§ Order for Second Reading read.3.38 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)
I beg to move, That the Bill he now read a Second time.
This is not a massive Bill and may not, at first blush, seem an exciting Bill. However, it is an essential part of the change coming over British broadcasting which is both massive and exciting. Professor Peacock did not, contrary to some reports, invent the idea of change; change will come about because of the way in which technology will increase choice. However, he and his colleagues did set the agenda for change, as the House recognised when it debated his report before Christmas.
It is noticeable that the days have gone when those who supposed themselves to be in the know in these matters sniggered and sneered at the Peacock report. There is no doubt that it will have a striking influence on the way in which we move from a highly regulated duopoly towards a more open broadcasting system that is founded on the choice of the viewer and the listener. I do not contend that the Peacock committee produced all the right answers, but it set the agenda. We in government are going steadily through the items on the agenda and announcing decisions as they are necessary. A recent example is the indexation of the BBC licence fee. We shall he listening to views—r example, on radio—after we publish our Green Paper later this month.
The Bill deals with the ITV part of broadcasting. Its main provision is designed to give the Government enough time to consider whether there should be changes in the way in which ITV terrestrial contracts are let. The ITV system has many achievements to its credit since it came into being and both the companies and the IBA deserve credit for them. It is my experience that most minds within the ITV system are lively ones that accept the need for further change. After all, some of them began as radicals thrusting forward to find their place in the sun when the BBC had the monopoly. I do not believe that they or their successors want to end up as slightly overweight giants trying to keep newcomers out of the kingdom in which they themselves were newcomers not long ago.
I think that it is accepted by everyone that there must be further change. I believe that the arrival of British direct broadcasting by satellite will in itself be a powerful agent of change.
The first proposal in the Bill is to ensure that the new DBS—direct broadcasting by satellite—services have a chance to prove themselves. Provision for DBS was made in the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984. I do not need to go through the slightly painful history of the project, but in 1985 we invited the IBA to assess the prospects of a British DBS service to be provided by independent commercial interests. The IBA told us after it had made its assessment that interest in the venture was such that the relevant provisions of the 1984 Act should be brought into operation.
The IBA went on to advertise a contract fora DBS service and announced in December 1986 that it had 663 decided to give a contract to British Satellite Broadcasting Ltd. There is now the prospect of the British DBS service providing three national television channels and becoming available by the end of the decade. This will be a great step towards broadening consumer choice in a way that Professor Peacock anticipated and as we would like to see.
The financial investment that is required to establish a DBS runs to hundreds of millions of pounds. A highly specialised sort of satellite has to be built to carry the high-powered transmitters that are needed for DBS. Programmes have to be bought and schedules devised, and all of this must be done before the service begins. Finally, the satellite has to be launched. There cannot be certainty of success. There is no doubt that it is an expensive and risky business. Responsibility for making all the financial arrangements rests entirely with the contractor.
Even if preparations go reasonably well and the service is launched, it will he some time before the contractor begins to see a return on his investment. The number of households able to receive the service will build up fairly slowly, and in the early years it will not be large enough to cover his costs. To provide a reasonable balance between the risks and the likely return, we believe that a longer contract period is needed than is necessary normally for a terrestrial television contract.
In the 1984 Act, some allowance was made by providing for DBS contracts to last for a maximum of 12 years compared with eight years for the terrestrial ITV contracts. It became clear after that, in discussions with the IBA, that 12 years would still not be enough to provide would-be investors with a reasonable expectation of return. I therefore announced last year, before the DBS contract was advertised, that the Government would see an opportunity to change the law to extend the contract period from 12 years to 15 years. There is nothing magical in the period of 15 years, hut, having looked carefully at the business projections, we believe that it provides a fairer balance between risks and returns. Hence, clause 1(2) gives effect to the undertaking that I have given.
As the lifetime of the IBA expires on 31 December 1996—some years before the expiry of the 15-year period that I am talking about—we also intend in the near future to bring into force section 45 of the 1984 Act. This provides for the extension of the lifetime of the authority and will pave the way for the authority to award a DBS contract for the full 15-year period.
The second purpose of the Bill is to keep open the options for change in the terrestrial independent television system. The Peacock committee made a number of specific proposals in this regard. The majority recommended that ITV contracts should be put out to competitive tender. There is also a proposal in the report that Channel 4 should be, not compelled, but given the option of selling its own advertising time rather than being financed by subscription from the ITV companies. The committee also reflected on the possibility that some or all IBA services might be encoded alongside BBC services if subscription were introduced in place of the television licence fee. From what I said in the general debate, the House will know that the Government have commissioned consultants to carry out a study of the technical and economic aspects of subscription, and we expect that report before too long.
The Peacock committee is not the only body that has made proposals for changing the system under which ITV contracts are let.. I find that, even among the beneficiaries of the existing system, for several years there has been a 664 certain restlessness about the way in which the matter is managed, and the IBA has put forward proposals, in what it describes as "A Better Way", for awarding ITV contracts. The IBA has proposed new arrangements which include the possibility of a longer contract period and provision for a formal review of a company's performance at specified intervals.
We are considering different ideas from different stables for change in the way in which ITV contracts are awarded. Obviously, they are important decisions, and we have not yet come to firm conclusions on them. We want to listen to and take proper account of the views not only of interested parties but of the public as a whole. Therefore, we believe that a period is needed in which we can assess the changes in the system, which will he sensible against the background of developments scanned by the Peacock committee.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
The point that my right hon. Friend made is absolutely crucial to the assessment of the present performance of ITV contractors. Will he assure the House that we shall have a chance to debate any proposed new system before it is introduced?
§ Mr. Hurd
That is inevitable. Any change of any substance would need legislation. Therefore, I do not think that it can be much of a secret that we would intend to produce early in the next Parliament a substantial broadcasting Bill covering this and, no doubt. other matters. We have not taken decisions of policy. There should be time for hon. Members and interested parties to express their views not only on the Peacock proposals—that is, those of the majority and of the minority—but on the IBA proposals and on what the ITV companies may think. Under the present system and timings, there is not the necessary room for manoeuvre—the necessary time for the kind of process that my hon. Friend wishes to see.
The ITV contracts now in force expire on 31 December 1989. Unless some action is taken, the IBA will advertise during the course of this year new contracts for a maximum of eight years, to run from the beginning of 1990 until the end of 1997. This would mean that there would be no opportunity for changes to the contracts system itself, or for other changes that might closely affect new contracts, before 1998.
We have discussed this problem with the IBA and as a result have come to the conclusion that the best course would be to provide in the Bill for a three-year extension of the existing contracts. I say "in the Bill." I mean, in effect, because anybody who has studied the Bill w ill see that, on the face of it, it is a more complicated procedure. However, the effect is to provide for a three-year extension of existing contracts.
That is achieved in two ways. First, provision is made in the Bill for the next round of ITV contracts. They will run from 1 January 1990 and will last for only three years. Clause 1(3) therefore amends the relevant provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1981 to provide that the contracts that commence on 1 January 1990 should expire no later than 31 December 1992. That would include the next breakfast. television contract, which is due to begin on 1 February 1991. If, therefore, the Government come to the conclusion, after reflection and after having listened to views, that changes in the contract system are necessary, they can be introduced in time for the contracts running from 1 January 1993.
665 On the other hand, if the Government decide to make no substantive changes, the Bill also provides for the IBA to award contracts under the existing system from 1993 onwards.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Suggestions have been made, which are causing concern in the county of Cumbria, that a decision is likely to be made in favour of a reduction in the number of contractors to 10. Effectively that would wipe out a number of smaller, regional television stations. Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that that does not happen and that it is ruled off the agenda? Some parts of the country, such as mine, which enjoys Border Television, would be very angry if once again a decision of this nature were to be taken, as was taken by the BBC, against the interests of the county as a whole.
§ Mr. Hurd
I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern about the BBC, because I think he wrote to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about it. I have no power, nor does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—nor would the House wish us to have the power—to intervene in the way in which the BBC organises these matters. Any change of that kind would not flow from the Bill, and I know of no such change in prospect. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, it would be a very serious matter, and I have no news that that is in prospect or under consideration.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)
The right hon. Gentleman said that the Prime Minister especially had no interest or concern and would not involve herself in this matter. Will he assure us that when it comes to the appointment of the new director-general of the BBC she will not again use those words, "Is he one of us?"
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying far from the terms of the Bill.
§ Mr. Hurd
Far from the terms of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and far from the terms of reality. The Prime Minister entered the discussion simply because the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) sought to invoke her, rather exaggerating the powers that she has over the regulation of the BBC.
The second step that the Government propose to take, if Parliament agrees to the Bill, is to bring into force section 46 of the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984. The effect would be to relieve the IBA of the obligation to advertise the shortened round of contracts. Section 46 was originally drawn up to encourage ITV companies to join in the so-called "joint venture" DBS project. That venture did not proceed, as the House knows. Therefore, section 46 was not implemented. However, a similar provision is needed now to extend existing terrestrial contracts. This Bill provides the opportunity for Parliament to consider the provision in the 1984 Act in its new context.
The provisions of section 46 will have effect for one contract round only. In other words, after the shortened round of contracts to run from 1 January 1990, the IBA will, unless there is fresh legislative provision, be required to advertise succeeding contracts in the normal way.
To sum up, this part of the Bill keeps open the options for change. It does not propose substantive changes to our 666 broadcasting system, or commit the House to such changes. As I have already said, any such changes would require further changes in the law in due course.
It is no secret that, day by day. we edge nearer to the date of a general election. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) thinks that the Labour party will win and I think that the Conservative party will win. I do not know what obscure ambitions may be swirling about in the mind of the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud), but, whoever is right in those assumptions, no one would wish to have a position in which, although everyone has been discussing change in this area for a long time, change would not be possible because of action which the IBA had already set in hand, under the existing procedures, to advertise new contracts.
Broadcasting, especially at this time, should not be the prisoner of its own procedures. If we are to make intelligent use of the opportunities now opening up, we need legislative room for manoeuvre.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
I can open on a note of profound consensus. All of us on both sides of the House will agree that, day by day, we are getting nearer to the future. The Home Secretary was accurate on that matter.
I start by making an apology to the House. A commitment relating to tomorrow's Committee sittings of the Criminal Justice Bill will take me out of the Chamber just before 6 o'clock. I hope that that will not prevent me from returning to hear the winding-up speeches.
Although this is a small Bill, with limited objectives, its implications are important and could be disturbing. One disturbing aspect is the piecemeal way in which the Government enunciate their policy on broadcasting. The Bill deals with the Government's policy and the Home Secretary says that the Government are going through the Peacock recommendations one by one. At the same time he promises us that, within the next couple of weeks, the long-awaited Green Paper on radio broadcasting policy will be published. It is unsatisfactory to be given pieces of a jigsaw which we then have to try to fit together without seeing the whole picture.
The extension of franchise periods for DBS stems from the knowledge—about which the Home Secretary has been frank this afternoon—that DBS, far from being an instant gold mine for investors, requires a huge and hazardous investment that cannot rely on an early return.
Already the original timetable for DBS has slipped by a couple of years and Ministers have been careful not to promise that a 1990 start is assured. Already we are catering for franchises that will stretch into the 21st century. Those delays follow an uncertain start. I remember taking part in the Second Reading debate on the Cable and Broadcasting Bill with the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan). I remember those heady days of certainty, symbolised by the brave prophecy of the Home Secretary's predecessor. That is nearly three years ago. I remember listening to the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying:I believe that the consortium approach offers the most realistic chance of getting the British DBS service into action within the next three or four years."—[Official Report, 8 May 1984; Vol. 59, c. 757.]That prophecy, like many others in broadcasting policy, has fallen by the wayside. Those disappointments have led 667 the Government, regrettably in our view, to take the completely commercial route with such brave participants as Granada, Anglia and, among others, Mr. Richard Branson. By the way, whatever happened to his Litter Clean Up campaign? I hope that his participation in satellite broadcasting will he a little more clear cut and reliable than that.
It is impossible to calculate the likely effect of successful DBS on television programming. Increased choice for the viewer is greatly to be welcomed and is inevitable. There will be much more of it as time goes by, but no one knows to what extent the viewer will take advantage of even the limited extra choice that will come when DBS arrives. We must bear in mind the extra and, at first, quite substantial costs of adapting sets and obtaining other equipment and the need, which has so far scuppered cable, to pay subscriptions to receive some of the new DBS channels.
