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Lord Rooker moved Amendments Nos. 44 and 45:

    Page 14, line 38, leave out "on which his belief is based"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 46 not moved.]

Lord Rooker moved Amendments Nos. 47 and 48:

    Page 15, line 18, leave out from first "the" to "the" in line 19 and insert "relevant amount"

    Page 15, line 45, at end insert—

"(11A) The relevant time is—
(a) when the court calculated the defendant's benefit for the purposes of the confiscation order, if this section has not applied previously;
(b) when the court last calculated the defendant's benefit in pursuance of this section, if this section has applied previously.
(11B) The relevant amount is—
(a) the amount found as the defendant's benefit for the purposes of the confiscation order, if this section has not applied previously;
(b) the amount last found as the defendant's benefit in pursuance of this section, if this section has applied previously."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 22, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 23 [Order made: reconsideration of available amount]:

Lord Rooker moved Amendments Nos. 49 to 51:

    Page 16, line 17, leave out from third "the" to fourth "the" in line 18 and insert "relevant amount"

    Page 16, line 22, leave out "(when the confiscation order was made)"

    Page 16, line 37, at end insert—

"(7A) The relevant amount is—
(a) the amount found as the available amount for the purposes of the confiscation order, if this section has not applied previously;

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(b) the amount last found as the available amount in pursuance of this section, if this section has applied previously.
(7B) The amount found as the defendant's benefit from the conduct concerned is—
(a) the amount so found when the confiscation order was made, or
(b) if one or more new calculations of the defendant's benefit have been made under section 22 the amount found on the occasion of the last such calculation."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 23, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 24 and 25 agreed to.

Clause 26 [Small amount outstanding: discharge of order]:

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 52:

    Page 18, line 3, leave out "£50" and insert "£500"

The noble Baroness said: This amendment deals with a small point; namely, to allow for de minimis considerations in discharge of orders. The purpose of the power to discharge is that, where there are no assets left with which to discharge the order, £50 is such a low sum that it is almost meaningless. Any legal or court costs in considering the application would far outweigh that sum. Where there is no ability to pay but the circumstances do not fall under the Clause 24 inadequacy provisions, we believe that the court should be able to exercise sensible discretion—in which case we suggest that £500 is a more meaningful sum. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: It may be useful to the Committee if I explained a little more of the background to Clause 26 at this point.

Representations have been made to us by justices' chief executives that the current legislation contains no provision whereby a confiscation order can be written off where only a small amount is remaining and cannot be satisfied. Consequently, such sums remain on the books of the justices' chief executives indefinitely and cannot be removed from court records. This clause responds to those concerns and allows the justices' chief executives to apply to the Crown Court to write off a confiscation order where all that remains is £50, or below.

We have considered carefully at what level to set the threshold. We did not want to pitch the level too high in order not to create the impression that defendants need not pay their orders because they know that they will be written off. As this is a new power, we believe that the level is modest and about right. If it turns out to be too low, it will be open to the Secretary of State to make an order to raise the threshold by virtue of subsection (3). In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will be satisfied and feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for his response, for which I am grateful. I am also grateful to him for offering further background on the drafting and meaning of Clause 26. I entirely understand what the noble Lord said with regard to not wishing

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defendants to believe that the sum would just be written off. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 agreed to.

Clause 27 agreed to.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving the Motion, perhaps I may suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Industrial and Provident Societies Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

Wireless Telegraphy (Television Licence Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

7.27 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 11th March, be annulled (S.I. 2002/641).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this statutory instrument will increase the colour television licence this year from £109 to £112. I have tabled the Motion in order to ask the Government to justify that increase, and to give a progress report on the way in which the licence-fee payers' money—and, of course, taxpayers' money—is being spent on the development of digital programming. Tax increases usually have to be debated in Parliament, but the licence fee can be increased by statutory instrument that is subject to the negative procedure; in order words, it slips silently into operation unless someone tables a Motion to debate it.

Approximately 1.2 million people do not buy a television licence, although they own a television set and are legally required to pay the fee. About 150,000 cases a year are taken to magistrates' courts in order to prosecute those non-payers. I was, therefore, intrigued to read in The Times of 18th March that the chairman of the BBC, Gavyn Davies, went out with the licence detector vans last month to ask some of those people why they were unwilling to pay the £109. He said that he was staggered by the number of people who evaded paying, and commented:

    "There were people who obviously found it difficult to pay £109".

I can assure Mr Davies that they will find it even more difficult to pay £112. The chairman went on to say:

    "It was those people who reinforced in my mind the view that we have to serve everybody".

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Of course, he is absolutely right on that point—but that is the whole point of being a publicly-funded broadcaster and not having to chase ratings for commercial success.

