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Television And Radio: Regulatory Bodies

Volume 596: debated on Wednesday 3 February 1999

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2.46 p.m.

Whether it is now timely to consider combining the regulatory bodies for television and radio to avoid overlap or inconsistency.

My Lords, on the immediate Question raised, we think that the present division between television and radio regulation generally works well. However, there is a wider issue. The Government's consultation paper Regulating Communications sought views on the future regulation of the information age and the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications. The responses, which will be published with our conclusions, generally support our view that we should not leap in but change regulatory structures as and when markets develop and the public are affected.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer but it seems to me he has not addressed the undoubted complications which now exist for both the industrial and commercial worlds as well as for individual citizens as regards broadcasting with the proliferation in the number of stations. There have been two recent cases where fines have been imposed, one large and one small. Would it not be sensible for the Minister to address the possibility of issuing a Green Paper so that we may consider all of the questions which arise in this area?

My Lords, the regulatory structure set up by the Broadcasting Act 1990 separated television regulation from radio regulation. Since that time radio at any rate has had substantial commercial success with a considerable increase in the number of commercial radio stations. I am not aware of the difficulties to which my noble friend refers. As to the question of a Green Paper. I have already mentioned the broader Green Paper which we published. My noble friend will know of our response last July to the report of the Culture Select Committee in another place.

My Lords, is the Minister prepared to consider—as is the case with the Canadian Broadcasting Commission—one regulatory body for public service broadcasting and independent broadcasting? This would mean subsuming the governors of the BBC—who have often proved inadequate—within the ITC. It would also mean abolishing the Broadcasting Standards Commission—which has proved an unfortunate body—and setting up a broadcasting ombudsman. I know that the noble Lord likes radical solutions. What is his view on that?

My Lords, without accepting the noble Lord's strictures on the governors of the BBC or indeed his interpretation of what has happened since the Broadcasting Act was passed in 1990, yes, the possibility of a single regulator for all public service broadcasting is one of the options that we have to take very seriously. We also have to take into consideration the noble Lord's point that there are two kinds of regulation: one on content and the other on access and competition. They do not necessarily fit well together. So there are counter-arguments to those put forward by the noble Lord.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the first chairman of the Radio Authority, which was set up after the passing of the 1990 Act. Whether we have a single regulatory body for television and radio is one question and one which has some interesting implications. However, does the Minister agree that it would be sensible to have one overarching regulatory authority governing the BBC and its public service broadcasting, independent television and independent radio? That is a different question but it is one which follows on from the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington.

My Lords, that seems to be the same question the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, asked. My answer is the same. Clearly, that is one of the options we must take seriously.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the trade association covering manufacturers in television and radio. There is a convergence of technologies in broadcasting. Is the Minister confident that the machinery of government—in the department, in the DTI and the Home Office—is competent to oversee this convergence of technologies and the regulation that is needed to go with it?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will see when we publish the results of the consultation on our Green Paper, the Government tend to the view that we should take an evolutionary approach to regulation. In other words, we should not be tempted by technological changes to make changes in regulatory structures which might well be premature. The time when it will be essential to make changes to regulatory structures is when, for example, digital television and radio become widespread and the general public is affected by them.

My Lords, can the noble Lord inform the House whether, when they uphold complaints, the regulatory bodies have any powers to impose sanctions; and if not, why not?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is referring, I imagine, to complaints on the content of television and radio. The disapproval of the regulatory bodies is a very powerful sanction. I did not understand the noble and learned Lord to be arguing in favour of pre-broadcasting prohibitions.