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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour 9:30 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, what is a local music station to do, if there is no distinctive local music? What is the local station to do, if the local music is so bad that to broadcast it would result in everyone switching off?

That is not all. As we read on, we see that the micro-management becomes even more bizarre. Subsection (3)(b) includes in the definition of localness,

"the extent to which . . . local advertisements are included in the services".

By "local advertisements" are meant advertisements for,

"goods or services manufactured or supplied by a person whose business is carried on from premises in the area or locality", or,

"goods or services which are supplied primarily to persons living or working in that area or locality".

Does the clause apply, for instance, to the local branch of Sainsbury's or the local garage, run by BP? In both cases, they supply goods,

"primarily to persons living . . . in that area".

Is the firm in Buckinghamshire that produces vellum primarily for use by this Parliament a firm that is local to Buckinghamshire or Westminster, or both? Will Ofcom have an army of advertisement wardens, armed with detailed Ordnance Survey maps, checking up on whether advertisers are truly local or are a few feet across Ofcom's imaginary boundary?

Clause 307 goes on to say that there must be local premises and local training programmes. It even specifies where local employees must live. They cannot live a few feet across the boundary; they must move house to get a job. It is all about inputs, and there is nothing about the quality of local programmes. Why? It is the programmes that matter. The Government should not tell companies how to run their business. They should aim to meet the needs of the local listener, not to create a lazy, box-ticking regulator.

Clause 307 represents a serious regression in government thinking away from the bold philosophy of light-touch, competition-led regulation that distinguishes the Bill. Such a clause could have been introduced only under cover of darkness, without any consultation. I am sure, now that it has seen the light of day, that it will be dropped, which will enhance the coherence and good sense of the Bill.

I would like to draw to your Lordships' attention one other aberration in the Bill. Clause 350 sets out the definition of "control" of the company—an important issue in economic regulation. The key element is paragraph (2) in which a person is assumed to have control if he or she is a participant with a 20 per cent interest in a company,

"unless the contrary is shown".

In other words, the onus of proof is on the shareholder, not on Ofcom. A person is guilty unless he can prove himself innocent.

Everyone knows how difficult it is to prove a negative, particularly in advance of even making an investment. The result will be that Ofcom will be flooded with requests for advice and "pre-judgments" and minority investments will be actively discouraged—just the type of investments that were crucial to getting Classic FM off the ground. Someone has clearly made a mistake here, and it needs to be put right.

The radio industry welcomes this Bill and the philosophy that informs its main measures. With the removal of a couple of aberrant clauses that betray the spirit of the Bill, it will provide a firm foundation for a prosperous industry providing a service to the listening public of which we can all be proud.