HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc783-9
Mr. Hurd

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 6, line 34, leave out from 'the' to `to' in line 16 on page 7 and insert `extent to which the applicant or each applicant proposes to do the following things, namely'—

  1. (a) to include a range and diversity of programmes;
  2. (b) to include in the programmes matter which originates within the European Economic Community and is performed by nationals of member States;
  3. (c) to include in the programmes an increasing proportion of such matter;
  4. (d) to include programmes of an educational nature, programmes calculated to appeal specially to the taste and outlook of persons living in the area and programmes in which such persons are given an opportunity to participate;
  5. (e) to include programmes provided otherwise than by himself or by associates of his;
  6. (f) to include programmes provided by local voluntary associations and to assist such organisations in the preparation and production of programmes;
  7. (g) to include in the programmes matter which is calculated to promote the understanding or enjoyment of programmes by persons who are deaf;
  8. (h)'.
This amendment reflects a concern expressed in the other place and in Standing Committee, and one which found a special echo on the Opposition Benches. We are dealing here with the duty of the Cable Authority to encourage domestic programme material on cable. We are as anxious as anyone that cable should stimulate the home production industry. That is why the Bill already imposes three duties on the authority in this respect. First, it must, under clause 10(1)(d), see that cable operators include proper proportions of British and other EEC material in their programmes. This is the same formula as the statutory duty on the IBA in the Broadcasting Act, and it will be for the Cable Authority, like the IBA, to interpret its duty in the light of all these relevant factors.

The second duty already in the Bill is to take account at the licensing stage of applicants' proposals for home programmes. Finally, the authority must include in its annual report to the Home Secretary an account of how it has carried out its duty to see that proper proportions of domestic material are included in cable programmes.

In the White Paper we recognised that in the early years cable would have to rely on a greater proportion of imported material than later on. That is for two reasons. The first is that the domestic production industry will take time to adjust. The second is that cable companies will have less money to spend on programmes in the early years while they are establishing themselves than they will later on. They may have to buy quite a lot of material off the shelf, and that may mean to a considerable extent from overseas. That is why we resisted the idea of a fixed quota, and continue to do so.

In the White Paper we thought in terms of a duty on the authority to work over the years towards an increase in the amount of British programming used on cable, but it was difficult to find statutory language for that thought. Following the concern expressed in several parts of the House and in the other place, we thought it right to look at this again, and this amendment is the result. It adds a new duty to those that I have mentioned already at the licensing stage requiring the authority to take into account not only applicants' proposals to include British and other EEC programme material, but their proposals to include an increasing proportion of such material. In addition, the duty of the authority is to consider the extent to which an increase is proposed, so that if an applicant could show that he intended to show a high proportion from the beginning obviously the authority would not have to look for any increase.

This extra provision, added to those that I have already listed, goes as far as it is reasonable to go in insisting upon a proportion of British and EEC material. It will provide an encouragement to home production.

Mr. Freud

Although no penalty will be incurred for not broadcasting EEC originating material, I accept that the Government have honoured their commitment in Committee to see that the principle is enshrined in the process of licence granting. I think that the Opposition would have preferred a heavier duty on the cable operator to carry EEC originating material, and it would not have been very difficult—I accept the Government's desire to keep the arm's length principle and not interfere—to impose a series of fines for exceeding some reasonable quota such as 20 per cent.

It has always been a good Liberal principle that, for instance, under a statutory incomes policy anybody who would like to pay more money should be allowed to do so, provided that a share of that increment goes in taxation. We should have considered that an infinitely preferable way to leaving the matter in the hands of the people concerned. However, I accept that it is better than it was, but I am sorry that it is not better still.

9.30 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell

It was said that when Sir Frank Stenton was writing his history of Anglo-Saxon England he used to read each chapter out to his wife at night and if there was anything of which she disapproved, she, his bitter critic and strongest censor, would say "Frank, that is not worthy of you." We must say that to the Minister on this occasion.

After all the argument in Committee for a stronger commitment to British production, which is the essential thing that we want to stimulate in the Bill, the Minister has provided the minimum encouragement that he possibly can. He has responded generously to all the pressures from the vested interests, which are still with us like a chorus of angels—perhaps a demi-monde of angels—but to the arguments for British production, for real concern for public service broadcasting, for a real improvement in the quality of the lives of our people, he has responded not at all. He has maintained a straight bat although he was faced with overwhelming pressure in Committee to encourage production in Britain.

The expenses of cable, putting the money underground rather than into production, will be such that there will be no surplus available to encourage production in Britain. That is where cable will be at its weakest. One imagines shoddy, ad hoc, makeshift arrangements. There will not be the kind of finance that, for instance, Channel 4 has provided for independent production, which has been a big stimulus to independent production in Britain. The Prime Minister, having visited the Limehouse studios, waxed eloquent about the need to encourage independent production and said that she would do something about it. Perhaps that is why the Minister has made this concession.

