HC Deb 19 May 1989 vol 153 cc585-637 9.34 am
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the communications opportunities offered by technological developments in terrestrial and satellite broadcasting and cable distribution systems; urges Her Majesty's Government, when creating a legislative framework for the future of radio and television broadcasting and interactive services, to pay particular attention to the need to continue to stimulate quality programming and maintain diversity of ownership and choice; and further calls on Her Majesty's Government to establish a coherent policy for the promotion of United Kingdom and pan-European satellite services.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office has been able to join us this morning. It is either the third or fourth Friday on the trot that he has made himself available in the Chamber. People outside the House do not realise how valuable it is for hon. Members to spend Fridays in their constituencies, and that is particularly so for Ministers. I hope that the Minister's constituents will understand the need for his presence here today. I am also particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which contributed a great deal to the White Paper, is also present today.

My fortune in the ballot has come at an extremely opportune moment. The White Paper entitled "Broadcasting in the '90s: Competition, Choice and Quality" has been published and digested. I understand that, in its wake, the Home Office has received about 3,000 expressions of interest, comment and mostly constructive criticism. The legislation that we expect to be announced in the Queen's Speech in November is being drafted, so the time is right for this debate.

I hope to inject a note of optimism into the discussion. Much of the argument has centred on a perceived threat, and far too little has been made of the tremendous opportunities that new technologies such as broadband, satellite and better use of terrestrial facilities can offer. The equation has been drawn to read "more equals bad", instead of "more equals more choice, more scope for creativity and a richer broadcasting culture".

I began my broadcasting career in local radio. Too often in communications debates, radio is ignored altogether or is often regarded as the poorest relation in the communications family. In my county, Kent, we have two excellent radio stations. BBC Radio Kent has breakfast time audiences that rival those of Radio 4. The station has twice won Sony awards, and it will win more.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) never ceases to remind me that his home station, BRMB, won the "best station of the year" award this year. Through hurricane, snow and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, BBC Radio Kent has provided a real public service, of which it is rightly proud. I hope that, when considering a reduction in local radio funds to introduce yet another high quality, intellectually stimulating, public-service audience participation game show, the management of the BBC will recognise the high esteem in which our local radio stations are held. Who will fund those stations after 1996, when the BBC charter comes to an end? The White Paper does not tell us.

We in Kent are fortunate, too, in haying a complementary local radio station, Invicta Radio, which uses the latest computer and digital technology to create a different kind of music programme. However, Radio Kent and Invicta Radio are county stations. It has long been a source of sadness to me that Cabin Radio in Herne Bay, which sends programmes by landline to three hospitals, is prevented by law from broadcasting to a wider audience. I hope that the broadcasting Bill will give that excellent amateur station with professional standards the chance to turn into the real local radio station for which we have been waiting.

I hope that, within the context of diversity of ownership, my hon. Friend will look kindly on the relationship between community radio stations and genuinely independent local papers, because, to be cost-effective, they will need each other.

I wish to move as swiftly as possible to developments in telecommunications and satellite, but I must first turn back to the television aspects of the White Paper. I reread this week the observations of the BBC, the independent contractors, the IBA, the Cable Television Association, the Independent Producers Association, TVS, the Campaign for Quality Television, Channel 4, the Media Society and, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, Oxfam and the further work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, to name but a few. The game has moved on since the White Paper was debated and we must reflect on some of the points that have been made.

I offer my hon. Friend the Minister of State a highly personal view, but it is one that is shared by several other commentators. Any suggestion to hive off one channel of the BBC's night hours would be absolute folly. That is the one area in which the BBC might reasonably be expected to expand with a subscription service and many of us still feel that such a service may and perhaps should become part of the long-term solution to the BBC's funding requirements.

On 9 March 1989 my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stated in The Listener: Subscription is attractive as a principle but untried in practice in this country. We think it should be tested and tried. There is surely a case for establishing a "BBC 3" subscription service between, say, midnight and 6 am. Remove even one channel of the night hours and the opportunity for such a development would be lost or, at the very least, the incentive for it would be removed. If the BBC is to be—as I believe that it should be—not only a public-service cornerstone but a hothouse of talent, it must have room to experiment but it must not be asked to experiment at the licence payers' expense. A subscription night-hours service offering at least some first-run programmes that might later transfer to a wider audience on BBC1 could provide such a canvas.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State will not be surprised to hear me say, in the context of subscription, that I still believe that we are wrong not to require the mandatory fitting of peritelevision sockets in all new television sets. That is an opportunity that the Government will be seen to have missed.

While talking of BBC funding, it is high time that we made provision for the introduction not only of subscription only-services, such as British Medical Television but of closed user groups so that the BBC and the independent companies can maximise their sale of confidential programming. There is absolutely no reason to featherbed the British Telecom-Mercury monopoly over that potential for one day longer than the statutory undertaking that was given of November 1990. As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I wholeheartedly endorse the report's recommendation on that. Again, the downloading of data and confidential programming is best done at night, which is another good reason for leaving the night hours alone.

The White Paper proposal that has caused the most outrage and anguish was that to auction off the independent franchises. The fury has been partly that of the vested interests which have made even the British Medical Association seem temperate, and partly, like the BMA in its area, it has been a genuine concern about quality programming.

I am not one of those who unquestionably accept the folklore that British television is the best in the world, any more than I accept that American television is the worst in the world. Some American programming is certainly atrocious and banal, but so is some of ours. The Americans also make some excellent programmes and offer a huge diversity of choice to their audiences. Those who want to maintain high-quality children's programmes should look at the opportunity presented by the prospect not of a couple of hours programming a day, but of a dedicated channel. Those who want programmes on religion, sport, gardening, films, news, weather or on any other common interest should consider the same. That is the prospect that confronts us with many more channels.

Nevertheless, some of our television is among the best in the world, especially in children's programming. Through the independent network, we also provide a rare kind of local service and we should not throw that baby out with the bath water of deregulation.

I find no shame in joining that growing army of admirers that have welcomed the appointment of Mr. George Russell as chairman of the IBA and chairman-designate of the new Independent Television Commission. I do not find it difficult wholeheartedly to endorse the proposals that he makes on Channel 3 through the IBA's submission on the White Paper. A strict quality and public service threshold and a sound business plan should be a prerequisite of consideration for a franchise. Competitive tendering based upon those programme and business plans makes sense.

As a producer and television director, I know that maintenance of the network is desirable, with the proviso that greater access for a broad range of programme offers is made available to the smaller regional companies. In its submission TVS rightly stated: The major companies' present access (to the network) blocks the regionals' access to all but a fairly narrow band of programme types. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that that is one restrictive practice that we can well do without.

I share the widely held view that the prospect of a levy is iniquitious. When franchise holders receive their franchises they will already have paid an economic price for the franchise through, I hope, competitive tendering. If a levy is then to be made on large earnings, it should be upon profits not on revenue. I always thought that that was called tax. Any other system would simply be a disincentive to investment in exactly the kind of programme quality that we keep saying we want to see on the screen. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that point on board when he speaks.

I hope also that my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will respond to the real fears that have been expressed about the possibility that franchises may quickly become commodities or "millionaires' train sets" like some newpapers. I hope that my right hon. Friend will impose a two-year moratorium on sales or hostile takeover bids after the tender has been accepted.

If concern for the network has been very real, a much greater fear lies in the potential for the concentration of ownership. The prospect of national newspaper owners also controlling large chunks of the television industry is not appealing. It is a far cry from the co-operation between local papers and community radio, which I welcome and to which I referred earlier, to the prospect of major newspaper titles and terrestrial and satellite television stations all resting in the same News International plc, Maxwell Communications, United Newspapers plc, Pearson plc or Thomson International hands. We recently had a taste of cross-media ownership in promotion by The Times and The Sun of one particular satellite channel and their criticism of other existing stations. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us his thinking on that vital issue.

Up to now, I have confined my remarks to terrestrial broadcasting. Before leaving that subject I must recall that none of the programmes that we love or loathe would reach us at all were it not for the network of BBC and IBA transmitters. I have always been a staunch admirer of our engineering ability and an advocate of the privatisation of transmitter services. There is tremendous scope for the provision of transmitter systems, not only for television pictures, but also for data and voice telephony. However, I urge my hon. Friend to accept the well thought through submission that those two enterprises should be sold as entities in their own right and not broken up and disposed of piecemeal.

I have mentioned the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North in relation to the proposals for the future of Channel 4. I am certain that my hon. Friend's excellent report reached the only conclusion that was possible or available to him, given the brief to which he was working. The brief was to assess the proposals in the White Paper, but, significantly, the White Paper did not regard the status quo and the relationship between the Channel 3 companies and Channel 4 as an option.

There is a good case for not trying to mend something which is not broken. I understand that there is a need for competition for advertising and that our advertising rates are perhaps some 50 per cent. higher than those in America and Japan, and damaging to industry. However, competition will come from other sources—through Channel 5, cable and satellite channels.

We apparently opted for or are on the verge of opting for a half-way compromise where Channel 4 is recreated as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Independent Television Commission with a safety net income guaranteed in a roundabout way by its competitors on Channel 3, who will also be required to publicise its programmes. That makes no sense.

We have regarded the remit of Channel 4 rather like the Holy Grail. We should either leave the relationship as it is, which is one option, or hive off the non-commercial minority programming to our public service cornerstone, BBC 2, and have the courage to release Channel 4 on a fully competitive basis into the marketplace. Either solution would be more acceptable. With great respect to my hon. Friend and the new chairman of the IBA, who both suggested the same option 2 solution, the beast that they have chosen is not fish and may well prove foul.

Those of us who served a few years ago on the Cable and Broadcasting Bill did so with some pleasure. We believed that we were ushering in the dawn of an interactive cable service that would bring not only television, but home shopping, home medicine, home education, data services and voice telephony into every household. We have been sadly disappointed. With 20:20 hindsight, the country should have been cabled with broad band before British Telecom was sold. Now the all-important ducts—those expensive holes in the ground that are the greatest capital cost in the installation of the cable system—are in the hands of a private company, and progress is slow. The removal of capital allowances at a vital moment crippled the launch of cable, and restrictions on foreign inward investment have hampered developments further. Nevertheless, Aberdeen Cable, which was the first, now passes every house in Aberdeen, and Windsor and Croydon Cable will follow soon.

We are still in grave danger of infanticide. The White Paper proposals to prevent local delivery operators from selling programme services, now thankfully withdrawn, have damaged confidence in the industry still further. I continue to believe that interactive cable is the delivery system of tomorrow and must he given every encouragement. Unless we want to see at least one and possibly two or three satellite dishes on the roof of every block of flats or in every semi-detached garden, we must look to cable delivery for multi-channel choice.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)

I am listening to my hon. Friend with great care. He said that the proposals in the White Paper to separate the delivery of programmes on the cable network from retailing has damaged the industry even further. However, he made passing reference to the fact—perhaps he would like to expand on this—that recently we said that we would not insist on the separation of delivery from retailing. Does he agree that that has given somewhat greater encouragement to investors in the cable industry because it has shown that we are prepared to listen to consultation on the White Paper? Does he agree that, when the industry, which is, as he said, in relative infancy, has sensible and detailed opposition to our proposals, we have been prepared to think again?

Mr. Gale

I know from my friends in the industry that they are particularly grateful both for the way in which the Home Office has listened to their representations and for the fact that those proposals have now been withdrawn. The fact remains that there have been setbacks at almost every watershed in the history of cable. Just before the launch, the Government, for broader reasons—I accept that—withdrew capital allowances, which was undoubtedly a setback and a bar to investment. Restrictions were imposed on overseas investment and changes occurred and are occurring within the cable authority. Latterly, various other factors include British Telecom's reluctance in some cases to make its ducts available to other cable services, for wholly commercial reasons that we must accept. At a time when several foreign investors were showing considerable interest in our cable potential, as I hope they are again, that suggestion was just another factor that made them falter. As my hon. Friend said, the Government have withdrawn it, and I hope that the planned investment may now return.

Sadly, the industry is still reeling from the thought of what it regards as competition from satellite master antennae systems, which in common parlance are SMATV. They are systems where one satellite dish is placed on the roof of a block and is cabled downwards. The cable companies see satellite operators arriving to place dishes on the roofs of blocks of flats and to cable them, providing satellite services to the same blocks of flats that they had hoped to serve. I do not understand how long satellite companies can be expected to wait while cable systems are being built. The answer, surely, is to allow SMATV systems to be installed, but only through broad-band cable and that can later be connected to a full cable service from the bottom upwards. I cannot hut feel that, with a little harmony, the satellite and cable operators will have to co-operate and work together, now and most certainly in future. I believe passionately that satellite and cable systems should be complementary, not competitive.

The Home Affairs Select Committee argued in its report that to stimulate investment in broad-band cable we should allow overseas companies that have shown interest, particularly American ones, to take a major stake in some of our franchises and to blaze a trail. They have the money and the expertise.

In his statement to the House, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said: We hope to announce our views on this whole area before too long."—[Official Report, 27 April 1989; Vol. 151, c. 642.] In the light of his earlier intervention, can my hon. Friend the Minister tell us the news that we should like to hear—that foreign investors will be allowed to participate in cable in a major way? Perhaps he could also take a clear message to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that broad-band cable services must be allowed to compete with Telecom and Mercury for voice telephony services, not only locally but nationwide. In return, British Telecom and Mercury must be allowed to carry entertainment, if they wish.

