HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc838-47

Amendments made: No. 186, in page 65, line 8, at end add—

'15 & 16Geo. 6 & 1 The Defamation Act.1952. Section 16 (4) Eliz. 2. c. 66. 1955 c.11 (N.I.). The Defamation Act (Northern Ireland) 1955. Section 14.(3).'.

No. 187, in page 65, line 23, at end insert—

'1969 c. 48 The Post Office Act 1969 In Schedule 4, paragraph 53.

No. 188, in page 65, column 3, leave out line 33.

No. 189, in page 65, line 51, column 3, at end insert—

'In Schedule 4, paragraphs 30 and 32:. —[Mr. Hurd.]

12.37 am
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill deals with two, not wholly separate, technologies: wide-band cable, and satellite for direct broadcasting to the home. Neither development can be looked at purely in technological terms. There are social, economic and cultural implications for the way people live their lives, do their work and spend their leisure time. The Government's overall approach was made clear when we debated the cable White Paper in June last year. Our task, as I said then, is not to make constant judgments about what forms of economic activity may or may not succeed; rather it is to establish the financial and regulatory framework with which customer satisfaction and economic progress can be achieved while the public interest is safeguarded.

Already the cable entertainment revolution has started in this country. We have four services being distributed over the old narrow-band systems and more on their way. Eleven pilot projects are planning to start their services next year. When the Cable Authority is established, the process of granting further cable franchises can begin. With regard to DBS, the joint project will be aiming to launch its three channel services by late 1987. Three years later we shall be opening up the possibility of further DBS services provided under the aegis of the IBA and in full competition with the joint project service. These developments will mark a major extension of customer choice in broadcasting. All of us, on both sides of the House, should welcome that.

There is one further point that I should make that relates particularly to cable. The Bill, for reasons that have often been explained, deals mainly with the entertainment services which cable will supply, but the Government's interest goes much wider than that. We see the Bill as having a significant long-term potential for the way in which people do their work and arrange their lives. It is for that reason that we are anxious to create the right framework in which cable systems can develop and prosper. I can assure the House that the Cable Authority, in exercising its regulatory functions relating to entertainment services, will have that wider perspective in view as it sets about its task.

I wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for steering the Bill through Committee so admirably and those of my hon. Friends who took part in the Committee proceedings and made such a constructive contribution to it and to Opposition Members.

The Bill is designed to harness the latest technological developments in cable and satellite for the benefit of our manufacturing and service industries and for the customer at home. There is much more to this potential revolution than a simple increase in the number of outlets for programme services. The main object of the Bill has been to set the framework for the new era in the development of television and radio services in this country. I hope that in doing so it will come to be seen, much as the original Television Act, which was passed 30 years ago this month, was seen as a watershed in the development of television services in this country. It is for those reasons that I commend the Bill to the House.

12.41 am
Mr. Denis Howell

I have listened with great interest to what the Home Secretary said. It has been a pleasure to have been involved with the Bill although I still have many criticisms of it, one or two of which I feel a duty to utter even at this late hour. Most important is the fact that in Committee and on Report we have had 207 Government amendments and 37 new clauses. That is extraordinary. It shows that the Government have been making up television policy as they went along. There is no coherent philosophy on broadcasting and television policy.

I have some sympathy for the Minister of State who told us earlier that some of the matters had been raised as the Bill proceeded and that plainly they had to be dealt with. That is so, but the fact that we have had to deal with them piecemeal cannot give any of us satisfaction. A broadcasting and television policy is vital to the nation. I do not believe that there is a household in the country that does not listen to the radio or watch television and which will not be interested in the future of cable and DBS.

That being so, I submit that there should have been longer discussion in the House before the Bill was embarked upon so that we had the philosophy right and understood what the policy was to be. I regret the fact that that opportunity was largely missed.

Despite that, we welcome the Government's principal philosophy which is that we should provide the maximum choice for the people of this country. It is for them to exercise their choice.