Current ITV franchise holders will be watching the extent to which they may need to go down market to compete for revenue and the possible effect on their finances if DBS grabs a sizeable part of advertising revenue. Independent local radio will also be watching fearfully, bearing in mind the precarious finances of a number of stations. It will be interesting to see next week or the week after how the Government intend to assist the prospects of such local radio stations if, as we hope, community radio is at long last to be brought into being.
Of course, the real impact on ITV will come from any decision to adopt the Peacock recommendation of auctioning off the ITV franchises. That is the real reason for the extension in the Bill of the existing franchises. The Home Secretary was at his blandest when he said during our debate on the Peacock report:One of the most significant recommendations was the proposal that in future ITV contracts should he put out to competitive tender. On 3 July I made it clear in my statement that the option for carrying out this recommendation, or indeed any changes in the system, including changes which the IBA has suggested, would he closed off for the next 10 years if the IBA were to proceed under the timetable in the present legislation to award the next round of ITV contracts to take effect from the beginning of 1990.The Home Secretary, referring to this Bill, said:That Bill has not been brought forward because we have already decided on the changes that should be made. We simply do not want to foreclose the options."—[Official Report, 20 November 1986; Vol. 105, c. 717–8.]The right hon. Gentleman repeated that sentiment today when he said that he wanted to keep open the options for change. That means that if the Government were returned to office at the forthcoming general election there would be a danger that the foolish and damaging Peacock recommendation that ITV franchises should be auctioned off would be implemented.
Selling television channels to the highest bidder would mean an inevitable degradation of the standards of programme content. Peacock makes it clear that the highest bidders would be expected to win and that explanations would be required if they did not; Peacock had in mind the crudest kind of commercial tendering. That would mean that money, not standards, would be the deciding factor in who runs ITV in the next decade and would set the pattern for the round of franchises after that. That would leave the field clear for the wealthiest multinationals, with the crassest standards.
The misgivings of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) about the future of such estimable small companies as Border Television 668 would be more than justified. Anybody who has seen that company in operation knows that it is an admirable example of how a small, local television station can cater to a small area with a recognisable identity. The idea that a company such as Border could be bought out by a multinational bidder or even a bidder within this country is unacceptable.
Let us be clear that any company that paid huge sums for a franchise—or sums that were huge in proportion to the area and population covered by the franchise—would be looking to get back its outlay as quickly as possible, which would mean maximising revenue through maximising audiences. The generally high standards of ITV would go. Any chance of increased access to independents—which, incidentally, was another Peacock recommendation—would also go. Visual musak and worse would be the order of the day.
The Opposition believe that there is much to be said for examining the possibility of increasing access to independents, but that must not be made an excuse for casualising employment in ITV and the BBC, with the inevitable harmful effects on pay, conditions and employment prospects for those working in the industry.
The Home Secretary spoke in November about the Bill facilitating "any changes" to the system, and any changes could mean the adoption of the Peacock recommendation to enable a change in the present system of supporting Channel 4. Such a change, leaving Channel 4 to cast around for its own advertising revenue, would not only lead to higher costs for Channel 4 in setting up machinery for obtaining such revenue, but would mean that Channel 4 would not have a guaranteed income, with all the uncertainties that that would produce. Channel 4 would be thrown directly into the market place and such a change would risk throwing away the reputation that Channel 4 has achieved as perhaps the most brilliantly successful television channel in the world.
Such changes in ITV would inevitably have a harmful effect on BBC1 and BBC2. A national ITV network sold off to the highest bidders would force the BBC down market to compete, and a commercially avaricious Channel 4 would have an equally inevitable effect on its public sector counterpart, BBC2.
In such an environment the position of the director-general of the BBC would become impossible. Already, following the deplorable Government and Tory party pressures on the BBC, the calibre of the new director-general will be of paramount importance in defending and enhancing the independence and standards of both BBC television and radio. The choice of director-general, which is to be made by the BBC board of governors during the next few days, will be a crucial test of the courage and integrity of that body. Its members will be failing in their duty if they simply go for a safe man or woman whose appointment will pacify the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
The new director-general——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Bill is in no way related to BBC matters.
§ Mr. Kaufman
As I have sought to explain, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Bill is related to the BBC, because if the ITV franchises are auctioned off that will degrade the standards of ITV and the competition in the market place 669 will inevitably drag down the standards of the BBC. In that context the ability, integrity and calibre of the director-general of the BBC will be of crucial importance.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The right hon. Gentleman is being very fair. I understand the general principle, but he must not go into details about the director-general, and so on.
§ Mr. Kaufman
What I am saying relates directly to one of the clauses of the Bill which would affect the way in which ITV franchises are disposed of, and that would have a direct effect on the programming, quality, independence and integrity of the BBC. It is for that reason, which is directly related to the content of the Bill, that I say that the new director-general of the BBC will have to be a tough and independent person, with sufficient self-confidence to stand up not only to political pressure from any political party, but, if necessary, to the very governors who make the appointment. The future of an indispensable national institution rests on that decision, and the board of governors must not fall short of what the occasion demands.
Let me make it clear that the Labour party wants a BBC which is dedicated and committed to independence and high standards and two ITV channels which will seek to maintain comparable standards. That is why a Labour Government will ensure protection of the present structure of Channel 4. A Labour Government will have nothing to do with any proposals to auction off the ITV franchises. We reject such a proposal totally and outright.
However, we believe that improvements can and should be made in the present method of allocating ITV franchises. We believe that the process should be more open and more accountable. Applicants should know more precisely what is expected of them, and if they fail they should know more clearly why that is so. Therefore, we shall consult the unions in the industry, the IBA and all the others who have helpful proposals to make to ensure that this highly important process of allocation of franchises is more appropriate to a democratic society, in which freedom of information should extend to the activities of public bodies.
The Bill could be dangerous as an Act in the hands of a Conservative Government. However, it will be of great importance in enabling a Labour Government to assist in making possible a television structure for the next decade and beyond which will maintain high standards and enhance democracy and freedom of expression in Britain. For that reason, we shall not oppose it.
§ Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)
I appreciate that there is a fine line in this debate between the problems of the IBA and of the BBC. I hope that you will be kind to me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I take a leaf out of the Secretary of State's book. He began by saying that he has indexed the licence fee of the BBC. Handsome though that may be, it is not handsome enough, because it means that in real terms, over the years, the BBC will suffer from a diminishing income, and with that will be less able to compete with the IBA.
The second point that the Secretary of State made was about the Peacock committee recommendation that in future the contracts for the independent programme 670 companies should be put out to competition. Many Conservative Members feel that that would be a retrograde step, and that it could lead only to the expansion of the media empires of people like Murdoch, who would be able to range from the printed word into television and purchase it. That would not be of universal advantage.
§ Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)
Will the hon. Gentleman quantify "people like Murdoch"? Who else is there?
§ Mr. Critchley
There are one or two fellow Australians who might, at first glimpse, be indistinguishable from Mr. Murdoch.
It would be a grave error were our television companies to fall under the direct control of foreign-based companies in the way that many of our newspapers have in recent years. The Conservative party should look pretty severely at any of the conditions that may hedge round the ownership of massive media companies.
The Secretary of State mentioned, en passant, Channel 4.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
Before my hon. Friend passes from that important point, does he agree that it has implications not just for television, but far-reaching implications for the British film industry which is much patronised by Channel 4, for example?
§ Mr. Critchley
Over the years I have become something of a nationalist, in the French sense. I do not think that a French Government of any complexion would be prepared to look happily upon the ownership of the French media by Australian or American entrepreneurs. That may be a lesson which the United Kingdom Government, of whatever party, could happily absorb.
Channel 4 is a Conservative conception. The former Home Secretary, who now leads the House of Lords with such distinction, is the father of the fourth channel. Its success is something for which our great Government can claim credit, and, alarming though the fourth channel might be to Mrs. Whitehouse from time to time, it has greatly added to the cultural scene in the United Kingdom. Therefore, we must be careful not to muck about with its financial arrangements in a way that could conceivably be to its detriment.
Members of the IBA sometimes see in advance the programmes that are made by the independent programme companies. Should not the governors of the BBC make a habit of doing so? Rule by the stable door has not proved to be successful.
The setting up of commercial television nearly 30 years ago was one of the great achievements of the old Conservative party. The running battle which has been fought more recently between Conservative central office and the BBC cannot be so described. It has muddied the waters. We are in danger of not being able to distinguish between state and public service broadcasting. We have, alas, an Under-Secretary with responsibilities for sport—thank God we have not yet appointed a Minister for Information.
The role of the governors of the BBC, like that of the members of the IBA, should be to act as a shock absorber. Not only should they be shock absorbers between the BBC and the Government, but they should be encouraged to play a more active role within the BBC. The governors 671 must, from time to time, flex their muscles. They should make a habit of seeing some programmes in advance and not just react to events. The governors of the BBC need to regain control of the BBC, not only from the special branch, but from many of the programme producers.
The problem facing the BBC—this is different from the problem facing the independent companies and the IBA—is to resolve the difficulty of how to keep editorial control over so vast an output. There is a need to provide managerial and editorial control without excessive supervision. The problem is that there are part-time governors of the BBC who, with the help of executives working full-time, have to control a massive output.
The parliamentary Lobby, as is well known, meets most days in the Palace of Westminster in a room from which Members of Parliament are debarred. I have often wondered what might happen were I to turn up at the Lobby briefing early one morning. I am told that the Lobby, steered by No 10, claimed that all the 12 members of the board of governors of the BBC are "acceptable" to the Prime Minister and No. 10 Downing street. "Acceptable"? That is a strangely disturbing word to have used. All 12 members have been appointed by the Prime Minister. Should all 12 be equally acceptable to the leaders of the Opposition parties? Should Prime Ministers, of whatever persuasion, treat the BBC as if it were the United States supreme court, to be filled by presidential nominees? Is there no other way in which the governors of the BBC and IBA might be appointed, save from No. 10 Downing street directly? It is worth a thought.
To a politician, every broadcast is a party political broadcast. We have grown thin skinned in recent years. We have witnessed the growth of political intolerance as the gap between the Labour and Conservative parties has widened, the sad end to the old consensus, and the advent of three-party politics. At the same time, our great newspapers have fallen into the hands of opinionated and foreign owners.
The BBC is not the state broadcasting corporation. It does not exist to please either Conservative central office or Walworth road. If it offends, as it has in the past, one should only have to raise a telephone and speak to the chairman of the board of governors. Ultimately, independence is not a luxury to be offered to broadcasters but a necessity for our audiences and for democracy. The future of broadcasting is too important to be left to the chairman of our great party.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)
As ever, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) aims his arrows deftly, and it is only later that one sees the full point of his remarks. I have appointed two governors of the BBC. One was suggested by the Foreign Secretary, so that there should be experience for the overseas services, and the other I determined myself. I cannot recall the Prime Minister playing any part in the choice. If ever I have the chance again—I doubt that I shall—when he is in his older and more mature years, I would look forward to appointing the hon. Member for Aldershot.
The hon. Gentleman made a remark about Channel 4 and Lord Whitelaw. I must admit to paternity of Channel 4, although the Annan report played a bigger part. Its sex, or structure, was determined by Lord Whitelaw, but it did not come just from one Government.
672 I agree with the hon. Gentleman about indexing the licence fee. The BBC asked for that in 1978, and we turned it down. I doubt whether it wants it now and it will not remove the problem of the licence fee in the years ahead.
It is right that there should be the delay set out in the Bill. It is probably inevitable. It is easier said than done, to move quickly in these matters, because profound technical changes are taking place. I hope that the Government are moving slowly because there will he a general election. Nobody knows what the result will be. but there will be a different political complexion and a different feel in the House. For that reason alone, it is right that there should be delay.
I have three questions. I am no longer involved in broadcasting on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes I read or listen to remarks made by the Home Secretary and his Ministers, or read about changes that have taken place and cannot be clear what they involve. What about the rolling review? I thought—I am obviously wrong—that this was to change profoundly the nature of the way that new contracts are awarded every 10 years. Are the rolling reviews that take place at the moment based on legislation, or are they administrative changes made by the IBA? Are the reports made about the various companies made public? I hear them discussed when I sometimes mix in television circles, and I hear that, as part of the rolling review, the IBA has called in a certain company and has made changes in what it is doing. How many changes have been made so far, who carries them out, and how do they fit into the way that new contracts are awarded?