I sat as a magistrate for some 13 years before coming to your Lordships' House. During that time I heard hundreds, if not thousands, of cases relating to people who had not paid their licence fee. To my recollection, not one of those people ever told the court that they did not pay up because the BBC did not serve their needs, but was being hijacked by the middle classes who, according to Mr Davies recently, have a disproportionate amount of programming allotted to them. Their main problem was simply that the licence fee was one more bill among the many that they could not or would not pay. The fact is that the licence fee is now higher than expected when a settlement was reached after the Broadcasting Act 1996 which introduced the plans to launch digital television. We recognised then that there would be costs associated with developing digital programming and the licence fee was adjusted according to the best estimates available at the time.

Then, in 2000, this Government substantially increased the funding for the BBC in order to underwrite its plans to go digital. At that stage, noble Lords may remember that the BBC asked for an extra £700 million a year. The Government said that the BBC had not told them why it needed quite that much money, so they said that it could have just an extra £200 million per year, still, as far as one can tell, without requiring full justification from the BBC. As Claire Ward, the Minister's honourable friend in another place, pointed out on 21st February of that year,

    "when the BBC appeared before the Select Committee, it was unable to give a convincing explanation of why it wanted the extra funding and of what it would do with it".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/00; col. 1249.]

I have always made it clear that that rise may indeed have been justified. The problem is quite simply that we were never given the evidence to prove that it was. The BBC received an extra £200 million a year of our money and the licence fee payer had to face a larger than expected increase in the annual tax on owning a TV set. The fee rose by double the rate of inflation between 2000 and 2001. The Government ignored the evidence produced by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that, under such arrangements, 71 out of every 100 of the poorest households would be worse off.

Over the past year, the BBC has been launching its new digital TV channels. It is also busy developing five new national radio services which will be available through all digital formats. So far the only glitch has been that the plans for BBC3, which were submitted to the Government in February 2001, were rejected. In December last year the BBC resubmitted a new, revamped proposal. We are still waiting for the Government to make up their mind about it.

It really is coming to the stage where it is intolerable for the Government to dither so long over this decision. What the Government need to do is their business; that is, reach a decision, so that the BBC can

22 Apr 2002 : Column 81

do what is its business; that is, either get on and develop BBC3 or, if the Government again say no, at least adjust its business plans accordingly.

In the meantime, last month Gavyn Davies told the Westminster Media Forum, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who is in his place, that the BBC still has at least £80 million in the bank which should have been spent on BBC3. Have the Government taken that into account in justifying this year's increase in the licence fee?

It is rather ironic that the BBC is now chaired by the very same person who in 1999 said in his report on the future funding of the BBC that it was unfair to charge analogue households for the development of digital services which they could not receive. That is exactly what is happening now. Can the Minister confirm that over 64 per cent of households still do not have access to digital programmes but are being asked to pay for their development? What measures will the Government take to provide information to the consumer to help him or her make informed decisions about the take-up of digital television so that we can progress more quickly towards analogue switch-off? Only at that stage will all licence fee payers receive equal value for their annual payment.

While we are on the subject of analogue switch-off, it would be remiss of me not to refer to the fact that it was announced on the news tonight that ITV Digital will be sold off as a going concern after negotiations with the Football League appear, sadly, to have collapsed. I appreciate that that announcement casts a long shadow over the future of broadcasting in the digital age.

The Minister will be aware that it has been reported in the press that the Government expect the BBC to come to the rescue of ITV Digital customers in some form or other and then to continue the development of digital terrestrial television as an alternative platform to those of satellite and cable. If that were to happen, what would the Government expect to be the impact on the licence fee? Would we end up being licence fee payers also paying subscriptions to satellite and cable providers, in effect subsidising the users of digital terrestrial programming? This is a complex issue and one that, after today's announcement, must be addressed as a matter of prime importance.

I appreciate that not all households are required to pay their licence fee, although they must apply for and hold a licence. There are households in which one member is over the age of 75 and their licence fee is paid by the general taxpayer. Can the Government give an estimate of how much the taxpayer will provide for that in the period 2002-03, the year covered by the regulations?

I have approached this debate from my viewpoint as a friend of the general taxpayer, as a friend of the licence fee payer—of which I am one—and certainly as a candid friend, as always, of the BBC. The cost of digital broadcasting is going to be high; today we are even more acutely aware of that. It should be a price worth paying if the Government get it right, but we must be sure that the price is no higher than necessary and that the value we receive is right for the price.

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It is right that we should always recognise the BBC's achievements and its important role in setting the benchmark of quality in both national and international broadcasting. I believe that the BBC has made and must continue to make a major contribution to the cultural life of our nation. Personally, I think that our broadcasting environment would be damaged beyond belief if the BBC was not a star player in it. However, we have to recognise that the world of broadcasting is changing rapidly. The explosion of choice raises fundamental questions about the current and future role of the BBC. No doubt we shall have a valuable debate in full on that in the forthcoming communications Bill. I relish taking part in those discussions.

Tonight, however, we have an opportunity to start the ball rolling with a focused debate on the licence fee itself. I beg to move this humble Address and hope that it receives the support of noble Lords.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Wireless Telegraphy (Television Licence Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2002, laid before the House on 11th March, be annulled (S.I. 2002/641).—(Baroness Anelay of St Johns.)

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