I argued as a lone voice in the Select Committee that the Independent Television Commission should be not a television but a telecommunications authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North, as Chairman, put me firmly in my place by reminding me that that suggestion was out of order because the Home Affairs Select Committee has no power to consider Department of Trade and Industry matters. He will now see why I argued in that way. With the advent of the digital transmission of television pictures, television and voice telephony and data, much sooner than is perhaps generally recognised, will all be speaking the same digital interactive language. The effect of that on two-way communications through broad-band cable can be dramatic. Nicholas Mearing Smith, the chairman of the Cable Television Association was right when he said that we do not want a lot of "cheap and nasty" systems. We do not. We want the high-technology, interactive very best and it is still within our grasp. We cannot allow the protectionism of the Telecom-Mercury duopoly to stand in the way of that development within the cable industry.

My hon. Friends will be relieved to hear that I turn now to the final element of the motion, which is the need for a coherent policy for the promotion of United Kingdom and pan-European satellite services. I began with radio. Most of us in the Chamber can remember listening to Mr. James Savile, OBE broadcasting on crackly air waves the then latest pop music from Luxembourg. It is a nice irony that tiny Luxembourg, having captured our ears all that many years ago, it is now, through the Astra satellite, capturing Europe's eyes. RTL, the parent company of the old Radio Luxembourg, is casting its eyes towards British TV franchises to beam up to satellites after the sale of the independent companies.

If cable is the landline of the future, satellite, surely, is the broadcast transmission system. Why are BBC and ITV not carried by satellite? I am told that there are 904 existing transmitter sites in the United Kingdom, but there are still 1,441 areas in the United Kingdom with between 10 and 200 people living in them that cannot receive television at all. Satellite broadcasting could reach every one of those homes.

As the number of channels and choices grows, we have heard complaints that there will not be enough money to make good programmes to fill them all and that there will not be enough advertising or subscriptions to pay for them, because, as the critics say, there is still only an audience of 50 million people. However, there is an audience of 500 million people waiting for pan-European broadcasting by satellite which is a gargantuan audience for advertisers and for programme makers. If we in the United Kingdom do not satisfy that audience, the French, the Germans and the Italians—Signor Berlusconi—will.

I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will not rule me out of order, but I noticed with some amusement that, when the press received its copies of the report of the Select Committee on the Televising of Proceedings of the House, which we shall be debating shortly, the great intellect of the Gallery seized upon the diminutive fact that the Select Committee appeared to be restricting broadcasters, so that they might not show cut-away shots of nose-picking or sleeping hon. Members.

The viewing public should be able to see what those in the Public Gallery see, thundered the Evening Standard editorial. What the entire press corps blissfully overlooked was the much greater censorship that will be exercised by the editorial judgment of broadcasters, allowing the public to see only "scrap of the day" on the 9 o'clock news or "News at 10".

Before you do rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall come back very firmly to the debate. A dedicated satellite channel would allow anyone with the inclination to watch the entire proceedings of the House and would also serve as a distribution system for regional television and radio stations, as well as for continental stations. It can be done, and I shall hope to move that amendment in due course.

One person who has most certainly grasped the awesome potential of satellite broadcasting is my hon. Friend the Minister. It is not widely recognised, but it is very largely due to his personal powers of diplomacy that, in the week before last in Strasbourg, the Council of Europe transfrontier broadcasting convention was finally opened for signature. Without that convention, which he negotiated and which lays down international standards for taste, decency and advertising, we would have faced a free-for-all throughout Europe. Many countries in the Council of Europe—including the United Kingdom—have already signed. Significantly, perhaps, France, Germany and Italy have not yet done so, but I am sure that they will. There is at last in place a convention that will be applicable from Ankara to Lisbon and from Nicosia to Greenland, and will embrace everything in between. It will be up to each of the 23 countries of the Council of Europe to ensure that it is honoured, but we owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Minister for recognising the scale of the problem, getting to grips with it, and finding a solution.

The challenges and the opportunities of multi-channel broadcasting are considerable. However, we are in danger, without co-operation and clear strategy, of seeing British Satellite Broadcasting invest some £600 million in order to fight a different system run by Mr. Rupert Murdoch's Sky Channel on the Astra satellite. That can only be a financial and cosmic battle to the death; it is absolute madness. The viewer is not remotely concerned whether his television comes by satellite, terrestrial broadcasting or cable or down a piece of string with a tin can on the end. What matters to him is that the picture quality is high and that the programme standards are good. At the end of the day, that—along with a reasonable choice—is all that matters.

My hon. Friend the Minister managed to sort out the transfrontier convention, which took some doing. I challenge him, therefore, to work his magic on a satellite policy that will lead to, perhaps, one 80-channel super-Astra, which would bring with it not a demand for two or three different dishes to receive two or three different standards of transmission, but a superb choice of programmes, voice telephony and data. If he can take that on, I wish him well.

Some critics have said—and will no doubt continue to say—"Why can't you leave our TV alone?" Internationally, communications systems are developing. The game has moved on, and to do nothing is not an option. We can either lead—as we have done in the past—or we can follow. I hope that we shall continue, through our new legislative framework, to show a courageous lead.

10.5 am

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I am sure that we are all indebted to the hon. Member for Thanet, North, (Mr. Gale) for calling this debate, because this is an issue that cannot be debated enough. The decisions that the Government and the House will make in the next year or two will be of colossal importance.

Earlier this week we were debating the future of the Rose theatre where Shakespeare's plays were performed. There was an atmosphere of reverence and concern about the future of that ruin, because people realised that that site was important to our culture. I wish that we could have that same sense of reverence and concern about television broadcasting. Television is not a commodity to be bought and sold like any other commodity—it is an important reflector and stimulator of our culture. We must recognise that, sometimes by design and sometimes by accident, we have set up in this country something of cultural brilliance, which is admired throughout the world. Our system of broadcasting has managed to reflect and stimulate our culture extremely well. We should tamper with that system with great apprehension, though tamper with it we must, because satellite and cable, which are to be welcomed, will bring with them much more choice. However, we must ensure that we tamper with the system in a way that does not destroy what we have created.

Above all, we must ensure that people have a high quotient of enthusiastic programming. Programmes must not be passive, enabling people just to pass the time or get ready for sleep. They must be programmes that the citizen positively wants to see. It is possible to find such television programmes at present. We must start from the idea of producing top quality programmes. By that I do not mean esoteric art programmes, but the full range of programmes—drama, comedy and sport. We must recognise that for the great mass of people broadcasting is the major means by which our culture is reflected and stimulated. The importance of television is equivalent to the importance of books in times gone by.

It is therefore essential that television companies are left with sufficient resources to make and commission many quality programmes. Simply selling to the highest bidder and then exacting a levy on revenue will inevitably lead to less being spent on programmes, especially when the advertising revenue is unlikely to expand sufficiently quickly to meet all channels' needs. We must ensure that there is sufficient money left within the system to produce quality programmes.

One reference in the White Paper at which we should rejoice is: BBC Enterprises Ltd.—the world's largest exporter of television programmes". That has happened not by accident, but by design. In 10 years' time, however, shall we be able to say that that company is still the world's largest exporter of programmes? When one visits other countries people tend to talk about BBC programmes when they mean programmes produced by the British broadcasting system. That is a tremendous tribute to the independent television companies, and I am sure that the overseas sales of those companies rival those of the BBC.

We must ensure that broadcasting's enormous job-creating potential—it is not quite a sunrise industry—is maximised. It is easy to produce formula programmes, but it is dangerous and difficult to produce programmes which may fail. We must give the companies sufficient resources so that they may occasionally fail in order to reap the rewards from their industry, which will be of great importance to us in the future.

The Opposition will oppose the idea of selling franchises to the highest bidder. We all accept that the Government should receive income from the sale of spectrum space, which is a precious resource. We believe, however, that, having received a fair price, which is relatively easy to sort out, the Independent Television Commission should award the franchises to those companies making the strongest commitment to their localities and to those companies which have the most credibility in terms of the range and quality of programmes.

For someone representing a Scottish constituency, one of the depressing things about the White Paper is that in all 45 pages Scotland is not mentioned once. I am sure that that complaint could also be made about other regions. A kind of lip service is paid to regionalism, but we must go beyond that. The United Kingdom is made up of separate entities and it is essential for people to believe that their part of the United Kingdom is reflected in and stimulated by the system established. The thought, for example, that Scotland should simply be represented by one independent television company is not attractive. That would not reflect the diversity in Scotland.

Grampian television in its submission to the Government on the White Paper made an interesting and telling point—that it is the desert island choice of its viewers. If viewers were to choose one television company to take with them to a desert island—an island off the Highlands, one assumes—it would be Grampian. They would do so because that channel is the one that most frequently reflects and stimulates their local culture. That company is important to the Gaels because of the opportunities to hear their language and to see programmes of concern to them. It is also important because of its coverage of local politics and its coverage of what might be termed "minority" sports, but which are majority sports to the people of the region. That company is also important because of the community service that it offers.

It is crucial that any future system has within it companies whose ownership is held by a majority in Scotland. In that way, regional identity is reflected in a company's programmes because the people who control the company come from that region and feel for it. It is depressing that under the terms of the White Paper one can imagine having two television companies for Scotland owned by one multinational company with no loyalty or concern for the region. That does not represent competition or quality.

Mr. Renton

It is nice to hear the hon. Gentleman's voice again on a Friday, albeit on a different subject. The hon. Gentleman has said that the thought that there could be one independent television franchise covering the whole of Scotland is unacceptable, but no one has made such a suggestion. On the contrary, the IBA said in its submission on the White Paper that currently it thought that it would be sensible for the independent television regional franchise map to remain as at present. Although it accepted that the final decision rested with the ITC, it doubtless believed that the ITC would seriously ccnsider the IBA's suggestion. Last week, at the Conservative party conference in Perth, I spoke about broadcasting and I repeated that comment by the IBA. I said that I was certain that the ITC would give serious consideration to the IBA's suggestion when it came to decide the shape of regional franchises in 1991.

Mr. Worthington

The Minister's presence in Scotland last week was extremely welcome, as was the content of his speech. However, just because the Government do not put something in a White Paper does not mean that they will not go ahead and do it. To be narrowly party-political for a moment, during the previous election campaign the Government explicitly assured Scotland that there would be no opting-out of schools in Scotland, but a Bill to do just that is now going through the House. The Opposition must consider not only the White Paper, but what other thoughts might be going through the Government's mind.

Just before Christmas, the Minister said that there would be no cross-subsidisation within the system for transmission costs. Currently, Grampian television receives about £2 million a year in subsidisation costs from the rest of the network, which enables that company to flourish. When the Minister said that there would be no cross-subsidisation of transmission costs, he was actually saying that a company with similar boundaries to Grampian would be unable to survive in the future. If Grampian failed, the logical conclusion is that there would only be one Scottish television company. Perhaps the Minister will intervene to say that he will withdraw his previous statement.

Mr. Renton

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I take up his suggestion. The idea that he has just advanced is an over-simplification of the situation. He will know that we have commissioned Price Waterhouse to do a detailed study of the economics and mechanics of privatisation. We hope that that report will be available shortly and we hope to publish it.

The Independent Broadcasting Authority pointed out in its submission that the way to deal with the obviously greater cost of transmission in areas such as Grampian, where there are many transmission masts to cover a wide area, would be to relate the cost of transmission either to the number of households in the area or the percentage of net advertising revenue that the area or region had. It thus arrived at the concept that transmission costs should be related to the earning power of each transmission mast. That is not subsidisation; that is one possible way of dealing with the problem of a remote area such as Grampian, Borders or Television South West. I repeated in Perth last week that that is one of the suggestions that the Price Waterhouse report will consider.

Mr. Worthington

I am grateful for that intervention. It suggests that the depression caused by the Minister's remarks before Christmas about no cross-subsidisation of the system can be alleviated by the suggestion of flexibility. I regard it as essential for the system of the future that the principle of equality should be honoured. We should have a television system that costs the same for consumers anywhere in the United Kingdom, on the same principle that is applied to posting a letter within the United Kingdom. A first-class stamp costs 19p wherever it goes in the United Kingdom. It would not be acceptable for people who are part of the United Kingdom to pay different amounts for television services. It is an important element of our kingdom that some costs should be in common, rather than there should be a cheaper television system for the Greater London area, which is served by one transmitter at Crystal Palace and more expensive costs in Grampian, where there are eight main transmitters and 68 subsidiary transmitters. I hope that the Minister will ensure that we all belong to the United Kingdom in that sense.

The White Paper seems to encourage formidable forces of centralisation of control and production. In Scotland, we are extremely concerned that fewer programmes will be made there and that they will be of a lower quality. It was interesting and gratifying that the Minister suggested, when speaking in Perth—not being there, I have read only extracts of his speech—

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman would have been very welcome.

Mr. Worthington

It was good to hear the Minister saying in Perth that his mind was open to the possibility of Channel 5 headquarters being located in Scotland. At present, BBC1, BBC2, Channel 3 and Channel 4 are heavily focused on London. The Minister has said that his mind is open to there being a Scottish base, so I hope that he has not closed his mind to that base being in Glasgow, rather than Edinburgh, as he suggested last week. Scotland has about 10 or 11 per cent. of the United Kingdom population, but only 3 to 4 per cent. of the investment in programme making is in Scotland. It is important that we set up a system that brings about more equality in programme making.

One can see where job creation in the new satellites is going. According to The Guardian a few months ago, Sky television has about 400 employees. British Satellite Broadcasting has about 500 employees.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

And half the number of viewers.

Mr. Worthington

It is no longer the case that Sky has half as many viewers as employees because its employees have now been given a satellite dish and thus the number of viewers has been dramatically increased—or at least the number of potential viewers.

