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Transitional Provisions Relating To Iba's Broadcasting Services And To Existing Cableservices

Volume 178: debated on Friday 12 October 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords amendment: No. 344, in page 98, line 13, leave out ("and") and insert—

("(aa)) for the purpose of the regulation by the Commission after the end of that period of services provided in succession to the DBS services provided by them during that period; and")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.— [Mr. Mellor.]

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 345, 346 and amendment (a) thereto, 347 to 359, 512 to 515, 521 to 542, 543 and amendment (a) thereto, 544 to 554, 555 and amendment (a) thereto, and 556 to 574.

I should like to speak to Lords amendment No. 347. We strongly welcome the Government's decision to allow for a continued pooling of transmission expenses. However, once again, the Bill provides only for an interim period. Despite the Minister's reassurances, there is no protection in the Bill for the sparsely populated areas and areas of difficult terrain on a continuing basis. This gives rise to concern in companies such as Grampian Television that they may be forced out of business and be taken over by geographically more fortunate franchise holders.

I had understood that the Minister's commitment was to provide for a system that would not be brought to a conclusion at the end of the interim period. I am therefore surprised to see the provision in this form. I know that the Minister will be prepared at least to repeat his earlier assurances.

I repeat those assurances. This is not an easy issue. The previous Home Secretary announced in July last year that there would be a uniform tariff for Channel 3 companies. The announcement also made it clear that those cross-subsidy arrangements would be reviewed. Of course, one stands by that.

As for radio, there is a transitional period. Because of the nature of the radio system, it was decided that the kind of elaborate arrangements that might have been appropriate for television were not appropriate for perpetuation in the radio system. Some radio companies are dismayed about that and a long and honourable battle has been waged by Mr. Prag of the Moray Firth radio station. I made it clear to him throughout that I did not think that I could improve on the position that I had inherited and that I was under great pressure from the Association of Independent Radio Contractors not to do so.

We have not moved any goalposts in the amendments, but I understand that we have not gone as far as some other interests would have wished us to do. I can only regret that, but say that I have done so on the best advice from others within the industry.

I cannot say that I am surprised by the Minister's remarks about radio because they conform to what he has said throughout. I may have misread Lords amendment No. 347, but I thought that it referred to television and I wanted to draw attention to it for that reason. I have been advised that some of the companies are concerned about the provisions. It is, of course, for the smaller companies, such as Grampian Television, which serve areas of sparse population, that the arrangements are to be made only for an interim period. There will not be a continuing guarantee of cross-subsidisation.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. At the end of a long evening, I see the point. The break in the mid-1990s was raised on Report. It is necessary to review these matters from time to time, but I cannot conceive that anything is likely to change as the case for these measures will be as compelling then as it is now. It is simply that, following consultations with other Departments, it has not been open to us to put in place a perpetuity arrangement. We are concerned about transmission systems being far more complex in some areas than in others.

On Report, there was petitioning from the west country. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said that there were 30-odd booster stations in his constituency alone. The best that I could do then—it was quite considerable—was to say that, while there has to be a review period, I personally doubted whether the basis of the argument would have changed materially to allow any different result from that which we already considered to be conceivable.

I believe that I am technically intervening in the speech of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, so I had better sit down and allow him to finish so that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) can say his piece.

I am only too happy to rise to my feet again to allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene.

I wanted an undertaking from the Minister rather than an undertaking from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) who, I suspect, is not in a position now—nor, with due respect, is likely to be—to give me such an undertaking.

I understand what the Minister is saying. However, it might be helpful—and would be appreciated by those who live in areas that are served by many transmitters—to obtain an undertaking from the Government to keep the situation under review. There may be an opportunity to look at the position again in the mid-1990s, but the worry is that something might happen fairly quickly in the interim which meant that Parliament was unable to respond to developments. If the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland could continue his speech to allow the Minister to intervene to give that undertaking, I should be happy.

I rise in support of the points made by the hon. Members for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling). Of all the complexities that are described in the Bill, that of the transmission system—its maintenance, its ownership and its effectiveness—is the area of greatest weakness, in my humble estimation. It is at its greatest weakness in the provisions for outlying areas that require many subsidiary transmitters, which add substantially to capital and to operating costs.

My right hon. and learned Friend would be unwise to assume that it was purely a matter of rural areas. It is at its most obvious in rural areas and in the Celtic fringes. However, even in some more populated parts, there is considerable difficulty in obtaining adequate transmitters to fit the existing regional contractors' marketing purposes. My right hon. and learned Friend knows perfectly well that large portions of Yorkshire, for example, are omitted from receiving signals from Yorkshire Television and are included in the north-eastern regional station. Those are obvious quirks of geography.

The review of the transmission system under the new regime will require even greater resources than do the reviews under the current system. I beg my right hon. and learned Friend to agree that there will be frequent reviews of the transmission system in the early stages of the ITC Channel 3 operation with a view not only to dealing with the problems raised by those in Scotland and in Wales, but to reviewing the system in the rest of the country.

I appreciate the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw). The present cross-subsidy arrangements subsist until 1992 and the new cross-subsidy arrangements will operate from 1993 to 1996.

My hon. Friend asked about the technical capabilities of the system. We discussed that exhaustively in Committee when I was happy to state that we were committed not only to maintaining the existing system, but to improving it for the benefit of those in the so-called black holes of the transmission system. At present, 99·4 per cent. of the population is covered by the system, but we aim to improve on that. In the course of a privatisation there would be no question about that. Obligations would be set to ensure that there was no deviation from the perpetuation of an efficient and effective system covering existing transmission areas. We hope that that would be accompanied not only by further improvements in transmission to areas already covered by the system, but by an extension of the system into some of those black holes. Such improvements are firmly in our sights.

Question put and agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unless I am misinformed, I understand that no other hon. Member has given notice of wanting to intervene on any of the subsequent amendments.

That is not on my note. I had hoped to be able to suggest that we might be able to put all the other amendments to the House en bloc.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On amendment No. 432, could the Minister say something about the sort of sum——

Order. The Minister cannot do that. First, we should deal with the proposition that we should take the rest of the amendments en bloc. Is there any hon. Member who disagrees with that proposition?

Yes. Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure what en bloc means. Does the Minister mean a select group of amendments or all the amendments? Even though we appear to rush through amendments, our practice gives hon. Members an opportunity to intervene when they so wish. I am opposed to dealing with the subsequent amendments en bloc.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I welcome maximum speed in our deliberations where possible, but there are two groups of amendments on which I should like to intervene briefly.

I accept, of course, the points that have been made by the hon. Members for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). We shall proceed as we have hitherto.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to. [Some with Special Entry.]