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Pirate Radio Stations: Investigation

Volume 489: debated on Monday 9 November 1987

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2.55 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will strengthen the Radio Investigation Service of the Department of Trade and Industry with a view to expediting the closure of pirate radio stations and clearing the frequencies for the existing legal local radio stations and the proposed community and neighbourhood radio stations.

My Lords, we are concerned about the interference which unlicensed broadcasting stations cause to legal radio users. My department's Radio Investigation Service already acts promptly by removing offending transmitters when unlicensed stations disrupt authorised radio communications. Where possible, it also prosecutes those responsible. It has taken account of the need to make spectrum provision for the new services contemplated in the broadcasting Green Paper.

The cost of radio regulation is largely met from fees paid by legal radio users. We have to consider whether the benefits they could expect from a strengthening of the Radio Investigation Service would justify the increased costs to them. So far broadcasters have been unwilling to see their costs increase substantially.

In order to free resources for the important work of keeping the radio spectrum clear of unacceptable interference, I have decided that in future dealers will be required to show that they have taken measures to cure broadcast reception problems before referring them to the Radio Investigation Service.

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his reply and acknowledging fully the work that the Radio Investigation Service has already done, is the Minister aware that the pirates are rather like mushrooms? They spring up overnight. At the present moment in the Greater London area there are over 20 of them and there is probably an equal number in the rest of the country. Does the Minister agree that a strengthening of his department's RIS by an increase in numbers would speed up this work in preparation for the work that has to be done under the proposed Green Paper on Broadcasting? For example, I am told that in the whole of the county of Sussex there are only two of those offices functioning, and they cover part of Surrey as well. Of course chasing the pirates is not their only function.

My Lords, so far this year the Radio Investigation Service has carried out 309 raids against 66 unlicensed stations. That is a 50 per cent. increase on last year. Of the 309 raids, 257 were carried out against 38 stations in the London area. So far this year some 45 people have been successfully prosecuted. This is a difficult problem. We suspect that there are about 86 unlicensed stations in the country of which 39 are in London. But about a dozen, mainly in London, attempt to operate commercially on a daily basis. There are many technical problems involved in catching people. Since the practice has grown up those undertaking this kind of pirate radio station separate the studios from the transmitters.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that many of the larger stations in London not only advertise the frequency on which they are broadcasting but the address of the transmitter?

My Lords, if they seriously broadcast the address of the transmitters we would have few problems. What they are actually doing is using unmanned transmitters and separate studios at a different location. That presents us with technical problems, but I should be happy to accept any advice from the noble Lord if it will help to increase the number of prosecutions.

My Lords, will the noble Lord say where the finance comes from to support these pirate radio stations? Would it he possible to look into the matter from that point of view to see if the problem can be tackled in that way?

My Lords, often this is carried out by groups who fund themselves. It is rarely carried out on the commercial radio services, of the kind that noble Lords would recognise. I suspect that there are on occasion those who actually pay money in order to have records broadcast, but that is very much in the minority.