The essential point is that Sky employs several hundred people, BSB employs about 500 people and W. H. Smith employs about 100 people in its television concerns. Those jobs are centred heavily in the south-east of England. It is important that quality jobs should be spread out more equally throughout the United Kingdom in future. We do not want to have only satellite riggers jobs in future; we want to have quality production jobs as well.

At present, there are 3,000 quality jobs in Scotland, but the major problem is that Scotland simply does not speak to Britain. There are too few outlets in the network. In wider political terms, it is simply not good for our television output to be so heavily metropolitan. That is not simply a Scottish point, but a regional point. There is an imbalance at present and our new system should be seeking to rectify that imbalance. In 1988, Scottish independent programme producers produced 2.25 per cent. of the total hours by independents to Channel 4. They sold 15 minutes to the ITV network and nothing to the BBC. Scotland does not want simply to be a conduit for programmes made elsewhere. That is damaging to Scotland and damaging to the kingdom.

The hon. Member for Thanet, North has already made a point that I feel fairly confident that all hon. Members who speak in the debate today will make. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the alarm felt about the mixture of newspaper control and television control. I can see no reason why anyone should have more than one newspaper or more than one television channel. To go beyond that brings us into dangerous territory. Surely no hon. Member in the Chamber—I am not referring to the dozen or so here this morning, but to all 650—could be happy about the consequences of the development of our national newspaper industry. Surely we realise that there are grave dangers in 70 per cent. of our national newspaper output being in the hands of three people. We must take this opportunity to ensure that there is a positive ban on the people who already control too much of our press being in control of our television system as well.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

To support the point that Conservative Members also share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman's view on the following. It seems that, as the discussions about satellite broadcasting continue, we have an unprecedented situation in which major newspapers—both the popular and the so-called "quality" end—are writing articles and editorials in support of satellite broadcasting companies which can be of no interest. Those newspapers cannot write anything that does not support those companies for self-evident financial reasons. Thus we already have a major distortion of the debate on the functioning of satellite broadcasting, by virtue of the unhealthily close links between certain newspaper owners and the satellite broadcasting companies.

Mr. Worthington

I am grateful for that point. A few weeks ago, I introduced the Right of Reply Bill. Newspaper proprietors said that, because of that Bill, financial editors would be unable in future to voice their concern about certain companies. On certain major newspapers in this country, financial editors already do not utter their worries about some companies; they cannot, because they are controlled by those self-same companies. That is a sort of censorship.

In the White Paper on broadcasting there is much praise for the BBC, which is described as the cornerstone of the system. The White Paper departs from what the Home Affairs Select Committee, of which I am privileged to be a member, said about the BBC and ITV. As I remember it, our report stated that the foundation of the system should be BBC1 and BBC2, and Channel 3 and Channel 4. They should form the four-track central core of the new system, wedded to the principles of public service broadcasting. I fear that the consequence of the proposals in the White Paper will be that the BBC is marginalised and ghettoised, as has happened in other parts of the world in which only a limited part of the system has public service responsibilities.

This will apply especially if the Government carry out their threat to remove the licence fee in a few years' time and replace it with subscription. Many people connected with ITV, and others concerned about future viewing, have written to me to say that Channels 3 and 4 must retain their public service broadcasting commitments.

Around them we can build Channel 5 and the satellites. It should not be the sole responsibility of the BBC to carry forward public service broadcasting.

My preference for Channel 4 is the status quo. That seems to be logical; it is a proven system. The Home Affairs Select Committee did not even consider the status quo because it was ruled out by the White Paper. We took the line—rightly or wrongly—that we should look at the best of the rest. We wondered how we could save this success story, given that the Government seem to have ruled out the very means by which it was created—an illogical act. I cannot see how Channel 4 can maintain its success if it is thrown on the open market—it will lose its remit. Its remit is crucial, and it needs to be attached to the Channel 3 companies.

I believe that we face not a threat but an opportunity. We undoubtedly have a great chance to build on the huge success of British broadcasting and to stimulate programme making of high quality in this country. If we put programme making at the centre of the new structure we can achieve that. This will include giving a much greater role to the independent programme makers, whose influence is growing.

The White Paper does not seem to recognise how producing programmes in a particular area can stimulate its culture. In Scotland, there is a soap opera called "Take the High Road", which is certainly not as successful as the appalling "Neighbours". However, it is of great value to the area in that a £1 million pay roll is associated with the programme, money which goes into the greater Glasgow area and stimulates musical, dramatic and creative activity there.

It is no accident that Glasgow is to be the European city of culture in 1990. Some good local authorities have put in a great deal of work, and so have the local theatres, but the bedrock of all this is the investment in programme making in Glasgow by the television companies, which has had spin-off effects in related activities in the west of Scotland.

Programme making, and reflecting and stimulating local culture—

Mr. Renton

May I take the hon. Gentleman up on his point about independent producers in Scotland? I have been following what he said with great interest, and he has a real point. I add, in passing, that "Take the High Road" is a good, interesting soap opera. I happened to meet one of its lady stars on her bicycle in the Hebrides last summer and we discussed the programme at some length—but that is incidental.

It surprises me that, outside London, Scotland has the greatest number of independent producers in the Kingdom—it has about 50 of them. Yet, as the hon. Gentleman said, they put on only 3 per cent. of the programmes on the network, although 10 per cent. of our population live in Scotland. As a Scottish Member, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, while there is a great deal of creativity and talent in Scotland, at times there is too much of a tendency to make Scottish programmes with too much tartan flavour, which are therefore unacceptable to the national network? Scottish independent producers might sell more programmes outside Scotland and throughout Europe if they produced programmes that were sometimes rather less Scottish.

Mr. Worthington

I was going to conclude, but the Minister has opened up many different avenues. It is enlightening to discover that Government policy is framed as a result of meetings on bicycles in the Hebrides—

Mr. Renton

It was consultation.

Mr. Worthington

It is unsatisfactory that the concentration of programme makers in Scotland do not seem to get a fair share of the network; the fault may lie with them as well as with the system.

The difficulty about the Scottishness of programmes is that the best programmes always have real local integrity. Borders can be crossed if a programme has cultural integrity. Mid-Atlantic programmes with no roots in a particular locality never work, so some programmes made in Scotland which are distinctively Scottish would have multinational appeal because of their cultural identity, but if a programme maker made a programme about meeting a Minister while bicycling in the outer Hebrides, it would have limited appeal for a continental audience. I agree that sometimes programmes can be too esoteric.

We must recognise this great opportunity to spread programme making more fairly around the United Kingdom and to ensure that it reflects and stimulates local culture. That has already started under the present system, but it could go much further. I repeat my gratitude to the hon. Member for Thanet, North for giving us the chance to have this debate and I look forward to the speeches by other hon. Members.

10.39 am
Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I am also a cyclist but I confess that there is a degree of difference between the nature of the accosting that may occur between the Minister of State and people in the Hebrides and that which occurs in Bayswater. The debate is not about such entertainments: it is on a more serious subject.

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngravie (Mr. Worthington) because he contributes to the work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in a quite exceptional way. He brings to it his experience of Scotland, which is invaluable to the work of the Committee, and also his talent for common sense and wisdom for which we are all grateful.

I shall later comment in detail on the themes raised by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. They clearly illustrate the role of the Select Committee on Home Affairs because the work of that Committee is not only to monitor the expenditure and responsibilities of the Home Department. When it examines policy matters it inevitably ranges over the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. Broadcasting, although primarily the responsibility of the Home Department, is nevertheless a United Kingdom subject. It concerns the whole country and a range of Government Departments.

The hon. Gentleman made some important comments about ownership, and I share some of his anxieties. I recognise the importance to him and to Scotland of the contribution that broadcasting can make to Scotland and the contribution that Scotland can make to broadcasting. The Select Committee on Home Affairs report on broadcasting was especially concerned to deal with regional broadcasting. It is very important to us all and the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie made some important comments on it.

I shall now look into my pork barrel of words to see what I can say about my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). He too is a most distinguished member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and his sparkle and independence of thought enlivens us all, especially in our private debates when we formulate the recommendations for our reports, He is a broadcaster of great distinction and for that reason his contribution to the debate and to the work of the Committee is of special significance. It is interesting to note that there are in the Chamber hon. Members—certainly some of my hon. Friends—who have also had professional experience of broadcasting and their contributions will be of special value.

I shall venture for a moment into the work of the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House on which my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North had the arduous responsibility to serve. Despite the importance of the debate there is just one Back-Bench Opposition Member in the Chamber. I do not criticise Opposition Members for that because it is not central to the point that I wish to make. There are seven Conservative Members in the Chamber, and if the debate were to be televised to the full extent it would convey to the public a misrepresentation about the way that we think and feel about broadcasting. However, the work that is done in the secret places of the Palace, in the Committee Rooms, over many months and in which so many of us in the Chamber this morning play a part, is often far more significant than the great general debates that we suffer and sometimes enjoy in the Chamber.

That is important because in its report on broadcasting the Select Committee on Home Affairs struck a number of chords. All of us on the Committee were pleased that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Department were able to accept so many of our recommendations and incorporate them in the White Paper. It is to be hoped that they will appear in the legislation to be placed before the House after the Queen's Speech in the autumn.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North has made a special contribution to policy. That is because he also serves the interests of the United Kingdom and the House in the Council of Europe where he has been able to convey his knowledge of this subject with considerable effect. That has helped the Council to arrive at a united approach about standards throughout the Community. I congratulate my hon. Friend on having the wisdom to initiate this debate and on the work that he has done on behalf of the country in this important field.

Before concentrating on some important matters of detail, I shall turn to the work of my hon. Friend the Minister. I can think of no one who has done more to ensure that the United Kingdom interests in the Council of Europe and in the Community are kept to the fore in broadcasting policy. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North pay such a handsome tribute to the Minister in recognition of what he has achieved for all of us under the most trying and difficult circumstances. We owe the Minister a great debt of gratitude and I am sure that all hon. Members will echo that sentiment.

I shall not take up some of the themes that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North so ably touched upon. However, I should like to look in particular at two issues in the current debate about the future of broadcasting—the issues of cross-ownership in media outlets and the future of Channel 4. Cross-ownership, by which I mean cross-control rather than cross-investment, is addressed in a rather sketchy way in the White Paper. Since last November events have thrown the issue into sharper relief. Many broadcasting organisations and groups such as the CBI and the Consumers' Association have expressed the view that the proposals do not go far enough. I share that view and it is a clear theme of the debate.

It is a long established principle of policy that the ownership of media should not be concentrated in a few hands. This is reflected in the special provisions relating to the powers of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in relation to newspaper ownership and in the number of ITV franchises that one company can hold. The undesirability of cross-control of outlets is recognised in local markets, in the prohibition of companies owning both local newspapers and independent local radio stations and in the limit on the size of shareholding that a newspaper company may have in an ITV contractor.

Limited cross-media investment has always been accepted at around 20 per cent. maximum holding, but has been carefully policed. The Government's White Paper pledged continuing support for the principle—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in January stressed the Government's determination on this—not to allow British television to fall under the sway of international media conglomerates. Given that such groups have been in part associated with the decline in press ethics and standards, which have exercised the House in recent weeks, my right hon. Friend's remarks were particularly welcome.

So why are continuing controls over cross-ownership necessary? Why do other countries such as the United States, Australia and now Italy, which the Home Affairs Committee visited, see the need for them? First, because they underpin the principle of pluralism in guaranteeing diversity of control over information sources and, secondly, because they reflect the importance of fair competition and of such separation since newspapers, television and radio are, in large part, the very gatekeepers to the market place.

Cross-control of the media is wrong in principle and creates a situation in which mischief can take a hold. It can lead to a distortion of fair competition and to a lack of objective reporting, both of which are contrary to the public interest. Distortion of competition can arise since there are a number of ways in which cross-subsidy or cross-promotion can take place within such integrated groups. Free advertising is only the most obvious example of this, and it amounts to several million pounds worth annually.

This distortion of coverage can arise because pressure might be directly applied to journalists to write favourably about their proprietor's television interests, or to avoid covering embarrassing stories. Perhaps more insidiously, the journalists may come to practice self-censorship. These developments may, in turn, lead to newspaper readers being fed a partial view of events or to the mixing of editorial coverage with promotional material. The problem is compounded—it also runs wholly contrary to the Government's desire, professed in the White Paper, to avoid the uniformity of editorial line—if newspaper editors are simultaneously senior television executives, or vice versa.

These issues have been brought into focus in recent months with the launch of Sky Television controlled by News International, which already owns 35 per cent. Of our national newspapers, with the tabling of early-clay motion 434 and with reports from the European Institute for the Media and the Broadcasting Research Unit. It: is not a coincidence that, among the quality newspapers, only The Times, a Murdoch newspaper, publishes the schedules of Sky Television.

A lacuna has developed in the law. The Government have made it clear that they regard cross-control of the media as undesirable. I applaud the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on this matter, which showed sensitivity to the genuine concern felt about the issue on both sides of the House. That speech applied only to what the White Paper termed Channel 3, Channel 5 and the non-direct broadcasting by satellite franchises. The controls do not apply, but should apply to those services using a medium-power satellite and directing programme services primarily at this country. If cross-control of the media is a bad thing, then such control should apply regardless of whether the service is transmitted terrestrially, by high-powered satellite or by medium-power satellite.

The argument could be advanced that new medium-power satellite services command only tiny audiences, and that they can safely be left alone, but this applies almost equally to the national DBS series and seems to say that such services should be allowed to grow, and once they have grown, after several years, they should then be ma de subject to controls. This seems somewhat unfair to investors in such services.

