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Premium Line Competitions

Volume 451: debated on Monday 6 November 2006

4. What discussions she has had with (a) Ofcom and (b) the Department of Trade and Industry on premium line competitions run on ITV. (99149)

Regulation of premium line television competitions rests with independent regulators Ofcom and the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that last month ICSTIS announced a review of the quiz television sector, including premium line competitions.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but is it not clear that many of the so-called competitions on programmes such as “The Mint” are nothing other than crude money-raising scams designed to replace lost advertisement revenue? Is he aware that it is possible to make up to 150 calls a day at 75p each, so that someone could spend more than £100 making futile calls to such programmes yet not even get on to them? Is it not time that ITV should be forced to publicise how much profit it is making from these lines, and will the Minister urge it to do so in time for the investigation by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the review that was announced by ICSTIS last month will look into a number of issues, including the transparency of the service, on-screen statements, concerns about excessive use, prize fulfilment and free web entry offers. It is important that the review be undertaken properly. Of course we are aware that some people have made representations about these particular programmes. Equally, it is important for the hon. Gentleman to realise that ITV has stated categorically that it meets all regulations, standards and codes of practice. We agree, however, that we need to ensure that these services are trusted. For that reason, it is important that the review should take place. I am sorry that it cannot be hurried to produce its findings in time for inclusion in the Select Committee report, but it is important that it do its work properly.

While my hon. Friend is having his discussions with Ofcom about the continuing dumbing down of ITV, will he take the opportunity to raise the real worry that digital switchover could well result in the end of regional news programmes on ITV?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern about these issues; indeed, he has already written to me about them. We shall come to this subject later on in today’s questions.

Does the Minister agree that it should be made crystal clear to people before they ring in that they might be confronted by a premium rate tariff, and that all they might get at the end is a message saying, “Your call has not been selected for answer”? Is it not important that Ofcom should come down tough on some of these schemes for making money?

We could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman about Ofcom coming down tough in such circumstances. As he knows, the code of practice provides for ICSTIS, when it finds that a breach has occurred, to issue a formal reprimand, to bar access to the services or to impose fines. The right hon. Gentleman should also know that those fines can be as high as £250,000.

The Minister was talking about quiz programmes; indeed, he mentioned the word “programmes” more than once. However, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was referring to the single quiz questions that appear in advertising slots. It is those advertising slots that have given rise to the suspicion that they are a revenue stream for the ITV companies, in place of the advertising that would normally be in those slots. In these cases, however, it is the viewers who have to pay for them.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I believe that the ICSTIS review will look into these issues. It also has to be said, however, that despite the feelings of Members of Parliament, there are many people out there who enjoy playing these games. Whether my hon. Friend would wish to take part in them is another issue. However, we should be careful about telling people how to lead their lives.