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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:23 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Viscount Chandos Viscount Chandos Labour 8:23 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, I welcome the Bill, but I welcome it in the same way as I greet my doctor's recommendation to do 100 press-ups twice a day. I am sure that it is good for me, but, as I look at the 403 clauses and 19 schedules, I cannot help, like the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, wishing that there was an easier way.

Of course we must recognise that the creation of a single regulator—there are five now—and, through that, the establishment of an integrated and, I hope, consistent regulatory regime for the communications industry represents the construction of an edifice that, like Rome, cannot be built in a day. But it should be a clear objective that for every hour that your Lordships spend on considering the Bill, many thousands of hours of subsequent regulation will be eliminated. A complex Bill covering a complex and important subject should not lead inexorably to more burdensome regulation. Time invested wisely now in Parliament should give a return of more time for the companies and bodies which Ofcom will regulate to serve their customers and their audiences.

Extraordinary amounts of time have already been given by my noble friend Lord Puttnam and his colleagues on the committee to the benefit of the Bill and, hence, to the benefit of all of us who enjoy the relevant services to be regulated by Ofcom.

Among my interests listed in the register are some which relate to this Bill. In particular, I am a shareholder and a former director of a company providing broadband television and video-on-demand services over BT's ADSL network. I am a director of a company, owned by two major advertising agencies, which provides the principal ratings research for the UK television industry. My only interest in broadcasting itself, however, is in a Russian television network. While I should welcome Ofcom bringing a little rationality to its regulation, I suspect that my noble friend Lord Currie would regard that as being several steppes too far.

I previously suggested to your Lordships that debating broadcasting regulation induces the sensation of being in the recurring world of "Groundhog Day", trying to remember whether this great issue or that was central to the Act of 1996—or was it the 1990 one? In 1996, there was not one single digital television home and now over half the country's homes are multi-channel—most of them digital. How many homes then had PCs, let alone Internet connections, even narrow band ones?

When we return like clockwork to the issue of broadcasting and communications regulation, the perennial challenge is to think what these worlds will be like at the end of the useful life of the legislation, not just at the beginning. What will be the landscape in, say, 2010 when next this House (however composed) considers new legislation?

Therefore, the underlying approach of Ofcom allowing emerging competition, whenever appropriate, to supplement regulation is absolutely correct, precisely because of the dynamic markets and the vibrant creativity—which my noble friend Lord Alli described so well—that characterises this industry.

Ofcom, mandated through this legislation, will be responsible, on the one hand, for ensuring a ferociously efficient communications infrastructure for consumers and businesses; and, on the other hand, for preserving all that is so good about our public service broadcasting heritage, which other noble Lords have described far better than I can.

Even if the highest ratings are likely to be achieved for the passion and the fury with which the latter issues are debated in the weeks to come, we must not neglect the less glamorous areas of telecommunications. As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said, the market for mobile telephony is a remarkable story which we should be careful not to harm unnecessarily. More than that, we should learn from the success of that market when we seek to stimulate other and new markets, such as broadband.

The economic regulation which Ofcom will undertake will run alongside that of the OFT, under what I think is the medieval doctrine of concurrence. Reluctantly, I accept that there is no alternative to this duplication if we want to afford any special protection for our media. But, as has always been the case in the past, we must be ready for it to create endless confusion.

Today, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, cried that the combination of newspaper and television interests which he feared would follow from the provisions of this Bill would represent, I think he said:

"a concentration unacceptable in any industry".

Fear no more noble Lords, I suspect that such a level of concentration, even if it was not forbidden under this legislation, would be swiftly despatched by the OFT under the terms of the Competition and Enterprise Acts.

In the short time available, I am not sure that I can bring any new perspectives on the ecology of public service broadcasting. I believe that the BBC and Channel 4, extraordinary and unique organisations that they are, lie at the heart of British television's excellence. Every change that is contemplated should, inter alia, be considered in the light of its possible impact on those broadcasters.

On the other hand, I am deeply wary of perpetuating an overly prescriptive regulatory regime which attempts to design the garden rather than to foster the ecology. I cannot agree with the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, that the ITA, the IBA and the ITC successively presided over a "triumph of regulation". The history of ITV's regulation has been a story of regional promotion and protection, coming at a devastating cost to achieving the full potential of the nation's television—and film— industry.

Ironically, that does not make me sympathetic to the proposed merger of Carlton and Granada which, whatever the final form of the Bill, will be determined, in a classic example of concurrence, by the Competition Commission. ITV has squandered its extraordinary inheritance largely through its own devices, like a wastrel son in a—probably BBC— costume drama, and is owed no special favours.

I believe that the Competition Commission faces an unusually difficult task in assessing the concentration of advertising revenue attributable to the two companies. ITV's share will, I am sure, continue to decline. I have long believed that by the time it has reached a level which may be acceptable under the Competition Act, the penetration of digital may have reached a level where it would be feasible for the two companies to compete nationally on digital networks rather than cosily merge, thereby separately stimulating new programming and production far better than would be the case together.

My noble friend Lord Alli cited trust as the first principle of public service broadcasting—I believe that he was quoting Greg Dyke—and, in the end, the best resolution for the shape of television may come through placing trust in Ofcom to exercise its judgment and powers in a way that strikes the best balance between commercial market forces in its economic regulatory role and the preservation of public service broadcasting values.

Could that create a very litigious environment as the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Phillips, fear? Possibly. But if we do not believe that Ofcom is strong enough for the fight perhaps we should all pack up and go now. In any case, if this leads the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to putting his children to work as communication lawyers, it conjures up the prospect, with a little help from a noble friend, of a distinguished new firm—McNally, Alli and MacBeal.

I shall end by flagging one specific issue for the later stages of the Bill in the area of training. Declaring one extra interest as a former governor of the National Film and Television School, I very much hope that the provisions in the Bill for Ofcom's promotion of training may be fine-tuned to ensure that the broadcasting industry's support for the NFTS will continue to allow its extraordinary work to be safeguarded.