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Illegal Radio Broadcasts

Volume 493: debated on Monday 1 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Ward.)

Three years ago, I first highlighted the dangers posed by illegal radio stations. The purpose of tonight’s debate is to raise this issue in the House again and to highlight that, sadly, very little progress has been made in the last three years to establish a co-ordinated strategy to deal with illegal broadcasters; to increase the opportunities for community radio stations to satisfy unmet need in their neighbourhoods; and to address the serious problems caused by some illegal broadcasters whose activities show a wanton disregard for the well-being of others.

I use the terms “illegal radio stations” or “unlawful broadcasts”, rather than “pirate stations”, because of the nostalgic impression that the latter phrase implies. The recent Richard Curtis film, “The Boat that Rocked”, brings to mind this buccaneering approach, with new and innovative unregulated stations challenging previous orthodoxies on music and the whole approach to broadcasting—the results of which form part of the style and sound of the commercial and BBC radio stations that we hear today.

In many ways, that historic view of what pirate or illegal radio stations were about is part of the issue. It implies that these stations were simply about breaking new boundaries, breaking the mould of popular culture and staying one step ahead of the regulators, who were out to stifle choice and new ways of doing things. In no way do I want to affect the vibrancy of radio as a medium or to stop the ability of communities to establish stations to meet the needs and interests of new listeners. I am a real enthusiast for radio and the power of the medium. Indeed, the primary reason for initiating this debate was the problems that my own community radio station in Havering, Link FM 102.2, has been suffering.

The reality of most of today’s illegal radio stations, as contrasted with the pioneering pirates of the 1960s, could not be starker. According to Ofcom, the vast majority of these stations exist simply as illegal businesses that promote events at nightclubs and make significant sums of cash from advertising and from exploiting young MCs or DJs conned into paying out cash to take the mic and potentially put at risk their ability thereafter to work in the industry to which they aspire.

Some illegal stations have become linked to forms of serious criminal behaviour, with some illegal broadcasters being convicted for offences such as money laundering, drugs supply and firearms offences. The illegal stations are often operated with disregard for the health and safety of others, and cause significant disruption and damage to legitimate businesses that have paid significant sums of money to the Government in licence fees for radio frequencies that are in part unusable.

Illegal broadcasting by its very nature is entirely unregulated. It feels no prohibition on playing music that might glamorise gang violence or drug culture. It is accountable to no one for what it broadcasts. It abides by no programming codes on taste or decency and it operates without any regard for the consequences of what may be said on air. Pirate radio was thought to have triggered the Lozells riots in October 2005 by inciting racial tensions in Birmingham by spreading false rumours that a black woman had been raped by Asian men. But there are many other ways in which illegal broadcasting can cause harm. Signals from illegal broadcasters can interfere with other radio systems, and when this happens to emergency and critical services it is particularly serious.

In the six months from April to September 2008, Ofcom field engineers investigated a total of 36 reports from emergency and critical services of interference that was directly attributable to illegal broadcasters. The large majority of those complaints were from the fire service and National Air Traffic Services. Some recent examples given to me by Ofcom include the following. On 1 April 2009, NATS contacted Ofcom, complaining of interference affecting aircraft using Heathrow airport. The source of the interference was an illegal broadcaster, Laylow FM. Ofcom officials traced the source and a transmitter was seized from the roof of a high-rise block in west London. On Friday 15 May 2009, NATS again reported interference affecting aircraft in the area of Heathrow, which was traced to Flames FM and Millennium Supreme FM, which were both traced to the same high-rise block in Bow in east London. Both stations were taken off air. On Thursday 20 May 2009, NATS reported serious interference to five of its locations around London. This interference was large scale and the source was one illegal broadcaster, Flames FM. The station was again taken off air by Ofcom officials.

The London fire brigade has told Ofcom that it suffers radio interference from illegal radio broadcasts on average once every two weeks. When this occurs, control room staff are unable to make contact with crews en route to an emergency, which means that the effective co-ordination of such operations is diminished. When its control centre suffers from such interference and is unable to receive messages from crews at one site only, it has the ability to inhibit receivers at that site. That is a short-term measure and reduces overall coverage across London.

Significant damage to public property can be caused by illegal broadcasters when installing and maintaining their apparatus. Some local authorities are reported to be paying more than £250,000 a year on repairing damage and securing roof spaces, but such activities also have a human side. Concerned residents and officials who challenge the activities of illegal broadcasters—often the caretakers and others responsible for the safety and maintenance of estates—are threatened with physical violence or suffer intimidation.