I hope that, in reply to the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for broadcasting, will say how the Government will address this problem. Without wishing to pre-empt him, I must say that this is not: a matter that should be left solely to the discretion of the Independent Television Commission except in so far as it is responsible for enforcing principles clearly set out in the legislation. I also hope that the report of the Office of Fair Trading on media ownership will be available to inform on the drawing up of the broadcasting Bill.

It is wrong to argue that since such medium-power services do not use national frequencies, the Government are powerless, particularly if the services are based in, linked up to, or financed from this country, or would expect coverage on cable or multi-point video distribution system services here. Safeguards could bite on any of these points in the last resort. If all else failed, the newspaper interests of any group seeking to defy the rules laid down by Parliament could be brought into question, with divestment available if necessary.

In the longer term, it would be sensible to put in place an agreed European Community framework on the issue since broadcasting will become less controllable within the national borders. A holding of, say, 25 per cent., in a television station should be the maximum permitted to any large-scale national newspaper proprietor.

I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to announce how they intend to uphold the principles of preventing cross control across the range of broadcasting services directed into British homes. This is now a pressing problem, and a failure to resolve it satisfactorily risks casting a shadow over the excellent elements in the forthcoming broadcasting Bill.

My other concern, which the House has already debated this morning, concerns the future of Channel 4. My Committee reported recently unanimously, in the unavoidable absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North—an absence that, upon reflection, the House might think was fortuitous from the point of view of the Committee reaching a unanimous decision. We support both principles annunciated by the Government in the White Paper—maintenance of the distinctive remit of Channel 4 and the separate selling of advertising. We recommended the one option in the White Paper that would achieve both those aims, namely, that Channel 4 should become a non-profit making subsidiary of the ITC with a financial guarantee in reserve. It is no good making Channel 4 fully independent, but denying it the financial base to sustain its remit because, ultimately that would mean a new national commercial channel without the variety and diversity presently brought to television by Channel 4. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to resist demands to maximise the revenue available from the fourth channel, because to do so would destroy all that Channel 4 has achieved.

The Select Committee found a wide range of agreement on its proposal for the future funding of Channel 4, including that of Mr. George Russell, the chairman of the IBA and designate chairman of the ITC. Indeed, there was much favourable comment upon our proposals. It is, perhaps, unusual in such issues to have such widespread support. It would ill serve the best interests of British broadcasting if that united opinion on future funding were to be lightly ignored. I wish to share in the congratulations expressed by the House on the appointment of Mr. Russell to those important posts at a time when we are shaping the future of broadcasting. He is the right man to lead the regulatory and supervisory authorities.

I conclude on a personal note. Hon. Members may note that I am wearing the tie of the police college. At noon today the Home Affairs Committee will introduce a major report on the police college and higher police training, including many significant and, inevitably, controversial recommendations. Even as we debate in this Chamber, the massed ranks of the constabulary, accompanied by the media, are foregathering in the Upper Committee Corridor to hear what the future holds for them. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if, through necessity, I withdraw to attend to those other duties on behalf of the Home Affairs Committee—quite naturally unsupported by many hon. Members who, perforce, are obliged to remain in the Chamber.

11.3 am

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me relatively early in the debate. I regret that I, too, cannot stay for the whole of it, for which I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister and to right hon. and hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and I have often worked together in broadcasting. More recently, we both served on the Select Committee considering the televising of the House. I congratulate him on serving the House well by introducing this important subject of the development of the broadcasting industry and the technology that goes with it.

I am grateful for the 12 years of worthwhile experience that I gained working as a reporter and presenter for the BBC. However, for a long time I have been conscious of a duopoly at work between the BBC and ITV, which perhaps has continued for too long. There is a real need for much greater opportunities to break out in broadcasting. Some of us well remember the resistance to change when ITV first appeared. Although I was not in the House at that time, many hon. Members and many people in the media and in broadcasting, especially in the BBC, were concerned about its emergence. Now, it is very much a part of our lives.

Technology is moving very quickly—hence the appropriate nature of the motion and also the timing of the White Paper introduced some months ago. Even during the Select Committee's 15 months of deliberations on televising the House, the technology of cameras and lighting moved ahead quickly. When we began our deliberations, we were told that certain requests relating to the size of cameras in the Chamber and the style of lighting that would confront hon. Members could not be met. However, because of the probing, the pressure and some cajoling by the Select Committee, it appears that we are now on the brink of extremely advanced technology that will be available when the House begins the experiment.

Several points emerged from the White Paper, and they have been raised this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North and other hon. Members. We all agree that the BBC is the cornerstone of British broadcasting. It was the true beginning of British broadcasting and, for many years, the institution that developed broadcasting in this country. The White Paper expressed the view that, at times, the BBC tried to take on too much and that it should accept and embrace changes. I welcome the White Paper's view, so far as it goes, that the BBC should be subject to subscription and sponsorship, although the Government are moving too slowly towards a point where the BBC might have some form of advertising revenue support.

I accept that, at the beginning of British broadcasting, a licence fee to support the BBC was an obvious method of finance, and that system worked well for a long time. However, we have now reached the point when we should be taking a much closer look at the need to continue this kind of revenue support. Old-age pensioners in my constituency regularly tell me that they believe that the licence fee is too high. That applies even to pensioners who have only a black and white receiver, but they certainly believe that the fee for colour televisions is too much.

My pensioners consider what is available on the BBC to see what they are paying for. Why should an old-age pensioner's licence fee contribute to a programme like "Neighbours" on the public broadcasting network? That must be the kind of programme which could be paid for from advertising, sponsorship or a subscription service.

Pensioners also consider chat and variety shows. They are aware of the reports of the extremely inflated fees paid to presenters, especially those who chair BBC chat shows. They wonder why their licence fees should pay for the salaries of Mr. Wogan and his colleagues. I have nothing against Mr. Wogan—he is an extremely entertaining and skilful broadcaster—but it is odd that we should still have to fund his salary and programmes such as his from the licence fee.

Various negotiations are carried out for the television rights to cover sports events. I have a fairly intimate knowledge of that, having been a Minister responsible for sport. I never cease to be amazed at the fact that the BBC can use the licence fee to enter competitions involving many thousands of pounds for the rights to televise a football match or an athletics event. It uses that money against the massed financial ranks of the independent companies, which have advertising revenue behind them. It is obvious that providing such sports coverage should logically be funded from subscription, sponsorship or advertising. As my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Department think about moving towards legislation later this year, I hope that they will give further thought to how the BBC should be funded.

Mr. Gale

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, it is worth placing on the record the fact that, while the BBC thought it necessary to impose a 10 per cent. cut in the funding of some local radio stations, it could find £50 million at the drop of the hat to bid for some football matches.

Mr. Tracey

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; he has highlighted my point. He represents a more rural constituency than mine and he will appreciate the harm which has been caused by the cut in local radio station funding. I feel strongly that some of the economies imposed on broadcasting services even within Greater London should equally be criticised by the House.

I join many hon. Members in expressing concern and criticism about the White Paper's comments on independent franchises. I agree that there should be competition for independent franchises; there is nothing to replace that. However, the quality of the programming of independent companies may be damaged if we pursue tender from the highest bidder. After some years of working in broadcasting, I do not believe that television and broadcasting in general lends itself to that form of competition.

There should certainly be a range of competing companies offering themselves on the basis of the structure of their programming and their ability. However, I do not believe that the Government would be serving the viewing public if they agreed that the tender should go to the highest bidder.

I agree with a point raised most tellingly by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) and also referred to briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) about the concentration of interests in the media. It is a source of great concern to me that the editor of The Sunday Times is also the chairman of Sky Television. Admittedly, the journalist in question is an old friend of many of us in this place. However, it is extraordinary that the same man should be the editor of a very well-respected and influential national Sunday newspaper and also the chairman of an emerging satellite channel. There may be great dangers there.

It is possible that a media company may own major national newspapers and a satellite channel and that it might advertise and report on the emergence of that channel. People must question whether the comments of a newspaper which owns a satellite channel can be entirely impartial. I do not believe that they can. The Government must consider the concentration of ownership across the media. I am sure that that will be the case, judging from what my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office have said outside the House.

I welcome the work being done by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office in seeking guarantees of quality and decency across continental boundaries with the emergence of satellite technology. Last year, I was present at an international conference which expressed considerable concern about the possibility of beaming programmes, some of which were indecent or loaded with propaganda, from one country to another country which did not want to receive them. I hope that the Government will continue to press with all their energy for guarantees of quality through the Council of Europe, the European Commission, and even United Nations if that becomes necessary.

My final point concerns maintaining technical standards among the developing industry's employees. I have corresponded with my hon. Friend the Minister on the subject of an extremely useful paper by John Grist., a very experienced broadcaster and a former member of the BBC, who last year was the visiting fellow at Wolfson college, Cambridge. Realising the way the technology is developing and that the boundaries are being pushed out, Mr. Grist gave his views on the need for the Government to consider seriously the training of people entering the industry. He suggested that the Government should consider seriously a television training commission, which would be widely funded by all those involved in broadcasting.

In the past, training has been undertaken by the BBC and by the independent companies, but with the widening of boundaries across the industry, Mr. Grist is right to state that we should seriously consider establishing a training commission so that the existing standards of excellence are maintained in the future.

I welcome both today's debate and the continuing debate about the future of broadcasting in this country. I repeat that we owe a great debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North for raising the subject this morning.

11.21 am
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) on initiating the debate. He has a distinguished record in television and radio broadcasting, and the way in which he advanced his views and made several important points this morning only adds to that distinction.

Today's debate has been most interesting, in stark contrast to the sterile debate on the broadcasting White Paper. I am entitled to make that remark because I took part in that earlier sterile debate myself. Many more ideas have been presented today, and I say that hoping that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is to speak for the Labour party, will himself make a less sterile speech today than he did before. I shall try to do so as well.

I share the congratulations expressed to my hon. Friend the Minister on his significant contribution to the convention on transfrontier broadcasting. Demands for such a document were made in many publications last year, including that of my political friends in the Tory Reform Group. I am delighted that the convention includes many of the provisions that they sought. That is a significant step and forms the basis on which deregulation can take place.

I take a simple view of deregulation. It is not a matter of whether one wants or strives for deregulation, because it will come anyway as a consequence of new technology and because people wish to invest money in new forms of broadcasting and in new television channels. That development requires a framework to ensure that we get the very best from that situation, and the agreement reached by my hon. Friend the Minister will be looked back on as an important part of that framework.

As to the future of broadcasting, it is clear that protectionism will not work. I hope that before any broadcasting Bill comes before the House, we shall hear less and less about protectionism and about defending the existing system from any innovations. That attitude will not ensure that we get the best out of broadcasting in the future.

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) in respect of sports coverage and sponsorship. Although the BBC has limited resources, it is compelled to put up large sums of money to guarantee the coverage of certain sporting events on its channels. At the same time, because a duopoly exists, there is an artificial restriction on the amount of money that flows from television into sport. As a cricket fan, I would be devastated if cricket coverage were cut, because that would dent my viewing enjoyment. Why should so little money flow into what I regard as being our national game? Now that other programme makers will be bidding for cricket coverage more money should flow into it, which must be a good thing.

Another area that the White Paper does not address but which I hope we can debate when a Bill comes before the House is regional coverage. The regional structure of the BBC and of the ITV companies makes no sense other than in the minds of the people who created it. Rather than see regional television, which often involves pouring out programmes of little local interest enshrined in legislation, I would like to see it address the development of truly local broadcasting. The output of both BBC and ITV in the southern region, for example, can be described only as schizophrenic. The companies cannot decide from minute to minute whether they are serving Brighton or Southampton, and goodness knows what is thought of the service by people living in other towns in that region.

There is no reason why Brighton and Southampton should not have their own broadcasting service, which could incorporate network programmes such as "Coronation Street" and "News at Ten". But they could also transmit their own local news bulletins. That would be possible to achieve using cable, the multipoint video distribution system, or the spare broadcasting frequencies that are now available. Such truly local transmissions would help viewers in Liverpool or Manchester, for example, enjoy a genuinely coherent service with programming that meets their local needs.

As to Channel 5, I sympathise of course with Scottish viewers who wish to receive the service in their country. However, what is more important is that far too large a proportion of television programming is London dominated. It is important that Channel 5 is based well away from London. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that certain northern cities also have a claim to be the home of Channel 5. Bradford has a claim and must be considered as a major bidder. It is geographically well-sited and already has the National Film and Television museum. It would be a good home for Channel 5 and I hope that it will be given the same consideration as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Radio inevitably tends to be a minority part of our discussions. There are many programming strands to which I and my constituents would like to listen. Those strands may include programmes for ethnic minorities, jazz, different sorts of plays, more sporting commentary or different types of pop music. Many minorities need to be catered for. It is absurd and insulting to the intelligence of listeners that, particularly on commercial radio, several frequencies put out the same programmes on certain days of the week. That must not be allowed. We must make the best use of the frequencies available. There must be only one frequency broadcasting a particular programme, not three or four which is what occurs now, especially on a Sunday. We must meet as many of the programming needs as possible.

