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Lord Ashley of Stoke: I support the amendments. They ensure that in a multi-channel environment publicly funded channels are available as a matter of course without viewers having to buy additional equipment. The provision applies to all delivery systems, a most important point.

Two basic truths have prompted the amendments. First, it is far too easy for the legislature to fail to anticipate future developments, especially where technology is concerned. Indeed, some of us are rather frightened of technology; I know that I am. We tend to shy away from it. It is easy for the legislature to look away. Secondly, parliamentary time is by no means always available to remedy omissions. The lesson is that we should play safe on important issues. That is what the amendments are designed to do.

I have to say that the Minister gave a most disappointing response to the noble Baroness when she raised the issue on Second Reading. He said that,

The Minister went on to talk about the "strong possibility" of the development of "set-top boxes" which would receive all modes of transmission. Although he said that that was a strong possibility, it is still only a possibility and not a probability. That is an important point. Let us suppose that the development does not take place. Even if it does, what if the owners of cable or satellite decide that it is in their commercial interests to squeeze out the terrestrial programmes? That is very probable because commercial interests come first.

The requirements of "must offer", "must carry" and also of "open access", which are reflected in the amendments, make this a matter of public interest. Such requirements would guarantee that our present terrestrial programmes were available to viewers whatever the future developments and without the need for future legislation. Television has to be paid for in some way or another, but the best bargain of all now--and it is likely to remain so--must be the BBC's programmes when one thinks of the cost of the licence fee. That must remain the basic fixture of television for the foreseeable future. The amendments are about preventing the possibility of any operator squeezing out the BBC, which is the best television bargain in the world.

I know that the Government have not said that they do not want the continuation of current terrestrial programmes. I accept that fact. Nevertheless, the Government are simply sitting on their hands and doing nothing to ensure the future of current terrestrial programmes. I cannot believe that the Government are unaware of the risks. I hope the Minister will look favourably and sympathetically at the amendments.

7 p.m.

Viscount Brentford: As I have added my name to these amendments I wish briefly to express my support

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for them. They have been admirably explained and I shall not discuss them further. However, I believe it is important to ensure that British audiences can continue to have universal access to public services in this digital age. In the absence of a "must offer" obligation on satellite providers, homes that otherwise are dependent on satellite for digital reception would find themselves paying for, but being unable to view, public funded services. I believe that that matter needs attention.

My noble friend Lord Inglewood in his address at the end of the first amendment talked about a measured balance being required in the competition between the different forms of television. I believe that that is true in this case. I believe that these amendments will contribute to that measured balance for which he is asking and I very much hope that the Government will support these amendments and the principle embodied in them.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: The noble Baroness has raised an important matter. I wait with great interest to hear what the Minister has to say. I heard what the noble Baroness said about Sydenham Hill; that is the area from where the television is broadcast that my grandchildren watch.

Something is worrying me that I had not realised could go on. However, I am conscious of the fact that I am in my dotage and that my knowledge of these things relates to the past. I thought the "must carry" rule was firmly applied by the appropriate authorities and I thought that the cable authority was put under that obligation when it was merged into the new ITC. I believed that the "must carry" rule was rigidly applied. I am rather worried by what the noble Baroness said. She has raised an important matter and I hope that the Minister gives us a satisfactory reply to that.

Viscount Chelmsford: I rise merely to ask the noble Baroness where it is stated that the amendments are restricted to public service broadcasting. It looks to me as though they go much wider.

Baroness O'Cathain: My noble friend referred to public service broadcasting. When I considered this whole issue I thought that public service broadcasting comprised just the BBC because that is the body which is publicly funded by the licence fee. However, I realised that the term "public service broadcasting" includes ITV, Channel 4, and will include Channel 5.

Lord Donoughue: We on this side had assumed earlier that this matter would be discussed at a more prime part of the day as it is an issue that we consider to be of considerable importance. I must confess that until the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, spoke on the matter at Second Reading I had missed it altogether. I do not count myself a great expert on the matter but I believe it is an issue of great importance that the "must carry" and "must offer" rules and obligations should be there.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, I am troubled that this area might be unsatisfactory and fragile. If we cannot deal with this matter satisfactorily this evening, it is absolutely the kind of issue that we should wish to return to at another point. I hope that the Minister

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will be able to reassure us. It seems to me that this matter is on a quite different level and scale from many of the important but nitty bitty nuts and bolts that we deal with. This is an important issue.

Lord Inglewood: I wish to begin by making it absolutely clear to my noble friend that the Government are in full agreement with the aims behind her amendment. We want the services of existing public service broadcasters to continue to be available to all of the people of the United Kingdom. Indeed, that is one of the key principles on which our proposals for digital terrestrial television are based. We also want to ensure that the providers of all conditional access, multiplex and other services must provide services in a non-discriminatory manner to all those who seek to use them. This is important because those providers may exercise a "gatekeeping function" whereby broadcasters depend on their services in order to get their programmes to viewers.

I believe that our proposals will achieve both of those aims. If I may, I shall discuss the first of the amendments referring to access to free-to-air channels and to requirements for local delivery service operators to carry public service broadcasters. I shall begin by giving a general exposition of the position and then address some of the particular points that the noble Baroness raised. As I said at Second Reading, analogue terrestrial television services will not be switched off until the vast majority of viewers has acquired digital receiving equipment. Until then, households with television sets will continue to be able to receive the BBC and Channels 3, 4 and 5 in the same way as they do now. Those with digital sets will also be able to receive new services provided via the guaranteed digital capacity which will be offered to all existing broadcasters. And there is, of course, a strong possibility--given the clear consumer interest in such a development I think we may even call it a likelihood--that by the time analogue is switched off the industry will have developed receivers able to receive all three modes of transmission: terrestrial, cable and satellite. Even if that is not the case--and may I remind the Committee that we are probably talking, at the earliest, about the end of the first decade of the next century--and even if some households in the future have access to digital cable or satellite receivers but not to terrestrial ones, there will be every incentive for providers of cable and satellite transmission services to ensure that the public service channels are carried and that no separate charge is made to receive them. In practice, I understood that all cable companies with current franchises currently choose to carry the services of terrestrial broadcasters, without the need for statutory provision. This has been, and continues to be, important for them in gaining customers in their new markets. Indeed, the statutory requirements introduced in the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984 were removed in 1990 in recognition of this fact. Certainly, as a deregulatory Government, we would need considerable persuasion to reintroduce that. After all, much more capacity is becoming available on digital cable, and there seems no reason to believe cable companies will not continue to carry the public service broadcasters as long as they continue to produce the quality programmes for which they are renowned. Those channels obviously will

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be a significant attraction for viewers, so the BBC and other channels have a strong hand. The new cable services will need to carry their programming in order to develop or sustain market share. Indeed, I would not expect viewers to give up their terrestrial aerials unless they are assured by the companies providing other means of reception that they will continue to receive the public service channels. And, in the area of digital terrestrial television, the existing channels will, of course, themselves be given over to multiplex provision.

However, having said all that, I wish to repeat the assurance I gave to the Committee. The Government are committed to monitoring the situation as it develops.

I was most interested to hear what my noble friend had to say about Videotron. I must concede that I am unaware of the detail of the circumstances surrounding this case. I shall obviously want to look into that before returning to that point. If we could follow up that matter it would be most helpful. I have given an assurance that if something appears to require monitoring we should, as a first step, look into what is going on. We start undoubtedly from a position where we are unconvinced by the particular proposals contained in the amendment. However, I hope that the Committee will allow me to look further into the matter that was drawn to my attention this evening.

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