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House of Lords

Thursday, 22 January 2009.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Communications: Digital Britain Review


11.06 am

Asked By Lord Dubs

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting (Lord Carter of Barnes): My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Question. Prior to the interim report, we have had seven steering board meetings with our 11 independent experts, eight formal presentations to the board, more than 30 research submissions, more than 100 engagements with more than 50 stakeholders, and detailed discussions with all three devolved Administrations and all nine regional development agencies. I will make a Statement to the House on publication of the interim report, but we will continue consulting up to the time of the final report.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that very full Answer to my Question. Does he accept Ofcom’s analysis of the difficult situation facing ITV and the other commercial broadcasters and that there is a need for urgent action to resolve the difficulties facing those companies?

Lord Carter of Barnes: My Lords, the Government certainly accept Ofcom’s analysis of the challenge facing commercial public service broadcasting, which in the main is driven by two things: first, the decline in the value of traditional advertising and, therefore, the revenues generated by those businesses; and, secondly, the multiplication of other ways of watching and using content. We received the report yesterday and it will be part of the input into the Digital Britain process. Some very profound questions are raised, particularly for the publicly owned public service broadcasters, in particular, Channel 4 and the BBC. We will take the necessary time to come to the right answers.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, we all recognise the huge value of the digital and communications sector to the United Kingdom and look forward to the publication of this review. Will the Minister elaborate on what is being done to promote digital inclusion at a time when almost 17 million people across Britain do not have access to a computer, either at home or at work?

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Lord Carter of Barnes: My Lords, I very much welcome that question. Notwithstanding the challenges facing public service broadcasting, the issue the noble Lord raises is the more profound, long-term question. There are still issues about absolute availability in this country of broadband services. We shall seek to address those and the related resilience and reliability issues. As the noble Lord rightly points out, there are very profound issues about the numbers of people participating, even when those services are available. The Government have done much work already on digital inclusion and there is a cross-government programme. The Government have also announced a specific initiative in relation to access through schools to families who are not participating. We intend to readdress some or all of those questions in the interim report. I would be disappointed if, when the noble Lord sees what we have to say, he did not feel that we were taking those issues seriously.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the creative industries today represent a beacon of light in the financial meltdown surrounding us, particularly with the opportunity for them to create and maintain jobs, given the unemployment problems? Does he accept that there is a suspicion—and indeed comment—that his Digital Britain review in these circumstances will be insufficiently far reaching and imaginative?

Lord Carter of Barnes:My Lords, let us not rush to judgment. I am sure that when the noble Lord sees the report he will be able to make his own analysis, as will others. The initiative that led the Prime Minister to commission this review was to try to produce an imaginative and, we hope, far-reaching piece of work. I could not agree more with the noble Lord’s comment about a beacon of light. Last night, I had the pleasure and privilege of making a speech to the creative and communication industries in the appropriately named National Treasures Room in the Natural History Museum. I made the point, which I reiterate to the House, that as we look at the economy and the issues facing it globally and domestically and look for industry sectors to step up to the plate to provide the economy and the country with the growth, success and leadership that financial services have provided for much of the past decade and more, the creative and communication industries must be at the head of the pack.

Lord De Mauley:My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that coming after a report by Ofcom, on which there has been extensive consultation, there is a risk that his review could be seen as stalling, while still showing concern, and that any delay could prejudice the availability of commercial funding as it gets even scarcer?

Lord Carter of Barnes: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that very fair question. The Ofcom report published yesterday was on an important, but specific, issue; namely, public service broadcasting. The Digital Britain report and review is to look across the entire digital communications industry. The first needs to be answered but it needs to be answered in the context of the second. On the broader point of whether it will have the effect of stalling, we are aiming to reach final and determinative conclusions by the early summer. That is a significantly fast pace.

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Lord Maxton: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one way to ensure that in future every household has broadband and, if possible, super broadband would be to use some of the money that will be taken from the sale of the analogue spectrum for that purpose?

Lord Carter of Barnes:My Lords, my noble friend will forgive me if I do not comment on spectrum hypothecation or the possible destination of the proceeds from spectrum sales. However, he made a critical point for public and government policy about how we make broadband services at the right speeds, and at speeds that have future, as opposed to current, capability, available and affordable to the entire country.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister accept the estimate of £28.6 billion for the rollout of fibre to every home in the country? If he does, will the Government review the necessity of having universal rollout, which means that we will never get the fibre that is necessary in certain sectors of the economy?