There are still some problems which worry us and which I shall mention briefly. I asked the Minister in Committee once or twice what we should see on DBS, because halfway through the proceedings the Government announced that they would set up an authority for DBS as distinct from cable television. I still do not know the answer to that question. People will not put dishes up and pay large sums for DBS unless it provides a substantial service. I take comfort in that thought. Nevertheless the House and the country are entitled to know the sort of programmes which the Government expect will be shown and made available on the DBS network. I expect that the new joint service provided by the BBC and ITV will consist mainly of news items and items on which the authorities think it reasonable not to compete to supply. If that is correct, I cannot imagine that many people will pay the sums involved to obtain access to the new service.

During the passage of the Bill, the Opposition were excessively anxious to protect the interests of the trade unions and those working in the industry for home produced material. It was a recurring theme on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. I welcome in part the fact that we start with an obligation on the new cable authority to produce a "proper proportion" of British material. We do not know that a "proper proportion" is. We know that in ITV it is now set at 86 per cent. I agree with the Minister that it would be unreasonable to impose a fixed percentage at the inception of cable television. However, it is important to maintain and protect standards. Trade unions will take comfort from the fact that the phrase "proper proportion", although it must be identified and defended by the new authorities, appears on the Bill. The Bill was improved by the Government's agreement to add the provision that thereafter there shall be an increasing proportion of home-made material.

That enabled us, albeit with reservations, to agree that the rights of trade unions and trade to negotiate about these matters with the new authorities had been maintained and could be the subject of argument.

I have a programme analysis from the 30 April to 14 May of some of the programmes operating already, and reading it one understands the worry of the trade union movement. In week one of the programming of cable television there were 22.5 hours of United States programmes on sports alone, such as karate, wrestling, high school cheerleading championships and drag racing. That is an extraordinary concoction for which to pay. There is a considerable amount of motor sport, one hour of sponsored films and one hour of original programming, which included "Talking point" and "The Book Programme".

In week two United States programming had 21 hours, which included rodeo, karate, wrestling, motor sports and similar programmes. In week three the United States content occupied 23 hours of programming. It included shark fishing, water ski-ing, rodeo and boxing. I cannot believe that that mixture spells success, and even those who support cable television more enthusiastically than I do would be a little alarmed about such programming if it continued.

The Opposition are still very worried about stations such as Radio Luxembourg, although we acknowledge what the Government have done to help tonight. We are gravely concerned about programmes made in Britain being sent overseas and then channelled back here. Although we wish to increase the choice available to the British public, we wish to do it without debasing the present standards of the BBC and the independent companies. I have detected some fear in the Government on this matter. They wish to maintain those standards while extending the choice, and it will be difficult to achieve both objectives. One can only hope that the new authorities will succeed. If they report annually and the House debates those reports, I hope that we can ensure that they meet both sets of criteria.

I must repeat that the Opposition are afraid that the Chancellor's withdrawal of capital allowances has made the entire operation shaky. The sceptics who believe that cable television will not get off the ground might well be right. Many companies are re-assessing their positions and asking themselves whether their investments, which will give a return only after a long period, can be justified. If that proves to be true, the exercise will have been a charade. I hope that that will not be the case and that the Government's original purpose—which we support—to extend public service and choice is realised. We have the gravest doubts, but we wish the new services well.

12.52 am
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Some of us welcomed cable from the outset, and I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and his colleagues in the Home Office for their diligence in steering the Bill through the House so successfully. Therefore, it is no criticism of my right hon. and learned Friend to say that there is less enthusiasm for the development of multichannel cablevision than there was a year ago. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) gave one reason for that attitude. There is a much less favourable tax structure, and I am told that, for many people, the cable operator's licence is either unintelligible or that there is too much emphasis on uneconomic services. Criticism also follows from the fact that there appears to some to be a delayed availability of new technical standards which, when issued, may have a retrospective effect. There is also perceived to be increasing competition, amounting almost to a conflict, between cable and DBS. There are many more criticisms and doubts which have led to the growth in scepticism, but the hour is late and I shall not mention them.

I recognise that many of the problems do not lie within the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend. He has laid down the general financial and administrative framework, if not with the same light touch as adumbrated by my right hon. and noble Friend Viscount Whitelaw. However, it has achieved the main objective of Conservative Members, which was not to set up a super-interfering bureaucracy. My right hon. and learned Friend has understood the difference between the role of the IBA and broadcasting and narrowcasting.