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) made an interesting point. I can recall—my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) will remember this as he hails originally from Yorkshire and knows a great deal about that side of affairs in Yorkshire—that about five or six years ago Yorkshire Television and Tyne Tees were allied, However, the IBA stepped in and told them that the marriage, however tenuous on financial grounds, had to be broken up. There is talk about a major company taking over Border Television, but would this not require the approval of the IBA?
My second point is about competitive tendering. I am against it because it is one of the silliest and most worrying proposals in the Peacock report. It had a good agenda, but anyone who gives a minute's thought to the problems of broadcasting and the technical changes that are coming about can write an agenda. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton that competitive tendering is a sure way to debase the coinage of programmes.
My third point is about direct broadcasting by satellite. As I travel about the country, I see in the back gardens of houses dishes of quite a size. I have been thinking of having one on the roof of my house in Southwark, so I declare an interest. What does one have to do to get a satellite receiving dish in one's garden? If one wrote to one's local authority, would it know what one was talking about'? Would it need planning permission? What are the rules about these installations? Would anyone stop me'? Do I have to get approval? I would love to listen to the Irish satellite that will apparently be put up shortly.
This is a short but important Bill. In case any of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench have any ideas about this, I look forward to reading the Committee reports.
§ Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)
I remind hon. Members of my interest in these matters in that I work for the BBC and ITV. I am a member of the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians and Equity. Therefore, I am up to my neck in it.
My predominant thought about the Bill is that, much though I support it, it seems to me that we are working from the wrong ball park for the future. Whenever I have spoken about broadcasting in the House, I have noticed that hon. Members tend to take the position as it is today. In 1977, there was no Channel 4, there was a hot debate about Annan, there were hardly any video recording machines in domestic households, local radio was only just beginning to develop in full, and the whole scene was different. To look on today's Bill, which adjusts the licences and the length of them, in the context that perhaps in 10 years' time we shall be looking at anything vaguely similar to today's broadcasting patterns of two BBC channels, two ITV channels, and so on, is not the right calculation to make. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that the purpose of extending these contracts is to look at the position more closely, in more detail, and above all else—quite rightly—after a general election.
Over the years, the Home Office has developed a tradition on broadcasting policy. It brings it forward piecemeal, but, after the general election, when these matters are looked at in the context of what we shall do about the methods by which we award contracts to the terrestrial franchises of ITV, that Bill must incorporate everything else, or it will not work.
Some of the weightiest decisions since the foundation of the BBC in the 1920s must be made about what we want from public service broadcasting. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) made an interesting distinction between state broadcasting and public service broadcasting. That is a subject of great debate and, in some senses, it is responsible for some of the friction between broadcasters and politicians.
Recently I was at a broadcasting conference, as was the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan)—who is listening closely to this debate. I do not believe that he was present when I said that the first word of the initials BBC was British and there was a hiss from the back of the hall. Lord Annan referred to the problem of defining the role of the BBC. It must be independent. It must be free from all spheres of influence, particularly governmental, but it must, at the same time, reflect the state. In that sense I quarrel with the distinction between the two roles as put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. Public service broadcasting must not be a member of the Establishment nor party to it in any way, but generally it must reflect the state.
§ Mr. Critchley
Would my hon. Friend accept, as a compromise, that the BBC should reflect the liberal consensus and exclude extremes?
§ Mr. Brinton
My hon. Friend is trying to tempt me down the path of liberal consensus. One of the reasons that prompted me to enter this House 12 years ago was that I felt that the general consensus was not working and was not the way forward. I do not believe that the liberal consensus would be a true reflection of the wishes of all the British people. It is much more subtle, especially when 674 applied to broadcasting. A broadcaster must present the news objectively and factually and his comments must clearly be shown to be comments only. He must present arguments fairly from all points of view, including, I hasten to add, the liberal consensus view. The broadcaster should not just be a guardian of the air, if I can use that simile, for that would ignore other important matters.
The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) earlier expressed his understandable anxiety about the smaller television stations such as Border Television. Once again, I should like to look at the crystal ball. I can understand his anxiety, but if we consider the pattern of progress in technology and electronics it is certain that, in the next 10 years, there will be a fragmentation in television in the same way as occurred in radio. There may be changes of all sorts which may affect Border Television, but I believe that local television, which I believe that the hon. Member for Workington wants, is something that will continue to develop and gain strength.
In the next 10 years, rather than four terrestrially transmitted channels there may be as many as 50 channels coming from satellites fed through increasingly popular cable services and competing directly with our public service broadcasting—and by that I mean both the BBC and ITV. The question to which we should address ourselves in this all too short a debate is whether we expect the BBC and ITV to compete directly for viewers with, in effect, no control.
The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said that he wants a satellite dish on the top of his house. That dish may receive programmes with all sorts of unrestricted commercials. For example, we may even have the ludicrous position of 50 minutes of commercials with 10-minute programmes in between. If that and other pap programmes became popular, how would ITV make a living? Any future Government must address that question in considerable detail.
There appear to be two ways forward. The first is that ITV should have unrestricted competition, and I would be very sorry if that happened. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot that there would be a considerable lowering of programme standards and we would lose Channel 4 and programmes such as "Brideshead Revisited". What would we do with the BBC? Would it sit on a little island making middle-class liberal consensus programmes and nothing else? We must recognise the limitations of public service broadcasting in the years ahead and plan accordingly.
If, in two or three years' time, Parliament felt strongly that it must protect the styles of ITV and the BBC to the full, with two channels, that will need considerable support. If there is to be a BBC licence fee, which can support one national BBC channel making general programmes of a popular as well as a less popular nature, with the other channel paid for through subscriptions, we might apply the same sort of answer to ITV—which is primarily what we are discussing today. It would not take much of a touch on the popularity switch for Channel 4 to be able to pay for itself.
One of the most interesting arguments to consider is if Channel 4 could up the rating, by five points or whatever may be involved, to make it pay for itself, would that destroy what I believe to be the most interesting television service in the world? I certainly watch it a great deal and I do not want to destroy it. I believe that we must work out ways to protect it. It may be that much of the main 675 channel ITV output is popular, and we may conclude that it should compete directly with the popular major channels that, in 10 years' time, will be coming in from the rest of the world as, I hope, we shall be sending out our programmes.
I welcome the emergence of Superchannel, which the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South will discover he can receive with a smaller dish. I also welcome the news that the BBC's external services are thinking about a satellite news service to the rest of the world. All those developments must he included in our deliberations.
Comments have been made about the governors of the BBC and the members of the IBA, especially to the effect that the governors of the BBC should study some of the programmes before they are transmitted. I wonder whether it is time for an even greater change than has been mentioned today—and it has been mentioned before—in that we should think of changing the structure of public service broadcasting so that, in the fullness of time, there is a television authority that regulates both the BBC and the ITV. Perhaps it could be made up of people similar to those who currently serve the BBC and IBA. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) suggested in a previous debate, perhaps the board of management of the BBC should include some non-executive directors who could be lay members. We would then achieve a regulating body that is remote from the day-to-day executive work of the board of management of the BBC, something perhaps that is desirable. Currently, many of the troubles of the BBC stem from the fact that the governors are neither with the board of management nor right outside it—they do not know where they lie. The same applies to the members of the IBA, especially with their connections with Channel 4.
I shall not delay the House any further. I think that this is an interesting first step and I hope that, while this legislation gives us time, that time will be used to the full to discuss all those wider questions.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)
We tend to forget that this small Bill flows directly from the Peacock report. The Peacock committee was established not to prepare a blueprint for the future, although it did that, but to deal with funding and finance.
The Bill was introduced in another place by Lord Beaverbrook. It arises out of the Peacock committee, but not because of the changes which that committee advocated. The Bill deals with keeping open the options for change. It is a significant Bill, although it is small. It deals with the purpose of the Peacock committee and with what happened as a result of that committee's report.
I have argued on behalf of the Labour party that the Government have put the cart before the horse. The Government gave that committee the remit of considering how we should fund the BBC. Clearly, the Prime Minister—that great abstentionist who does not want to interfere with broadcasting— was thinking about introducing advertising to help fund the BBC. We argued that that was putting the cart before the horse. We feared that decisions about how to fund broadcasting would preempt decisions about the nature of future broadcasting. We argued that we should take a quick look at the changes in broadcasting before the problem of financing was tackled. That is what is now happening. The committee was asked to examine alternative financing methods, other 676 than public, so it was pushed towards recommending private financing, whether by subscription or advertising. The pattern of thinking is now being established.
The great technological shift that will alter the pattern dramatically is broadcasting by satellite. Despite that, there is little discussion about how it should be used in public service broadcasting. It is already being considered in the allocation of franchises. Even in an apparently minor Bill such as this we should consider the nature of broadcasting for the future. A type of alliance exists among the more civilised hon. Members—some Tories and the entire membership of the Labour party—in relation to public service broadcasting.
I want to follow the arguments used by the hon. Members for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) and for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley). I believe that there is a dichotomy between state broadcasting and public service broadcasting. The hon. Member for Gravesham said that there was some hissing at a broadcasting conference. I suspect that he was talking about one of the two conferences in Edinburgh, last year and the year before. I think that the hissing must have come from some Scottish nationalists at the back of the hall who were looking for a different solution for broadcasting.
There is a separation between broadcasting and the apparatus of the state. This Government are trying to narrow that gap by using extra-legal methods. They are trying, not to differentiate between public service broadcasting and the state, but to bring public service broadcasting under the effective control, if not the legal control, of the Government and particularly of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We saw that in relation to "Real Lives" two years ago. There is a distinction between what happened over that and what happened over the Zircon film.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am trying hard to relate what the hon. Gentleman is saying to the Bill's provisions, but I am finding it difficult. The hon. Gentleman must address himself to the Bill, which deals with the IBA and contracts.
§ Mr. Buchan
With respect—I mean that—Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Home Secretary said that the Bill would give us time to examine the options. We are now looking at the options. If we did not want to do that there would be no reason for the Bill. We are dealing with a crucial question. I was saying that two years ago it was necessary for the Home Secretary publicly to intervene and that the BBC had capitulated over Zircon. It applied a form of self-censorship—the most dangerous of all censorships.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Equally with great respect, I cannot see how interference wig h the BBC relates in any way to the Bill's provisions.
§ Mr. Buchan
I shall do my best to keep within the proper bounds of discussion, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
There are two questions to be asked about the options. The first is whether it is necessary to extend the time for consideration at all. I am not sure whether we need three years, but if we are to allow that extension we must use the time to examine the options.
For independent television the crucial element is direct broadcasting by satellite and in that connection the great problem is how to control it. We are told that the British 677 external service is considering satellite broadcasting. Satellites from other countries are also being used. There is no doubt that three or four entrepreneurs will control the structure. It has been said that France would never tolerate interference from foreign broadcasting authorities, but not even the chauvinistic French are able to prevent that. Berlusconi is an obvious case in point, dictating as he does the future of French and Italian television.
§ Mr. Brinton
It has been said before, but is this not unlike the problem faced by the medieval monks who, 100 or 150 years after the printing press was invented and publishing became free to anyone who had the technology, tried to protect their vested interest?
§ Mr. Buchan
The same analogy was used by Professor Peacock in his report. He compared the opening up of freedom in broadcasting with the freedom of the press after 1694 and the Censorship Act. I know my history, even though I am a member of the Labour party.
Let us examine the freedoms which have been achieved. We have handed over 80 per cent. of the popular dissemination of news and information in this country to three people—Maxwell, Murdoch and Stevens. So much for the opening up of publishing and the monopoly of the monks. It has been the monopoly of the masters and is an even greater monopoly than that which occurred in medieval times.
The analogy is fatal because it says more than Peacock thought it would say. It says that the only way to prevent monopoly is to ensure that there is regulated broadcasting. It should be regulated in order to give freedom of access and diversity of programmes and to prevent monopoly. We are concerned with the freedom of the listener, but he is concerned with the freedom of the contractor. Freedom for the contractor means that he has an eventual monopoly. The 3 million or 4 million readers of The Sun matter more than the one Murdoch who sits in Wapping. That is the kind of freedom that we ought to seek.
The hon. Member for Gravesham is right; it is a fair analogy. We have seen what happened in the past and are determined that it shall not happen in the future through direct broadcasting by satellite. If it applied only to Britain we could deal with it, but it has an international aspect. How can we control that? I have seen direct broadcasting by satellite relayed by cable to some of the poorest countries in the world. Parents in those countries who have no running water in their huts have said to me, "My child wants a computer for Christmas." That is because they see the advertising of the consumer society, the aculturisation of people. Therefore, we must not only find a British method to deal with it but must rapidly develop an international method of dealing with it.
