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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:32 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat 7:32 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, for about 15 years I was chairman of an independent local radio company which broadcast to about 2 million people across north Wales and Cheshire. Therefore, I know a little about the problems that the Bill throws up.

First, I turn to Welsh representation on the Ofcom board. Broadcasting plays a vital part in cultural and public life in Wales. The devolved National Assembly is a democratic policy-making forum which both creates and implements public policy in many of the areas where Ofcom will also have responsibilities. So there is a great need for mutual understanding between the two. We feel that the position of the National Assembly is not sufficiently spelt out in the Bill. It is a unique broadcasting environment using both English and Welsh. The reporting of news and of politics is very distinct in both languages. Although we have at the moment representation from Wales on the ITC, the Radio Authority and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, there is none proposed at Ofcom level in the Bill. The appointments that we already have have ensured that the organisations have the ability to deal with linguistic aspects unique to broadcasting in Wales.

S4C has commissioned very successful programmes in Welsh—contemporary drama, children's programmes, animation (the recent Mabinogi feature, and the Gogs, which I once saw in Hong Kong to my great surprise as it is a Welsh animation film). The Gogs come from Y Gogledd in north Wales. We are known as the Gogs to the southerners. Serious documentaries are covered. Recently Ann Clwyd was followed to Iraq in Y Byd ar Bedwar. Y Stryd won an ITC 2003 award for its programme on drug misuse in north Wales.

Ofcom will be a public body for the purposes of the Welsh Language Act 1993 which will require it to produce Welsh language schemes indicating its compliance with the Act. There are also in Wales ongoing problems with broadcasting reception difficulties due to topography. A large proportion of the population receives signals from English transmitters. Indeed, it is very difficult to pursue, for example, an election to the National Assembly when 40 per cent of the viewers or listeners have their aerials turned to English programmes. The signals come from English transmitters and that affects the commercial viability of television in Wales. If it is intended to loosen the ownership of broadcasting, there is a danger that the specific needs of Wales will be brushed aside by commercial companies.

We do not feel that our distinctive interests are adequately protected by the content board proposed in Clause 11 which provides equal representation to all regions of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as they have different problems. The functions of the content board in Clause 12 are woolly and non-specific. Although there may at the moment be a member from Wales on the current Ofcom board, that may not always be so. We believe that there is a need to promote consultation with the National Assembly with a firm guarantee that Ofcom will contain a Welsh member.

I turn to access to services. The Bill does not do enough to secure that all public service channels, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C are easy to access. There should be a clear "must carry" obligation on BSkyB to carry public service broadcasts on digital, with Ofcom empowered to regulate a fair price for them. Electronic programme guides are already used by those people with access to digital television to choose which channel they would like to watch. With the growth in channels to 200 and beyond, the regulation of EPGs will be more important in the future than it is today.

The Welsh language broadcaster, S4C, is particularly concerned that its place in this new digital universe will be secured and that the Government will ensure that Ofcom has sufficient powers to ensure that S4C remains easily accessible for those viewers, both in Wales and beyond. Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that nearly 200,000 people a week watch Welsh language programmes—not just rugby on Friday night—on S4C's digital service in other parts of the United Kingdom.

NTL in Cardiff has relegated S4C to channel 752. NTL neither lists S4C's programmes in its marketing nor does it provide any information on its availability to its customers. Consequently viewers are deprived even of the opportunity to find out what is offered by S4C. We know that many Welsh-speaking families in Cardiff now watch far fewer Welsh programmes than in the past.

S4C remains the only public service television service not to have received any sort of financial recognition from this Government that broadcasting in the new digital age does lead to additional costs. Every single one of our terrestrial public broadcasters has been helped in some way. But S4C's funding formula is determined by statute and, although this legislation makes some changes to allow the Secretary of State to increase S4C's funding to take account of the new digital environment, there is no undertaking as yet in the Bill that that funding will be made available. S4C has done a magnificent job over 20 years of broadcasting. It has had five Oscar nominations and awards from the Royal Television Society. It can compete for audiences and succeed in the future only if the Government provide it with sufficient funding.

It is essential that the cultural diversity which makes the United Kingdom such a very special place is reflected on our screens and through our radios. For us in Wales, our national identity and our particular cultural expressions, whether in the English or Welsh languages, are of great importance. BBC2W is coming on-stream on digital, but more effort needs to be made in having programmes in the English language that deal with Welsh matters.

As my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, too much of the debate around the Bill has focused on all those issues which may well be of great interest to the powerful, the institutional shareholders, and the great global and international corporations. However, that forgets that we want a broadcasting ecology which can deliver programmes of excellence to people across the UK to provide not only the lazy entertainment, but inspire them and enrich their lives. We feel that there is a great opening for broadcasting in Wales, both on television and radio, and we will do our best to ensure that the Bill provides the framework in which that broadcasting can be carried out.