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Baroness Blackstone: May I finish my answer? I want to be as responsive as I can to my noble friend. I believe that he is using purple prose. I know that he feels very strongly about this matter. What I have said, and made absolutely clear, is that the Government are ready to look at change here. The only matter which divides us is when we do it. Some who have spoken in the debate want change immediately despite the fact that there are likely to be rather sweeping changes as far as ITV is concerned, as opposed to those who believe that we should hold on for a short period, look at the impact of that change, allow Ofcom, with all its expertise, to undertake a review, and then make a change. That seems a sensible and cautious way forward and exactly what the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell, Lord Puttnam and other members of the Joint Scrutiny Committee proposed only a few months ago.
Viscount Astor: The Minister's response to this group of amendments is enormously disappointing and unsatisfactory. She has given a huge hostage to the future because in effect she said that ownership of ITN affects the regulation by Ofcom of the nominated news provider. In effect, she has linked ownership with regulation. It seems to me, as in many other parts of the Bill, that the Government have sought to separate those two things. She has implied that ownership, whether 20 per cent, 40 per cent, 80 per cent or 100 per cent, will somehow affect the regulation of the nominated news provider.
I believe all Members of the Committee who have spoken reject that argument. The Minister has provided no evidence. She has failed to provide any evidence as to why the Government's position is either in the public interest or the viewers' interest: it is simply not there.
Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for her very full response. The Minister is right in saying that there is strong feeling in the House. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell had the support of nine Members of the Committee in an earlier amendment. I also have the support of nine Members who have spoken eloquently in favour of these very important amendments.
The Minister said that these changes are not appropriate at present. We believe that that says it all. It shows that it is not a principle at stake, but a question of timing. We simply cannot understand what is wrong with making these entirely sensible and appropriate changes now. What are the Government afraid of?
My noble friend Lord Astor spoke of a lever. I have my own thoughts about arm-twisting. There is no clarity to the Minister's argument. There are powers in the Bill to repeal restrictions on ownership rules, but why not now?
Perhaps I may repeat very quickly some of the words of Members of the Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, a single ITV would nurture its own news programme. That is what we are looking for. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, said, the current set-up is daft. I entirely accept what he said as regards Channel 4. In our view there is nothing for Channel 4 or others to be afraid of in these proposals.
As my noble friend Lord Astor said, single ownership would provide certainty for ITN. That is what we are looking for. The noble Lord, Lord Bragg, asked again: why should ITN be so uniquely penalised? I do not believe that the Minister gave an adequate reply. The ownership cap on ITN is not in the best interests of the company. In an increasingly competitive news market, ITN needs the flexibility of ownership that will allow it to attract investment so that it can develop and provide robust competition to other news providers.
As Members of the Committee have said, ownership restrictions act as a disincentive to the company's shareholders to invest in the long-term future of the company, making strategic decision making difficult. It also prevents ITN being able to exploit the potential of mergers and acquisitions. I could go on. We believe that the thinking of the Government is entirely inconsistent with their policy on liberalisation of ownership, coupled with strong content rules and a strong competition law regime in place.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reference to having further thought with regard to aspects of these amendments. I look forward to seeing the government amendments that will be tabled on Report. However,
The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 207, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 212, 216 and 221, and so provide a real opportunity to crack on. The Joint Scrutiny Committee was unanimous in its view that "substantial" is a more suitable word than "suitable" because "suitable", we felt, was not sufficiently "substantial".
Why did we come to that belief? At the time we were trying not to be timorous. What has surprised us a great deal is the response from the Government to what we thought was a very sensible suggestion. Page 38, paragraph 117, of the Government's response states that,
Viscount Falkland: On these Benches, we support what the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has just said. The word "suitable" is extremely sloppy, weak and subjective. Should a club decide that it wants a certain standard of dress or behaviour, it refers to "suitable" behaviour. Who knows what the behaviour will be? The wording needs to be stronger and "substantial" seems to be the appropriate word in this case. I cannot see anything wrong with it; it seems to be utterly appropriate.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am delighted that these amendments have been moved so, what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, would call, telegraphically. The amendments are about words, not policy. The clauses have been strengthened as a result of the ITC review. They now clearly show our intent that the preservation of regional programming and programming for the regions should be a high priority.
Lord Puttnam: I honestly think that the answer was in previous conversations in Committee when we were talking about the difference between floors and ceilings in respect of quotas. The whole point of the word "substantial" is to ensure that there is a sense of reaching for something entirely worthwhile. The word "suitable" is de minimis and can easily end up in avoidance. Frankly, I think that the Government are being silly. Here was a slamdunk for them to win a great deal of goodwill and move matters along. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.