The time has come for my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues to hand over the torch to the Department of Industry, which at times has been remarkably silent about this exercise. The Government should also restate what they have achieved so far and what they expect from manufacturers as well as those who desire to be cable operators. Most importantly, we need a restatement that the Government are still committed, as ever they were, to the concept that cable has a distinctive part to play in the nation's system of communications.

Too many people are knocking it, including the right hon. Member for Small Heath. All we heard from him was references to cable in the context of television broadcasting. There was not a mention of interactivity or services. Given the knocking that has gone on, it is little wonder that a feeling has grown that cable is only about providing television. It is not an alternative to the present system of television, or to the present methods of television entertainment. Nor is it merely a rival or an alternative to DBS, however much that may be stated by people in the existing broadcasting organisations.

Cable can, and should, be seen as complementary to terrestrial and satellite broadcasting. By its capacity to provide interactivity and a multiplicity of services and programmes, cable is unique, but this uniqueness and the way it fits into the pattern of communications in this country is not sufficiently well understood.

Having sat through much of the debate I know that it is not well understood by some hon. Members. How much more is that likely to be true of people outside, many of whom are entrepreneurs who are willing to take up the torch and challenge but are confused by the conflicting views that are often expressed here and elsewhere?

While I congratulate my right hon. Friends on what they have been able to do so far in the important but limited area of their office, I believe that if the Government want this innovative medium of communications to succeed and to take off, they should seize further opportunities to restate their conviction that cable has a valuable and powerful role to play in this country.

12.57 am
Mr. Golding

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on his contribution, but I go further. He said that as the Home Office had done its work the Department of Industry should now turn its attention to the matter. That is cart before horse in terms of the hon. Gentleman's argument.

The arguments about whether the contracts should be for 13 or 15 years and about the impact of the Chancellor on investment allowances for cable have illustrated the shallowness of the Government's approach.

I agree with the hon. Member for Wealden that we need cable for many other things besides television or radio. It must be provided in the best possible manner within a national framework and should be as technically advanced as possible. That will not be achieved by the way in which the Government are proceeding.

This measure is called the Cable and Broadcasting Bill. That is a misnomer, because it is about cable programmes. That is why some of my hon. Friends have over-concentrated on the programme side.

This legislation should have been about the provision of cable and the modernisation of telecommunications. There is much to be said for the argument that the provision of the network should have been included in the Telecommunications Act, however much I dislike it.

Again I declare my interest, since I speak for the Post Office Engineering Union. I am among those who do not believe that it is bad to represent interests in the House. It is not bad for people to believe in what they say or to know a little about the subjects that they discuss. I do not apologise that interests are represented, although they were probably more fully represented when we debated the Bill setting up commercial radio in the mid-1970s.

The Opposition have always believed that cable should be used to integrate telecommunications, data transmission and broadcasting. We have always believed that the system should be under public control and in the ownership of British Telecommunications. Nothing that I have seen or heard has dissuaded me from that view.

It would have been far better for the Government to proceed with cable on the basis of the separation of the ownership of the cable system from the use of that system through the programme companies. It would have been possible to give a cable service that provided for data transmission, and I believe that data transmission interactive services will be more important in the future than the multiplicity of television channels. That would have been more likely had there been this separation. The Government have made a mistake in the Bill by not separating them. Instead they have said that the programmes come first and, as an afterthought, they will provide the wherewithal, the cable system.

To Britain in the 1990s and the year 2000, the cable system will be more important than the road and rail systems. The Government do not appear to have grasped that yet. There are those in the Government who make speeches about the development of telecommunications and about the new information technology revolution, but this legislation does not acknowledge that.

The Government argued that to proceed on their basis would be to create jobs over the next couple of years. Those jobs are needed badly, and that I concede. But I believe that the Government are stumbling along this path in a way that will be damaging to the interests of Britain in the very near future and not only in the long term and the medium term. It will be detrimental to us because we shall suffer not only from an inadequate road system but from an inadequate telecommunications system as compared, say, with France. We shall suffer because of the piecemeal way in which the Government are approaching the cabling of Britain.

It is very important that British manufacturers win contracts to cable Britain. However, the way that the Government are going about it will ensure that those orders go to Holland. That will be very regrettable.

I have spoken for longer than I had intended. I wanted to put on record my view and that of my union that this legislation is ill-timed and ill-conceived. I regret very much that the Government are proceeding in this fashion.