Unlike many hon. Members, I do not believe that the licence fee for the BBC has come to the end of its life. We must look for a new lease of life for the licence fee. I say that in the context of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton. I agree with him that the BBC should take advertising. I do not agree that a public service broadcasting system should not show "Neighbours" or Terry Wogan and people like that. The BBC should broadcast a full range of programmes. However, why should that not be supported by advertising, particularly when, as I have said before—it has been confirmed to me—the standing instruction to the people doing the programme links at the BBC is to make them look as much like advertising as possible? Therefore, how can it be said that advertising would dent the quality of the BBC? It is irrational. Therefore, the BBC should, if necessary be forced to take advertising, and the licence fee should be used for something different.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Surely the BBC already advertises. I was listening to Radio 2 in the car yesterday and I heard a link announcement asking for people to join the volunteer bureau of the BBC for which a payment was to be made. Is that not advertising? Why should it be concealed in that way?

Mr. Hughes

That is an important additional point and shows the nonsense of the campaign conducted by the BBC and others against the acceptance of advertising. It is already there. We should press our point and ensure that the BBC takes advertising properly and gains from the revenue that would come from it.

As I have said, the licence fee needs a new lease of life. We should ensure that we have the quality of public service broadcasting that we talk about in these debates. That is important. Also important are strands of broadcasting that may not attract a large number of viewers. Such programmes do not necessarily have to be shown only on the BBC. They could be spread across different broadcasting outlets such as the ITV channels, Channel 5, the cable networks or the satellite channels. We do not know how much the cable networks or satellite channels will grow. We know what has happened so far but we do not know what will happen in the future. Those outlets could provide programmes recommended by bodies such as the Arts Council or other organisations and could be financed from the proceeds of the licence fee. That would involve a large amount of money and could do a great deal of good. The licence fee is easy to collect and it is relatively cheap. We should not abandon it too easily.

ITV is running an expensive advertising campaign on its own network to the tune of "Just the way you are". ITV probably made a mistake and intended to use, "Who wants to be a Millionaire". It is not seeking to protect the viewer or to say, "We are offering viewers what they want and they should ensure that we can continue as we are." If that were true, the audience would not be decreasing year after year. The audience figure is much lower now than five or 10 years ago. If ITV was providing what the viewer wanted, it would not be worried.

My point has been illustrated in a speech circulated to hon. Members by the ITV Association. The speech was made by Richard Dunn, the managing director of Thames Television and chairman of the [TV Association. He lets the cat out of the bag and we are grateful to the ITV Association for circulating it. Far from seeking to protect viewers, it wants to protect its income. It wants to ensure that it is providing what the advertisers want. In his speech Mr. Dunn quotes Ray Snoddy the distinguished critic. In an article in Media Week Mr. Snoddy said that as a result of the auctioning of franchises and the separation of Channel 4 the advertisers will get the worst of all possible worlds—fragmentation of audiences, increasing costs and possibly fewer of the right people watching commercial TV at all. Who are the right people? Are not all people equal when they watch television?

Richard Dunn went on to say: The lighter, more discriminating viewers could certainly be lost to the BBC or to those of the new subscription satellite channels that are successful. In my judgment, the result of all this turmoil could well be a reduction in the size and quality of the audience available to advertisers. That does not display much care for viewers.

Mr. Corbett

In all fairness, we should say that Mr. Dunn gave that speech to an advertising audience.

Mr. Hughes

I accept that, but I have seen nothing from the ITV Association or the television companies that contradicts the points made in the speech. ITV is more interested in its balance sheet and advertisers than in its viewers.

Much has been said about the BBC with which I concur. It has been called the cornerstone of quality for television and radio and we would be foolish to abandon it. We need the BBC. We would not have our high quality independent television without the BBC. Sky Television would not be broadcasting what most people accept is a reasonable news service if it did not have to compete with BBC and ITN.

The BBC needs to examine the way in which it is organised. There have been a series of strikes by BBC staff. It is easy to blame the staff who go on strike. As a former BBC insider, I have to say that the frustration of the staff is great. They are frustrated at the way in which the BBC is organised, the decisions that are made and the money wasted by employing too many people in some areas and cutting back while demanding more in areas that are already working hard. When the people at the top of the BBC are receiving enormous pay rises but the pay rise suggested for the staff is below the rate of inflation, their frustration is understandable, especially when one considers that they are already substantially underpaid compared with people working in the independent sector, or facility companies. I hope that the BBC board of governors will look closely at what is happening at senior management level before it blames staff for going on strike.

If one needs evidence of gaps in the quality of management at the BBC, one has only to look at the evidence that was given to the Select Committee which considered televising the proceedings of the House. That Select Committee, on which I had the honour to serve, would not have taken so long to come to its conclusions if the original evidence given by the BBC and ITN—but mainly the BBC—had not been inadequate, disingenuous, wrong, and scribbled on the back of an envelope before their witnesses went before the Committee. They led the Committee down a garden path down which it was riot prepared to go. We had to take a long time to examine the best way of televising the proceedings of the House. Before editorial writers and broadcasters criticise what has been said by the Select Committee, they should look at the original evidence, as published by the BBC and the ITN.

An important point is not mentioned often enough. The deaf can neither listen to radio nor get much enjoyment out of television. The BBC and ITN have done well in increasing the amount of sub-titling, but what they have done is not enough. There needs to be substantially more sub-titling. The deaf have a right to access to news and current affairs programmes. Channel 4 already has sub-titling, and the BBC has promised that it will sub-title the 9 o'clock news. The deaf have an urgent right to such subtitling. Before the Bill comes forward, my hon. Friend the Minister should look at that important subject and decide the key to getting more sub-titling on television, of course, mainly through the Ceefax and Oracle systems. Do the Government have a responsibility to that vulnerable group of people and to allow funds to ensure that we can increase programme sub-titling? What pressure can we put on broadcasters?

Another matter is not for the Minister but for new broadcasters. If the BBC and ITV are moving slowly on the matter, can satellite broadcasters provide some of the sub-titling that is missing from other programmes and attract people to Sky Television or to British Satellite Broadcasting? We should have that important subject in mind when we consider the proposals in the Bill next year. If we say, "We hope that it will happen, but there is nothing that we can do about it," we will let down a vulnerable group of people who have no means of fighting back or of prosecuting their case. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point.

I apologise that I, too, will not be able to stay for the remainder of the debate, as I must go to my constituency. However, I welcome the debate and hope that many of the ideas that have been put forward will find their way into the legislation.

11.43 am
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Unlike my colleagues, who have apologised because they must depart before the end of the debate, I apologise for not having been here at the beginning. As you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, there are medical reasons for my absence. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly welcome the debate as an opportunity to continue the little campaign to which some hon. Members have subscribed from time to time, which is taming the BBC and abolishing the licence.

Some of my distinguished colleagues have spoken from great personal knowledge. I cannot claim to have their depth of knowledge, but, when I worked at the BBC in the 1950s, technology was not quite like it is today. We broadcast programmes live, and we were not subjected to competition from ITV because it did not exist. Nor did we have quite the same freedom. When I appeared in the very first soap opera, "The Grove Family", we made certain that there was no advertising in the sets that were being used. For example, the word "Kellogg" on the cornflakes box was cut out, and the label on the coffee bottle was scratched so that one could not read the word "Camp". Viewers used to sit at home and say, "I wonder what they are cutting out." Of course, common sense ultimately prevailed; we did not have to cut out or mask such words, and the Kellogg cornflakes box stood on the table. I am sure that there was a dramatic effect on Kellogg's sales.

I recently achieved in a pyrrhic victory in the form of a television licensing concession as it related to aged persons. It sounded marvellous. Judging by the way is was written up by The People, one would have thought that I had rediscovered the wheel. I want the result to be clarified in Hansard so that my colleagues who have not written to me need not bother to do so.

We opened a new old people's complex, and the housing association did not classify it under the category 2 regulations. It admitted some elderly people who, under the law, did not qualify as aged as such. They ranged from 55 to 58 years of age. As a consequence, everyone was disqualified from holding a concessionary licence. After listening to my pleas or reading the small print—perhaps it found that it had a heart—the Home Office changed its view. Those pensioners who had moved from another old people's home were able to take their privilege with them.

All that means is that there is an unhappy old people's home. Those who are receiving the concession are unhappy—they do not see why they had to fight for it in the first place—and those who are not receiving it are even more unhappy. I have been surprised at the great amount of post that I have received on the subject. Hon. Members have known for a long time that it is a touchy matter. Ultimately, the Government must grasp the nettle and abolish the method of payment for the BBC through the licensing system.

A few days ago, I saw what is called a "veteran disc jockey" on television. Only 25 years ago, that same veteran disc jockey was described as a pirate—someone who was outside the law.

Mr. Gale

It was me.

Mr. Holt

I was not mentioning names.

That disc jockey was regarded as someone who would never be a member of the establishment.

Mr. Gale

Simply on a point of information, it is fair to say that those of us who were involved in offshore broadcasting in the early 1960s were not engaged in an illegal operation, because we took part in that before the Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 was passed.

Mr. Holt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because that makes my point even better. Having discovered a bolthole, the Government had to try to stop it because the people who were listening to the radio were not paying for it. They did not pay either the BBC or the Performing Rights Society although they enjoyed the broadcasts. The BBC got all huffy about that and the Government of the day brought in legislation. Why did it ultimately fail? The answer is that it failed because the traditional idea of one steam radio activated by an accumulator, which was about right at the time when the law was introduced, had been superseded by modern techniques. Youngsters had radios in their earrings—both boys and girls—but they did not pay for them through a licence.

Ultimately, therefore, the BBC's funding of sound radio was changed by the Government; one does not pay directly for sound radio now. If one has only sound radio, one does not have to have a licence for it. The funding comes from those people who have a television receiver. Therefore, if one is among the 3 per cent. of the population who do not have a television set—97 per cent. now have one—one is part of that parasitical outfit.

No one ever sat down and said, "My goodness, there's going to be a thing called radio and perhaps even a thing called television. How on earth should we pay for these two phenomena?" All that Baird was interested in was payment for the sets that were being sold. He could not have cared less whether anything came out of them. However, someone somewhere devised a thing called a licence. I suppose that in its day it was a reasonable thing, but today the licence is a tax. Indeed, it is a regressive tax because it impinges on rich and poor in exactly the same way. To somebody on a fixed or small income, £66 is a large sum of money, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) said, £66 is cheap to someone who can afford it. The argument is cheapened by those who say it is only fourpence-farthing an hour because it is still £66 when you have to pay for it, and that is a large sum of money.

We are talking today about developments in satellite and about integrated choice. What about those people who do not want the BBC? They still have to pay for it even if they never watch it. Even if their television set has all the BBC channels blanked out, they still have to pay for it. The whole system is absurd.

I had a letter recently from a constituent who told me that he has a black and white television set and pays the black and white licence fee in the normal way. Then he bought himself a video. In case my hon. Friend the Minister of State is not aware of this, one cannot buy only a black and white video; all videos are for colour receivers. As a consequence, my constituent received a letter from the licensing authority telling him that he could no longer have a licence merely for a black and white television, but that he had to have one for a colour television, even though his receiver can show only black and white. I do not know whether that is ironic or who had the last word, but my constituent is completely blind; and cannot see programmes in either black and white or in colour. However, as other members of the household can see the programmes, they have to pay for a colour although they have only a black and white receiver.

To all intents and purposes, television licensing is nonsense and it is harsh for many people. We should be totally out of tune with public opinion if we failed to take note of the fact that television today is not merely an odd ball means of entertainment. It is the sole companion of many people—and not merely of elderly people: many people who are confined to their homes because they are disabled or who are simply afraid to go out at night now have the companionship of the television set. Of course it informs and entertains, but—

Mr. Corbett

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. Will he make it clear whether he is objecting to the principle of the licensing of a television set—that is what it is—or to the use to which that money is put—in other words, to fund the BBC?

Mr. Holt

I am objecting to both in a different way. I have not yet reached the BBC. I am objecting to how the licence system works, and I am considering satellite development.

To take a business about which I know a little, one must have a licence to run a betting shop. If one owns a television set, one must have a licence. If one owns a bank of 12 television sets which receive satellite television, one still needs only one licence. The licence goes not with the set but with the premises. That brings me back to my earlier complaint, that elderly people who found themselves in a new old people's home lost their privilege.

The Government provided the concession because at that time some elderly and disabled people lived in a complex where there was only one communal television in a main room to which they went during viewing hours. Moreover, the Government did not see how they could collect licences from everybody. Times have moved on since the highly expensive one-off television in the common room. Now, most people in a complex have their own television set in their own room. That is why the Government are making people pay, although they live in a complex or accommodation with a warden. That, in turn, is simply because housing associations have not designated such accommodation as category 2.

The average person in the street does not understand that, and does not want to understand it. He cares only that he has a television set and pays too much for the licence. Many people feel that they are not getting full value, whether from the BBC, ITV or a satellite company. They feel that £66 is in excess of what they should pay.

The licence fee is a tax; let us make no bones about it. It must be paid by law and people are fined for not paying it. Many elderly people struggle to pay that £66. I am amazed by the volume of mail that I have received about it.

Mr. Renton

While I understand my hon. Friend's concern for his elderly constituents, may I correct him about the new definition of who gets a concessionary licence?

The concessionary licence which was only 5p a year became a substantial concession as the price of the licence increased. It was originally intended for elderly people who lived in purpose-built and discrete accommodation specifically designed as sheltered accommodation for the elderly with an effective full-time warden. Two or three years ago, a court eventually judged that, providing that any communal service was provided, the concessionary licence fee of 5p a year should apply.