We in the Labour party have made a tiny start towards finding a solution. If we do not find a solution, then, just as our popular press is controlled by three people, the whole of broadcasting by satellite in western Europe will be controlled by five people—Maxwell, Murdoch, Stevens, Berlusconi and one other. That is what will happen. That is the sort of problem we are facing.
We have immediate options in relation to Channel 4. Perhaps this is the reason for the three-year postponement, but I hope not. I agree with those who say that the competition for advertising would be fatal. All the 678 analyses that we have made and that others have made about the pool of broadcasting revenue suggest that the opening up of competition by Channel 4 would do two things: first, it would weaken the regional element of all our commercial broadcasting—and local broadcasting is more expensive than buying in programmes; secondly, it would force Channel 4 to compete for the greatest amount of advertising and, instead of Channel 4 providing a fraction of our television programmes, it would have to compete with the lowest common denominator.
The second reason for the delay is to allow time for the examination of the franchises. I question delay, because the whole purpose of the franchises was to analyse the work and the methods and the success or otherwise of the independent companies so that a franchise could be withdrawn if a company was not up to the mark. Once we begin to extend that, we remove the possibility of a rapid shift in some of the worst of the stations and encourage them to do what sometimes happened in the past in Scottish television—a period of mediocrity followed by a frenetic 18 months of promises about programmes and ideas for the future that are never implemented.
We ought not to be too happy about an extension. It is made necessary not because of that for which the Peacock committee was set up, but for that which the Peacock committee eventually encouraged the Government to go ahead with—a major change in the structures of broadcasting. All of those major changes are pulling us away from public service broadcasting.
Indexing will not be a stratification of the broadcasting open to the BBC because developing technology does not necessarily get any cheaper and indexing will mean that an inferior product will be forced upon the BBC. Most important, it will be unable to compete in new technology with commercial companies.
We are moving very rapidly. After the Peacock evidence I hoped that I might continue with this subject for a little longer than I have been allowed to do. I had hoped that by this time the Labour party would have established a forward thinking working party. I hope to get some assurance from my Front Bench about that.
Broadcasting has been in the forefront of political thought over the last few weeks. That is because of the events surrounding "The Secret Society" programmes and the conduct of the Government in relation to those programmes. If we are to defend and develop public service broadcasting, we must prevent the formation of a Ministry of Information. It would be right to remove broadcasting from the Home Office. We can no longer safely leave broadcasting in the hands of the Home Office, and that is the reason for my argument that it should be under a proper Ministry of the Arts. That could still happen. Sadly, the events of the last few weeks show that the quicker it happens the better for all of us.
§ Mr. William Powell (Corby)
This is the first time that I have had the privilege of being called to speak on the Second Reading of any Bill as early as 4.56 pm. Further, it is the first time, and it may be the only time, when I shall be called as the fifth person to speak from the Back Benches on Second Reading so early in the afternoon. That shows that the Bill is relatively uncontroversial. It is a modest measure, but being modest I welcome it. I wish 679 that we had more legislation that caused so little controversy. It is often the case that when a Bill tries to do too much it runs into difficulties.
All hon. Members will agree that there is absolutely no danger of this Bill attempting to do too much. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing forward a measure of this nature. I welcome the Bill and hope that the House will give it an unopposed Second Reading. We have a procedure whereby relatively uncontroversial and modest measures can be referred to a Second Reading Committee upstairs. The decisions about whether Bills are referred to that Committee or are taken on the Floor of the House are, I imagine, taken through the usual channels. I hope that on reflection those responsible for timetabling this Bill to take up the time of the House will perhaps realise that it might have been more sensible to take it upstairs to a Second Reading Committee. That happens to some Bills and it is unfortunate that more Bills cannot bedealt with it in that way.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that a Bill which will fundamentally affect the whole of broadcasting should not be debated on the Floor of the House just because there appears to be no open desire to vote against it? I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Floor of the House is and ought to be and will remain the most important part of the Houses of Parliament.
§ Mr. Powell
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. No doubt the matters that she mentions were in the mind of the business managers when they decided that it was appropriate for this Bill to he dealt with on the Floor of the House. I have put the contrary argument and I hope that the procedure for Second Reading Committees upstairs can be used more widely than currently happens. That is my view but, of course. the hon. Lady is perfectly entitled to disagree. She may he right, but I suggest that this Bill could have been dealt with in the way that I have outlined.
This is a holding Bill because it provides more time to consider matters vital to the future of public service broadcasting than is allowed by current statutory arrangements. It is right and proper that that should happen. The Peacock report made it plain to those who are not specialists in broadcasting that the fundamental issues which will face public service broadcasting will have a much greater potential impact than any other matters have in the past generation.
Given the political timetable, with a general election likely to intervene in less than two years, it is only right and proper that whichever party forms the Government—naturally, I hope that it will be mine—has the proper time to consider these important matters.
Current ITV contracts are to be extended for three years. The Peacock committee made it plain that the Government and Parliament had to face serious and important issues in deciding how ITV franchises should be allocated. 1 welcome the fact that under the Bill it will be possible for that allocation to be considered at more leisure than they would have been under the very tight programme that would otherwise have existed.
I have considerable sympathy for many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan). I wished—perhaps this is a salutary point for 680 any politician — that he would develop some of his points at greater length. I for one would have been happy to listen to him uninterrupted for a longer period.
Direct service broadcasting offers enormous opportunities to the viewer. All those opportunities are subject to the type of consideration to which the hon. Member for Paisley, South referred. In general, I welcome the opportunity to have a much broader range of programmes. I am one of those who often bewails the absence of choice, even with four channels. I welcome the fact that this debate is likely to be shorter than many Second Reading debates because I hope that other right hon. and hon. Members and I will be able this evening to watch one of the outstanding programmes on television —"Rumpole of the Bailey". I hope that not only the existing channels but other companies will he able to establish a continuous series of "Rumpoles of the Bailey" or similar programmes. The Bill gives us an opportunity for more mature reflection on the issues which we must face. For those reasons, I hope that the House will give it an unopposed Second Reading.
§ 5.4 pm
§ Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)
This is a very minor Bill. It is not one with which the alliance or anyone else disagrees. However, I deplore the fact that it is such a minor Bill and that it lacks courage, foresight and dynamism. As hon. Members have said, it is another example of piecemeal legislation. It asks us to wait and see. It allows the Government — 1 suppose that this is important to any Government before an election — to say, "Our hands are clean," even if they have to add, "We have not done anything."
I was disturbed by the Home Secretary's answer to an intervention by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) when the right hon. Gentleman said that the Government proposed to introduce a comprehensive Broadcasting Bill early in the next Session. Is it Conservative policy to introduce some non-specific Bill? Since we have a Broadcasting Bill before us, it is the Home Secretary's duty to give us a little more information before he tries to put this piecemeal legislation on the statute book. The House deserves to know what the legislation will do to preserve the quality of television stations such as Border—small, excellent, vulnerable and open to predators. We deserve to know whether the forthcoming legislation will seek to sell off independent television companies and whether it will use money or standards as the criterion for sale.
It is terribly wrong to allow the Peacock recommendations to lie idle without any word from the Government other than, "We wish to hear the debate." All hon. Members want to know how the Government will react to the Peacock suggestions. Will the Government preserve the opportunities for independent television producers and for independent producers generally? A move within market place economics will not be encouraging in any way to those who make independent programmes.
Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, intervened to say that the Bill does not concern the BBC. I believe that any debate on broadcasting cannot isolate one form of broadcasting because one form reverberates substantially on all other forms. Hon. Members are disturbed by what is happening in the BBC and by the 681 concept of "acceptability of BBC governors" without a move to bring in governors, as there are hon. Members whose job it is to probe what is happening.
I am concerned about the centralisation of television production in the south-east of England. We want to know what the Government will do about this. It is extraordinary that, in every facet of Government responsibility, people are being directed without much concern about where the expertise lies.
The whole nation is interested in community radio, and that includes even those people who did not want community broadcasting to come about — but it ill becomes the Government to make a promise, to allow people to spend substantial sums on research and development and then withdraw that promise and say, "There will not be any community radio for the time being; you must wait and see."
We are also concerned about subscription television because we fear that it could lead to an even more divided society. Some people might be unable to see "Rumpole of the Bailey" because they do not have the money to buy the programmes that their neighbours watch. It is essential that the concept of subscription television will be to top up, and not to take from people their right to view.
What they propose to do to Channel 4 is perhaps the most brilliant example of the Government's inability to leave good things alone. It is one of the most successful of broadcasting enterprises. Why do the Government not leave it to flourish instead of attempting to make it a commercial, avaricious begetter of its own advertising? That would not do any service whatsoever for Channel 4 but would jeopardise something of great and substantial quality.
§ Mr. Hurd
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great care. From what he has said, I derive that he would like us to rest absolutely on the status quo. I find that a dim and dismal outlook. If I had produced a set of detailed proposals on the matters that are before the House today, he knows that he would have been among the first to say "How monstrous of this dictatorship of a Government to ram all these proposals down our throats without giving us an opportunity to discuss them or to have any public debate." We are acting in the opposite way and in a liberal manner we are simply saying that, whatever the position immediately after the election, a Government will need time to prepare proposals and to think them through. The Bill enables that to happen. That is what it is about.
§ Mr. Freud
It is rewarding to hear a Conservative Home Secretary arguing for change. I said clearly that I wished the status quo to remain for Channel 4, which has quality and which, I believe, is brilliant.
My hon. Friends and I also wish to know what plans the Government have in respect of the proposals in the Peacock report. I do not agree that saying, "Wait and see" and, "We need more discussion" is remotely satisfying. If commercial criteria are used, we shall have "The Price is Right" from wall to wall. Conservative Members have suggested that we might get 50 minutes of commercials, followed by 10 minutes of programming. My great fear is that we shall go back to what happened when commercial television started and that there will be advertising magazines, in whatever disguise they may come.
682 The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) intimated that he did not wish to serve on the Committee. I cannot imagine that that would be an onerous task or that the Committee will have many sittings because this is a holding Bill.
We accept that DBS needs more time to attract sufficient capital. If the carrot is not big enough, one must attempt to make it bigger by shovelling on the manure and then seeing whether somebody will grasp it.
It is absolutely right to extend the ITV franchises because there is no evidence of abuse by any contractor. They deserve nothing less than that three years' bonus, and that is what their putative successors will need to prepare their case.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I support the Bill, but are sorry that it is not a more courageous or radical measure.
§ Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)
It is a particular pleasure for me to have the opportunity to make a modest speech on this Bill. I crave the indulgence of the House for a moment because I suspect—I am open to correction from any hon. Member if I am not right—that I am the only qualified radio and television service engineer who is a Member of this House. I am not advertising any services in saying that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have a personal interest in broadcasting which many other hon. Members may not share. I also suspect that I may be one of only a few hon. Members to have run a radio and television business, as I did for 24 years, before becoming a Member of the House. Therefore, I take pleasure in making a modest contribution to the debate.
When the House debated the Peacock report I was unable to speak because of the interests of other hon. and right hon. Members. I should now like to say a few words about the part of the Bill that relates to direct broadcasting by satellite. I welcome the measures to extend the period under discussion. There must be tremendous advantages from the extension of direct broadcasting for all those in the trade, for the manufacturers of the equipment and of the receivers that will be used when satellite broadcasting becomes more readily available, and, indeed, for the public. However, anybody with any experience will know that considerable technical problems remain to be resolved.
I should like to draw the attention of the House to the IBA members of the consortium which grants the franchise. My own local independent television station of Anglia is a member of that consortium. I am pleased to see that, because East Anglia is often regarded as the backwater of events. That is not the case and I am pleased that Anglia Television is involved in such an exciting concept.
When we get direct broadcasting by satellite the public will be able to enjoy a further additional service through the type of programme that they can watch. Indeed, from a professional point of view, although not from a financial, professional, point of view, I have long advocated the more extensive use of the television set in one's home as a means of communication. Direct broadcasting by satellite will mean that the type of programme, entertainment and information that is available on television will be greatly extended. I have no doubt that there are a great many other uses to which the television 683 set could be put, in addition to receiving direct broadcasting from satellites. Demand for television sets will increase in line with the increase in DBS.