1.5 am

Mr. Neale

It is tempting to follow the argument of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding). I have listened to him on many occasions speaking authoritatively and knowledgeably about the industry. In all fairness to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and his colleagues in the Home Office and the Secretary of State for Industry, they advanced stronly the view that the industry should be interactive-service led. The industry told them that it would have to be entertainment led in order to get off the ground. Therefore, that has tended to swing the argument or the presentation of the Bill round.

As one who has come to know rather more about cable than I knew a short time ago, it is clear that the industry is learning a great deal about the new possibilities, and trying to legislate is like trying to hit a moving target. Circumstances will change immediately the Bill becomes law.

Despite the criticism that has been levelled at my right hon. Friend because of the way in which he has introduced further changes, he has shown a real willingness on behalf of the Government to accommodate the views of all parties, which is commendable. The way in which he has at all times dealt graciously and tolerantly with various views has been a great example to hon. Members not only in Committee but in the House. I for one wish to thank him for that.

As near as can be achieved at this time, we have a Bill that will encourage those outside the House to look to the chances that they have. My right hon. Friend has made certain that as far as possible it will have a free hand in the complicated world of copyright, broadcasting, narrow casting, and so on. I thank him for his efforts.

1.7 am

Mr. Freud

The fact that the hour is late is not and must not be a reason for any hon. Member to make a different speech on Third Reading than he would have made at a more sociable hour. For that reason, it is lucky for the House that I did not intend to make a long speech on Third Reading.

It seems only a few weeks ago since Second Reading when there was widespread concern in Britain about the IBA's extension of franchise without readvertisement. The Bill gives no direction as to the circumstances in which the IBA should use its discretion in the extension. I hope that the recipients of such extension will have in some way paid for it by substantial investment in the new technology.

The Bill, as amended in Standing Committee, is a very different Bill from the one that came to us 37 new clauses and however many hundreds of amendments earlier. I hope that it is a better Bill. The Opposition cannot defeat the Government and we are all grateful to the Minister of State for his courtesy in listening to us, if not for coming forward and changing his mind as often as we might have had him do.

The Bill will give Britain interactive services provided on the back of the entertainment industry. We have now legislated for that and it will be achieved at no cost to the Government. It is right for the House to extend good wishes to all those who avail themselves of the services —communicators and consumers.

I finally gave a warning. People have only one pair of eyes. We already have four television channels. More Britons have video tape recorders than almost any other nation and it will not be easy for this new industry to provide compelling entertainment against the quality of entertainment that we now provide. It is right for we who have gone this far in the Bill to do our best to support the new cable operators.

1.8 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell

This is the Third Reading of the messiest legislation that the House has passed for several years, and certainly within my time here. When I retire from the House and take up the post of assistant lecturer at the Keith Joseph memorial shed at the polyversity, that will be all that is left of the university of Oxford, I shall use this Bill as an example of how not to legislate, and how not to approach a major problem.

It is tragic that the framework of the future, which will affect our lives in so many ways, and which will have to provide an enduring structure for cable and DBS has been handled in this shambolic, disorganised fashion. We have here an illegitimate offspring of Prime Ministerial enthusiasm, which was conceived in haste and repented at leisure, and will almost certainly finish off by being brought up at public expense, because that is its only possible future. The Minister's greatest achievement in the presentation of the Bill was to manage to keep a straight face throughout, and to reduce the broad principles to a kind of apologetic mumble, so different to his crisp and dynamic prose style, which is the approach that I prefer.

It is clear that the Prime Minister rushed in with an impetuous enthusiasm, believing that cable was to be the revolution, the new dawn in Britain—a new railway age linking up the country. The Home Office has been left to clear up the mess, and we in the Committee have been part of the process of repenting at leisure.

The process has taken three Bills — one that the House of Lords obligingly passed, another that was very different and that we on the Committee obligingly passed, and the third version, with numerous amendments, that we passed tonight. All that has been accompanied by commercial breaks designed to give opportunities to the Minister's friends—the pantheon of commercal interests on the Tory Benches, lobbying, for their benefit and that of the interests that they support, for concessions here, a little change here, and improvements. This has been accompanied also by some of the most intense commercial lobbying that I have known. That lobbying has been directed only to the interests of the Tory Benches, and has largely bypassed the interests of Labour Members, perhaps because the strength of our attachment to the principle of public service, standards in broadcasting and production in this country are known.