Consequently, a great many councils said that they provided one communal service. It could be one person visiting for one hour a week, even if only to collect the rent and see that everyone was all right. Councils saw the court's decision as a means of liberalising and extending concessionary licences. For that reason only, we had to reconstruct the rules to return to the original intent of some 25 years ago when the concession was introduced.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it would make much more logical sense to get rid of the concessionary lee altogether, because there are anomalies. We did not do that, because we felt that it was too unfair to remove it from those who already had it. It is a compromise. The present system was given a great deal of thought. It was intended to restrict the scheme to the original proposal and to continue giving a concessionary licence to those who had one, so that their fee did not increase from 5p to £66 a year. If there is a particular problem in my hon. Friend's constituency, I hope that he will come and talk to me about it.

Mr. Holt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that explanation, which will have been heard by many people outside of the Chamber. I will not go to see him at present with the immediate problem, because I did take it up with his Department. His official kindly dealt with it and made a decision, but was subsequently moved to another Department. I would not wish to inflict such an end on my hon. Friend.

The Minister's intervention highlights the problems and the complexity of the matter. The moment that a concession is given to one set of people, whoever they are, one is immediately confronted with other people who want concessions, too. I believe that, in the same way as the steam radio licence went out of time, so, ultimately, will the licence for the BBC.

Many of us who had our childhood during the war believed implacably that every word emanating from the BBC was the complete truth. We shot down the German air force 67 times in the first year of the war. We believed it because it was the BBC, and that mythology has gone on in perpetuity. However, the BBC has changed. 1 was delighted recently to receive not one but two letters from the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC apologising to me for the political bias that had been introduced into two programmes. I am not springing this on my hon. Friend the Minister, because he knows that I put down an early-day motion. The BBC is biased.

Many words in the English language have, over the years, changed their original meaning. At an Edinburgh festival television fringe meeting a few years ago, I made the point to a television audience of all the eminent people in the profession that, if one talks today about the BBC and bias, everyone knows that one is talking about. Left-wing bias against the Conservative party and the Government. Bias never means bias the other way round.

I challenged all the worthies of the BBC for one of them to get up and tell me when there had been not a Left-wing but Right-wing bias in a play or a public opinion programme. There has not been one. All the eminent people, from the director-general down, sitting in the audience, failed to respond. I was told afterwards privately that the reason none of them responded was that the BBC has a strict rule on pecking order, and, in any audience, the only person who is allowed to respond on behalf of the BBC is the most senior person present. As the most senior person had only been with the BBC one week at that time, no one responded. That is a plausible explanation for no one from the BBC responding to my challenge of the day and telling me why it had refused to put lain Curteis's play on, when it had asked for that play to be written and had spent much money producing it.

Satellite television will be a revolutionary development in many ways, and I do not know whether the Government will be able to cope with it. I am not sure whether they have the facility to cope with it. I do not know how they will deal with the situation when we have horse racing beamed in 24 hours a day through the Satellite Information Service to television sets in this country, which at present is received in the betting shops. Anyone with a credit facility will want that system.

People's television sets will be quickly adapted to carry 24 knobs, one of which will bring in different sports from all over the world. At the moment, horse racing is almost a monopoly organised by those who run it, bet on it and broadcast it. With the advent of satellite television, things may go out of control.

How will the Government react to inter-country beaming in of satellite television of all varieties? Will it be censored? Will we be banned from seeing things that the Government do not want broadcast, or will we have a system of deregulation and freedom in accordance with the basic philosophy of the Government?

At the heart of this we must remember my constituents, the elderly ladies, the disabled and the disadvantaged—unemployment levels are still high in the north-east of England—will still pay the full television licence to have the privilege of receiving the BBC, should they want to view its channels. In future, why should society continue to pay for the BBC in that way? Surely we should recognise that, today, television is as important as a damp course or a roof on a house. Once someone buys a television set, they should be able to see programmes without any further direct cost to them. The television licence fee is £66, but it will increase.

We must accept that that licence will die the moment everyone says they will not pay, but will its death be regulated? If the BBC received no direct income from licences, the Government would soon find the money from taxation. Yesterday, the Government found £6 billion to improve the roads. I cannot imagine why they cannot find £174 million so that some people do not have to buy a television licence. I believe that it would be useful if the Cabinet reflected on that.

We all know that television is powerful. Once programmes come in from all sorts of countries, do the Government know whether they will have make some payment for additional services? For instance, I do not know how money will be collected for the Performing Rights Society for beamed-in operations. The BBC is able to monitor everything that goes out and it pays the correct proportions of money owed.

I asked the BBC to follow the practice of Tyne Tees Television, which issues a regular schedule of the programmes in which politicians appear to show that there is a balance in its programmes. The BBC, however, told me that such a schedule was beyond its capabilities.

I am struggling to see the time. This week, I have sought six times to catch Mr. Speaker's eye—I was successful once and I was told that I could speak for five minutes, but then I had to sit down. This morning, however, I was told that I would be on my feet for at least three quarters of an hour and that I could keep going.

Mr. Tony Durant (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)

My hon. Friend is all right.

Mr. Holt

Well, in that case, I shall conclude by saying that the power of television is its ability to change things dramatically. When I was a youngster and played tennis, the rules of the game said that play should be continuous and that one should change ends continually. Fred Perry and all the other great players did just that. Then, however, television came along and players were forced to rub themselves down for two minutes between changing ends so that the cameras could beam in. Television cameras beam in—I may seem to be advertising here—on the name Robinson's, for example, so let us not kid ourselves that the BBC does not have advertising.

Every time my sport of horse racing is on BBC television, I can guarantee that the cameras show the William Hill horseshoe when it is a William Hill race, and the Ladbroke horseshoe when it is a Ladbroke race. None of that was allowed, and the law has not been changed to allow it, but simply because the law could not be enforced, it has happened. I hope that, ultimately, the same will be true of television licences. Advertisers now have the freedom to put hoardings all round football grounds and race tracks. I hope that that same freedom will come into being for television and that television licences will become a thing of the past.

12.10 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) for our long call that the BBC should be funded out of general taxation. I accept what he says about the present licensing system being nonsense, if for no other reason than that it is expensive to collect and for no good purpose.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) on raising this issue. It will come as no surprise to him that the words of his motion, especially when it calls on the Government to pay particular attention to the need to continue to stimulate quality programming and maintain diversity of ownership and choice", are warmly welcomed by the Opposition, so to that extent nothing lies between us. He has provided an opportunity not only for the House, but for the Minister and the Government, to think again more clearly and deeply about what they plan to do to our broadcasting.

The one issue that separates us—I acknowledge that the Minister himself is having some further thought on this—is that the White Paper is founded on the principle that the deepest purse should be able to buy its way into television and that considerations of quality should come a poor second.

The voices of experienced broadcasters, viewers and listeners have been missing from earlier debates on this topic. That is no longer the case because, as the Minister will know better than I, his Department is knee-deep in responses to the White Paper. I hope that the Minister will consider the range of opinions most carefully and be prepared, even at this stage while, no doubt, the Bill is being drafted, to change his mind.

We should be clear that no one is opposed to changes in our broadcasting system, but the Government do not seem to understand that changes need to be based on the success of the present system. It has been a success because it has been built in an evolutionary way, in which one development has complemented another. That was certainly the case with the development of BBC2 and with the start of Channel 4. The aim of those developments, under more sensitive hands, was to enhance the range and quality of programmes, to widen horizons and to feed and stretch the imagination. Game shows and quiz shows—the Home Secretary's favourite Saturday evening viewing—have a place on the menu of television, on whatever channel, and are a proper part of what is on offer, but they are only a part.

I suspect that the gap between the Government and the Opposition is over whether listeners and viewers should be treated as increasingly discerning and sophisticated, as other areas of their lives expand, or whether they are to be regarded simply as customers and consumers, bid for and bought by those rich and strong enough to buy a franchise. It is false for the Government to claim that they merely want to widen choice. That is not possible without a policy which actively and openly protects, upholds and enhances standards of quality. What the Government propose is more likely to lessen real choice by the gradual reduction of high quality in the chase for ratings and by maximising audiences for advertisers. The blind belief in customers will replace concern for people as intelligent listeners and viewers.

We certainly embrace and welcome the changes that the new technology is making possible, but we insist that they be harnessed to combine greater choice with higher quality. In many senses the debate is about whose finger is on the button. We know that the finger belongs to the viewer and listener, but there is also the question of what he or she has the choice of switching on or off. The Government seem to be saying that the finger on the button should belong to the person with the thickest wallet. We are more worried about quality than cash.

There is no real extra choice in being asked to choose between a selection of equally trivial programmes; it is more choice in one sense, but only a choice of more of the same. There should be a choice between different, not similar programmes.

By quality I do not mean only expensive highbrow drama productions or documentaries, important though they are. The protection and promotion of regional television has just as much to do with quality. A number of hon. Members have made the point that less of our television should be London-based and oriented. The Government seem unaware that their proposals are likely to make that problem worse. The largest audiences with the most money are in London and the south-east.

In earlier debates the Minister has as good as admitted that under his plans fewer regional television stations are likely to serve larger areas. That can only dilute regional flavour in news and current affairs as well as in drama and documentaries. It is difficult enough to find that flavour now, but the position can only worsen under the Government's proposals.

Mr. Renton

I do not know the context in which the hon. Gentleman is quoting me, if that is what he is doing. I have said all along that I believe that under our proposals there will be an increase in the number of regional and locally-based services, not only because of the additional number of satellite channels but because of local cable and multipoint video distribution system television. So I am surprised at what the hon. Gentleman has said—I have always said the opposite.

Mr. Corbett

I did not mean to imply that the Minister had said that, and I acknowledge his point. He has caught me out—I should be able to reach into my handbag now and produce a bit of paper, but I cannot. The point that I was, perhaps clumsily, trying to make was about the number of regional television franchises. I understand the Minister's argument and I hope that was what he says is true, but my principal concern is about the number of regionally-based television stations.

I have deliberately dealt with regional stations first because they are extremely important in ensuring a better balance between national and regional programmes. Like everything else, this will turn on cash as the bidders line up to buy the franchises. The higher the price—at the moment the proposition is that the highest bidder must win—the greater the threat to quality, because the pressure will be on owners to recoup what they have laid out. That is what their shareholders will demand, which is why it is so essential that guarantees of quality be built into the bids. Bidders should be required to submit detailed budgets, specifying what they plan to spend on how many hours in each sector—on news and current affairs, documentaries, drama, game shows, children's programmes, religious programmes, sport, and so on. Unless a price tag is demanded in that way, there can be no effective guarantee of proper quality standards in the range of programmes.

Mr. George Russell, chairman of the IBA, spoke the other day about the "quality of money", meaning that the IBA's successor body should have powers to decline to give the franchise to the highest bidder if there were doubts about quality standards. The Minister knows that that is practically a universal view in the industry. The policy of "Never mind the quality, feel the width of my wallet" runs the real risk of a speedy slide into low-budget, low-quality programmes and programming.

Mr. Holt

I should like to extrapolate a little from that point. In America there has just been the most expensive flop of all time, a sequel to a programme that was very successful. The sequel cost a fortune but it has been dropped because people will not pay to advertise on a programme that audiences will not watch. If it had been a BBC programme, people would have had to watch it through to the end of the series—like it or not.

Mr. Corbett

I do not think that that necessarily follows. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) said that companies have to have enough cash to take risks and to accept that some programmes will fail. If they do not do that, we shall get only safe programmes. In the chase for audiences nobody will take risks by saying that certain programmes should be made and shown. If a programme is properly made it should be able to earn itself an audience.

Mr. Holt

I am saying that money does not mean quality.

Mr. Corbett

I entirely accept that and I shall deal with it in a moment. It depends critically upon the quality and standards of people in the industry. That includes people who develop the scripts right at the start of a programme —my wife has a small hand in such affairs—right through to the people who make the programme. Money is of some importance in the context of staff.

I think it is accepted by all hon. Members that Channel 4 has been an undoubted success. That is because it has commissioned programmes of intelligence and daring. Under the umbrella of the ITV companies—this is an important distinction—there has been what I would describe as friendly rivalry rather than bare knuckle competition. That has served both partners well and it is probably that which led the Select Committee on Home Affairs and others to come up with the option that has been suggested.

The Minister will be as aware as I am that hawks in the Cabinet seem to be siding with that rough lot in the Department of Trade and Industry rather than the Home Office and that they seem hell bent on making Channel 4 totally independent and insisting that it compete head-on with Channel 3. That is not what wiser heads want and it is not in the best interests of Channel 4. Channel 4, which ought to know a thing or two about the business, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs say that it would be best if Channel 4 became a subsidiary of the proposed Independent Television Commission. While selling its own advertising it would have the safety net of money held by the ITC in case revenue did not match needs or expectation.

That is not some form of latter-day feather bedding. It is an attempt to recognise the special nature of Channel 4 and how the unrestricted harsh winds of fierce competition between Channel 3 companies and between them and satellite would imperil the programming and purpose of Channel 4. I hope that the Home Office wins this argument. The fact that it needs to take place illustrates that the Government do not understand what they are dealing with, and that because of the special nature of our broadcasting special steps need to be taken and special arrangements need to be made.

The narrowness of the Government's view is demonstrated by their blinkered proposals for a BBC world television service to extend and complement its radio equivalent. I thought that it was common ground between us that the BBC World Service is a vital part of our cultural and diplomatic effort around the world. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh spoke about that. It has rightly earned widespread respect, trust and authority. The Government have refused to assist the BBC in its development into world television, at a time when other nations—I suspect, through back and side doors—are assisting their national companies in that respect.

Mr. Gale

I do not wish to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but he should be aware that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has said to the BBC World Service and Mr. John Tusa that if the BBC World Service can come up with a commercial package that would allow a world television service to be commercially funded, he will give that serious consideration. Discussions are taking place and we hope that that will happen.