About 98 per cent. of all the homes in the country have a television set of one sort or another, the overwhelming majority of which are colour television receivers. We know that the two-television set family is fairly commonplace today. I suppose that it is not uncommon for some homes to have three or four television receivers. Being in the position to which I referred earlier. I must confess that we have five sets in our home. Each of my three children has a television receiver in their bedroom, we have the main one in the lounge and another in the study. That is an example of the increasing use of the television set by individual members of the family. Television is not just for entertainment; it conveys knowledge. Broadcasters can widen the range of programmes available and DBS is just one means by which the volume of information available can be extended.
It follows that because of the amount of investment by the various companies in the DBS franchise, because there are considerable technical problems for the manufacturers of the equipment and because the DBS system needs greater public acceptance, we need extra time. The consortium needs to advertise the advantages of DBS. It is undoubtedly right for everyone to extend the period and I hope that that will not be a matter for dissent. I support all the other parts of the Bill and hope that it will receive a favourable passage through the House.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
This is only a small Bill if one considers the foundations of a building to be unremarkable because they go in a small hole. However, I need to know much more about what will be built on it before I dismiss it as a modest measure.
The Bill is important. It gives the Home Secretary an opportunity to state in no uncertain terms how he sees the problems of the breathing space that the Bill provides. I would have liked him today to have said, "If we are to have DBS—there are already considerable difficulties because people are not prepared to invest millions in this sort of development without knowing what they will gain from it—I want to use this time to consider its political and financial implications. Then we shall have a clear view of where we shall go in the interim three years."
I am worried that today we have seen a little demonstration of the salami technique. The Government have said, "We haven't had time to hear the views of all the interested parties, so we shall extend the time to the companies concerned and ask everyone what they want to do. We shall then have an idea of their forward planning." That seems both sensible and civilised. The Home Secretary is a man of wit and culture which, luckily for his political career, he succeeds in hiding from the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it is not good enough simply to say, "We shall have a major development, but the Government do not have a clear political line."
Once we have DBS, Parliament must have in place a series of simple but wide-reaching laws to control the way in which the signals are redirected into the United Kingdom. We must think seriously about controls for the public broadcasting system and the IBA. 1 do not want us under any circumstances to move towards open tender for commercial' companies. I do not want to hear that suggestion either in the House or anywhere else. A danger 684 of that is that as soon as the IBA is told to accept the largest tender, the reason for its existence is wiped out. Even a continuing rolling programme of extending contracts for commercial companies opens up considerable questions about the political and cultural controls that will operate on those companies for the franchise. That has not been fully discussed.
Above all, if the House has no control over DBS, Mrs. Whitehouse will not come to the House and witter on about the problems of obscenity because we shall have no control over the signals. Nor shall we have control over the news content. Hon. Members who have said today that they have seen the future and it looks like a dingo were not exaggerating. We must contend, not only with Mr. Murdoch, but with news centres rather like that run by Ted Turner of Atlanta. have no desire to see the newscasting services of the television stations follow the line of our newspapers.
The reason why so few people take their news from the popular press is simply because it does not contain any news. No one would know from most of the tabloid newspapers that Parliament even existed until there is a screaming, immediate, social problem. The newspapers manage to wheel in rent-a-quotes from both sides of the Chamber which are a fortissimo expression of a minute, and usually superficial, nature. We have been able to deal with that deterioration in the news-gathering centres of the nation because most people still see the news on one of the television channels. They get their views and news largely from either the IBA or BBC news which still strive, no matter what the ruling party says, to maintain a reasonable balance on political, religious and delicate social problems.
What shall we do if DBS becomes a market place where those with money can move with no restraint on the content of their programmes? The Government have not made that clear. They have not said today, "We realise that this is an extremely limited measure, but we shall immediately set up a working party to consider all its implications." There has been no such suggestion. What will the Government do in relation to the IBA? If they are to change the way in which the franchises are extended or debated, let them set out those new changes so that the house can debate them openly. If they are to use this opportunity to change the financing of Channel 4, for example, let them come here and say so openly and let them give us the opportunity to say that Channel 4 should not compete with ITV for advertising revenue and that it should be given a specific mandate to involve itself in even more independent producers' work than at present. Channel 4 has done a remarkable job in opening up broadcasting to independent producers. The Bill provides the opportunity for us to say that we shall look actively at ways of widening opportunities for producers across the board.
I should like to see a Bill to guarantee a reasonable percentage — 25 per cent. or more, if necessary — of independent air time to producers in both services. The BBC is being dealt with in a hole-in-the-corner manner. Mr. Deputy Speaker has already pointed out that, although we see a clear link in the Government's attitudes to the BBC and ITV, now is not the time to discuss it. In reality, the Minister of State cares about the quality of broadcasting and telecasting in the United Kingdom. He, and certainly the Home Secretary, have a duty to set out how the Government see the future of broadcasting. They are not doing that. They are giving us the impression that 685 somewhere along the line they will squeeze the BBC's finances but open up the IBA's responsibilities in such a way that it will do away with any element of control and simply make it a market place transaction. That is extremely dangerous. I believe that one would get continuous broadcasting of a sort that most hon. Members would find fairly sleazy and unacceptable. If the Minister has any doubt, let him see what happened in Italy when Radio Audiovisione Italiana was forced to concede air time in a completely different way and there was a constant eruption of soft porn and semi-porn films running for 24 hours. That is the reality of broadcasting that is left to the market place.
The idea that more is better is disproved simply by looking at what happens in America. Anybody who has seen the hundreds of channels and the rubbish that is churned out hour after hour knows that choice is not necessarily a way of improving the quality of the production material. Quality depends on the money that is available and the expertise and it certainly depends, above all, on the restraints that Government put on the hours of broadcasting, the type of broadcasting and the responsibilities that we have always accepted were part of a public service effort in this country.
The BBC and IBA contribute to extremely high quality programme material because of the legislation which, over the years, has been discussed by the House. The two are inextricably linked. I see no reason now why, in a country that imports vast amounts of electronic hardware, we cannot be talking about putting extra taxes on some of those things to maintain the quality of our material. I see no reason why, in the next three years, we should not be energetically examining other ways of raising cash for independent producers and making sure that the work that comes forward is of a standard that we find acceptable.
I give the Minister one warning. I do not believe that the House will accept a Government diktat which hands over control of DBS to any system which cannot be controlled in some way by the House of Commons. I do not believe that public service broadcasting should ever be restricted on the basis of whichever political party is in charge. Indeed, if I bought only newspapers with which I agreed and which have not insulted me and watched only programmes with which I was in absolute agreement, I would have an extremely limited reading and viewing programme.
I believe that the Government have a responsibility over and above simply saying, "Look, we shall give them three more years and then decide what will happen." No one knows what electronic developments will be created between now and the end of the period of the franchise, but we should be debating the political implications here and now and we are not doing so. There may be a great future for someone who creates a marvellous way of blocking the broadcasting from DBS systems that put out the 50 minutes of advertisements with which we have been threatened. Who knows? However, until we sit down seriously and think about the implications, it is not good enough to say, "This is a modest measure. Let it go through because we are all in agreement and it does not upset anybody." It upsets me simply because it is so empty and poor and, if I may say, such a cop-out in relation to 686 the responsibilities of broadcasting. The Minister ought to do better. He has the wit and the intelligence, and he should trust the House of Commons more.
§ Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)
It is a great pleasure to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). She has brought to the debate some of the questions that I acknowledge we have to address and answer. I shall try to answer some of them. I do not suppose that my views will find favour necessarily with my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and still less with Opposition Members. However, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is right to draw our attention to the fact that we will have to take some major and fundamental decisions.
In broadcasting debates in the House there are usually large numbers of right hon. and hon. Members wanting to take part and only those with an important or well-known interest seem to have been able to contribute in the past. This debate has afforded many of us, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley), me and others, who have never before spoken in a debate on broadcasting, to contribute.
The scope of the Bill is limited, but it enables us to peer into the future. I welcome the Bill. It is right, to this extent, that the Government should come before the House and say that major decisions will have to be taken in the future and that they are not ready to take those decisions now. It is right and proper that they should extend the period for the individual television companies to be able to carry on for the time being. The proposal regarding DBS is sensible. However, I accept the injunction from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that there are some fundamental decisions that one day, during the course of the next two or three years, a Government will have to take. Therefore, I recognise that we cannot say that we all agree, let the Bill reach the statute book and then stand back and say that we have done our duty and that is the end of it.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is right to say that technology is moving so fast that a variety of television stations will be available to the public. We have to address ourselves to the extent to which Government and Parliament are to play their part in setting up the framework for what will be inevitable. I welcome the fact that it is inevitable that the viewer, in not so many years to come, will have available to him or her a television set with a large number of selection controls, and will be able to view a wide variety of programmes. Some of those programmes, broadcast by the BBC, will be under the authority of the governors of the BBC. We cannot discuss those today, but they will continue to exist largely along present lines, perhaps with account taken of some of the recommendations of the Peacock committee. There will be the basic structure that we have now, perhaps amended to take account of the views of whichever Government are in power at the time and the individual television companies. We will also have the whole raft of programmes and technology available to people which will enable them to receive programmes from abroad without controls. People will have access to television stations and will be able to purchase programmes of which hon. Members might not approve. Therefore, when future technology offers us a 687 television screen with a wide variety of pre-selections, to what extent should we seek to control one area of television, the BBC, and, in the case of this Bill—
§ Mr. Powley
I am interested in my hon. Friend's remarks. Does he agree that we are moving into an era where the television set will be used not only for entertainment provided from this country and others, to which my hon. Friend has rightly referred, but for information technology that will be available in the home from a variety of sources? Ceefax and Oracle are available now and viewdata is available for a minority interest. In the future, there will be other developments that will enable information to be gleaned by the person in the home using a television receiver.
§ Mr. Brown
My hon. Friend is correct. Indeed, I have the good fortune to live in the Yorkshire Television area and, at night, when the formal broadcasting is finished, we have an example of what the future holds. When Yorkshire Television closes down about midnight, there is then a Yorkshire Television job-finder which flashes up on the screen all the jobs that have been notified to Yorkshire Television by individual companies and, I believe, by the Department of Employment. Yorkshire Television is providing a typical example of what we shall be able to achieve as a result of information technology.
A fundamental issue is the extent to which Parliament and Government are to control the future output of television. I take the opposite view to that which is held by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but she is right to make the House face one of the crucial decisions that will have to be taken. I believe that in future it will be impossible for us to have a strong regulatory system to control the output of television. We shall have the BBC, the ITV companies under the authority of the IBA and a raft of television programmes, and this overall will be beyond the control of the Government or surrogate authorities.
I believe in freedom of choice but I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said about the Italian experience and I accept that programmes will be shown on some channels which none of us in this place would like to watch and which few of our constituents would wish to see. When there is a multiplicity of channels available, the viewer will have to be trusted, and I am left wondering whether it is right to maintain the IBA. The authority is designed rigorously to control the extent of advertising—the number of minutes of it in any one hour—and what is known as subliminal television. That means that there is control of game shows, for example. We might all loathe "The Price is Right", and many of us are suspicious that if there is too much freedom of choice there will be hours and hours of such programmes. We must recognise, however, that "The Price is Right" is an extremely popular programme. The public should have the right to see such a programme if that is their wish.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I accept that there is individuality of taste. I would not wish to watch "EastEnders" but I do not object to others doing so. That is entirely their problem. There is a difference between that programme and material that most people would find unacceptable. That is the difference between controlled broadcasting and that which is not.
§ Mr. Brown
We have a relatively narrow choice at present and it is probably generally unacceptable to the 688 viewer that there should be some of the sleazy television that the hon. Lady has described. If there is a wide variety of choice, sleazy television will have to maintain a sufficient level of demand if it is to survive. If viewers turn off their television sets or change to another channel, it will not survive. I am sure that all of us in this place believe in the freedom of speech. On the whole, we believe in the freedom of the press and a wide variety of newspapers being available. Surely we should believe in the freedom of choice when it comes to television.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich talked about America, where there is a wide choice of television programmes. One of the benefits of the American system is that it finds room for a channel that broadcasts the Congress debates in their entirety. Anyone who lives on the east coast, at any rate—for example, in Washington or New York, or in any of the populous east coast states — can turn away from the tremendous amount of advertising that is shown on some channels and the sleazy television that is on others—American television is not all good by any means—and select a channel that is funded by companies and academic foundations and organisations. This channel broadcasts the debates of the House of Representatives from the moment that the House sits until it rises.