All this has happened because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) said, the Government did not get right the fundamental proposition on which cable has to be based. It is folly to insist on the companies putting their money underground, when the broad band cable should be provided by BT, and the companies should be content to provide the programmes, the entertainment and the information for the consumers. That is the only way to get rid of contractors that one does not like, to get change and to get effective public control. The whole basis of what the Government are attempting to do is wrong, as the Bill is wrong.

There is very little hope for cable, given that 11 contractors have submitted themselves and already many of them are losing faith and are in financial difficulties. Cable will be hived off as a cut-price telephone system, or a continuous bingo to try to get viewers away from the main channels.

The prospect even for DBS, which is better, and which is clearly the Prime Minister's new enthusiasm, is scarcely better, because of the huge costs involved. It has first had to inveigle money from the BBC, then from the commercial television companies, under the lure of having their contracts extended indefinitely, and now commercial interests. It is not creating a new market system, but a ménage à trois, a troilism in the sky, which will emerge from the cable system. Everything else follows from those initial mistakes.

In addition, the Government have smuggled in various other things under cover of passing the Bill, such as a national commercial radio network, which is not wanted, and cannot be afforded, without any estimate of whether the advertising revenue will be there to support not only cable and DBS but national commercial radio as well. Where is the enormous expansion of advertising revenue necessary to support those three new services to come from? What calculations have the Government made about the finances that will be available from an advertising cake which can grow only slowly and not in conformity with their boundless expectations?

That has been brought into this legislative ragbag, as has an extension of the life of the IBA, though not of the BBC. The IBA and the BBC will provide members for the Satellite Broadcasting Board, but the BBC's life is not to be extended.

The Bill is a sad apology for legislation. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice; look at the Prime Minister and her impetuosity — not a bull at a gate exactly, though a similar image might be applicable—look at the Home Office with its bureaucratic inertia, look at the vested interests and their simple greed, look around and see the Bill, a monument to all those forces brought together in this short-sighted measure. A great opportunity has been rather stupidly thrown away.

1.16 am
Mr. Bermingham

I agree with the Home Secretary that the Bill is the start of the cable revolution. I understand the argument that it is meant to be entertainment-led, but I hope that the Government will not leave it there.

My hon. Friend the Member fo Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) rightly said that the Bill should have been about information technology. I said in Committee and on Report that the cabling of this country is crucial to our industrial development, in the widest sense, in the 21st century.

As one travels through Europe and elsewhere, it becomes increasingly apparent that the idea of shifting technology from place to place is crucial. Man talking to man or firm to firm, via an interactive system, saving journeys from one place to another, will be the pattern of industrial progress, in both manufacturing and the service industries. That is the way of the 1990s and the next century.

We have the opportunity to encourage industry. Like my hon. Friends, I should prefer British Telecom to cable the whole country. I wish the cable television operators well. Anything that I have said has not been meant as a criticism of them, though I have sometimes criticised the content of their proposed programmes. I wish them well, but for them to succeed, the country needs to be cabled. To encourage that, we must make it worthwhile and lay on the systems to enable all the other uses of cable.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) said that he was not particularly worried whether cable came to his constituency. That sort of attitude worries me considerably. We will not live for ever in industrial cities and it is through cable and such developments that we shall bring back industry to rural areas. That will be no bad thing. That is the sort of possible future use of cable.

I urge the Home Secretary, when thinking about the national commercial radio system which he mentioned on Second Reading, to bear in mind that in some rural areas there are local commercial stations which survive on a shoestring. If a national radio service were set up, one would fear for the future of those stations. People in south Lancashire and on Merseyside have expressed to me their worries on this point, which should be borne in mind when the matter is further considered.

My mind returns to July last year and to the White Paper. The concept of cable is one that has always greatly excited me, because it has such great potential. It has potential in the entertainment sector, which I welcome. More importantly, it has a much more exciting and attractive future in industry. I hope that in the next stage of this development the Government will bear that sector very much in mind and seek to encourage it.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.