Mr. Corbett

I know that, but such a proposition would be made easier if the Government were prepared, even if only to a limited extent, to assist with start-up expenses, because such expenses are heavy.

I have a great suspicion that the development of world services involves Government money in at least one case. Cable News Network is now available around the globe. I am not knocking the quality of that service, but the important point is that it gives the American point of view. There is an American flavour and an American bias about the way in which it handles its programmes.

The ambition of the BBC is to have a world television service apart, and I strongly support that, but even the BBC world radio service is under threat from the Government. It broadcasts in 37 languages around the world and is at risk at a time when we should be thinking of expansion—and all because there is a cash crisis. Mr. John Tusa, its distinguished managing director, has warned that grave problems will have to be faced in 1990–91. He mentioned high inflation, rent rises at Bush House, extra rates and staff pay awards. He said: I don't think these continuous unplanned-for pressures on spending are things we can take without damaging the product we deliver. The three-year funding package announced in November 1987 was based on an inflation rate of 5 per cent., with no allowance in it for the inflation figure announced today of 8 per cent. In any event, the annual rate agreed is cut by 1.5 per cent. for so-called efficiency services.

Any fool can go into business and make savings, but that has to have an impact on the quality of service and its ability to expand to meet known needs—to say nothing of the morale of its staff—as elsewhere in the BBC. I greatly welcome the support of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) for those in the BBC who are trying to get a decent pay rise, but the current discontent at pay levels runs the risk of forcing experienced and dedicated broadcasters out of the door and making recruitment, against pay levels in sectors from which the BBC would normally expect to attract staff, even more difficult.

While the Government wax lyrical about the so-called potential for subscription television, which would mean loss of access for all for the payment of a licence fee, they say little or nothing about the future financing of radio in this climate. That is left open, which raises a suspicion that the Government simply are not concerned with the maintenance of the BBC in its present form, which enables it to provide such an impressive range of quality programmes in both television and radio.

As to satellite, Sky Television has found that there is no pot of gold atop the clouds and has even fallen out with Mickey Mouse. BSB knows the problems that it faces in its autumn launch. The development of satellite will be a long, hard road—needlessly so, but certain because of the Government's stupidity. Here, I am happy to agree again with the hon. Member for Thanet, North, although for different reasons.

I say that because the Government passed up the chance to cable the country through British Telecom when it was in the public sector. That would not just have aided the development of satellite and been environmentally more acceptable, but would have made better national sense as it could have given better access to services other than television which could have been delivered to virtually every home in the country. However, a short-term, narrow view was taken, for which we shall pay a very heavy price as the years roll on. It would have been well justified investment, which could have been done only by the public sector with the promise of proper returns through selling the various uses of the cables. Now, at best, cable will be developed in a haphazard, unplanned manner and only where those paying for it envisage the prospect of a fairly good return on their investment. It has nothing to do with choice, range and access, and everything to do with cash.

There are important matters of cross-media ownership—I was glad that the Minister is thinking again about that—the new charter for the BBC, the way in which its governors are appointed, the way in which advertising is controlled, and much much more. In that sense, the debate is a dress rehearsal for next Session's broadcasting Bill. We look forward to that and will approach it constructively through our twin aims of matching greater choice with guarantees of high and rising quality. I say again to the Minister that those changes are best based upon the success of the present system. Someone once said, "If it is not broken, why try to mend it?" I commend that approach both to the House and to the Government.

12.31 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for arriving so late in the debate. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) asked me to put on my jacket—

Mr. Holt

Mr. Speaker ruled recently that hon. Members would not catch the Chair's eye unless they were properly attired in a tie and jacket—with the obvious exception of lady Members—as we do not wish to deteriorate to the level of Italian standards.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) sought my permission to remove his jacket. He arrived post haste, in a distressed condition and asked if he could take off his jacket. I gave him authority so to do. However, I must point out that the air conditioning in the Chamber is in good enough working order for hon. Members including myself, to keep on our jackets.

Mr. Banks

I am gratified to know that such important matters still occupy the mind of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh. As he has chosen immediately to pick me up on a matter that is somewhat tangential to the subject that we are discussing, I must correct him. Mr. Speaker ruled that if an hon. Member was attired in a short-sleeved shirt with a tie, he could remove his jacket. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman checks that with Mr. Speaker's office. If that level of pettiness is symptomatic of the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate, I am jolly glad that I missed it.

I apologise to the House for arriving late in the debate. I had already explained the reason for that to the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and to Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Holt

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West, not having been present throughout the debate, may well claim that I am nitpicking in suggesting that the way in which Members of Parliament attire themselves in this Chamber is of consequence. However, the general public do not share his view. Perhaps the lowering of standards in this country goes a long way towards vandalism, hooliganism and the other deteriorations outside the House, where people expect a lead from Members of Parliament.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I cannot add to the ruling given a few moments ago by Madam Deputy Speaker. It might be best if I, as a mere male, advised the House to continue with the debate.

Mr. Banks

I would say that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh is a fool, but I suspect that God got there first and made him one. I shall put on my jacket as the matter obviously causes him such great concern.

I was late arriving at the debate because I was launching a poop-scoop campaign in Newham. In the light of the contribution of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh, I was obviously involved in a most approporiate activity.

I thank the hon. Member for Thanet, North for introducing this subject for debate. I know from experience what his contribution would have been to this subject. I must also declare an interest. I act as a parliamentary adviser to the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance, the union for which I used to work before I became a Member of Parliament. BETA is the major union in the BBC. Unfortunately at the moment, together with the National Union of Journalists, it is engaged in an industrial dispute. I gather from what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), a former member of Association of Broadcasting Staffs referred to the dispute.

I draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 849 which stands in my name. It sets out the details of the BBC dispute which is about comparability within the BBC and commercial broadcasting. That is why an increase of 16 per cent. is being sought by BBC workers.

The comparability argument is strong. In a recent letter to the Daily Express the director-general of the BBC defended the 30 per cent. increases involving £20,000 pay rises which he and the deputy director-general Mr. John Birt had managed to gain from the governors. He defended the rises on the ground of comparability with the commercial sector. If it is good enough for those at the top, it is good enough throughout the BBC work force.

It is somewhat irksome for members of staff at the BBC to discover that the corporation's 140 top managers were given generous wage increases, cars and private medical facilities while the corporation management was trying to impose a pay cut on those who make and produce the programmes that we all enjoy on radio and television.

BBC workers are very angry about the proposals. The dispute also reflects their anger at the Government's attempt to impose political interference within the corporation. Despite my criticism of the management's approach in the BBC, the unions and I remain wholly committed to the integrity of the corporation as a cornerstone of public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. It is a tribute to BETA, the NUJ and the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians that those unions have launched a major campaign to defend public broadcasting in this country.

Our broadcasting is admired throughout the world. BBC radio and television, the World Service, the IBA and commercial television and radio sectors constitute one of the finest broadcasting systems in the world in terms of quality, variety, efficiency, impartiality and consumer availability.

There are very few areas of activity in which this nation excels these days. It certainly does not excel in respect of our consumer goods or in our standards of political and social behaviour. However, in our artistic creativity we have much that is prized around the world. Unfortunately, such creativity is little regarded in this country.

Public service broadcasting is a crucial element in terms of artistic creativity and it is also the life blood of our democracy. Democratic values in Britain are better served by public service broadcasting than by the present authoritarian and intolerant Government or by the cheap and vicious end of the popular press.

The values of liberal democracy in Britain have been undermined to the point of destruction by the bigoted ideologues and mendacious second-raters who currently run the country. Nowhere can one see that proved more amply than within the terms of the White Paper on the future of broadcasting. That White Paper sums it all up.

The White Paper is not about efficiency, extending choice or reinforcing standards of excellence. Plainly and simply it is about ideology and the hatred of any institution located in the public sector.

The BBC is particularly despised by many Ministers and Conservative Back Benchers, but not necessarily those present in the Chamber now. One has heard many vile things said about the BBC since 1983. The Prime Minister gives the lead because she believes that the BBC is rather like the Church—in the hands of dangerous subversives. The Prime Minister has reached such a state of arrogance that, in her eyes, anything short of slavish obedience is treachery. The BBC has endured a long-running campaign of abuse and vilification from many Conservative Members. The Prime Minister has done her best to stuff the higher echelons of the corporation with Tory party loyalists, but clearly she is not satisfied that the BBC is yet as impartial and as high minded as the Sun and News of the World. She is set on a course to disable the BBC with a combination of privatisation, break-up and cash starvation.

The Government are determined to exploit new technology, not to improve real choice and achieve greater quality, or to allow greater access by ordinary people to broadcasting, but as a weapon with which to destroy the whole concept of public service broadcasting. National deregulation of broadcasting together with the opportunities presented by satellite coverage will inevitably lead to the Americanisation of British broadcasting in terms of both programme content and of standards.

The concept of subscription financing for the BBC is wholly incompatible with the concept of universality on which British broadcasting has hitherto been based. On a recent visit to the United States, I saw what subscription television is all about. It is an appalling concept. Although good programmes are shown on Channel 23—WTV—they are constantly interrupted by people coming in front of the camera and making appeals for cash, saying "Send your $60 to us if you want to go on seeing programmes like this one"—then reading a list of people who had made donations. That cannot be, and must not be, the future for the BBC. It should not have to use programme makers to go before the cameras and make cash appeals—holding out the begging bowl in front of a camera. That is what subscription television is all about. Conservative Members would do well to study closely the direction in which American television has gone. I cannot believe that anyone concerned with quality broadcasting wants British broadcasting to go the same way. Subscription funding of the BBC is a repellant notion and one that we steadily and firmly reject.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I defend public service broadcasting not because we believe that there is an anti-Thatcher bias within the BBC—that is only the Prime Minister's paranoia feeding its way through the Right wing of her party. We defend public sector broadcasting because we recognise its inherent value. We believe implicitly in maintaining high technical and programming standards.

It is nonsense for the Government to talk at one point of deregulation, which we know will lead to a lowering of standards, and at the same time to establish the Broadcasting Standards Council in an attempt to preserve the very qualities that their policies are certain to erode. What sort of matters will concern the Broadcasting Standards Council? No doubt it will be outraged by the flash of a bum suddenly appearing on television. No doubt also Mrs. Whitelaw and the Prime Minister will go purple in the face and get very upset when they hear the "f" word used. But in this case, the "f" word is freedom—the freedom to criticise, the freedom to create, and the freedom to castigate.

That is why Conservative Members and the Prime Minister in particular do not like public service broadcasting. They dislike it because it dares to criticise the Government's policies in certain areas, and simply because it is within the public sector. The two combined stir up every base feeling that the Prime Minister has within her body, and which her Ministers are then expected to reflect in legislative proposals. Hence the ridiculous and damaging White Paper and the Bill that will no doubt follow it in the new Session.

One aspect of the White Paper that has received insufficient attention but which characterises the political ideology behind the proposals is the transmission systems in broadcasting. I should like to place on record my tribute to two former colleagues in the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance—Mr. Brian Marsh and Mr. Doug Smith—who have been doing sterling work writing letters to newspapers and producing press releases pointing out the problems associated with the Government's proposal to privatise the BBC and IBA transmitters.

It appears from the proposals that we saw last November that the Government want to detach the transmitters from their respective parent organisations and put them into the private sector. They said originally that there should be competing transmission companies in different regions of the United Kingdom. That is privatisation for the sake of it. It makes as little sense to privatise the transmitters as it does to privatise water. It is undiluted ideology and has nothing to do with broadcasting standards or even good economic sense within the broadcasting system.

One has only to look at the figures. At present, the engineering system of transmission and transmitters reaches 99.4 per cent. of the British public with a reliability of 99.8 per cent. If the Government could get their campaign to lower inflation correct to the tune of 99.8 per cent. or even 99.4 per cent., it would be a miracle. When we talk about privatising the transmitters, are we talking about trying to reach 100 per cent. of the population? Does any Conservative Member believe that that will be possible?

Mr. Gale

The hon. Gentleman was extremely courteous in informing me that he would not be able to be present for the early part of the debate and I imply no criticism when I say that he did not hear me refer to that subject. My impression is that the IBA engineers would welcome the opportunity to enter the private sector as long as it was done as an entity, and not in a piecemeal way. They would welcome the opportunity to involve themselves in the transmission of not only television but data and voice telephony.

Mr. Banks

I accept that point, together with the gentle tap on the wrist. I am not directing my comments to the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) who is fairly progressive in this area. I am directing my comments to the Minister. The hon. Member for Thanet, North is correct, given the options facing engineers in the BBC and IBA. It is better to privatise as two lumps than to have the ludicrous idea of competing transmission companies in different parts of the country. That is what the Price Waterhouse report—I understand that the Minister has a copy—seems to suggest. Engineers within the BBC and IBA are choosing what they see as the least invidious of the proposals.

There would be no argument about using BBC and IBA transmitters for additional work with, for example, Cellnet and radio telephones or information technology generally. That can be done within the public sector now. It could be an extension of BBC enterprises. Therefore, Opposition Members have no ideological objection to the BBC or the IBA using their transmitters in combination with private interests. However, there is clear objection at the Dispatch Box to the concept of the transmitters staying within the public sector. That is why I take issue with the Minister, not the hon. Member for Thanet, North.