Lord Carter of Barnes: My Lords, the noble Lord raises a question on which there are almost as many views as there are numbers attached to the cost. We have had many submissions from many sources about the cost of fibre deployment. Prior to the publication of the interim report, I shall say two things, but perhaps we can return to this question. First, most technologists say that future networks will be a mixture of fixed and wireless capabilities, rather than purely fixed, and the economics change significantly depending on how fibre is deployed and how interoperable those technologies are. Secondly, the market is already providing early, healthy signs of accelerated interest in fibre deployment. There are legitimate questions about whether the market will ever provide anything resembling universal availability, but initial deployment is beginning, and that is very welcome.



11.14 am

Asked By Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the Government’s guidance to local authorities on the validation of planning applications, published in December 2007, provides advice on the information that may be required to accompany planning applications. This can include the provision of photographs or photomontages. If there is any question over accuracy, local planning authorities have the right to request additional information.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s reply, because it indicates slight movement since my previous exchange with her. Is she aware that computer-generated images of building or wind farm proposals superimposed on

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to wide-angle landscape photographs can give a misleading impression by minimising the apparent bulk, scale and height of developments, making them seem further away than they would be in reality? Why will the Government not insist that these images should at least comply with the Landscape Institute’s 2002 guidelines and show developments as the human eye sees them?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. We have tried in recent years, in simplifying the planning system and making it more accessible, to get a balance between being too prescriptive and enabling local authorities to take control of shaping local places. We have in recent months had the key recommendations from the Killian Pretty review, which looked at the process of planning as a whole, including information requirements, and made recommendations for improving information processes. As we put together our response, I propose to ensure that we address that question. In doing that, we will look at the Landscape Institute’s recommendations. That is the best answer that I can give my noble friend, but I will certainly keep him informed.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that an even more serious problem, in my view, is that of people ignoring the plan and building what they like? I have personal experience of that in both Oxfordshire and London, where the property being constructed pretty well on top of me has been built not in accordance with the plan. When I phoned the council to say so, it said, “That is perfectly all right. It is being built the right way”. Then, 18 months later, the council says, “It did not accord with the plans but, as it is now finished, we should not put people to the cost of redoing it”, so it grants retrospective permission. Is that not even worse than the false impression that might be created by digital drawings?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, I think that that is worse and I do not understand quite how it is happening. I cannot comment on individual applications, but the planning system is there to prevent such things and to regulate the process. If the noble Baroness gives me details, I will think about whether we can address it in other ways.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, the noble Baroness’s Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, was welcome but, following the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is not the problem that the planning authority that approves the plans has no duty to ensure that those plans are carried out accurately when the development takes place? It has no duty to inspect automatically and routinely, but does so only after there have been complaints. Would it not be a good idea to give the local planning authority a duty to inspect developments as they are taking place to ensure that they are in accordance with approved plans?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, of course building regulations enable that element of planning to be accurately delivered, but the noble Lord raises an important point.

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Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that more information, including accurate and meaningful images, would give local authorities much-needed confidence to turn down bad schemes, as well as to approve good ones? How can she further this in general?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the planning system has become more robust and transparent in recent years, so that people can find out what is planned. Having worked through the Planning Bill with me, my noble friend will know that we put in place much stronger provision for local planning authorities to have to consult on what they plan to do. Indeed, to give people more purchase on the system, we have a planning portal, which provides accessible and clear information about how the system works. That is extremely popular and is being well used. We require local authorities to have pre-application discussions with developers, so that they have better information about how the application will be processed and what the development will look like. The Killian Pretty review put forward a whole range of recommendations about how the system can engage better with local communities, statutory consultees and developers. So we are moving in the right direction.

