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Viscount Astor: I must congratulate my noble friend Lady Anelay on managing in such an ingenious way to secure a debate on analogue switch-off. She has tabled an amendment which would abolish Ofcom on the assumption of analogue switch-off. My noble friend said that it is a probing amendment. I am delighted to hear that because the last thing we would want is to have Ofcom abolished when analogue switch-off finally happens.
However, as my noble friend has been so ingenious in tabling her amendment, I am sure that as always the Minister is prepared to answer a couple of questions. No doubt, she will say that analogue switch-off will be addressed in the main communications Bill, but perhaps I may enter a short plea.
The Government have rightly set out a number of steps that they would require digital television to take before they consider analogue switch-off. It would be based on issues such as coverage, the number of analogue sets in the country and so forth. However, in order for those steps to be taken there must be an end date. One that is as wide as has been suggested will not help the industry to focus on when the changeover needs to take place. I believe that the gap between 2006 and 2010 is too wide and needs to be narrowed.
The industry needs clarity as regards the steps which are required to be taken and a date. I hope that the Minister will consider that. I realise that it will be no part of this Bill, but I take the opportunity to make that plea.
Lord Lipsey: The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has laid such a tempting bait that I cannot help darting after it. I am reasonably confident that the amendment will never take effect because, as the Minister said, we shall have a full-scale communications Billtouch wood, if there is any in this Chamberand because I believe that all the tough talk of analogue switch-off is for the birds.
I know why the industry wants Ministers to continue with such talk; so that consumers are frightened into going out and buying digital television sets. The truth is that were any government to render redundant the television set in my daughter's bedroom and in the bedrooms of millions of daughters up and down the country, that would be their poll tax mark II. It simply is not practical.
I should like us to stop talking about analogue switch-off, therefore, and to start to talk about digital switch-on. We should make sure that the industry is organised to provide a range of digital services which are utterly compelling to every consumer who wants to buy a new set. I believe that that involves a deepening and broadening of the BBC's efforts in the field, made possible by the increased efficiency of the corporation in recent years and by the additional money granted to
Lord Crickhowell: In making a couple of brief points I declare an interest, as I have on previous occasions, as the chairman of HTV. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who I see in her place, on her appointment as deputy chairman of the ITC and therefore my regulator. I look with proper respect in her direction.
I have a good deal of sympathy for what has been said about positive measures as well as negative ones. However, a number of other countries, including, for example, Finland, have come forward with earlier dates than those we are contemplating and are making more satisfactory progress. If satisfactory solutions for the transfer are not reached, we shall get ourselves into a terrible mess. Whatever industry there is to be regulated by Ofcom, it may be very different from the one we have at present .
I believe that as many as 4 million analogue television sets were sold in this country last year. It is a large number. We are therefore going down a road of considerable chaos and confusion and it is likely to get worse. I realise that we are dealing with a probing amendment of some ingenuity, but there is a serious point to be made and it is urgent that the Government consider a total and comprehensive examination of the issue. Otherwise Ofcom will have to deal with an industry in crisis.
Baroness Blackstone: Like the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, I was slightly surprised to see the amendment in the Marshalled List but I congratulate the noble Baroness on her ingenuity. However, I shall not rise to the bait and get into a long debate about digital switch on, off or over.
Clause 4 provides that if the Secretary of State considers that it is no longer necessary for Ofcom to continue to exist because of the abandonment or modification of relevant proposals about the regulation of communications, she may, by order, provide for its winding up. The proposed amendment would broaden greatly the circumstances in which that power could be exercised to include a specific sphere of its transferred regulatory responsibility; the incidence of terrestrial analogue communications being switched off. However, as the noble Baroness has openly admitted, that was a device for initiating a speech about moving from analogue to digital services.
I can only reiterate that, as my honourable friend Dr Howells said yesterday in another place, our aim is to achieve these criteria within the time-frame of 2006-2010. That is quite challenging. However, we anticipate that with a successful alliance between the Government, the industry and consumers, within the
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, thought that we needed to narrow down the time-frame. At this point it would be dangerous to do so, for a whole variety of reasons, one of which was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. I am not sure that I would go as far as the noble Lord did in suggesting that analogue switch-off is just for the birds. He may one day have to eat those words. However, I entirely accept that before we go down that road it is important that we go through the whole series of tasks set out in that plan. I hope that that will be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell.
We have certainly made clear that full switch-overI think that that is the right term to usewill take place when and only when the tests of availability and affordability are met. We believe that that could start to happen as early as 2006 and could be completed by 2010. More than that at this point in time I will not say.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I am grateful to Members of the Committee for their comments. I hope to stretch my ingenuity on even more serious subjects in our later debates on the Bill.
My intent was not wholly or in major part mischievous. I am not trying to ferment a rebellion by teenagers around the land who may be alarmed at losing their bedroom programmes. Certainly, the amendment sought to focus our attention on the fact that, as my noble friend, Lord Crickhowell, commented, the Ofcom that we are creating today may end up in the future regulating a very different communications and telecoms environment. I said that this was a probing amendment. Such it was. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 33:
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 33 is a simple amendment. We suggest that on page 4 at line 24 the word "may" should be replaced by the word "shall". We assume that the use of the word "may" in the clause is a drafting error. The Bill is based on the premise that there will be a communications Bill. That will amalgamate the functions of the existing regulators into the person of one super regulatorOfcom.
If the project for some reason is abandoned, Ofcom will have no reason to exist. It must be wound up. It cannot be left. Therefore, it is not "may" be wound up at the Secretary of State's discretion as stated in Clause 4(1)(b). We certainly do not want to have an unused and redundant regulator hanging around, eating up public moneyperhaps like another Millennium Dome.
The amendment removes any ambiguity and ensures that if there is no need for an Ofcom then it must be wound up. If our amendment is successful, Clause 4(1)(b) would read:
I said that the amendment was simple. It has a simple purpose. I beg to move.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: In order to understand the amendment, we must look at both subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 4. Subsection (1) states that if, in consequence of various things,
In other words, the Bill sets the end of 2003 as a kind of deadline for the Secretary of State. If things were going wrong before then, she could seek to wind up Ofcom. But she could instead choose to give it another chance, even if the prospects were not very promising. After the deadline, however, she would need to be more confident that the project could be rescued in order to give it more time.
A deadline is a useful discipline. Amendment No. 33 would remove it. During the earlier period it will be more difficult to judge whether the project is making adequate progress or whether early difficulties will be surmountable. Therefore, at that stage, as the Bill states, she should have more discretion, but after 2003 she should not.
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