In one example provided by Ofcom from last year, two of its officials were confronted by two men after they disconnected the transmitter of an illegal broadcast station in Haringey and were threatened with a knife. Some illegal broadcasters locate their equipment in private dwellings, taking advantage of vulnerable people or using coercion. Damage may be caused to locked roof access doors, creating further risk of harm with the possibility of children being able to access dangerous environments—not to mention the booby-trapping of equipment.

An illegal broadcaster will identify a slot in the FM broadcasting band. It will then locate its transmitter on high ground, usually on the roof of a local authority building, typically a residential tower block. The transmitters are crude in construction and are not electronically safe. To feed the transmitter, the illegal broadcaster will tap into the building’s power supply, often by diverting electricity from the lift motor room with consequential safety issues. The equipment has also been known to be secured with live mains electricity applied to roof access doors and sharp objects such as razor blades, syringe needles and broken glass secured to roof access ladders.

There is a misconception that the people behind illegal radio stations are just enthusiasts with an interest in music and broadcasting. Some claim that they break the law because they want to serve a community need. There are a minority for whom that might be true, but the truth is that the majority of illegal broadcasters are motivated by money. Set-up costs are minimal. A transmitter costs around £350 and a good-quality studio can be assembled for £3,000. Revenue comes from two sources. Many DJs pay to broadcast on illegal radio stations in an attempt to gain public exposure. Predominantly young people, most DJs are exploited by station managers who will charge them up to £20 per hour for the chance to appear on air. Illegal radio stations also receive income from selling advertising, often publicising events at nightclubs.

The rewards can be significant. Some of these well-organised criminal businesses are generating as much as £250,000 in cash a year, going into the unlawful, untaxed economy. That puts into context why people in the radio industry regard current court fines following convictions for unlawful radio broadcast offences as utterly derisory. Last year these fines averaged just £486, with offences being treated like TV licensing offences.

Ofcom estimates that there are around 150 illegal broadcasters in the UK, with more than 60 per cent. operating in London. At any one time it is believed that up to 90 illegal broadcasters are transmitting in London. I want to pay tribute to Ofcom for the work it does in taking enforcement action against the illegal broadcasters. Last year, Ofcom conducted 525 separate operations. Ofcom staff have developed close working relationships with specialised areas of the police service, such as elements of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the regional asset recovery teams and the National Policing Improvement Agency.

Ofcom staff work with affected local authorities and housing associations as well as the mobile phone operators whose masts are sometimes targeted as a location for main transmitters of the illegal broadcasters. It is right that there should be a co-ordinated partnership approach given the need for preventive measures, the serious crime issues, the health and safety implications, the cost for local government and other governmental agencies and the fact that enforcement alone will not provide a longer-term solution to the menace of the illegal broadcasters.

That was why I asked various parliamentary questions to a number of Departments to establish how well the Government were responding to the issues. Despite what Ofcom has reported on the links to serious criminality, the Home Office told me that it was

“unaware of a linkage between illegal radio broadcasting and serious organised criminality.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 1234W.]

Despite the risks set out by Ofcom on the damage caused to social housing blocks, the Department of Communities and Local Government told me:

“We have not made any assessment of the health and safety risk to social housing tenants caused by equipment installed for the purposes of illegal radio broadcasts.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 341W.]

Despite the potential disruption of air traffic control signals guiding airliners over our heads, the Department of Transport was content to respond:

“NATS, the leading air navigation services provider, is a private company and questions concerning the extent of disruption to its air traffic control services should be directed to the company’s chief executive.”—[Official Report, 11 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 955W.]

Those responses do not inspire confidence that a longer-term, sustained and joined-up approach to the problems posed by the illegal stations will be created.

Will the Minister commit to work with other Departments to highlight the risks associated with illegal radio broadcasts? Will he discuss with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport the potential for exploring whether there are any other ways of using the existing FM spectrum more effectively to address unmet community needs, and whether the existing regulatory regime, which is based on promises of performance, remains fit for purpose in promoting choice and diversity in broadcast output?

Will the Minister also confirm with DCMS the effect of illegal broadcasts on the fledgling community radio sector? It is somewhat ironic that community stations, which have greater flexibility in their programming output and greater scope to meet a broader range of interests—in many ways they are intended to meet the desires for aspiring radio talent—should be the worst affected by the impact of the illegal stations. I know that my community station, Link FM, has struggled to attract advertising when its broadcasts over its small area have been disrupted and often blocked out by a pirate squatting on an adjacent frequency.

Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice the possibility for community punishments or other sanctions being made available for breaches of the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, instead of relying on fines that do not appear to offer any meaningful sanctions? I have been encouraged by Ofcom’s work with law enforcement on using proceeds of crime recovery powers. Will the Minister ask his officials to explore whether any similar powers or sanctions might be utilised, such as antisocial behaviour orders and other injunctive relief?

I appreciate that the Minister has a lot of other pressing items and priorities on his desk, but this issue is causing harm, exploiting the vulnerable and potentially putting people at risk. I hope that it will not take another three years until a more co-ordinated, meaningful and effective approach is brought to bear on a problem that is simply not going away.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on securing this debate on an issue in which he has a long-standing interest. As he said, he secured an Adjournment debate on the matter three years ago and he has tabled several parliamentary questions. The issue is of interest to several hon. Members. For example, the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who is in the Chamber, has raised it with me because her community radio station’s frequency is regularly occupied by illegal stations. In my capacity of a constituency MP, I know the value of community radio stations such as Link FM, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and Wolverhampton Community Radio, which does an absolutely excellent job for my city.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in any debate about illegal or pirate radio, there is a temptation to be wistful about the days of Radio Caroline and to pay tribute to the free spirit and early creativity of pirate radio. That temptation might be stronger when a popular film that celebrates that era is out, as is the case at the moment. However, as he said, comparisons between then and now do not stand up to scrutiny. Back then, there was little choice for the listener and unlicensed radio was often the only way to hear much of the music of the time. Today, however, that is not the case, as there are hundreds of radio stations throughout the country. The digital revolution is making setting up legitimate radio stations and getting them licensed ever easier, so the point about choice can no longer be argued. The issues surrounding pirate radio—or illegal radio, as he called it—are very different from those that existed in the 1960s. Today, pirate radio undermines legitimate radio. It can be used as a cover for more serious crimes, and the act of setting up a pirate radio station can have a damaging effect on people’s quality of life. In other words, pirate radio is a serious issue and it is taken seriously by the Government.

My Department, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, has policy responsibility for the radio spectrum and the legislation from which Ofcom, the independent regulator, derives its powers. Those powers come from the Communications Act 2003 and the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006. Ofcom’s duties include ensuring the efficient use of the spectrum and minimising harmful interference. My ministerial colleague Lord Stephen Carter, the founding chief executive of Ofcom, takes the lead on spectrum issues for my Department. He has a great deal of expertise on the issue. He cares passionately about it, and he tells me that in his past life, he took part in a raid with police officers to close down precisely the kind of illegal station that the hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned.

I want to go through some of the damaging effects of such stations. The first that I want to highlight is the damaging effect on the many excellent legitimate local radio stations around the country; we have mentioned a couple of them. The founders of those radio stations have gone through the process of getting a licence. They have done the hard work of building up an audience. They are funded by the licence fee, in the case of BBC local radio, or through hard-won advertising revenue, yet they find that their signals are blocked by illegal stations that have done none of that work. That not only frustrates the listener, who cannot hear the station that they want to, but can hit the income of the station through loss of advertising revenue, as advertisers will be reluctant to spend money if they think that the delivery of the service is patchy and unreliable. Sometimes a whole borough can be knocked out of reception.

The commercial effect is deeply damaging, but there is an even more serious aspect, which the hon. Gentleman highlighted: interference with blue-light emergency services and air traffic control. When someone calls the fire brigade or the police, we want the most reliable communications possible. We want nothing to stand in the way of the emergency services knowing where the problem is, and getting there as fast as possible. Of course we do not want interference with critical air traffic control communication. Pirate radio can interfere with those vital services, so its operation is not just a matter of commercial damage; there is also an issue of public safety. The figure that the hon. Gentleman gave of 36 cases reported to him by Ofcom in just six months last year shows that we are not talking about a theoretical scare, but about a real danger.

The hon. Gentleman was right to point out the damaging impact that pirate stations have on their immediate local environment. There are issues affecting tower blocks, and there can be a loss of power supply to lifts, and damage to buildings. Sometimes the installations are guarded with glass, syringes and other things that create a danger for those trying to enforce the law. When people go to those lengths, we should not be surprised that illegal broadcasting can sometimes be linked to other illegal behaviour. In one case a few years ago, an illegal broadcaster had his studio raided, and at the police station was found to be in possession of a loaded firearm. He was eventually sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

The chief responsibility for stopping the proliferation of illegal radio stations lies with Ofcom, which derives its power for spectrum allocation and use in the UK from the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006. It is inevitably difficult to say exactly how many pirate stations there are; they are, by their nature, being set up and closed down all the time. Ofcom estimates that there are about 150 illegal broadcasters, most of them concentrated in the London area. Ofcom aims to reduce interference by sending out a strong message that illegal broadcasters will suffer consequences. It uses a range of criteria to determine when to act, including the size of the area of the broadcast and the volume of complaints. When an issue could endanger lives, Ofcom obviously and rightly treats it as a matter of priority for investigation and action.

