Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Renewal of national commercial radio licences: debated in the House of Lords

House of Lords
8 February 2010 @ 1723
Digital Economy Bill
Committee (7th Day)

Clause 31 : Renewal of national radio licences
Debate on whether Clause 31 should stand part of the Bill.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, before I propose that the clause not stand part, I must apologise. As a result of the way in which the business of the House has been organised today, I shall not be able to be here for about two hours of the Committee’s proceedings. I very much regret that, as many important matters remain to be debated. However, since the business was switched at extremely short notice — I hope that the Whips are whipped for it in some future incarnation —

Lord Davies of Oldham: Oh!

Lord Clement-Jones: I am of course not referring to the noble Lord, Lord Davies. Moving this business from Tuesday to Monday at very short notice is not a happy situation. I therefore hope that Ministers will give full and frank responses as if I were present. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Addington, who has kindly agreed to step into the breach when I am not able to put the arguments. I propose that Clause 31 should not stand part. Under this clause, the national analogue radio stations talkSPORT, Classic FM and Absolute Radio are receiving valuable seven-year extensions to their licences. In exchange, the existing licensees have been asked to give their support to an early switchover, with the proposed 2015 date coming much earlier than that recommended by the Government’s 2008 Digital Radio Working Group. However, there is a view among some operators that extensions to these licences are not worth the damage to radio of a digital switchover policy which assumes an unrealistic timetable for digital switchover and which fails to provide solutions that allow all local radio stations to move to digital. They do not accept that as a reasonable quid pro quo for an early switchover. They believe, on the contrary, that the industry’s engagement with the digital radio switchover proposal has been distorted by its interest in licence extensions which are essentially to do with the attractiveness of the current analogue model for radio rather than the proposed digital model. Their view is that Clause 31 will deprive the Government of revenue due from re-auctioning the licences for these national analogue stations. However, the Government have failed to publish an assessment of how much revenue will be lost to the Treasury under this approach. The Government need to justify the advantage of the clause against the background of the following factors: that the sums lost to the Treasury will clearly amount to tens of millions of pounds over the lifetime of the extended licences; and the lack of evidence about whether digital investment by the holders of these licences will continue without the extensions. On the face of it, many are already, contractually or otherwise, committed to digital even without this.

Lord Howard of Rising: My Lords, although I share a number of the noble Lord’s concerns, I do not think that removing the clause would be helpful. It is a facilitating clause that enables the move to switchover at a later date, and it does not set in stone when the switchover will take place or indeed that it must happen. It is more important that the Secretary of State considers a range of issues before nominating a switchover date than that the process in its entirety is stopped. I believe that the level of digital radio listening should be much higher than the Government have suggested. It would also be very much better if the fact that the FM spectrum will remain in use for local and community radio stations was on the face of the Bill. More progress should be made in creating a help scheme and a recycling scheme. We should be focusing on these issues rather than on an attempt to derail the digital switchover process completely.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I recall that last week the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and I supported each other’s amendments, but sadly that relationship is about to be broken albeit, I hope, temporarily. To allow the Bill to pass without this clause would pose a real problem for the entire digital radio project. The three commercial stations currently granted national analogue licences cater for a broad range of tastes, from Beethoven and Brahms to Bon Jovi, via the latest soccer score from Bolton Wanderers. Their collective appeal has been vital to encouraging digital take-up by listeners, with around a fifth of their current audiences now listening via a digital platform. To disrupt that migration would be rather unwise. Re-advertising these national licences with just a few years to run before we expect to switch off the service seems to be sending the wrong signal to both the industry and to listeners. It seems to suggest that we are not fully committed to digital as the future, that we doubt whether we will be in a position to switch over the bulk of national stations in seven years, and that we can expend less energy on the steps that are undoubtedly still needed to get listeners to switch to digital, especially through pushing down the cost of DAB radio sets and through getting DAB into more cars as standard. I do not think that any of those things are the right course. If, as I understand it, the message from the legislature to the private sector is to be, “We want you to invest in this new technology, market it to your listeners and encourage them to adopt the new listening platforms”, surely we cannot keep expecting these companies to keep on writing blank cheques. We all appreciate that digital platforms are still in their relatively early days. It has to be remembered that not one digital radio station has yet posted a profit. For their pioneering endeavours, they deserve the stability that this reprieve offers them. One does not often hear pleas for breaks for business from these Benches, but this is a case of tidying up the licensing regime to make it serve the purposes of the digital age.

