Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Inglewood: I have listened with interest and care to the explanation of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, as to the purpose of his amendment--and to the contributions made by other members of the Committee--which draws a point into our debate which, so far as I know, we have not hitherto considered and which has important and possibly far-reaching implications.

15 Feb 1996 : Column 777

The current arrangements set out in the 1990 Act appear to have been working well. The ITC gave ITN--currently the only nominated news provider--a clean bill of health. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, made his case as persuasively as he always does. I can give him the assurance that I wish to reflect carefully on what he and other Members of the Committee have said in this debate, and to state our position on this matter at Report stage. However, I should say at this stage that we do not see the merit of the provisions in Amendment No. 195BC. We are loath to attempt narrow definitions which the ITC must follow, such as the one in subsection (3)(a) of that amendment. The ITC is capable of assessing, under the broad terms of Sections 31 and 32 of the 1990 Act, what is required of a nominated news provider. Any definition in legislation is likely to have changed with the expanding technology of news gathering. Similarly, subsection (3)(b) of the same amendment does not appear attractive. To my mind, whether a news provider is subsidised by another company is neither here nor there, as the ITC polices the provision in the 1990 Act which requires news to be reported with due accuracy and impartiality. That said, I shall study carefully both these amendments and what the Committee has said about them, as these are important matters.

Lord Barnett: Knowing the Minister, when he tells me that he proposes to reflect carefully on the amendments and on what I have said, I am bound to accept that. He has always been reasonable. He will understand that I too shall reflect carefully on the matter. I propose to return to the amendments, or at least one of them, at Report stage to give ourselves a further opportunity to consider them. I hope that by then the Minister will have been able to take advice and will have recognised that it is sensible to accept my amendments, and we can then take the matter from there. On the basis of what he has said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 195BC not moved.]

Clause 67 [The Broadcasting Standards Commission]:

Baroness Jay of Paddington moved Amendment No. 195ZC:

Page 59, line 17, leave out subsection (1) and insert--
("(1) There shall be a commission to be known as the Broadcasting Standards and Consumers Commission (in this Part referred to as "the BSCC")").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 195ZC, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 195J and 196A, to which the name of my noble friend Lord Donoughue is added. I apologise to the Committee that I am not speaking to the grouping as it appears on the list, but I hope that the logical connection between these amendments will excuse the mechanical disruption of the groupings list.

The purpose of these three amendments is to expand the role and remit of the newly formed body with which this Bill seeks to replace the existing Broadcasting

15 Feb 1996 : Column 778

Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Amendment No. 195ZC proposes to change the name of the newly created organisation to the broadcasting standards and consumers commission. This simple alteration encapsulates the wider and more general role that we should like that organisation to have.

As I said at Second Reading, I believe the Government have missed an opportunity in this legislation to develop the part that viewers and listeners--the consumers--should play in broadcasting policy. After all, as has been said many times during the course of our deliberations on this Bill, broadcasting is a uniquely influential industry but consumer choice--apart from the cliched operation of using the on/off switch on a radio or television set--is still extremely limited. It is only as regards the subscription services that viewers and listeners can, in an economic sense, correctly be called customers. Although, of course, digital technology, which we are discussing in relation to this Bill, will greatly expand quantity and, we hope, variety, there will still--if the Bill is unamended--be few constraints on overall quality.

As has often been pointed out, the market for broadcasting services is, in qualitative terms, wholly different from, for example, the market for radio or television sets. In the absence of an economic market mechanism for feeding back viewer and listener preferences about quality and price, I argue that there is a need for a surrogate system which goes some way towards achieving a balance of power as between producers and consumers. An expanded broadcasting standards and consumers commission could achieve just that. Standards of accountability and transparency would automatically be improved.

If the title for the new body is accepted--that is the subject of Amendment No. 195ZC--the terms of reference of the new body would continue to include the particular areas already proposed in the Bill, but would also include the expanded terms of reference proposed in Amendment No. 196A. That amendment would extend the remit to include general broadcasting complaints, but the statutory adjudication role would still be limited to those complaints listed in Clause 71. The consideration of general complaints would be part of the more proactive role envisaged in Amendment No. 196A, which would also include additional research capacity and broader policy responsibilities. Provision is made in the amendment for the commission to pass on its findings to the relevant regulatory bodies when that is more appropriate as regards taking action on complaints.