That is an achievement on the Prime Minister's part but it is not enough, first because of the way that the Minister has gone about it. He has put in at this stage that the authority must take production into consideration when it is considering applicants. We all know the sort of promises that are made by applicants. They are anxious to get licences, because they hope to make money. It might be a licence to die-stamp halfpennies in the case of cable television, rather than print pounds, but they are anxious to get a licence and they make promises. If they do not live up to those promises there is no effective way of disciplining them. If commercial television, which has been lucrative and which has made an enormous amount of money for nearly all the companies, cannot be disciplined it will be even more difficult in cable where much of the investment is simply buried under the ground by the cable company. London Weekend reneged on its promises of 1968 and TV-am reneged more recently and more massively on its promises.

It is not adequate just to look to the promises that are held out. We must have the effective sanction of a continuous control over performance. The Minister has not allowed that. Every company will promise a substantial contribution to British domestic production but there is no machinery by which the Minister can make them live up to that promise. That is the first mistake.

The second mistake is not to insist on a fixed and steadily escalating quota for British production — the kind of quota system that operates for independent television. It might be too ambitious because there will be a need to buy the surplus production of American industry just to keep the cable companies going. If it is too ambitious, let us fix a lower quota, but let us set a figure that is a bench mark up to which the companies have to live.

For those two reasons, the Minister's concession is late and inadequate. However, because it is a concession, we have to welcome it, however grudgingly. It is not enough, but we shall accept it as a minimal advance towards our point of view.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I could have intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) with the point that I wish to make, but it is better to make a short speech. Contrary to what he says, my right hon. Friend the Minister has got it right, and this amendment reflects the feelings and wishes of the Committee, and not just one side of it.

Yet again, the hon. Member is making the fatal mistake that members of the Labour party make. Because of their residual psychological problems, whenever they think about commercial television and how it got under way in the 1950s, they confuse the present situation with that sellers' market of a brilliant new development of private commercial television which was quite different from the public service broadcasting that had existed a few years before that. In 1957, as a powerful entity with a tremendous cash flow, commercial television could offer the public what they wanted. However, because of the high standards of broadcasting through the BBC before that, the public were fortunate enough to have, despite advertisements and all the rest of the razzmatazz, a good commercial service in comparison with other countries such as the United States of America and Australia.

We are now confronted with a different scheme. Tremulous, timid intermediate franchise applicants are fearful of even starting contracts in cable television. They are worried about the future and how they will make any money, let alone the rest. That is not just because, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, most of the money will go under ground. He is confusing another important point there.

There will be a buyers' market this time. We do not even know how round one will go, and there is no Cable Authority or structure yet. Demanding potential subscribers will be obliged to pay between £10 and £12 a month for a year's subscription, and they will insist on quality stuff. The idea that they will put up with just having American and EEC surpluses and not good British products is illusory.

I do not wish to repeat the discussions that we have had in Committee. However, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has got it wrong. It is better not to have a percentage figure for a quota, which would be inflexible and rigid. It is better to see how cable television develops. We are legislating for an extremely sophisticated service, and the danger is that the way things are going the cable television industry will not even start.

Mr. Bermingham

To present a picture such as that presented by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), of cable companies, production companies and service companies as timorous creatures venturing with timid toes towards the tepid water, is to screen reality. The reality, as those hon. Members who sat on the Committee will know only too well, is that the decorative PR experts who buzzed around the Committee corridors — and Adam Raphael got it right in The Guardian last weekend — put pressure, by way of word and letter, on the members of the Committee to demonstrate how so much was needed to finance this and that. Commercial concerns have a great interest in making money out of cable television.

Those of us who looked with some care at the problems of cable television are well aware that the market is for the products that are already produced. We have pressed the Government to protect the content of the British home production. It is a simple economic fact that unless one has a safe home market, the export potential is not great. The great strength of our export potential in the commercial production of television programmes and other shows has been that the BBC and the IBA have devoted about 85 per cent. of their time to British products. Therefore, producers in this country had a market.

The Government have surrendered to the pressure of the cable operators who claim that because the industry is in its early days they must be permitted to buy, produce and show the cheapest products. Anyone who has seen the test transmissions of satellite television on the continent or the examples of cable programmes from America and Canada will know that their quality is zero compared with ours.

We have sought time and again to press the Government at least to provide a minimum starting figure of home content. The amendment goes a little way down the road by providing that programmes must include an increasing proportion of home content. But if companies start at zero and add 1 per cent. per annum, they will not progress far. That is the fear of many of my hon. Friends.

Therefore, we put down the marker and say that if companies do not live up to their promise to increase the home content and do not increase it substantially over the period of their franchises, that fact must be taken into account if they seek to renew their franchises. A minimum level of home content could be included in the Bill. It would not be unreasonable to write in 15, 20 or 30 per cent. as a starting figure, rising over the franchise period to the level achieved by the BBC and the IBA.

If we are to protect our fledgling producers, we must give them an incentive. A new market is opening up, but what will it contain? Will it be only second-rate B-movies from the United States which have already been shown on other types of television? If so, cable will be its own worst enemy.