We all believe that it is right and proper that the British people should have access to events in the Houses of Paliament. At present there is only limited coverage of our proceedings—half an hour on the radio at night and 20 minutes the following morning with a few minutes devoted to our proceedings in some of the news clips. Of course, with only four channels available to the television companies it is impossible to broadcast the proceedings in this place from 2.30 in the afternoon to 2.30 the following morning. Freedom of choice and a multiplicity of channels would allow those who were interested to follow our proceedings. If market demand were sufficient, a small company would be able to present to the nation by means of the television screen our proceedings in this place.
I accept that there will be programmes that will suit only minorities that some of us may find distasteful. However, many minorities that are currently not served well by television could have programmes shown that would interest them. New technology will force the Government to embrace a multiplicity of channels and to recognise that they can control only to a certain extent. In that context, is it right to have many controls?
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
May I counsel the hon. Gentleman to be cautious? He should not suggest that something is praiseworthy because it is popular. Perhaps he will bear in mind the dreadful example of The Sun, a sewer newspaper.
§ Mr. Brown
I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument. I accept also that many of us in this place would turn up our noses at some of the programmes that our constituents watch in their droves. They may not necessarily be good programmes. Under the market system, however, our constituents will be supplied with the television programmes that they want, and the market will determine whether programmes are successful.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
think that we would all agree that if people want to watch a programme such as "The Price is Right", it should be available to them. Unfortunately, if nothing is available 689 except programmes such as "The Price is Right", other programmes that people might want to watch will be driven out.
§ Mr. Brown
I do not believe that that would happen. There are some programmes that cause offence to some viewers, including Mrs. Mary Whitehouse, and under the system that I am advocating there would be freedom to broadcast that sort of programme. Mrs. Whitehouse, the House and the Government would have to acknowledge that the viewer should have the freedom to watch whatever he wants to see.
There are some television programmes that offend the viewer when they are shown on BBC 1. Offence is caused because the viewer has a one-in-four chance of seeing them. He is forced in many instances to watch such a programme or to turn off his television set if he does not like the other three options. I remember that there was a great furore last year over one of the programmes that was shown on Channel 4. It caused Mrs. Whitehouse and her colleagues great concern. She is concerned about the majority of television viewers being forced to watch programmes that they do not want and I know that hon. Members are concerned about the broadcasting of slushy programmes that people may not want to watch. Twelve channels would give viewers many choices. If people do not watch a programme, the programme company will go out of business.
There is no chance that any Government will consider my remarks. 1 am flying a kite. 1 am challenging the very existence of any form of control on broadcasting. 1 believe in the freedom of the BBC to be as biased as it likes one way or the other. With a multiplicity of choice, the viewer will sort out any bias. I do not want to see any controls on the BBC's output, from whatever source. I do not like the idea, apart from occasions on which matters of national security arise, of BBC governors controlling the BBC or the IBA controlling individual television companies. I do not like the idea of controls on television. At the end of the day, the biggest control on television is the viewer. The viewer can change channels and can always turn off. The viewer should decide for himself or herself what controls there will be on television, and the viewer can do that much better than Parliament or Government can.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington. South and Finsbury)
I cannot accept the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown). He has a naive belief that the market mechanism will always operate in a virtuous fashion. That is nonsense. It is a point that will always divide all hon. Members.
I must declare an interest. I have a close connection with the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians and have been grateful for the discussions that I have had with it in preparation for the debate.
I have no objection to the Bill. The extension of the existing ITV franchises is quite sensible. The current eightyear franchise period may be too short in any case. I broadly welcome extending the period for a further three years. The crucial question is that, having said that the franchises are to be extended for three years, what is the 690 Government's purpose in doing so? The Home Secretary was clear, open and honest. He said, "We are doing so to keep open the options for change." The centre of the debate, quite clearly and quite rightly, is what those options for change will be.
Three potential dangers are on the horizon. At least two of them have been raised in the debate. The first danger is that when existing ITV franchises come up for re-tender in three years, they will go out to competitive tender, and competition will be the overriding criterion for deciding who gets them. That is the Peacock proposal. It was warmly endorsed in the debate on the Peacock report by a previous Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan). He said that going for the highest bidder, with a number of safeguards—he did not specify exactly how the safeguards would work — was a sensible way of allocating future franchises. I cannot possibly agree with that. In many ways, going for the highest bidder will not only distort the tendering procedure and process but will almost inevitably lead to some of the worst bidders getting franchises.
The range of programming that will be available to viewers as a result of the successful competitor winning a tender is bound to be affected. The narrower range of programmes will diminish opportunities for the viewer. Broadcasting standards are likely to fall. Of course, in going for competition and competition alone, the cheaper, more popular options will be chosen. Of course, competitive tendering, as has been mentioned once or twice in the debate, will give a major financial advantage to multinational companies that have a much sharper edge than have smaller companies. The idea of multinational companies—for example, ones that might be headed by people such as Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell—getting their hands on major television franchises for the ITV network fills me with considerable horror. Competitive tendering as the major motivating force in deciding who gets franchises in three years' time is the first danger. I hope that the Government will not go along that road, although I fear that their insane belief in the appropriateness of market competition may lead them in that direction. It would be to the detriment of public sector broadcasting.
The second danger is that of hiving off Channel 4. That was proposed by the Peacock report. It would involve Channel 4 selling its own advertising directly, rather than operating through the mechanism of the IBA. Two things would inevitably follow. First, there would be competition for advertising revenue between Channel 4 and ITV. One must question whether that is a sensible way of grabbing available revenue from the world of advertising. Secondly, there would be competition in programming. To compete effectively for advertising one will have to compete for programming and audience figures. That will mean, first, that Channel 4 will be pushed down market and will no longer be as innovative as it is at the moment, with such excellent results, and, secondly, that it will compete directly in the popular slots with the other main ITV channel. That will also be to the detriment of viewers. The inevitable result will be that the two independent channels will offer a poorer quality of choice for the viewer.
I hope that the Government will not hive off Channel 4. It has been one of the great success stories of British broadcasting in the past few years. I fear that if the 691 Government go ahead with the proposals that the Peacock committee put forward, it will be much to the detriment of that success.
The third issue that has not yet received a major airing in this debate, and which should do so, is that of access for independent producers. The Home Secretary made a lot of this issue in the debate on the Peacock report. The Peacock committee recommended a guaranteed 40 per cent. quota for independents. The Home Secretary stated that 25 per cent. might he a sensible idea. No quota should be established. I do not believe in setting rigid quotas of that kind. There is nothing necessarily virtuous about having more independent television productions, just as there is nothing necessarily detrimental about having more independent television productions.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
When the British film industry had no quota. it was completely drowned by its larger American cousin.
§ Mr. Smith
I shall refer to that point in a moment. In some ways, the allocation of a specific quota for independents may lead to the problem that we fear—that is, of multinational penetration of independent and public sector broadcasting networks. I shall turn to that point in a moment. The question ought not to be, what proportion of time is taken by independent producers and what proportion of time is taken by network producers? The question ought to be, what is the range and quality of programming from either stable that is available on the channels that are open to viewers?
A number of points ought to be made. First, the existing network channels arc very successful in gaining sales on the international market. That is one of the arguments that has been advanced for a greater amount of independent home market production to give the independents an edge in obtaining international sales. The existing networks are very successful in gaining international sales. They are also quite successful in providing material for Channel 4.
Secondly, there is a danger in guaranteeing quotas for independents. I make this point in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe.
§ Mr. Smith
Yes, and Nantwich. The danger is that it will not necessarily be the small companies that will benefit from a quota that is established for independents. It will be the large companies, and very often the multinationals, that will be able to take advantage of any established quota for independents. Already there are a number of media conglomerates that are active in European satellite, and I fear that any guarantee of a quota for independents may give an advantage to predators of that kind.
The third point that has to he made is that there is a large amount to be said for the maintenance of a permanently employed studio base as the foundation for all network productions. There is no necessarily innate British broadcasting genius. The reason that our broadcasting is so successful is that we have built up experience over a long period and that skills and facilities are available in both the BBC and ITV to make very good quality products. The danger of removing a major slice of the available network time from the networks is that the skills, experience and facilities that have been built up over the years will be damaged. I should hate that to happen.
692 I do not quarrel with more independent products being shown on television, but I want the permanently employed studio base, which has proved to be so successful in both the BBC and ITV, to be preserved so that that quality of product can be retained. We have only to consider what has happened in the film industry. Effectively, only one film studio that is producing films on a permanent basis is left in Britain. Its future is now under threat. I should hate the same diminution of facilities, skills and experience to happen in television as has happened in the film industry during the last couple of decades. I suspect that this argument will continue for some time.
I understand that the ACTT has asked to see the Minister to discuss the matter and that, although it has been suggested that there should be discussions at Civil Service level, the Minister and the Secretary of State have not said that they are prepared to talk to the major unions in the television industry about the independents and about access for the independents. I hope that the Minister of State will be prepared to see a delegation from a number of interested hon. Members and one or two interested Members of the other place, together with representatives of the trade unions in the broadcasting industry, for talks about this issue. It is important for the future of broadcasting and for what should happen about the Peacock recommendations that those talks should take place.
We have to welcome good products from, and the participation of, the independent sector. We must not be wedded to the acceptance of over-protective working practices, but I believe that there must be stability for the employees in the industry, the maintenance of good production facilities for the networks and, above all, width range and quality of programming—not automatic acceptance that rigid application of a quota system will lead to a better quality of programming or product.
Therefore, I give the Bill a somewhat half-hearted welcome. It is a very small Bill that does not do very much. However, it provides a breathing space, which is w hat the Government wanted it to do. The crucial question is what the Government will do with that breathing space and what consideration they will give to the future of broadcasting that will benefit the viewers, the range of programmes and the quality of the product. Those are the key questions. There must not simply be an acceptance of competition or acceptance of the view that independent is better than network, or that Peacock was right in everything or wrong in everything. We must consider the range of programmes and products that are available to all viewers in this country.
I fear that the Government are ducking out of asking the real questions about broadcasting and about the range of programmes that are available and that instead they will accept some of the ideological implications of Peacock. That will not be best either for broadcasting or For the people of this country.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), I am concerned about the position of the smaller companies and the Minister of State will not be surprised if, as a Scot, I ask him a question about the Government's assessment of the position, first, of Border Television and, secondly, of Grampian Television. In my experience, both of these small companies have produced excellent 693 programmes. They are well thought of in the area that they serve—Grampian in the Highlands, and Border both in Cumbria and in southern Scotland.
Secondly, like the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud), I hope that every help will be given to the interests of the independent television producers. Like the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East, many of us are concerned about the centralisation of television production. Far too much of it is located in this city. Many excellent television programmes are produced in Birmingham. [Interruption.] I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) grunting approval on the Opposition Front Bench. Indeed, many excellent programmes are produced at all points north. However, small companies are vulnerable and deserve to be encouraged.
I agree very strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich—not forgetting Nantwich — (Mrs. Dunwoody) that Channel 4 should be allowed to flourish, and I support her plea that about 25 per cent. of programmes should be given over to the independent producers. Those who have had dealings with independent producers feel that they do some admirable work and that they should be encouraged. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich knows a great deal about the industry. I share her fears of what Mr. Ted Turner of Atlanta may do in this country. DBS is a major development. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich that we are not discussing a trivial matter. Relations between Ministers and broadcasting authorities are delicate.
I tabled today's written question 212 in which I askedthe Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will call for a report from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner about the date on which the Metropolitan police first contacted Strathclyde police about the proposed search of BBC premises in Glasgow.The Home Secretary replied:I understand that the Metropolitan police first contacted Strathclyde police on this matter on 29 January.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that this Bill does not concern the BBC. Incidental references are in order, but the hon. Gentleman is not in order to go in detail into the affairs of the BBC.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. A number of rulings have been given from the Chair about the restrictions on the debate. Incidental references are in order, but there is nothing about the BBC in the Bill. Therefore, detailed remarks would be out of order.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Suppose the DBS got DBS contracts as it is entitled to do. If hon. Members refer back to section 19(4) of the Broadcasting Act 1981, they will see that, on the whole, I am in order.
