HC Deb 24 June 1980 vol 987 cc425-33
Mr. Merlyn Rees

I do not wish to move amendment No. 85.

Mr. D. E. Thomas

I beg to move amendment No. 112, in page 18, line 30, leave out from 'persons to end of line 37 and insert 'invited to serve on the Committee upon being nominated by organisations representing the trades union movement, cultural, linguistic and ethnic minority groups, and at least one half of the persons serving on the committee shall be women.'. This amendment refers specifically to the constitution of the advisory committees. The clause provides for the formalisation of the existing advisory committees in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Therefore, it raises the question of the way in which these committees are selected, the nomination procedures, and the personnel who find themselves on these committees.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that these committees are representative by inviting nominations from specific organisations, which are intended to reflect the class, cultural, linguistic and general diversity of the constitutent parts of the United Kingdom. That diversity is not often so represented. There is the statutory woman, and often the statutory trade unionist. There is always the statutory Welsh speaker in Wales, but these committees do not reflect in any genuine way the diversity of real interests that should be so reflected.

The Government generally appear to be against quangos, yet a quango is being formalised in the Bill. The method of nomination to those committees is less clear than for even the BBC advisory committees. We have far too many such self-appointed committees in the cultural field. It is high time that they were directly or indirectly elected or disposed of. They tend to become sounding boards or bodies that accept the advice of the contractors on whose performance they are supposed to be reporting, and are therefore inadequate.

1.15 am

In Committee the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) said that those advisory committees: tend to become self-perpetuating groups which largely reflect that which the broadcasting organisations, allegedly being advised, wishes them to. They are assembled, addressed and lunched to death from time to time by the body that has brought them into being."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 17 April 1980; c. 470.] From my experience in Cardiff and other venues in Wales, that is happening all the time. A letter was written by HTV to the IBA advisory committee which prompted that committee to make an immediate U-turn in its policy over the fourth channel. That is a further example of the insidious influence of HTV on the life of Wales.

It is extremely important to know how the Minister sees these committees being appointed in order to reflect the views of the audiences. I spoke earlier about the need to involve the audience. We are dealing with a powerful communications medium. The audience should be able to talk back. These committees normally only echo those people to whom the audience is supposed to talk.

Mr. Gregor MacKenzie

I apologise to the House for making a speech at this late hour, but I am not half as sorry for other hon. Members as I am for myself. At my age I should know better than to put my name to amendments that will be taken at this hour.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Amendment No. 85 has not been moved. We are dealing only with amendment No. 112.

Mr. Freud

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The names of the right hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie), and myself are also appended to amendment No. 85. I believe that we have a perfect right to speak to the amendment, even though the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) may have decided not to pursue it.

Mr. MacKenzie

I apologise. I thought my right hon. Friend had moved amendment No. 85.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) indicated that he was not moving amendment No. 85. No other hon. Member sought to move the amendment. I therefore called the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas), whose amendment was grouped with it. I am afraid that we cannot now discuss amendment No. 85. We are dealing only with amendment No. 112.

Mr. Freud

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If there are seven names to an amendment, even though the first named hon. Member may not wish to move it, other hon. Members named may do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is right, but no other hon. Member sought to move the amendment. I looked round the Chamber, and the hon. Member for Merioneth rose to move his amendment.

Mr. Freud

The hon. Gentleman was only one of three hon. Members on this side of the House to rise.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sorry, but as far as I am concerned amendment No. 85 was not moved. Hon. Members cannot speak to an amendment that has not been moved when we have moved to a later amendment. If I am in error, I apologise to the House, but we cannot move back again. We are discussing amendment No. 112.

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) asks for clarity. If the House were to pass this amendment, people would have to be invited to serve on the committee as a result of nominations by organisations representing the trade union movement and cultural, linguistic and ethnic minority groups, and at least half of the persons serving on the committee should be women.

The last provision is reasonably precise. The previous provisions are imprecise. They would not assist the IBA in making appointments. The Bill's broad position is right, and it is right that the national advisory committees should consist of persons who in the authority's opinion will be able to reflect, as far as is reasonably practicable, the range of tastes and interests of those living in the county concerned. To make a vague series of bodies nominating bodies, and to impose on the IBA the obligation to decide who should constitute such bodies, would not add to clarity or assist in any way. I therefore cannot commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Freud

I have looked carefully at amendment No. 112. I understand why, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you chose to select it in concert with amendment No. 85. I shall speak generally rather than specifically in support of the amendment. We are creating an incestuous situation, because the Government have decided that those who sit on the complaints panel should be appointed by a board of appointees. We disagree with the Minister's statement, because we should like an element of genuine democracy in the complaints procedure.