But because, under these proposals, the consumer body would be able to investigate all broad questions of quality, as well as specific complaints, and to publish its own reports, it would become an informed source of advice on general policy topics. Some topics which have been suggested to me as ones which could be discussed and explored under the new research capacity are the implications of living in areas with no cable television or, perhaps, access to Channel 5; the future of the BBC licence; and the effects of subscription services on low income households. In time, if this sort of subject could be contained within its remit, the new broadcasting

15 Feb 1996 : Column 779

standards and consumers commission would become the primary source of informed audience opinion for both production companies and regulators. As such, it should be able to play an integral role in the future of broadcasting strategy.

As we have heard throughout the discussion on this Bill, the future of broadcasting is exciting, but it can also be somewhat daunting for those who watch and listen. They--perhaps I can say "we"--feel powerless in the face of bewildering technology and competing commercial interests. I argue that an expanded and totally independent consumers' commission would promote the interests of all of us as viewers and listeners. I beg to move.

Lord Elis-Thomas: I have a little difficulty with this series of amendments and indeed that whole part of the Bill which deals with the Broadcasting Standards Commission, because I am concerned about the over-regulation of cultural policy and the duplication of regulatory functions as between the ITC and the newly constituted body. This is a serious difficulty. I agree with all that has been said in support of the amendment as regards the position of viewers and listeners and the importance of being able to relate directly to media sources. However, I am not sure whether the creation of a further intermediary body--another regulatory quango; indeed an extended regulatory consumer quango--is the way to handle this issue.

The ITC, as established under the 1990 Act, has a broad remit of regulation in terms of its ability to deal with anxieties as they appear to that body, either directly or indirectly, through its monitoring systems, but it also has powers of regulation. It is able to penalise licensees who fail to meet requirements in terms of the maintenance of standards of taste and decency, impartiality and accuracy and all the issues that we shall discuss later this evening. I am worried that the ITC is already handling a wide range of complaints on matters of taste and decency, unfairness, privacy and impartiality; all the issues which are within the remit of the Broadcasting Standards Commission as proposed, and indeed of the broader consumers commission proposed in this amendment. The ITC received over 4,500 complaints about programme matters in 1995 and over 3,400 complaints about advertising. That indicates the extent to which the ITC is already perceived--because it is the regulator--as the body to which complaints are most directly and effectively directed. There are specialist complaints staff and monitoring staff. The ITC also has sanctions which it can use where there is failure to comply.

Compliance in broadcasting is a complicated and difficult field. It is important that it should be structured in terms of legislation and of the bodies involved in as direct a way as possible. In my view we should not create structures which duplicate the regulatory function of broadcasting culture.

I understand the argument about the complication of broadcasting and cultural production put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, in support of the amendments. However, I do not regard extending the

15 Feb 1996 : Column 780

role of the BSC as a means of dealing with that problem. I fail to see a role for the BSC as set out in this part of the Bill.

There is a track record for such bodies in the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, but we must avoid the danger of overregulation and the creation of excessive bureaucratic structures in this field. In my view we should simplify the relationship between state and broadcasters in order to enable people within the whole area of cultural production to operate in that area of light regulation within broadly agreed moral standards which the ITC already provides. To extend those bodies yet further is an unwarranted interference in the creativity of the media we are discussing.

7 p.m.

Lord Renton: I have an open mind on this question of having some form of representation of consumers in the statute. However, I feel sure that it would be wrong to make arrangements for representation of consumer interests within the same body--the British Standards Commission--which will have a regulatory purpose which will be quite different from the representation of consumer interests.

The regulatory body will be quasi-judicial. If, as I hope, the views of my noble friend Lord Caldecote and the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, set out in Amendment No. 197 and the amendments grouped with it are accepted, then the proposed complaints procedure and the independent powers given to the British Standards Commission would make it, if anything, even more judicial and inconsistent with the purposes of a consumer association.

I therefore hope that my noble friend Lord Inglewood will indicate with some certainty that what is proposed by the noble Baroness is not what is needed.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page