I want to save the time of the House. I want to ask the Minister whether we are to believe that the Metropolitan police never saw—
§ Mr. Dalyell
It is no good the Minister getting angry when he is asked questions. I am asking him a simple question about the Home Secretary's reply to my written question today. Are we to believe that the Metropolitan police never saw fit to ask any Minister—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I have already given a ruling to the hon. Gentleman. He is a good House of Commons man. He knows what is in order and what is not. I know, too, that he invariably respects the rulings of the Chair. I ask the hon. Gentleman to ensure that his remarks are in order.
§ Mr. Dalyell
You say rightly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am a good House of Commons man. I am certainly a good House of Commons man in that I believe that the House should be told the truth in answer to awkward questions. It is regrettable when Ministers take refuge in all sorts of devices and do not answer perfectly civil questions. I tabled a written question. I addressed it to the Home Office and the answer came back—
§ Mr. Dalyell
If there is any argument about it, the Minister could easily get me to move on to the rest of my speech if he would just say when Ministers—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not persist on that course. He knows that a reference of that sort is quite out of order. It is very unfair to the House and the rest of the business of the House that he should attempt to introduce matters which have nothing to do with the debate. I ask the hon. Gentleman again to ensure that his remarks are in order and are relevant to the Bill.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Considering how other people have been allowed to wander during the debate, and I am asking a delicate question—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman appears to be disputing my ruling. There have already been a number of rulings. All other hon. Members who have spoken have responded if the Chair has told them that they are going too wide and have brought their remarks within order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do the same.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I am open to correction, but I understand that it is the intention of the BBC to be involved in DBS. It was in the consortia and has specific views about the extension. It is obvious that that matter comes within the Bill.
§ Mr. Dalyell
The difficulty is the uncharacteristic anger of the Minister of State, Home Office. I know from his petulance that he does not want to answer on a particular matter. Normally, he is the most obliging of Ministers. If he wished to answer the question that I have just put, he would do so very quickly.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. If the Minister were to attempt to answer that question, I should immediately rule him out of order. I would not allow him to do so.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I must say that you are being uncharacteristically harsh, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to cast aspersions on other hon. Members. The Bill 695 is definitely about the delicate relations between the broadcasting authorities, on the one hand, and the sponsoring Department, the Home Office, on the other. You nod to that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask a specific question about the meaning of the answer that was given to my question 212. Does it mean that Home Office Ministers allow the Metropolitan police, on matters of DBS or general matters, to go into the BBC without any consultation?
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
I shall attempt to keep in order. In attempting to be helpful I was asking myself a question sotto voce. What would happen if the Zircon film was beamed to Britain by satellite from France and I picked it up on that little thing that I shall buy to put on the roof of my house to pick up the programmes? That is a legitimate question to ask and is relevant to the much more important question that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked.
§ Mr. Dalyell
My right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) always was a friend in need. If the former Home Secretary can ask that question, cannot we extend the good will? Perhaps the Minister will answer the question that I put to him. [Interruption.] It is all right for the Government Whip. It is all right if hon. Members make gentle speeches in the House, but if they ask awkward, factual questions the whole weight of procedure is brought down on top of them. I am asking a simple factual question: when were Ministers told by the Metropolitan police that they were going into the BBC? I would have been shocked—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I have told the hon. Gentleman three times now that detailed references to the BBC are not in order in this debate. I hope that he will respond to the rulings that I have given. If he does not, I shall have no alternative but to order him to resume his seat.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Is the BBC involved in DBS contracts? Since Queen Margaret drive is the BBC's second largest office, it is not exactly a trivial matter when the Metropolitan police are ordered in. I simply ask, in innocence, when were Ministers told of that? If they were not told on 29 January, the Metropolitan police were not doing their job. My experience of senior police officers is that they do their job and on a matter like this—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not persist in making remarks which are clearly out of order and which I have already ruled to be out of order. That is very unfair to the House and to the debate. I must again ask the hon. Member to bring his remarks in order or I shall have to ask him to resume his seat.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I do not like to transgress the rules of the House and I do not want to put you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in an embarrassing position. Before resuming my seat, I merely note that there has been a great reluctance by Home Office Ministers to answer a question that affects the delicate relationship between the broadcasting authorities and the police. I do not want to be offensive to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I note that the Minister has had ample opportunity to get to the Dispatch Box —[HON. MEMBERS: "He would have been out of order".] If there had been any good will of the nature that we 696 should expect, in candour with each other, that answer would have been forthcoming. I can only suspect the worst.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
This has been a quiet, though interesting, debate. The matters raised by a superficially minor Bill are extremely important and the ripples that the Bill will cause will spread wide.
I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) mentioned the access of independent producers. He came down against a rigid quota and I notice that the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) did not mention that subject, even though the alliance has been flying trailers all day about how it will do a wonderful job for independent producers during the Committee stage of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the persistent Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was right to mention the position of the smaller companies. He mentioned Border and Grampian, but there are others and I hope that the Minister and all other hon. Members will agree that the regional flavour of the productions of some small companies makes them successful and popular in their areas. Regional flavour cannot be sprinkled like salt and pepper on to programmes made overwhelmingly in London and the south-east.
I hope that I shall not add to any of the difficulties of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) if 1 say that he again treated the House to a delightful and perceptive speech. If we dealt with our debates in a different way, there would be universal agreement that the hon. Gentleman was the man of the match. The Minister of State will have noticed that he and I have performed our usual trick of emptying the House.
The Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to the great risks of DBS, which are well demonstrated by Mr. Richard Branson who is part of a successful DBS consortium and has recently taken up hot air ballooning. Last week, in pursuit of that new interest, he managed, instead of going up, to land on a factory roof. I hope that that was not part of a training programme in a bid to ride to glory on his DBS satellite.
We all know that the size and shape of broadcasting will change in an exciting and dramatic way over the next few years. The Bill makes little or no contribution to that process and in many senses will simply delay decisions that need to be taken. Keeping the options open can also be code for, "We don't know what to do." The Bill is the minimum that the Government can get away with while they await a change of Government at the election.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said, we shall consult the trade unions, the IBA and others with an interest about changes in the system of allocation of ITV franchises. One possible change would be to stagger the period for which the franchises run. They do not all have to run for exactly the same period from the same starting point. Indeed, there are strong arguments For looking at a system that would stagger the timings of franchises. The present system puts an enormous burden on those within the industry who wish to make bids and on the IBA which has to consider them.
There is also merit in the idea of regular reviews of the operation of a franchise, built in over whatever period the 697 franchises are to run. The reviews would be known in advance and would require the company to account, against the terms on which the franchise was awarded, for its performance. I agree with the ACTT that the performance reviews should include consultation with the broadcasting unions which should have access to the results of those reviews. The unions should also be given adequate notice when a franchise is to be reallocated.
Thought also needs to be given to the continuity of employment of existing employees when a contract changes hands. Currently, that generally happens through the commitments won in collective bargaining, but I believe that it would be better to have it underpinned as a right.
When a bid is being put together it is all too easy for the bidders to pledge what they think will be attractive to the IBA in terms of, for example, more news and current affairs, but for those pledges to slip in a bid for ratings, and for news programmes to be replaced by more soaps and game shows. We have seen that demonstrated in commercial television. Companies have gone back to the IBA after promising a minimum amount of regional news coverage. They say that advertising revenue is down, so they cannot sustain their commitment and the three minute news programme every hour is chopped down to two minutes.
I believe that rolling reviews would be a better insurance against a slide into lower quality programming which is topped up only when the end of the franchise period approaches so that the company can make itself look better.
We have a commitment to a system that leads to better accountability by those who give the contracts and those who receive them. That is only proper in a democratic society and I suspect that there is general agreement in the House on that proposition.
It has been suggested that a system of financial penalties for serious breaches of a contract might assist the maintenance of programme standards. I am not sure that that is the best route, but it would have the attraction of raiding extra profits gained from a departure from the terms on which a franchise was given and a lowering of programme standards or programme cover. Whichever system is favoured, a better attempt must be made to enforce the franchise terms, to guard against any increase in cheap American imports and to try to give better scope within expanding broadcasting hours to independent producers. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury that rigid quotas may not be the best answer, but within the estimated 4 per cent. per annum rise in the number of broadcasting hours—there is no reason to assume that that number will decrease; indeed, it may grow—there should be scope for a larger slice for independent productions. That could also help to counter the risk—to put it at its lowest—of the major companies, whether the BBC or ITV companies, putting too much cash into new and expensive production facilities rather than into programme making.
I was talking only last night to a leading producer who has worked for the BBC and ITV. He was complaining about a shortage of studio capacity and when I quizzed him he admitted that he was talking about a shortage in London. I told him that there are acres of studio capacity in Nottingham, where half of the Central TV operation is 698 centred. Central originates many of its programmes in Birmingham and Nottingham and makes a reasonable job of it. That shows that programmes can be made outside London, and Central has plans to do more in that line.
I want to make it clear that an incoming Labour Government will not, under any circumstances, accept the auctioning of franchises. We oppose this totally free market approach to broadcasting, which could only threaten the high standards set through public service broadcasting by the BBC, and which others seek to meet. It is no exaggeration to say that the standards, quality, range, width and depth of BBC programming sets a general standard to which the independent commercial sector tries to aspire. Auctions — apart from anything else that they would do—would almost certainly divert cash that would otherwise be spent on programming.
§ Mr. Michael Brown
The hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair on the independent companies. I would argue, as many of his hon. Friends have argued, that the independent companies—particularly Channel 4—have been in the business of innovative change.
§ Mr. Corbett
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about Channel 4, which has been praised from both sides of the House this afternoon, quite properly. The example that it has set by the imaginative way in which it has gone into the areas of programming neglected by the giants is first class.
Regrettably, I need to re-emphasise the fact that unless we hold on to the public service broadcasting sector—in which we want to see exciting developments — programming standards in the commercial sector will be put into question.
The Labour party believes that the auction system would be run under the banner of. "Never mind the quality, feel the width of the bank roll." That is no way to treat the companies involved, the people working in them and, above all, those who are invited to watch the programmes. That is an improper way to protect and promote programme quality. It would have the reverse effect. The Labour party believes that an all cash-led system, such as in sections of the press, would do nothing other than lower programme standards and narrow choice through limiting the variety and range of the programmes in a bid to chase the ratings, on which the advertising revenue critically depends.
As the House knows, we are not seeking to divide on the Bill. I am happy to tell the Minister of State that we do not intend, should the Bill get its Second Reading, as seems likely, to delay its further progress.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor)
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) has spoken with his customary clarity and warmth. I am glad to have an opportunity once again of sharing a parliamentary high spot with him.
I make no apologies for the fact that this is a modest Bill. It is not a substitute for the more far-reaching changes in broadcasting that many hon. Members want to see; it rather prepares the ground to allow that change to be fully and properly discussed in the House and elsewhere. The Bill allows two changes to be made that we believe are beneficial to the development of broadcasting in Britain, 699 and that will allow us to decide. at a sensible pace, whether some more fundamental changes should be made to the independent television system.
All the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon appreciate that we have reached an important stage in the development of broadcasting services. New technology will not be denied. It will happen and is already happening, as the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) observed, with the increasing presence on roofs in Britain of satellite dishes. A consequence of the new technology will be to increase the number of channels available to the viewer, and to make possible other ways of paying for what we watch. All of those considerations are controversial; all of them pose questions that were properly addressed in the debate about standards.
A great deal has rightly been said about the maintenence of the public broadcasting service tradition in Britain. A challenging speech was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), who properly made it clear that the business of regulating international satellite delivery of programmes is not as easy as dealing with the business of terrestrial programmes that emanate from, and are received by, people who are within our jurisdiction.
The Peacock committee has deliberated and its deliberations are under consideration by the Government. We have had a debate in the House on its report. Other observations were made about the Peacock report. Peacock, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear, has not determined any of the issues. It has fixed in people's minds the need to debate these areas. It has stimulated discussion and responses, even from those who disagree fundamentally with one or two of the Peacock recommendations. We shall return to the report in due course.
The IBA has offered for consideration proposals for changes in the ITV contract system. As yet, we have not made up our minds on these issues, but we do not want to close the opportunity for change. That opportunity would be closed if the IBA were to have to advertise the new contracts now and then award those contracts for a maximum period of eight years from 1 January 1990.