As for penalties, an illegal broadcaster can receive up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. Anyone convicted of an offence is barred from working for a legitimate station for five years. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fines, and I want to address that point directly. It is for Parliament to set the legal framework of punishment. I have just set out the maximum punishments, but it is always for the courts to apply those penalties as they see fit. One of the problems of challenging illegal stations is that we might be able to get to those operating the equipment at the time, but it might be a much more difficult task for the authorities to get to whoever may be behind them. The person operating the equipment, their income and their employment status will be taken into account by the court. That in part explains the level of fines that are levied.

Ofcom obtained authority under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to access data about telephone, e-mail and internet communications and to undertake covert surveillance. In May this year it was added to the list of law enforcement agencies that are empowered to conduct financial investigations under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. These extra powers may give Ofcom a greater capacity to get behind those who are operating the station at the time of the raid.

I thank the Minister for his constructive reply. On sanctions, he made the point well about the assessment of needs and the ability to level fines. I suggested to him that other mechanisms might be explored—a different sort of sanction, such as community punishment. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider discussing with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice whether that route can be explored so that there is perceived to be a meaningful sanction rather than a fine which, I understand, in many cases may go unpaid?

As I said, other options are already available to the courts, but they will select the penalty on the basis of some of the factors that I cited.

With reference to resources, last year Ofcom spent £1.5 million on enforcement. It undertook 525 separate operations against illegal broadcasters, resulting in 28 convictions. Those included the seizure of transmitters, disconnection of transmitters’ aerials, and raids on studios. When there are convictions, the courts are responsible for punishment within the limits set by Parliament.

It is not true to say that the issue is not taken seriously by the Government or Ofcom, but there is a difficult truth. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is relatively cheap and simple to set up illegal radio stations. No matter how much resource is put into tackling the problem, the regulator inevitably faces a tough battle in trying to control the numbers. Despite these difficulties, tough punishments can be levied. Let us take the example of Lightning FM.

In December 2007, the owner of a south London illegal radio station, Lightning FM, appeared at Inner London Crown court convicted of two counts of money laundering and two counts of managing an illegal broadcast station. For the money laundering offences he received 10 months’ imprisonment, and for the illegal broadcast offences another 10 months. A financial investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act was then conducted and the person was ordered to pay £375,000 to the court within 12 months. Should he fail to pay within the time, the individual will serve a default prison sentence of no less than four years, and action will be taken to recover the money owed.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about fines, but where there is a link to other illegal activity, significant sentences can be imposed. The issue is not for Ofcom alone, but for a number of agencies. I spoke today to the head of spectrum enforcement at Ofcom in advance of the debate. He told me that the Government’s introduction of safer neighbourhood policing teams has helped significantly in co-ordinating the work between the police and Ofcom on the issue. So developments have taken place since the hon. Gentleman’s debate three years ago, which make it easier for the agencies to work together. Ofcom has developed close relationships with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, regional asset recovery teams and other agencies. Following the hon. Gentleman’s previous debate, one of my predecessors in the Department held a specially convened meeting with a number of agencies to help to co-ordinate that activity, too. Ofcom has also negotiated service level agreements in a variety of police sectors throughout London, enabling staff to purchase police support.

In the past, pirate radio stations may have had a role in nurturing talent and in ensuring that minority tastes were properly catered for but, for the reasons that I have set out, it is much more difficult to argue that case today. Now, such stations are much more harmful. They can even be dangerous and, critically, as technology changes and the digital revolution unfolds, there is less need for them than ever before. My Department is working on its “Digital Britain” report, a key part of which will involve extending access to legitimate creative people who want to establish radio stations. The question that will be asked much more frequently in the future is: why is there a need for such stations, unless it is for some motive far less high-minded than musical creativity and choice? That is why the Government and Ofcom will continue to take enforcement seriously.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate tonight, and I am sure that those Departments other than my own to which he referred, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will take account of his comments. He is absolutely right to say that we must work together throughout Government to tackle what is a serious issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o’clock.