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, is not the Government’s failure to include a requirement for accurate images in the December 2007 guidance in breach of the law, given the Government’s obligation under the European Landscape Convention to integrate landscape matters fully into planning policies? Is not such a breach of the law enforceable by interested parties against individual planning authorities and the Government?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we take our obligations under the European Landscape Convention very seriously. Although I agree with the noble Lord, I do not think that putting this into guidance is necessary or would satisfy any requirement that we are bound to. However, when we come to review the Killian Pretty recommendations and how we can address issues of images, we will look at the noble Lord’s question in the context of the Landscape Institute’s guidelines

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that abuse of the system, which was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is fairly widespread? For example, in a number of national parks, planning permission is given but not monitored or enforced. Will she consider notifying the national parks in particular that they have a responsibility to make sure that the conditions attaching to planning permission that is granted are maintained and enforced?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, no one knows better than the noble Lord how the requirements relating to national parks are specific and different. If he would like to draw examples to my attention, I will look at them. He raises an important point, which I will discuss with the chief planner.

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Piracy: Royal Navy


11.21 am

Asked By Lord Geddes

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a long-retired lowly officer of the Royal Naval Reserve and a member of the parliamentary naval association.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Marine Travis Mackin, Captain Tom Sawyer, Corporal Danny Winter and Acting Corporal Richard Robinson, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently.

The Royal Navy has already had demonstrable success in tackling piracy and illegal activities around the Horn of Africa, which is a vital artery of world trade. The best effect can be achieved by operating in the multinational partnerships, Operation Atalanta and the combined maritime force. However, these problems cannot be tackled solely within the maritime environment, and we must continue to work with the international community to tackle them at their roots through the provision of humanitarian and development assistance.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and join her in the condolences that she has offered. Does the United Kingdom have a data centre for long-range identification and tracking—LRIT—and, if not, does she agree that an estimated 1,000 British merchant ships would be trading but would not be LRIT-compliant, opening up those ships and, indeed, the United Kingdom to security violations? Is she aware—I am certain that she is—that Royal Navy manpower is down by some 6,500, or 14 per cent, and that the fighting fleet is down by some 29 ships, or 25 per cent, since 1997? Does she agree with me about the law of elasticity—that when a property is overstretched, it breaks and can no longer do its job?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we have made it clear on a number of occasions that while we regard our Armed Forces as stretched, we do not accept that they are overstretched. Our contribution to tackling problems such as piracy is extremely important. The noble Lord will be aware that the first EU naval task force is headed by a British commander and its headquarters are at Northwood. On data tracking, we should place significant emphasis on international co-operation; that is the basis on which we are working under, of course, the umbrella of United Nations resolutions.

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Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I join those on these Benches in the earlier tribute. Clearly, the payment of ransom encourages further piracy. Are the Government or the international community taking active steps to discourage owners of vessels that have been captured paying a ransom, and does the maritime force have any instructions to make the physical handover of any ransom that much more difficult?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the Government are against the paying of ransoms in such circumstances, which we have made clear. The majority of our international partners agree with that. It is an area where the greater the level of international co-operation, the more likely we are to get to a situation where we are all pursuing the common objective. It is important that we emphasise that we are not only dealing with incidents of piracy but trying to prevent these incidents happening in the first place. Again, co-operation has been extremely important.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, in safeguarding our trade routes, if we capture pirates there needs to be an urgent resolution of how and where we bring those pirates to trial so that there is proper retribution for their illegal acts?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, my noble friend is right. Piracy is a crime of universal jurisdiction and any state is entitled, as a matter of international law, to prosecute anyone who has been involved in piracy. It is an area where we are considering whether we need to change our domestic law. But the agreement we made with Kenya on 11 December last year will be extremely helpful, because it has agreed to take and to try pirates who were captured in one incident and that is to be extended should the situation arise again.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, what inhibitions are there of either a practical or a legal nature which would be an impediment towards the arming of some of these massive tankers with weaponry that is appropriate and adequate to repel attacks from small boats?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there can be a danger in private-armed situations, which is why we have placed our emphasis on international co-operation to police these waters, to try to deter and to prevent incidents of piracy. So far those have been extremely successful, but we should not be complacent because the threats are very real, specifically in that part of the world.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, following the very good point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, let us assume that a piracy attack on a British merchant vessel is intercepted by a Royal Naval vessel and pirates are captured. I would assume that there would be no other place where those pirates could be tried other than in the United Kingdom. Perhaps they come from Somaliland and the worry would be that they will claim political asylum. How do we get around that?

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