Lord Eatwell: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the consumer panel of Classic FM. This panel is entirely independent of the company. It is devoted to maintaining the standards of Classic FM and the widespread broadcasting of classical music by the independent sector. If this clause does not stand part of the Bill, your Lordships should be aware that the future of Classic FM will be severely compromised because it is a requirement of existing law that the analogue licences are auctioned. As at present conceived, analogue licences do not have a clear format specification. There is not a licence for classical music. There is simply a licence for non-speech, which is the licence held by Classic FM. If these national stations were to be auctioned in the near future, I would be willing to bet the noble Lord who is opposing that Clause 31 shall stand part of the Bill at least a bottle of claret that this licence would be secured by a pop music station, and that Classic FM would disappear. I wonder whether the noble Lord has taken into account that possibility in his proposal.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, key to supporting the drive to digital is to encourage and to allow broadcasters to invest in their digital futures. Experience shows that licence renewals, which are linked to the provision of a digital service, are a key incentive. At a time when the Government are asking the industry to contribute to a focused and intense drive towards digital, we believe that it would be wrong to remove this incentive. Clause 31, alongside Clause 32, would allow Ofcom to grant a further renewal period of up to seven years to analogue licence holders who also provide a digital service. Clause 31 relates specifically to the national analogue licences, although the rationale for the decision for extending the renewal is identical for both national and local licences. I do not want to take up too much time because noble Lords who have contributed to this debate have put many of the arguments excellently. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, talked about the necessity to maintain the clause. The right reverend Prelate displayed a very catholic — I hope he does not mind me using the word — taste in music from Beethoven to Bon Jovi, which I liked. In his analysis of the need for Clause 31, he is absolutely right. As he said, we cannot expect companies to carry on writing blank cheques. We need to give them an incentive. My noble friend Lord Eatwell’s analysis of Classic FM was exceedingly apposite. We believe that this clause is essential for the reasons stated by a number of noble Lords. In those circumstances, I support the Motion that this clause stands part of the Bill.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I also thank other noble Lords for contributing to the debate with some fairly bloodcurdling prospects. However, I do not think that the Minister has answered the question about why these extensions are required. I put this proposal somewhat as a devil’s advocate. By and large, I believe that the majority of the radio industry is behind the scheme as put forward by the Government, but there is a significant minority of interest which is not. That is why I put forward the clause stand part debate. But if I was in their shoes, listening to what the Minister had to say, I would consider that his arguments were entirely circular and that the Government have done this because they needed to and that this was the best way forward. I do not think that any real forensic argument has been put forward by the Minister. I could probably put forward rather better arguments than the Minister has. I certainly could have put my finger on areas where investment is needed, since I have been briefed by some of the major radio players. The Minister has been extremely half-hearted in responding. This is the one bit of this Bill which is the Government’s opportunity to set out their stall in terms of their digital radio policy, other than the amendments we have already dealt with. We had quite a useful debate on our last Committee day, but the Minister has not really answered the questions in a robust way. Certainly, he has not set out the stall for the Government’s policy in terms of the extensions of these national analogue radio stations. We are talking about digital radio switchover. What is it about these extensions that will make those radio stations invest more when they migrate to digital? That is what it is all about. The Minister did not even attempt to talk about the amount of money that the Treasury would forgo. Some estimates have put that as high as £73 million, which is a large amount of money. I do not think that the Minister dealt with that either. The Minister has been extremely disappointing. I do not think that that minority of radio stations will be particularly happy to hear the Minister’s lack of engagement with their arguments. It is almost as if he has taken a view that only a minority of radio stations is concerned, that the bulk of the radio industry is quite happy and that therefore that minority will be overridden without so much as a buy your leave. That is an unfortunate position to be in. This House, above all, is about rational debate and about putting forward the arguments. To be frank, in previous amendments to this clause, the Minister put forward some useful points — he certainly did in response to some of mine — but when I have tried to elicit an overarching policy, he has been lacking and I have been somewhat disappointed.

Clause 31 agreed.
Clause 32 agreed.
Amendment 241B not moved.
Clauses 33 and 34 agreed.