§ Mr. Buchan
Will the Minister give some view of the Government's thinking on the great paradox of the situation in which the experience of the increasing multiplicity of channels, when they are under commercial control, has meant a diminution of choice? The greater the number of channels, the less the choice has been. That has been true of American and Italian broadcasting. How does the Minister propose to deal with this point
§ Mr. Mellor
The question whether there is a wide choice such as there is in the United States will inevitably be a matter for individual value judgment. Our aim is to ensure that viewers are given the opportunity of a width in choice but that there is not a diminution of standards by trying to ensure that the sensible regulations that we have long experienced—the charter of the BBC, the Broadcasting Acts, the cable Acts—are extended to cover the other activities that are under our control. Indeed, the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) and I discussed that at a somewhat later hour some weeks ago. We tried to move towards sensible European regulation of European satellite broadcasts via the mechanism of a Council of Europe convention rather than a European 700 Community directive, which is not appropriate. In that way, choice and quality can be maintained. Precisely how these things turn out will depend a great deal not on what I or the hon. Member for Paisley, South think, but on what the consumer thinks. None of us wants to be too dogmatic about that.
It would be quite wrong, with all these proposals for change and at this point in technological development, for us to permit the contractuail period to expire and for the advertising process to begin now. That would, in effect, close the option of making any changes in the way in which independent television contracts are awarded, or the way in which the independent television system operates for another decade. That is why this is a modest Bill, and I make no apologies for its modesty. It makes no substantive changes to the independent television system, because those matters remain under consideration. I can assure the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that when we have reached further conclusions and have had a chance to reflect on all that has been said the House will have every opportunity of further debate on these important matters.
All the Bill seeks to do is, first, to improve the prospects of a British DBS service in the 1990s and, secondly, to provide the opportunity of earlier changes in the ITV contract services by, in effect, providing for a three-year extension to the existing contracts. Substantive changes to the contract arrangements, if they are put forward, or any substantive changes to other features of the broadcasting structure will require further legislation. That is a further reason why Parliament will have a full opportunity to consider in detail whatever proposals for change may in due course emerge.
§ Mr. Dalyell
What are the Government's reflections on the position of the two small Scottish companies, Border and Grampian?
§ Mr. Mellor
I was going to come to that point, but I do not mind answering it now, because it is important and a number of hon. Members have referred to it.
The way in which contracts are allocated on a regional basis is entirely a matter for the IBA, and nothing that we are proposing in the Bill or otherwise makes any alteration to that. We have, as the hon. Gentleman knows, 15 regional companies, and that will continue for as long as the IBA wishes it to do so. It is in the driving seat on these issues. That is part of the arm's length regulation in these matters that we have always thought proper, so that the Government are not too concerned on the sensitive issue as to where the franchises should be and who should get them. That is a bipartisan policy from which we should move away at out peril and I am glad to see the assent of the hon. Gentleman.
The IBA, in making its decision as it would have to in due course about the future of various companies and the areas of various franchises, will make its determination on the basis of public approval or otherwise of the way in which individual companies have done their jobs and franchises are worked out. I have no doubt that the approbation of hon. Members for their regional companies will be taken into account.
I welcome the speech made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South, which added substance to the debate. He asked about the reviews of the performance of ITV companies undertaken by the IBA which, as he 701 properly said, is the background to its proposals for a more formalised way of operating in the future. The IBA carried out a mid-term review of all ITV contracts and the results were published in its annual report for 1985–86. For each ITV company the IBA considered what improvements in programme performance were necessary or desirable. These were internal administrative reviews and results were not bound in any formal or legal way to whether the franchise would be continued to certain companies in future contract rounds. However, any ITV company waiting to reapply for a contract under the procedures now in force would want to take the IBA's views seriously, and we would all want that to be the case.
These reviews are different from the Peacock committee's proposal for a rolling review. Its recommendation No. 11 envisaged a formal annual review of each contractor's performance, with termination of contract to be a sanction in the event of a company's failure to meet its obligation. Some part of that thinking is reflected, as the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South knows, in the IBA's recent proposals for a new approach, one of the propositions on the table that we are considering when looking at the future of the ITV system.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether the IBA's approval would be needed for Border Television to be taken over. The answer is yes, because the Broadcasting Act 1981 provides that the assignment of programme contracts or a change in the ownership or control of an ITV company requires the IBA's consent. However, if it is not a full takeover but just the absorption of one contract area into another, this is again a matter for the IBA when drawing up or advertising new contracts. Once again, the ball lies in its court.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the provision of satellite dishes. The present range of satellite dishes generally requires planning consent, but also a licence obtainable from the Department of Trade and Industry at a cost of £10. These are to receive low-powered satellite broadcasts from some of the companies presently operating, most of which operate through cable systems. The high-powered satellites, the so-called big birds, which are what DBS is all about, will, paradoxically, require smaller dishes and these can freely be put on roofs, without the need for permission. However, we do not yet know how far DBS will go straight to the household or how far it will go to cable heads and so through cable systems. Again, none of us would want to be dogmatic or assertive about these matters. We want to see the way in which these arrangements develop.
I always listen to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) with interest and respect. She raised an important point about the supervision of satellite services, and I can give her some of the answers that she wants. I make it clear that DBS will be regulated by the IBA, just as terrestrial services are.
§ Mr. Buchan
The hon. Gentleman continually refers to DBS in relation to the IBA. Do the Government think that there will be no public service broadcasting by DBS?
§ Mr. Mellor
The IBA is public service broadcasting. This touches on a key point. I hope that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich will forgive me if I deviate from answering her points, but this is at the heart of the debate.
702 We can all be proud that we have proved that public service broadcasting can exist in both the private and the public sector. It was interesting to be able to make that point with great confidence in Vienna, to the astonishment of a number of those gathered around the table. Many of those countries are still teetering on the brink of deciding whether to bring any commercial input into their television services and are troubled about advertising. We have proved over 30 years that one can switch on BBC and ITV knowing that one is receiving a good variety of programmes but within a sensible framework imposed by a public service broadcasting concept. Our aim is to ensure as far as possible that a similar framework continues to exist with satellite broadcasting.
§ Mr. Mellor
The DBS could be non-commercial. The reason why it is not non-commercial has nothing to do with the Government. The hon. Gentleman will remember—this is relevant to the tussle that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) had with the Chair earlier—that originally the idea was that the BBC should take on DBS. At one point it was exclusively entrusted to the BBC. However, it then found that it could not afford to take the financial risk. The up-front risk is major, which is why one of the key elements of the Bill is to extend the franchise period by three years to make it a more attractive commercial proposition.
The BBC said at first that it did not want to continue with the exclusive DBS contract and then failed to enter into partnership. The IBA then picked up the baton, and I am sure that we are delighted that British Satellite Broadcasting has provisionally been awarded a contract. It includes a range of experienced United Kingdom-based broadcasters. I hope that, following the success of some other United Kingdom-based low-powered satellite programmers such as Sky Channel or the Superchannel, we may also look forward to having, by 1990, a high-powered DBS service based in Britain.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am enjoying my dialogue with the hon. Member for Paisley, South, so I shall give way to him first, and I shall give way to the hon. Member for Linlithgow later.
§ Mr. Buchan
Is it the Government's intention within the next year, if they are in power—I do not believe they will be—to allow non-commercial satellite DBS as well as independent commercial television?
§ Mr. Mellor
We have no objections. We made that clear when the BBC was initially asked to participate. Our approach is straight forward. We do not wish to lay down who should participate—provided the company satisfies reasonable criteria — but rather to try to ensure that anyone who has a commercially viable business proposition can participate provided he accepts the sensible broadcasting regulations that we have always had.
§ Mr. Buchan
How does that tie up with the proposal that the BBC revenue should be indexed? How will the BBC afford to get into DBS if the Government are blocking its chance for further financial resources?
§ Mr. Mellor
Five channels are potentially available and three have been allocated to the IBA. The allocation of the 703 other two channels must depend on resources. It has never been our intention to subsidise DBS. Indeed, it is clear from Europe that those countries that have tried to do that have failed. We are not raising obstacles to prevent anyone, whether in the private or public sector, from becoming involved in this project.
On the one hand, the hon. Member for Paisley, South has said that I am helpful but, on the other, he is snickering at the answers he has received. The IBA was the only organisation able to take on this project. It has awarded the contracts for three channels and there are another two available. Whether those two channels will develop will turn on commercial factors over which the Government neither have control nor should attempt to exercise control.
§ Mr. Buchan
The Minister said that two channels were available, subject to commercial criteria. Do the Government intend to take steps to ensure that there will be public service, non-commercial financed broadcasting by satellite? In other words, will the Government release sufficient resources? Will they scrap the idea of indexing present BBC expenditure? If the Government are not prepared to do that, it is no use saying that there are two channels available to the BBC as the resources will not be available to it to take advantage of them.
§ Mr. Mellor
We do not intend to subsidise the channels. There was no obstacle to prevent the BBC involvement earlier on and, similarly, there is no reason why the BBC should not be involved at a later stage.
It has always been envisaged that DBS should be financed in a way that reflects the popularity of the programmes and not by virtue of a state handout. That would be inappropriate.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Before we leave the subject of the BBC, and as we are all brimming with good will, will the Home Secretary whisper to his hon. Friend the Minister of State whether, on 29 January, the Metropolitan police told the right hon. Gentleman what they intended to do?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
That would be out of order. I am sure that the Minister will not comment.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman keeps pursuing the matter. If he tables a written question—he needs no lesson about that subject from me—he will get his answer. If I were to answer him now, I would be out of order and it would be a distortion of a Broadcasting Bill on quite different matters. If I were pressed for an answer, it would mean that whenever a Home Office Minister was at the Dispatch Box he would be subjected to cross-examination on that point. If the hon. Gentleman tables a question in the proper form, he will get an answer. Now is not the time for that answer.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich discussed the regulation of DBS. At the moment, that regulation turns on individual countries regulating the direct broadcasting that emanates from their jurisdiction. There is some basis for control at the receiving end. We have 704 already discovered that most satellite systems must be received via a cable distribution system and therefore the distribution by cable is controlled under the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984. The standards of requirement are contained in that Act. In effect, a cable operator has legal responsibility for anything that is disseminated.
I repeat that we do not regard that as entirely satisfactory. We believe that some sort of convention, such as that which we are trying to introduce in the Council of Europe, would be useful. Unlike those in Brussels, we are trying to impose not the heavy hand but the light hand of regulation to mirror the arrangements that already exist in the Cable and Broadcasting Act and the charter of the BBC. I am sure that that is a sensible basis on which to proceed.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that we had adopted a piecemeal approach to this matter. That is not so. Throughout our period of office we have taken a steady, sensible, practical view of the potential within the United Kingdom both to expand broadcasting within our society and to make use of the outstanding international reputation of British broadcasting. That expansion would give us the opportunity to win audiences for British programming overseas with the consequential possibilities for business expansion and jobs. There are a number of notable feathers in our cap.
I am glad that the right hon. Member for Gorton said that Channel 4 was the most brilliantly successful channel in the world. I am aware that the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South claims some part in the paternity of that channel—whether the right hon. Gentleman and my noble Friend the Leader of the House of Lords will have to have blood tests to decide this question remains to be seen. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that the final version and the manner in which the project was carried through was due in large part to my noble Friend.
Some Opposition Members are sceptical about the manner in which the Government approach such matters. It is paradoxical that they should commend Channel 4 — a Government creation — and then express such concern that the Government are interested only in a form of cheap-jack commercialism with regard to future broadcasting.
We are as committed as any Opposition Member to the concept of public service broadcasting. I believe that we approach the task of widening consumer choice with a more realistic appreciation of the potential market. Many of the objections to Peacock and the other arrangements we have been proposing and are likely to propose have been raised on many occasions in the past. Precisely the same objections were raised, when we proposed the ITV system, as happened when we proposed commercial radio. We cannot detect any reason why commercial success must be equated with a lowering of standards. On the contrary, many of our most outstanding businesses and broadcasting companies have proved that commercial success and high standards run hand in hand.
Modest steps forward have been proposed in the Bill—and I am not knocking modest Bills of two clauses since I am discussing one with 128 clauses in Committee. The Bill makes it more likely that direct broadcasting by satellite will be successful. It extends the period by three years to 15 years and give us a period when, quietly and steadily, we may continue to evaluate the future of the independent television system in the knowledge that we 705 have a few more years for that consideration. When the next full contract round comes forward we will be able to make changes that will take broadcasting through to the end of the century and will make use of all the knowledge and experience gleaned in the 30 years in which the ITV system has operated.
Whatever else the House may fall out about, I am glad that the House will not fall out about this Bill, and I warmly commend it to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills.)