Lord Fowler: “There will be a public outcry if we get the radio digital switchover wrong. There could be a very big row indeed about this.”

The Digital Economy Bill was debated in the House of Lords this week in its ‘Report Stage’. Once again, amendments that had been proposed specifically to take into account the views of listeners and small radio stations were rejected by the government. As it stands, the Bill only requires Ofcom and the BBC to be consulted before the government can take a decision about switchover from analogue to DAB radio.

Parallel with the progress of the Bill through the House, Lord Fowler has been chairing a separate Select Committee on Communications inquiry into digital switchover. Through its weekly meetings, where it has collected copious evidence from witnesses, it must be becoming increasingly obvious to the Committee that the government plan for digital radio switchover is an undignified mess. Lord Fowler’s growing displeasure with this situation surfaced during Debate of the Bill:

“I do not intend to pre-empt our [Committee] report, but I must say that it is generally a very important issue with the public and that there will be a public outcry if we get the radio digital switchover wrong. There could be a very big row indeed about this. …. I think I probably speak for the committee when I say that there is public confusion at the moment about what exactly the plans mean to the individual consumer, and I cannot believe that that is a sensible way of proceeding.”

The government’s frosty response, delivered by Lord Davies, conveys everything:

“[Lord Fowler] told me, as if I did not know, that there could be the most enormous row if this switchover went wrong.”

The government simply refuses to listen to commonsense on this issue, even from the chairman of the Lords Communications Committee. As a result, a “very big row” about digital radio switchover is indeed inevitable, probably at Easter, and more so following publication of the BBC Strategy Review.

Here is the ‘radio’ part of the debate in full:

The House of Lords
Parliamentary Debate
3 March 2010

Digital Economy Bill
Clause 30 : Digital [radio] switchover

Amendment 137
Clause 30, page 36, line 33, after “to” insert —
“(a) ”

Amendment 138
Page 36, line 35, at end insert —
“( ) the needs of local and community radio stations; and
( ) the needs of analogue radio listeners”