It is no good starting at the bottom of the pile. If we are to have a quality service and protect the standard of service in this country, we must pitch the starting point a little higher. We do not propose to divide against the amendment. We are grateful for the small movement in our direction, but we do not think that it is enough. We shall watch what happens and we reserve the right to refer back to our remarks if that should prove necessary.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Freud

I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 7, line 17, at end insert'

  1. '(h) The extent to which the applicant or each applicant proposes to provide, or secure the provision of, information about community activities in the area
  2. (i) The extent to which and the time within which the applicant or each applicant will provide the service throughout the area.
  3. (j) The extent to which the applicant or each applicant will have adequate financial resources and a significant level of local ownership amongst its shareholders.
  4. (k) The size of the area and the extent to which the area contains localities with different degrees of profit potential.
  5. (l) Whether more than one licence can be granted to avoid the creation of a monopoly.
  6. (m) The extent to which the applicant or each applicant is independent of other holders of a licence for a prescribed diffusion service both as to finance and control.'
Clause 7 is still largely toothless. It does not even cover and protect the interests of the community that is supposed to benefit from cable as a local and regional operation.

The amendment seeks to lend a modicum of social conscience to phrases in the Bill that will change the course of broadcasting, leisure and entertainment —providing that the operators do not go bust first. I welcomed the amendment giving the operators an extra three years in which to organise their affairs. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I voted with the Government on that amendment.

My amendment proposes to add paragraphs (h) to (m) to the Government's paragraphs (a) to (g) and specifically provides that the Cable Authority shall take into account aspects of responsibility which, at present, it has no duty to take into account. I would particularly like the Government to look again at the need to consider the provision of … information about community activities in the area". No communicator shall be exonerated from a certain sense of duty. In this instance, the duty to provide accurate and and up-to-date information should be something which the authority considers. My paragraph (i) refers to the time within which the applicant … will provide the service throughout the area. Here again, I am concerned that people will do what some television companies did. I am sorry if the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has still not been paid by TV-am.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I have. Has the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) been paid?

9.45 pm
Mr. Freud

Yes, I have. It is crucial that the timing within which an applicant provides the service should be part and parcel of the investigation which the authority makes before awarding a franchise.

I talked in Committee about the need for adequate financial resources and a significant level of local ownership". My constituency is still feeling the reverberations of the occasion on which a large company went bankrupt, doing infinite harm to the community. Because of the total absence of local directors, the bankruptcy came as a surprise to the community. Because there was no communication with the local people, people who would have lost £10,000 or £20,000 lost much greater sums and, in some cases, met their total demise as traders. When applications are being considered, it would be of great advantage to communities if directors of companies were locally based, had local interests and could reflect the prosperity or misery of a company at the time.

I will not press the amendment to a Division, because it is the ambition of my party and of the Social Democratic party to see the Bill on the statute book. In some cases, we should like to see more rigid control; in others, less interference. Perhaps those appointed by the Minister will bear it in mind that, even if they do not have a responsibility, they have a duty.

Mr. Hurd

I hope that it does not depress the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) if I say that he has usually taken a realistic and level-headed view of different proposals for improving the Bill.

In this case, there were originally five specific factors in the Bill to which the Cable Authority had to give particular attention at the licensing stage. Two more were added in another place, and we have just added another. That makes eight. The hon. Gentleman wishes to bring the total to 14. I feel sure that he will agree that the more factors one adds to the list, the less important each one becomes. If we succumb to the hon. Gentleman's recommendations, a process of inflation will set in.

Although the obligations in the Bill are not as specific as the hon. Gentleman would like, they cover most of the points that he wishes to include. The hon. Gentleman mentioned information on community activities. That does not add much to paragraphs (c) and (e) of subsection (2) — to become (d) and (f) — which talk about local programmes and programmes provided by local voluntary organisations". The rate at which cable services will be brought to the area is important. It is something which the Cable Authority will want to consider, as is the need to avoid the careation of monopolies. However, all those points fall naturally under the general duty of the authority to promote cable services under clause 4(8). The hon. Gentleman repeated the point that he made in Committee, which some of us found a little difficult to follow, about local ownership and the psychological value of locally involved and committed directors. That could be left to the general framework laid down for the authority. It is not the ownership of shares that matters as much as the commitment of the company and its staff to provide a good local service.

Although I accept, without being patronising, that the hon. Gentleman's heart is in the right place, when the people who eventually form the authority take away the Hansards of these debates before entering their duties, they will notice what the hon. Gentleman has said. I believe that his aim is covered by the Bill as it stands.

Mr. Freud

I wish that I could say that I am immensely relieved by what the Minister has said. I am fractionally reassured that, if people read Hansard, they will see the thrust of my argument. The Minister said that it is not the ownership but the commitment that counts. Ownership does a terrific amount for commitment. There is no better commitment than that which derives from owning shares and a pecuniary interest in a company. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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