It is unwarranted to use the IBA—which is already appointed—to appoint more people without any reference to an elected body. I should like the Minister to explain why Secretaries of State and other elected people should not have some say in who should sit on the complaints panel.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

It is important to debate this issue more widely than was apparently intended. The amendment seeks to widen the choice of representative bodies. That suggestion should be taken up. I am getting a little sick and tired of the way in which the Civil Service lists the great and the good. Indeed, no doubt the IBA was appointed from such a list. Those who serve on the IBA could not carry out the 1973 Act even if it were sprayed on their eyeballs. For example, they ignore the requirement for natural breaks and allow independent television companies to chop up feature films as and when they choose. If a plumber, engineer or someone in an ordinary capacity were to do that, the weight and majesty of the law would be visited upon them.

The IBA is patently failing to perform its duty. It is therefore wrong to give it the right of further appointment. The amendment is plain. The Minister has been provided with a brief by civil servants, who like to keep the whole thing close to their incestuous organisation. They have a list of the great and the good, and they know that the people whom they appoint will appoint the same type of safe people who litter all appointed bodies in our society. The amendment is reasonable and suggests that organisations representing trade union movement, cultural, linguistic and ethnic minority groups, should be represented.

People of common sense and good will could interpret the legislation satisfactorily. The Minister knows that those who felt that the legislation was not being interpreted satisfactorily could challenge the matter in the courts. As a lawyer, he will also know that entry into the courts is restricted by the high cost. By and large, the exercise of the legislation, carried out with good will and common sense, would not be likely to be open to challenge. The Minister's feeble explanation that it would be terribly difficult does not hold water. If it is terribly difficult, I must inform the Minister and his colleagues that they have some difficult decisions ahead. They are passing legislation that is a great deal more complicated and difficult than that proposed by this simple amendment.

Arcane and obscure legislation has been produced by Government draftsmen, yet the Minister has the gall to say that the amendment cannot be interpreted and that it is too difficult. That is nonsense. What the Minister means, behind the cliché-ridden platitudes that pass for the exchange of ideas in Parliament, is that he has no wish or desire to extend the range of representation on these appointed bodies. The hon. and learned Gentleman is really saying that it is wrong that bodies in the community at large should provide people and that the initiative, to some degree, should be taken away from Government-appointed bodies. I believe that it is a good idea to go outside. We should open up the appointment of governors. We should start advertising to the public at large invitations to serve on these bodies instead of producing out of a hat these wonderful, distinguished names that are supposed to make high-quality decisions.

I am very much in favour of the amendment. The Minister's explanation has not satisfied me. The amendment is workable. It was noteworthy that the Minister did not say that it would be a good idea to open up the matter and involve more people through the representation of the bodies listed in the amendment. His remarks were not at all along the lines that there were a few ambiguities attached to the amendment that could be tidied up by the draftsmen. According to the Minister it was too terribly difficult for the weight and majesty of the Government to grapple with and therefore had to be cast to one side.

I do not care that it is 1.30 am. This is a reasonable idea. Many hon. Members struggled to get into Parliament. While we are here, we should make good use of the time. The amendments put forward some good ideas that should be debated. It is to be regretted that the Government have taken the attitude of decrying the amendment and sheltering behind the administrative argument that it is too difficult. I believe that the Government should change their mind and inject some new thinking into what is becoming a tired argument.

Mr. Whitehead

One thing that should go on record in the debate is that the views expressed by three political parties on the Opposition Benches, and widely felt outside the House among the mass of the people, should be heeded not only by the IBA and the Home Office but by the BBC. There is a wide realisation that the advisory committees, in their present form, fulfil no useful purpose. The reason is that they are self-perpetuating elites. This is a matter to which the Annan committe tried to draw attention.

We met enough of these bodies in our time. We travelled the length and breadth of the country. We found these groups well marshalled, well scrubbed, well turned-out, emollient in form and practice, telling us that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds in their various broadcasting areas. So they would. They would not be reappointed if they did not do so. That is the problem. I intend no slander on the worthy individuals who make up these bodies when I say that the one thing that one does not get is a piece of grit inserted into the oyster. Those who ask awkward questions and challenge the nature, balance, extent and vision of the programming of the station are soon isolated.