Lord Howard of Rising: My Lords, I tabled Amendments 137 and 138 again simply to get more detail from the Minister, as his assurances about these points were not wholly convincing. The amendments would give the Government an explicit requirement to take into account the views of radio listeners and local and community stations. The Minister argued that this was unnecessary because of the breadth of the requirements to consult that are already proposed and the commitment to consult widely. The problem with such vague assurances is that they can be quickly forgotten. The [Bill] currently states that the views of the BBC and Ofcom should be given due regard before the Secretary of State nominates a date for the digital switchover. It does not say too much about consulting widely or taking into account in any way those who are most affected by the switchover — the listeners. I hope the Minister can give more encouragement that the listener will not be forgotten in this whole process. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I commend the amendments, which are a very constructive way of seeking further assurance from the Minister. Indeed, they very much reflect the concerns that I expressed from these Benches in the Clause 30 stand part debate in Committee. Assurances about the future of analogue radio in particular are so important. The noble Lord, Lord Young, and I engaged in a slightly semantic conversation about whether FM’s existence would be perpetual or whether it would simply be there for the long term. I think the assurances were that it would be there for the long term, which did provide some reassurance. However, the interests of the ultra-local stations and the consumers of the product of those stations are extremely important, and I very much hope that the Minister can cast more light on the future of analogue in the face of the digital switchover.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the amendment — I am now rowing back frantically — on a very important issue. It is so important, in fact, that the Select Committee on Communications is currently engaged in an inquiry on precisely this — the digital switchover — although a number of reasons have been adduced as to why it should be called not a switchover but various other names. I do not intend to pre-empt our report, but I must say that it is generally a very important issue with the public and that there will be a public outcry if we get the radio digital switchover wrong. There could be a very big row indeed about this. My only reservation about the amendments is that I can think of quite a number of other issues on which I would like the Government’s assurance. There are, for example, 20 million car radios out there. What will happen to those? How will they be converted? What are the plans? There are so many issues here that either we will have a totally comprehensive list or we will simply have to ask the Minister at this stage for his current views. I think I probably speak for the committee when I say that there is public confusion at the moment about what exactly the plans mean to the individual consumer, and I cannot believe that that is a sensible way of proceeding. My noble friends on the Front Bench have raised a crucial issue to which we will have to return again, and very soon.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I absolutely agree with what has been said so far. This is one of the greatest eye-openers. As we have proceeded with this Bill — particularly as it has run parallel to the deliberations of the Select Committee which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is chairing so ably — we have come to realise just how important radio is to so many people, whether to the disabled or to all of us, listening as we do for a vast amount of our time to the radio. However, this is clearly one of the areas in which there is still a need to reassure people locally. The idea was that analogue transmission could be switched off once 50 per cent of listening is to digital radio. Then there was the business of how long FM would be available once it is more or less accepted that there will be a change. As regards the production and selling of cars, the issue is when there will be sufficient technology to convert radios already in cars and to convert some DAB radios to the right level. No one is trying to argue for a moment that the quality of digital radio will not be valued. But getting to that point will need a lot of reassurance to citizens. I would be grateful, as would I am sure other noble Lords, for further reassurance from the Minister that FM will be available ad infinitum, but certainly well beyond the point of switchover. That would do a great deal to reassure noble Lords who have looked into all this. But much more importantly, the citizens and the consumers — I come back to them because I am looking at this issue from both viewpoints — are crucial. I hope that the Minister will be able to give that reassurance.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, I do not have any problem with the sentiments behind the amendments. The only problem is that if those points are listed, it would look as though that is what the Government or Ofcom should give priority to, but they are only three of a myriad number of conditions to which they must give attention. Specifying that is almost counterproductive.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I rather echo that point. In Committee, I expressed, as did many noble Lords, concerns about local and community radio stations and about the extension of FM. These are very important matters, but as other noble Lords have indicated in this short debate, there are other areas as well. In all this, I hope that we will continue to recognise that, while it has often been said that the switchover for television has gone very smoothly, the complexities in relation to radio are far greater. While supporting so much that lies behind these amendments, it would be a great shame, in a sense, to wreck it by omitting rather than being inclusive.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, particularly the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and my noble friend Lord Gordon, for identifying the weaknesses of the amendment and the nature of the issue on which the Government need to take care. Perhaps I might say that if I was not going to take care after the Opposition Front Bench and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, had spoken in support of the amendment, I certainly was after listening to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. First, he told me, as if I did not know, that there could be the most enormous row if this switchover went wrong. I could not agree with him more and I accept entirely what the right reverend Prelate has said. The switchover from analogue to digital for television is much easier than this exercise because of the diversity of radio opportunities and provision. But the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, produced an even greater anxiety for me when he mentioned car owners. He is right that we would not dare to get that wrong. I know that we are not far from a general election, but the idea that the Government are about to alienate 20 million car owners by telling them that their radios are defunct, out of date and will not work is somewhat unrealistic. The conversion of car radios is an important point that has to be established before a digital switchover could conceivably be considered a success. We have been clear that an affordable in-car converter is key to the success of digital radio switchover. There are already devices on the market which will convert an FM car receiver to receive DAB. One would predict that this market will expand very rapidly. Very few markets move quite as quickly as the car accessories market, which helps to guarantee the sale of cars. That point therefore will be taken into account, as will the other points about the importance for the Government of effective consultation before such a switchover could take place. We have made clear that, for the foreseeable future, the Government will consider FM radios to be part of the broadcasting firmament. Radio stations will want to combine to broadcast on FM to take account of the points that the right reverend Prelate drew to the attention of the House. What date will all this be effected? That is a pointed and precise, but nevertheless very difficult, question. We have indicated that 2015 is ambitious, although it is achievable. If we do not set a target, there is no stimulus to all those who can make a contribution to effecting this successfully to get to work and do so. So we want a date and have identified 2015, but we recognise that it is a challenge. However, we accept the concept behind the amendments; namely, that the fullest consultation will be necessary. Otherwise, the almighty row anticipated by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, will descend upon the Government who get it wrong. Why do I resist the amendments, as we did in Committee? It is simply because consultation is written into the Bill already. We could not dream of going forward or of proposing that the Government could go forward with an issue of such significance to our people without the fullest consultation in order to guarantee that we do not fall into those dreadful traps to which noble Lords have called attention. Again, I am grateful to the Opposition Front Bench for drawing our attention to the necessity for care and consultation. That is part of the Bill and the amendments are unnecessary. Having stimulated a further debate, after the extensive one we had in Committee, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the Minister clarify the point about which a lot of people are concerned; namely, that whenever the point of switchover occurs, FM will continue beyond that point? A lot of small operators are very concerned about that.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I wanted to indicate that. If I did not make it clear enough in my reply, we see FM continuing, but we also see the kind of criteria that will be necessary before we begin the process of significant switchover. As I have indicated, the Government will move with the greatest care with regard to this issue, as we have with television switchover. Noble Lords will know of the care that we have taken to make sure that groups who might not be able to make that switchover effectively because of limited resources are given support. Radio is much more complex and difficult, as the right reverend Prelate made clear. The Government are fully seized of that, which is why consultation is written into the Bill on this issue.

Lord Howard of Rising: I thank the Minister for his comments, and I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for his support. I was delighted to hear some support from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, after the sandbagging that I received from the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. Having raised the issue and heard how sympathetic the Minister is to the potential problems — even though he dodged with his customary skill committing himself specifically to consulting listeners — I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 137 withdrawn.
Amendment 138 not moved.

[the Report Stage of the Digital Economy Bill continues in the House of Lords on 8 March 2010]