My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this interesting and lively debate. I am grateful, too, to those noble Lords who have given the order their support.
I appreciate that the order may raise some concerns about the need to protect a wide variety of opinions and views in our media; equally, we acknowledge the argument that greater consolidation at a local level could lead to a reduction in locally made content. However, we believe that the draft order strikes the right balance between recognising that the local media markets have changed and the need to protect consumers' interests and needs. The best way to secure high-quality local content and diversity is by creating a framework in which local media businesses can thrive, innovate and compete.
It is these principles which underpin the Government's current proposals for local television, which will add to choice and balance at the local level. Television is a powerful and trusted medium and local television has the potential to offer many social and democratic benefits to communities and economic benefits to the local media industry. As I said earlier, the rules that this order removes have always been in addition to general competition rules and the public interest test. These remain in place to make sure that there is proper choice to protect against undue concentration.
I turn now to the specific questions asked by noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I accept the vast knowledge of my noble friend Lord Fowler on this subject and I agree that the regional press are greatly trusted. I thank him for his support, especially in regard to the public interest test. He asked about competition rules, an issue which I suggest should be considered by the communications review. DCMS recently published an open letter inviting responses to high-level questions related to the communications review. Responses to these questions will inform our approach to a communications Green Paper, due to be published at the end of this year, which will in turn be followed by a full consultation and White Paper. I encourage all noble Lords to contribute.
On the question of local newspapers and their ownership, I was interested to read that over 80 per cent of local and regional titles in the United Kingdom are owned by six publishing groups-Archant, Associated News, Johnston Press, Newsquest, Northcliffe and Trinity Mirror Group-which have made some progress despite the downturn over the past two or three years.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, for his constructive intervention. With his long experience, he is always interesting when speaking on this subject and I support what he said.
My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones asked why the order took so long. It was due to parliamentary business, the Easter recess and the recess we have just had. He asked about public interest and sufficient plurality, as did the noble Lord, Lord Prescott. I assure the noble Lords that plurality can still be maintained through competition law and, where appropriate, the public interest test. Plurality means giving citizens access to a variety of sources of news, an essential part of a democratic society resulting in a healthy media sector.
On the issue of emerging local television and the possibility of investing in further local television, the Government believe that one of the barriers preventing commercially sustainable local television from emerging in the UK was the restrictions around media ownership. With the removal of the rules for local media, which are now no longer necessary, local media companies will be free to affiliate and develop cost-effective local television service models, benefitting from syndication of resources, journalists and technical expertise, much as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon.
The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, returned to the Sky debate and his concern about hacking. On the merger of BSkyB and where it has got to, this is not the subject of today's debate. However, I can confirm that the Secretary of State is now considering the responses made to the consultation and will make a statement as soon as possible. This merger is being considered under the public interest rules and I can confirm to the House that these rules will remain untouched by this order. The Secretary of State is following a quasi-judicial process and this is a matter for him. I am sure the House will appreciate that I can discuss only the process. The Secretary of State has followed a very transparent process and has published even more than is required by legislation. As to the phone hacking mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, as I have said before, these are serious allegations-but they are matters for the criminal courts and not for this debate today.
In answer to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who knows so much about the press and public interest, the public interest takes account of the need for those,
"persons carrying on media enterprises ... to have a genuine commitment to the attainment in relation to broadcasting of the standards objectives set out in ... the Communications Act 2003"- which she probably knows well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked on behalf of the Opposition about the removal of the last rule, reluctantly agreed by Ofcom. A strong local media sector that can invest in new content and in high-quality news provision is essential and Ofcom have reported that local media businesses are operating in difficult market conditions. In their report from August 2010, Ofcom said removing all these restrictions was a matter of judgment for Government and Parliament. Removal of these unnecessary rules would allow local media companies to move to new platforms and develop new cost-effective business models and partnerships. Plurality can still be maintained through competition law and the public interest test, wherever appropriate.
The proposals to remove Ofcom's duty to renew the media ownership rules for every three years-which I think was mentioned-is part of the Government's deregulatory agenda. It reduces the need to undertake unnecessary reviews and will bring back powers to the Secretary of State. Most importantly, the Secretary of State will have the power to ask Ofcom to undertake a review of media ownership rules as he sees fit.
I believe the noble Baroness also asked about local television and the BBC. The BBC agreed in October 2010, as part of the licence fee settlement, to support local TV by providing capital start-up costs of up to £25 million, and up to £5 million per annum for three years to acquire content. Decisions around the level of provision of the BBC's own local radio and news services are a matter for the BBC.
I hope I have responded to most of the points today. If I have missed any of the details of noble Lords' questions, I will of course write to them. I commend the order to the House.