That is why the diverse suggestions of hon. Members ought to be considered. They will not be considered in this debate or on this Bill, but they ought to be on the record in the House so that at some stage we scrap the absurd system of advisory committees.

1.30 am
Mr. D. E. Thomas

The Minister indicated that the proposals in the amendment were deeply complex. He said that he understood what was meant by representing the trades union movement". Presumably he has met trade unionists, but he said that he did not understand what was meant by cultural, linguistic and ethnic minority groups".

I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman to consult one of his own agencies—the Community Relations Commission—which could provide him with a long list of ethnic minority groups. As for cultural and linguistic groups, if the Minister consults the Northern Ireland Office or the Welsh Office he will be given a long list of such groups in the areas in which the advisory committees will function.

The point of the amendment is not that those groups would elect representatives directly. I am not proposing such a revolutionary and democratic move, though I think that that day will come. We propose that the organisations should nominate persons who would be invited to serve on the committees. The idea is that there might be names cropping up for possible selection that do not reflect the timid consensus that we get on the committees.

The basis of the nomination procedure in the clause is to nominate persons who in the opinion of the Authority would be selected by reference to … qualifications tastes and interests". and persons selected by reference to … qualifications".

The basis of my argument is that people serve on a committee not because of their personages but because they are representative of specific interests, just as hon. Members regard themselves as representative of their constituents. The committees have no constituents. They are unanswerable, they do not reply, and they are not summoned back to report on their work. They are there to represent their personages and, as always, that results in members being sucked into the system and becoming a reflection of that of which they are supposed to be critical.

The purpose of the amendment is not that ethnic minorities or women's organisations should directly elect persons to democratise the system it is merely that they should propose names so that the undemocratic structure is made slightly less so. I ask the Minister to reconsider his reply.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 7, Noes 116.

Division No. 370] AYES [1.33 am
English, Michael Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Freud, Clement Whitehead, Phillip Mr. Bob Cryer and
Homewood, William Wigley, Dafydd Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Howells, Geraint
Alexander, Richard Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael Percival, Sir Ian
Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East) Hawkins, Paul Pollock, Alexander
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Hawksley, Warren Price, David (Eastleigh)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Heddle, John Proctor, K. Harvey
Best, Keith Henderson, Barry Raison, Timothy
Bevan, David Gilroy Hogg, Hon Douglas (Grantham) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Biggs-Davison, John Hooson, Tom Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Blackburn, John Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Bright, Graham Kitson, Sir Timothy Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Brinton, Tim Le Marchant, Spencer Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Brittan, Leon Lester, Jim (Beeston) Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Brooke, Hon Peter Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe) Lyell, Nicholas Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge-Br'hills)
Bryan, Sir Paul MacGregor, John Sims, Roger
Bulmer, Esmond MacKay, John (Argyll) Speller, Tony
Cadbury, Jocelyn Madel, David Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Major, John Stainton, Keith
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Marlow, Tony Stanbrook, Ivor
Channon, Paul Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stevens, Martin
Clark, Sir William (Croydon South) Mates, Michael Taylor, Teddy (Southend East)
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Mather, Carol Tebbit, Norman
Colvin, Michael Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thompson, Donald
Cope, John Mellor, David Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)
Cranborne, Viscount Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove & Redditch) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)
Dorrell, Stephen Mills, Iain (Meriden) Waddington, David
Dover, Denshore Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Wakeham, John
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Moate, Roger Walker, Bill (Perth & E Perthshire)
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Morris, Michael (Northampton, Sth) Waller, Gary
Durant, Tony Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester) Ward, John
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (Pembroke) Mudd, David Watson, John
Eyre, Reginald Murphy, Christopher Wells, Bowen (Hert'rd & Stev'nage)
Faith, Mrs Sheila Neale, Gerrard Wheeler, John
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Needham, Richard Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Nelson, Anthony Whitney, Raymond
Garel-Jones, Tristan Newton, Tony Wickenden, Keith
Goodlad, Alastair Normanton, Tom Wolfson, Mark
Gow, Ian Page, Rt Hon Sir R. Graham
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Page, Richard (SW Hertfordshire) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Grist, Ian Parris, Matthew Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and
Gummer, John Selwyn Patten, Christopher (Bath) Mr. Robert Boscawen.

Question accordingly negatived.

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