Clause 35 : Local radio multiplex services: frequency and licensed area

Amendment 241C
Moved by Baroness Howe of Idlicote
241C: Clause 35, page 39, line 3, leave out “local”

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, this amendment, which relates to the provisions for digital radio, seeks to allow for the efficient use of the radio spectrum and for a potential increase in radio listening choice for the people of Northern Ireland. Although national BBC services are available via digital radio in all four parts of the United Kingdom, the national commercial multiplex is unavailable in Northern Ireland. The reasons for that are historical and technical, and relate to how the same frequencies were used in the Republic of Ireland. The result is that stations, including Absolute Radio, Planet Rock, BFBS radio and Premier Christian Radio, cannot be heard digitally in Northern Ireland. There is some hope that the spectrum position will change. However, as currently worded, even if that spectrum were to become available, Ofcom would not have the powers to allow it to be used by the national commercial multiplex. That is clearly an anomaly and, I suspect, an oversight. It would result in the inefficient use of spectrum and an artificial restriction on the radio-listening choice for some citizens. This amendment seeks to correct the situation and, without obliging, would enable Ofcom to increase the coverage of the national commercial multiplex. Were this to become technically possible, Ofcom would follow the process already proposed for similar expansion of local digital radio or multiplexes using the framework already in the Bill. This amendment, while modest and not contentious, will have benefits for the people of Northern Ireland and clearly will be welcomed by the radio industry, so I hope that the Government will be prepared to accept it. I beg to move.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, this amendment would allow Ofcom to vary the frequency or licensed area of national, as well as local, radio multiplex licences. On the face of it, this is not an unreasonable change and would potentially enable the national commercial radio multiplex to extend its coverage to Northern Ireland. However, Clause 35 was structured specifically with reference to local radio multiplexes so as to allow them to merge or be extended in order to close the gaps in local radio multiplex coverage in the UK not currently served by DAB. Simply removing the word “local” from the text may not be the best way to achieve the desired result. Consideration needs to be given to what variation powers Ofcom should have with regard to national multiplex licences and to the basis on which such powers should be exercised. We have some sympathy with what the noble Baroness is trying to achieve and the Government will consider this issue before Report. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I am pleased to hear that, even if this amendment is not entirely appropriate according to the Minister, serious consideration is going to be given to how this can be made possible. Under those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 241C withdrawn.
Amendments 241D to 241F not moved.
Clause 35 agreed.


Clause 36 : Renewal of radio multiplex licences
Debate on whether Clause 36 should stand part of the Bill.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, Clause 36 deals with the renewal of radio multiplex licences and it inserts a new Section 58A after Section 58 of the Broadcasting Act 1996. The House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which we always listen to with some respect, had some interesting words to say about this clause: “It is impossible to tell from the Bill whether the policy is that the licences should or should not be renewable at all, let alone for what period or on what grounds. Indeed, paragraph 56 of the memorandum candidly admits that the relevant policy decision has yet to be made. We draw attention to the skeletal nature of the power in clause 36, to enable the House to examine it further and determine whether it is justifiable in this context”. I am merely a humble hand maiden of this House in tabling this clause stand part debate, and I hope that the Minister can give us further enlightenment.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I have never had to respond to a hand maiden before in this House. I am still wrestling with that analogy. The Government stated in the Digital Britain White Paper that we would work with the industry to agree a plan to build out the DAB infrastructure to current FM coverage. We recognise the need to limit as much as possible the impact of such build-out on radio stations. One way this can be achieved is to allow multiplex operators to spread the cost of the investment in the new infrastructure by extending the period of their licence. We have suggested that licences could be extended up to 2030. The renewal of multiplex licences as a means to support digital radio was first introduced in the Broadcasting Act 1996. However, these renewal powers only apply to licences which were granted within 10 years of the 1996 Act coming into force. Therefore, there are a number of multiplex licences which are currently not eligible for a renewal. If renewals are to provide a real support to the build-out of DAB coverage to FM levels, they need the flexibility to achieve three objectives: first, to allow the extension of the licence period for those licences which are already eligible for, and in some cases have already been awarded, a renewal under the existing terms; secondly, to allow the renewal to apply to all multiplex licences, including those not currently eligible within the existing provisions; and thirdly, to ensure that any further renewals are awarded with conditions which link them to the progress to digital radio switchover, and more specifically to an agreed build-out plan and timetable. The link to a DAB coverage plan for switchover, which is likely to take a year to agree, is why we believe these powers are most appropriately applied via an affirmative order. I note concerns about the breadth of the order-making powers and I hope that I have satisfied noble Lords that they are justified because of the range of changes needed to implement this policy.

Lord Clement-Jones: I thank the Minister for that brief but — I hope to discover on reading Hansard — informative statement. As somebody who is not fully conversant with the radio multiplex licence variations, that was not the clearest possible answer I could have asked for. I hope that it will make sense on further consideration. It seemed to tell me that the Government need the maximum possible flexibility without having determined exactly which licences require extension. I am not sure that takes us a great deal further than what the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee said, but perhaps, as I say, on reading Hansard it will all become blindingly obvious.

Clause 36 agreed.
Clause 37 agreed.

No comments: