HC Deb 27 April 1983 vol 41 cc867-74 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Government's White Paper on the development of cable systems and services, which is published today in the name of myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

The White Paper, as the subject requires, is a long and complex document with nearly 250 paragraphs. The House will need time to study it and to form its views on it. Subject to arrangements to be made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, there will be an early opportunity for a full debate. Meanwhile, I hope that it will assist the House if in this statement I draw attention to the main cable issues — the regulation of programme services and the safeguarding of public service broadcasting — that were still unresolved when we debated the Hunt report on 2 December 1982.

The White Paper sets out a plan of action for future cable development. Central to this plan is the creation of a new statutory cable authority. Work is starting on the preparation of a Bill to be introduced at the earliest practicable date. The cable authority will have two main roles — to award franchise to cable operators for the provision of cable services, and to exercise supervision over those services in the manner which the White Paper describes in detail.

I wish to stress five particular aspects. First, on pay-per-view, the Government have decided not to follow the Hunt report in excluding this method of financing cable services. Cable operators have made it clear that they attach much importance to it, and we believe that over a wide area, pay-per-view can be allowed without damage to BBC and ITV services and the many viewers who rely and who will continue to rely on them. To protect the interests of those viewers, the cable authority will have the duty to exclude from pay-per-view events customarily covered by BBC or ITV.

Secondly, that restriction is in addition to the ban which, adopting the Hunt recommendation, we propose on the acquisition by cable of exclusive rights for the great national sporting events, such as the cup final.

Thirdly, on advertising, we follow the Hunt report in proposing that the cable authority should adopt an advertising code which in essential particulars would follow the existing IBA code. Arrangements for clearing the copy of advertisements would follow broadly the pattern for those on independent broadcasting. On the amount of advertising, we depart from Hunt in preferring to limit advertising on cable, on channels broadly comparable to ITV, to the amount allowed on ITV, which is currently six minutes an hour on average. Channels wholly or mainly devoted to classified or other advertising will, however, be allowed, and those limits will not apply then.

Fourthly, on foreign programme material, we intend that there should be from the outset more stringent obligations than Hunt proposed on the use of British programme material. The cable authority will be required to see that a "proper proportion" is shown on each channel as appropriate, to work towards a progressive increase in that proportion as United Kingdom production capacity grows, and to report progress regularly to the Government. We are anxious to maintain and develop the strong national production capacity that the BBC and ITV have helped to create.

Fifthly, the Government are anxious that the cable authority should ensure high standards of cable programme services. The same rules regarding good taste and decency as apply to BBC and IBA programmes will apply to all cable channels. There will be no exception for channels with electronic locks. As the White Paper says, so-called adult channels have no place on the cable systems which the Government wish to see develop.

Finally, in the period before the legislation is enacted, we are anxious to maintain and to continue the momentum for cable development, through two interim arrangements. First, the Government will be prepared, under existing powers, to authorise a limited number of new cable systems— not more than 12—as pilot projects, each covering a maximum of about 100,000 homes. Projects will be chosen for offering a positive contribution to advanced technology, a comprehensive range of programme services and a capability of interactive services. Secondly, we propose to allow cable relay operators to offer new programme services over their existing systems for a transitional period. Where necessary, the obligation to relay BBC and ITV services on the cable will be dropped, provided that operators offer their customers alternative means of reception at no extra cost. No application under either of those interim arrangements will be entertained until Parliament has debated and approved the White Paper.

The Government believe that the White Paper offers an acceptable and well-balanced set of proposals. They will give cable an excellent opportunity for development, with the stimulus that this will provide for advanced technology. At the same time they will protect public broadcasting services and those who rely on them. I commend them to the House.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

First, I thank the Home Secretary for making that statement today. We are most grateful that he eventually accepted our view that the national importance of the subject required him to report to the House rather than simply to rely on a press conference outside the House.

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Opposition regard cable television as potentially of great benefit to the nation as long as it is properly supervised and controlled, but that we fear that the proposals in the White Paper—indeed, the entire philosophy of the Government—will result in a system that meets the needs more of private profit than of the public interest? It remains our conviction that a satisfactory system meeting both present and future needs must be based on a national common carrier, and that that common carrier must be British Telecommunications.

In the light of that overriding principle, I ask the Home Secretary some specific questions on his statement. If pay-per-view is to be introduced, how, despite his bland assurances, will the interests of viewers outside the pay-per-view areas be maintained? Is it not a fact that the most popular programmes and the most recent films, as distinct from one or two national sporting events, will be bought by the pay-per-view areas and will not be available for transmission in the rest of the country?

Secondly, the Opposition welcome the controls on advertising in the cable sector, but what does the Home Secretary mean by standards of programme content which broadly follow those presently required by the IBA? Can we be assured that "broadly comparable" does not mean a lowering of standards, and that the present standards of advertising will at least be maintained?

Thirdly—this is perhaps a highly topical issue—is there sufficient advertising to go round, or will the introduction of the new channels imperil independent broadcasting by the programme companies because of a lack of sufficient advertising to sustain all the available channels?

Fourthly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept—I am sure that he does—that we welcome the limit to be placed on the broadcasting of foreign material? However, will he tell us what a "proper proportion" of home-produced material means? The Opposition regard a "proper proportion" as no less than the proportion that is now required of the independent companies. Will he give us an absolute assurance that the cable companies will not be allowed to project a larger proportion of foreign matter than that which is now available to the IBA's individual areas?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we very much welcome the rejection of the unsavoury notion of the adult channel? It never struck me that he would approve of such a proposition. I am delighted that our judgment of his character has been confirmed. Perhaps other doubts about his character will be justified later.

But what is all the rush about? Why cannot we have the legislation that the right hon. Gentleman promised the House on 2 December 1982? How does he reconcile parts of the White Paper's paragraphs with his absolute assurance on that date that material progress would not come about until the House had had the opportunity to vote on a Bill dealing with these matters? Why are the Government in such an unseemly rush to create two television nations—one which can enjoy cable television and another, comprising the majority of the nation, which will not be offered that benefit?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am glad to learn from the right hon. Gentleman that we are at one on the objective of what we should achieve through cable television and its benefits for advanced technology. He questioned in a number of ways whether the way that we have proposed to go towards that objective is the right one. First, he suggested that British Telecom should have a monopoly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and I believe that it should have a substantial share but not an exclusive monopoly.

The safeguards that we have proposed for pay-per-view are reasonable; it took a lot for me to accept that, as I come from an area that is not likely to have cable in my lifetime, and I am unlikely to wish to live there for the rest of my life without ever being able to see some of the things that I see now. I believe pay-per-view to be a perfectly reasonable concept.

The controls on advertising will be the same and we wish them to be so. I can give that assurance.

In the long run it must be for the cable authority to decide exactly what proportion of foreign material there should be. It is important to note that the cable authority has an extra duty imposed on it in the White Paper above that presently carried by the IBA. It will have to show that there will be a progressive reduction in the amount of foreign material that is used. That duty is not placed on the IBA but it would be placed on the cable authority.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Keep out the foreign muck.

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that our decision on adult channels is right. I am interested in the views of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) on my character. Many people have had views on my character, usually in contradictory directions.

I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about a rush. When the White Paper has been approved by Parliament, as I believe it will be, I think that it will be reasonable for the Secretary of State for Industry and me to use our powers under existing legislation. It is important to maintain the momentum if Britain is to keep its lead in advanced technology.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that the statement says that there will be an early opportunity for a full debate. I propose to allow questions to continue until 4 o'clock, when we shall move on to a further statement. The House is questioning the statement and not debating it.

Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House will appreciate his success in achieving a balance between maintaining the standards on which we put so much value and giving sufficient freedom to the system to attract the capital that will be necessary to establish this important industry?

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the critical importance of the first dozen pilot schemes getting off to a good financial start? Will he confirm that the pilot schemes will have the availability of pay-per-view, which is a way of getting early revenue?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about balance. That is exactly what we have sought to achieve, and I think that he is right in believing that we have achieved a balance. I accept the critical importance of a good financial start for the pilot projects, and they would have access to the pay-per-view system.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

My colleagues and I appreciate the general statement and welcome it, especially the decision on so-called adult channels. In seeking to protect the interests of viewers, will the cable authority have a duty to exclude party political broadcasts from pay-per-view events? Will the right hon. Gentleman use his undoubted influence to raise the standard of such performances, especially after last night's appalling production?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, especially those about adult channels. I think that it will be wise for me on this occasion not to be drawn into comments on party political broadcasts.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

How will foreign programme material be defined? For example, the film "Gandhi" received massive financial support from the Indian Government and none from the British Government. Is it an Indian film or a British film?

Mr. Whitelaw

That must be a matter for the cable authority to decide in the course of time.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

The House will be cautious in encouraging new television schemes after Channel 4 and TV-am, but will the right hon. Gentleman accept that my right hon. and hon. Friends encourage the manner in which the White Paper is constructed and the way that he is moving away from the original Hunt report?

I shall ask the right hon. Gentleman three questions. [HON. MEMBERS: "No".] First, which Government Department will be in charge? If it is to be the Home Office, will he think again? Secondly, will he consider advertising and the natural break concept? Thirdly, will he produce a schedule? The reference to great national sporting events, such as the cup final is far too vague. The entire nation will want to know which events will be restricted.

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Gentleman is the Home Secretary-designate.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) for what he has said. Responsibilities will be shared by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and myself. As the Home Office has taken the lead in publishing the White Paper, the Home Office—it has, of course, responsibilities for broadcasting — will take the lead in broadcasting matters. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about advertising and I do not think that I have anything further to add. In the long run, it will be for the cable authority to come to a decision on a schedule. Having had discussions with various people, I recognise that it will be an extremely difficult issue, which will require considerable discussions and negotiations with all concerned, including broadcasters and sporting bodies.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that we on the Conservative Benches find nothing bland about his statement and, in the first flush of reading it, nothing bland about the White Paper, which is excellent?

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the principle is accepted that enterprising private operators, after a period of testing, are more likely to meet the developing desires of people for cable television than any Government or Government authority?

Will the Home Secretary reconsider the maximum limit of 100,000 homes for the test areas, because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan), I have some doubt that the areas are completely viable for carrying out such tests?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. The success or otherwise of cable television depends on those who decide to come forward, the money they have and their success when they come forward and on whether the public will pay to be connected to cable. Those are matters that the House cannot now determine.

As to the limit of 100,000 homes, the Government are anxious at this stage to have pilot projects and nothing beyond that, to proceed with advanced technology and to understand some of the problems, but not to pre-empt a Bill that will eventually pass through the House.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Will the Home Secretary tell the House what representations were made to him by Mercury in relation to cream-skimming and high-density data service areas? Why did the Home Secretary and his right hon. Friends refuse to accept similar representations when they were made generally for telecommunications?

Mr. Whitelaw

I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry, to whom such representations would be made, that consultations have taken place and that he believes that he has gone a long way to meeting some of the points put forward.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Information Technology on the statement and on the White Paper. Assuming that the House approves the White Paper, when does my right hon. Friend expect to grant the first extension of licences?

Mr. Whitelaw

I would not wish to commit myself at the moment. That depends on many factors.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Post Office Engineering Union believes that cable should not be developed separately and that it will be better for the country to have a single integrated telecommunications network covering television, radio, data and telecommunications, and that the best body to do that is BT, which has the necessary skills, knowledge and physical assets?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have nothing further to tell the hon. Gentleman, whose interests I fully understand. British Telecommunications should have a substantial share, but the Government have decided that it should not be exclusive.

Mr. John Spence (Thirsk and Malton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the White Paper and draw his attention and that of the Minister for Industry and Information Technology to the main thrust of a national telecommunications structure. Is the introduction of 12 pilot projects the best way of giving impetus to that thrust? Should the Government not be thinking more seriously in terms of greater impetus than simply providing for 12 projects covering 100,000 homes?

Mr. Whitelaw

The reasoning behind the 12 projects and the limited nature of the development is the belief, which I strongly share, that while it is right to keep the momentum going, it would be wrong to pre-empt a decision on a Bill in the House.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)

Why do not the Government recognise the value of competing technologies more than they do in the White Paper? Will they consider the possibilities existing in other spheres for providing services of this type and try to develop a comprehensive communications network — something which is not apparent in the White Paper? What are the implications for the British Broadcasting Corporation? What is the Central Policy Review Staff doing about the BBC? Many hon. Members will have read recently in the newspapers about the dismemberment or abolition of the BBC, which is a great asset to this country.

Mr. Whitelaw

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does not believe everything he reads. The White Paper makes clear the future position of the BBC, by which I stand absolutely and completely.

Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesend)

Will my right hon. Friend, bearing in mind the large amount of money which will have to be invested in these pilot projects, tell the House whether he is satisfied that, with the limitation of 100,000 homes and limitations on advertising, these pilot schemes will be able to break even, let alone make a profit?

Mr. Whitelaw

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and I have discussed this matter. We believe that, with some of the existing operators, who are presently licensed and with whom the Government can go further, and with the pilot projects, the Government are making a modest start. If we made more than a modest start we would run straight into pre-empting legislation —something I feel strongly about.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain paragraph 247 of the White Paper, which suggests that, immediately this White Paper is debated and approved, existing companies will be given licences to 1986 to offer additional services? How does that square with competition? Does it not give those companies a head start?

Mr. Whitelaw

No. On the principles on which they are licensed by the Home Office, it does not give the companies a head start. It was thought reasonable to give them a chance to develop in the same way as the pilot projects.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

I applaud my right hon. Friend's White Paper, but is he aware that there is anxiety because in many urban areas the state of the highways, due to the efforts of public undertakings, are in an unsatisfactory condition? The onset of cable television will cause further problems. Will he ensure that the cost of reinstating the highways to the satisfaction of the highway authorities does not fall on the ratepayers or taxpayers but will be met by those who benefit by supplying cable television?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall confine myself to reminding my hon. Friend that a code on this point is attached to the Telecommunications Bill, which is now passing through the House. There have been consultations on this matter, and they will continue.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Home Secretary aware that leaving a substantial number of television channels to the whims of market forces and allowing the lowest common denominator to apply will breed violence and materialism, resulting in a further weakening of the social fabric? As a result, those who have to pick up the debris, such as probation officers, among others, will have more problems to deal with. Does not the Home Secretary's statement show that the Government give more priority to those making money out of television than to probation officers, whose junior members may face a cut of £1,000 per annum?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall confine myself to the matter in hand. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there are great advantages for the earning capacity of this country — from which many people are paid — in developing advanced technology and taking advantage of Britain's promising position in this sphere. If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that, he is even more of a Luddite than I thought he was.

Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that some of the most exciting developments in cable relate not to television but to the interactive services to which he referred in his statement? As there is much uncertainty in television, with breakfast television and Channel 4, there must, inevitably, be much uncertainty as to the future of cable television. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that those uncertainties do not act as a barrier to the development of the interactive services, which hold out great hope for the future?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that the development of cable and the pilot projects are closely connected with the development of the interactive services, which are enormously important.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

Although the Home Secretary has modified the race into cable from a headlong rush to a moderate amble, is there not still a danger that large parts of the country will be lumbered with coaxial cable and with a tree-and-branch system that will quickly become outdated and could well leave Britain behind other countries which go wholeheartedly for fibre optics?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman knows that there are particular incentives in the length of the franchise, in favour of companies going for the star system, which we recognise is the best system for the future.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)


Mr. Skinner

Good morning.

Mr. Aitken

In view of the concern expressed by the Opposition about profits being made out of cable television, will my right hon. Friend give careful consideration to the argument that these cable franchises, like some others I could think of, may well turn out to be licences to lose money? Is my right hon. Friend prepared to reconsider the point that the figure of 100,000 viewers per station may turn out to be woefully inadequate and that, given the experience of cable television in America, the cable authority must ensure, to reserve jobs and livelihoods in the industry, that the finances of any cable operator are very solid and cautious?

Mr. Whitelaw

Many people see a future in cable and want to go into it, but they risk their own money. In our society, that is perfectly proper in every way. It is right that they should have the opportunity. In addition, we should show that we can make a success of cable in this country, with the right balance. We produced the White Paper against that background.