Office of Communications Bill [HL]
Lord Thomson of Monifieth (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, this amendment raises matters that were not discussed at earlier stages of the Bill. Therefore, perhaps even at this stage, I might be allowed to say a word or two about the background to it.
While we are paving the way for the "big bang" of the real communications Bill later next year, the world of commercially-funded television broadcasting has been facing the worst recession in advertising revenue since records began. The events of 11th September have made a bad situation worse. ITV, in particular, is suffering from the fact that at present we have a paving Bill rather than the main Bill, which originally, I believe, it had been hoped to bring in at the time of the gracious Speech.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to look at ways and means of introducing more flexibility into varying the financial terms of ITV licences to deal with the unpredictable external changes of the type that, for example, the regulator of Ofwat is able to propose. I have the impression—I hope that it is not inaccurate—that the Government are ready to consider that proposal for the main Bill in due course. I hope I can be assured that at least that is so.
My amendment, which had to be drawn rather narrowly within the limits of the purposes of the Bill, deals specifically with the second area for urgent change necessary to give ITV the financial vitality to fulfil its public service responsibilities. I refer to the need for a change in ownership rules which at present prevent consolidation within ITV. Last year's White Paper gave a rather more than cautious green light to this issue. I gather that there may be another White Paper shortly which will carry the matter further and deal with the wider issues of cross-media and competition aspects.
The amendment seeks to allow government to send a clear signal to the City and to financial circles generally that there will be no bar on plurality grounds to ITV consolidation once the main communications Bill goes through. It could also have the practical benefit of giving paving Ofcom the task, together with the OFT—rather along the lines proposed by the noble Baroness in her recent amendment—of preparing the groundwork for the inevitable competition issues which ITV consolidation would raise for the United Kingdom advertising markets and, perhaps in particular, for the London advertising market within the United Kingdom. The OFT and Competition Commission would then have much of the necessary basic material to consider any merger proposal quickly after the communications Bill comes on to the statute book.
In my view, and from my considerable experience of the world of commercial television broadcasting, the present position is disturbing and distorting the ecology of the broadcasting landscape. The ITV and BBC, in their separate and competitive ways, provide the very heartlands of public service television in this country. Given the costs of the digital revolution that is now being undertaken, the capacity of that heartland to preserve the values of public service broadcasting is now under considerable threat from the dominating pressures of satellite and cable.
A financially viable ITV system is as essential to the survival of public service broadcasting as is an efficient and dynamic BBC. Therefore, I hope that, when the Bill goes to another place, further consideration can be given as to whether there are ways and means of expediting the process by which ITV can remain a pillar of public service broadcasting. I beg to move.