where we can those involved, I hope that we will help to reduce what I agree is serious interference in radio and limit the problems associated with this criminal activity.
I should like to reassure the House that there will be continued pressure from Government to close down any such illegal activity, and the independent regulator will continue to devote his time, money and energy to combating pirate radio stations. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating a debate on the issue.