One can look at the coverage presently gained through the transmitters and realise how extensive and efficient it is. There is no earthly justifiable case for privatisation other than the Government's ideology. We are not arguing about efficiency or coverage, just ideology. Lord Thomson was chairman of the IBA when the White Paper was released. In his Robert Frazer lecture, he said: Public broadcasting is a drab phrase, but in its essentials it has contributed crucially to the quality of life in Britain. What are these essentials? Two are particularly important. The first is universality of reception whether it takes one transmitter to cover ten million Londoners and six main transmitters and 150 relay stations to reach nearly three million Welsh. To achieve that universal reception you have to be ready for the London contractor to cross-subsidize the Welsh contractor, and in the White Paper's proposals for engineering it is not at all clear to what degree cross-subsidy will survive. I should like the Minister to give more details, particularly of the Price Waterhouse report, which I know he has, and on the various points that I and Lord Thomson have made. It appears that, in the section of the White Paper dealing with transmitters, the Government declared first and thought subsequently. Price Waterhouse was commissioned to work out the best way to privatise.

From an authoritative leak by Raymond Snoddy in the Financial Times of 15 May, it appears that Price Waterhouse has advocated two options. The first is the creation of two national competing private sector transmitter companies based on a geographical split of the United Kingdom. At present, as the Minister knows, the BBC and IBA share the same hill sites, but maintain their own transmitters and have arrangements to co-operate in times of emergency. What could be better than that? I wait to hear what the Minister can propose. Price Waterhouse's first option would have high initial costs and involve considerable re-engineering of existing operations. What earthly justification can there be for implementing such a proposal?

Price Waterhouse's second proposal merely indicates the privatisation of BBC and IBA transmission systems in their existing form. The hon. Member for Thanet, North referred to this point. I cart see no obvious benefit to viewers and listeners after privatisation, but I can see numerous obvious dangers. In large parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and in some remote parts of England, it would be wholly uneconomic for any private company to maintain the hundreds of remote transmitters that the BBC and IBA currently maintain for the public. Among many other ludicrous proposals, that proposal in the White Paper amounts to the lunatic end of privatisation.

New technology, as specified in the motion moved by the hon. Member for Thanet, North, offers wonderful opportunities for enhanced choice and access in broadcasting, but not in the hands of this Government, who cheapen and pollute everything that they touch. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said, it will effectively be for the coming Labour Government to realise the full potential of broadcasting technology, not in the interests of those with the fattest wallets but in the interests of all people in this country.

12.52 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)

This is a good moment to take stock of where we stand in the changes that we propose in the broadcasting world. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) for using his good luck in the ballot—it does not come along very often—to give us the opportunity to take stock today. I was impressed by his perceptive remarks which mirrored his great experience in broadcasting. In addition, he has added a great deal to the deliberations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, as its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) said.

It has been an extremely interesting debate. I am sorry that it has not been better attended, but there have been useful contributions. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) mentioned newspaper ownership and his fear, which I well understand coming from a Scottish hon. Member, that London and the south-east might have an excessively dominant position in the new broadcasting world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North referred to cross-ownership and made the real point that television is a United Kingdom subject and should be treated as such. My hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) referred to the BBC licence fee and to the need for training. My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) also mentioned the licence fee and spoke movingly about elderly people's need for television and about the particular problems of some elderly people in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) touched on the question of local as opposed to regional television and referred to the needs of the deaf. I hope to cover many of those points in the remarks that I am about to make.

However, first I must advise the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that he greatly lowered the tone of the debate. He appears to have come into the Chamber determined to have an argument about something. He gave us a speech that was blind, bitter and bigoted. I thought that he had a reputation as a Member with some vision, but I did not see any vision whatsoever in the diatribe that he delivered to the House. If his speech was written for him by his union, the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance, I can only suggest that he tells it to employ a better speech writer—

Mr. Tony Banks

I wrote it entirely by myself.

Mr. Renton

Well, the hon. Gentleman should not take any credit for it. As for the suggestion that the BBC is stuffed with Tory party supporters, that is not the view of the top management of the BBC. What about the vice-chairman of the BBC, Lord Barnett—a Labour peer and an ex-Labour Treasury Minister? The hon. Gentleman seems to have come into the House with no vision, but simply in a hot sweat. That is why he took his coat off. I can assume only that he had a bad time with the poop-scoop and that he needed to get some of the bile out of his system. It was a great pity.

Before moving on, I should like to echo the tributes already paid to all the work that has been done on the subject of broadcasting by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It has been extremely useful in the past months in that it has not only produced an extremely interesting paper on the broad subject of broadcasting and on how the broadcasting colleges should develop in the years ahead, but more recently has also produced a paper on the more particular subject of the ownership of Channel 4. Its contributions have added a great deal to the Government's thinking on those matters.

Since the White Paper was published in November, the technological revolution in broadcasting, advertised for such a long time, has finally arrived. The spring witnessed the launch of a number of new television services delivered from the medium-powered Astro satellite direct to receiving dishes in individual homes throughout Western Europe. By the end of this year, across the United Kingdom and France pictures will be received from the high-tech, high-powered DBS, launched and operated in the United Kingdom by British Satellite Broadcasting and in France by TDF 1.

It was the advent of the new satellite channels that persuaded Governments of other member states of the Council of Europe to follow the more liberal line that we had always wanted in the Council of Europe convention. At the Stockholm conference last autumn there was a strong appreciation of the need to get the convention agreed before the satellite channels multiplied over Europe, but there was also a general understanding that if those countries that had wanted a much more protectionist, inward-looking convention maintained their attitudes, a text was never likely to be finalised.

The United Kingdom has been in the lead all along in pressing not for a protectionist convention, but for a minimalist set of rules that would establish programme standards for all television services capable of being received across national borders. These rules require, for example, that programes shall not be indecent, contain pornography or give undue prominence to violence. But we always insisted that there should be a reasonable means of enforcing these rules. That point obviously worried my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh. I understand his anxiety on that point and we now think that there should be a phased process for enforcement to ensure that those minimal standards are agreed to, maintained and enforced. Obviously, it is over the years ahead that we shall have to see how effective these methods of enforcement will be. I share my hon. Friend's anxiety. We had it in mind in the finalisation of the convention.

We were finally able to reach agreement on the proposals and the convention opened for signature earlier this month. It has already been signed by 10 countries, including the United Kingdom. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Thanet, North and for Westminster, North for their kind words about my part in reaching decisions on the convention. I add my thanks to the small but dedicated team of Home Office officials who weaved their way through a labyrinth of difficulties to reach an eventually successful conclusion.

Throughout the negotiations our main objective was to secure agreement on a convention that would work and was enforceable, without damaging the interests of British broadcasting. Some degree of compromise was necessary on our part and that of other countries, otherwise agreement would never have been possible. The outcome is satisfactory for our own broadcasting arrangements. A case in point is the provision on the insertion of advertising, about which there was a great deal of discussion. Some countries, for example the Federal Republic of Germany, favoured grouping advertisements between programmes, rather than inserting them in natural breaks, and wanted the convention to reflect that preference. We have secured provisions in the convention which will not require us to alter our present well-tried and tested arrangements in any significant degree.

We plan to implement the convention in United Kingdom law through the forthcoming broadcasting legislation. It will come into force internationally once seven states have ratified it, which we hope will be before the end of 1990.

Work on the convention has proceeded in parallel with consideration by the Community of a draft EC directive on broadcasting covering broadly the same ground. The European Council in Rhodes last December agreed that future work on the directive should be carried out on the basis of the principles of the convention. That was a great step forward. Since then, after extensive discussions, the Council of Ministers of the Community agreed a common position on the text of the directive on 13 April, very much in line with the text of the convention. Now that that common position has been adopted, the directive will be further considered by the European Parliament under the co-operation procedure introduced by the Single European Act. I shall spend a little time on that, although the subject has not been raised in depth during our debate.

I am aware that the Select Committee on European Legislation recommended that a debate be held on the directive. I regret that, given the timing of the recommendation, it was not practicable to arrange a debate before the meeting of the Internal Market Council, at which the common position was adopted. I have written to the Chairman of the Select Committee to explain the Government's approach to this matter. We believe that the council's common position represents a satisfactory outcome. We have successfully resisted the arguments of some member states for protectionist measures which would have imposed greater restrictions on European broadcasters. We have instead achieved a substantially deregulatory text fully in line with that of the Council of Europe convention.

Before I leave the subject of trans-frontier broadcasting, I shall deal with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North on the 500 million people waiting for pan-European television. I agree with him on the potential importance of trans-frontier, trans-European television. It was a reason why I was so keen to reach agreement on the convention. If any means of spreading information is to be the most likely instrument for rolling back the iron curtain and bringing western and eastern European countries together, it will be the satellite television channel, whose footprint knows no frontier. It is by satellite that we are receiving such extraordinary pictures of the Chinese students in Tiananmen square. Increasingly satellite signals will be picked up in Eastern bloc countries just as radio signals now are.

Astra and the Eutelstat series of satellites, and others to be launched over the next few years, will spread a western view of news and current affairs over the whole of Europe. In some measure they will take on the characteristic of a world service. The family in eastern Europe will increasingly be made aware not just of a western view on multi-lateral disarmament, but of the great difference in standards of living between Prague and Bonn and between Bucharest and Birmingham.

Mr. Tony Banks

Will they be seeing pictures of all our homeless people sleeping in the streets?

Mr. Renton

Yes, and they may even occasionally hear speeches from the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, in which case they too, may, wonder about the bitterness and lack of vision about which I complained earlier.

Two years ago, when I was in Moscow, I was told that the Russians were becoming adept at turning dustbin lids into satellite receiving dishes. That may become the fastest growing cottage industry in the eastern bloc.

Sir Alan Peacock who chaired the committee on the financing of the BBC, which produced the Peacock report in 1986, said in an article in The Independent last November: The White Paper is a challenging and well reasoned document. It is significant that … it has not so far been preceded by a sensible set of alternative proposals. That statement holds good. I would add to it that six months later it has not been followed either by any sensible set of alternative proposals. The enabling framework and principles laid down by the White Paper have held good. We have been pleased to receive more than 3,000 responses to the White Paper, the vast majority from individual viewers and listeners, and from organisations such as The Voice of the Listener and the Consumers Association, which represent the views of ordinary average families. More than 500 letters have been forwarded by hon. Members and more land on my desk each day, where they make a pleasant and interesting contrast to the letters on immigration matters.

We attach a lot of weight to the consultation process. The White Paper says that we place the viewer and listener at the centre of broadcasting policy. We have therefore been anxious to hear and to consider what they have to tell us. Most people have welcomed the general thrust of our proposals, but there is an understandable concern, which I share, that the best features of our current arrangements should not be lost. In among 3,000 submissions, we have had an infinite amount of advice about specific details—on competitive tender, on training and on the precise prescriptions for programming, with suggestions that we should, for example, require in law so much religious programming a week or so many programmes devoted to the Third world or to social action or to children or to Gaelic or to the disadvantaged position of the deaf. That advice is to be welcomed and expected. In my judgment, the pillars of our White Paper remain intact while we analyse the mountain of responses to see whether the detail on cornice or pediment could be improved by a minor change. Such change, as many hon. Members will know, we have already made in relation to cable and MVDS.

Local delivery systems, whether based on cable or microwave, or a combination of the two, will also open up opportunities for locally originated programming, and for programmes aimed at clearly defined sectors of the population, for example the ethnic minorities.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West that MVDS, perhaps allied with cable, could be especially suitable for the local programmes that he especially wants to see. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North, the passage in the White Paper in which we discussed the new framework for local services was couched in terms that made it clear that we had not yet reached a final view on all the details. We promised a further statement, which was made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in a written answer on 27 April. We then made clear that we had decided to maintain the main proposal for a new, flexible framework for local services, leaving operators free to decide upon the best mix of technologies to use. However, in the light of the comments put to us, we made some adjustment to the original proposals to meet particular points of difficulty. Especially, we have not insisted on the divorce between delivery and retailing of local services. We have also proposed a significant, though not total, liberalisation of satellite master antenna television systems—commonly known as SMATV. That should inject a measure of competition into the delivery of services at the local level. We have placed in the Library a note which details the modified proposals which we intend to recommend to the House.

At the moment, interest in cable is running at an unprecedented level. It is not., as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) suggested, being expressed in a haphazard, unplanned manner. Whether that interest is related to the growth of direct to home broadcasting by satellite is unclear. I noted with interest that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North talked about the complementary development of cable and satellite systems. The other day I visited Croydon Cable with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) and the people who run that organisation clearly see their development as being complementary to the satellite systems.

Following a success in Stockholm, my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North suggested that I might take on the job of trying to sort out some of the current difficulties and disagreements between the satellite companies about channels and programmes. Yesterday those difficulties were described to me as Bambi having a fight with Godzilla. I am not certain whether I am ready to cast myself in the role of Mowgli, or that any ministerial Mowgli coming along to sort out those problems would be welcome. Commercial battles must be fought out but, obviously, they could be expensive. In the long run it is important that there is some clear agreement on the technical standards, particularly with the advent of high definition television in the 1990s.

Mr. Gale

The extension of my hon. Friend's argument is that unless there is some sort of agreement money will not only go into failed hardware systems that could otherwise be usefully used to make good programmes, which would be commercially expensive, but that we are likely to find ourselves with a plethora of different sized dishes on almost every roof in the country. Therefore, it does make sense to have one super-astra 80 channel satellite carrying the programmes, obviously on different transponders, of all the companies involved.

Mr. Renton

I am certain that the board and management of the two large companies involved will listen with great care to what my hon. Friend has said.

It is interesting to me that the Cable Authority has awarded 39 franchises and advertised a further 20 just at the moment when the new satellite channels are with us. Together those franchises will cover a total of 8.5 million homes. Cable systems currently pass 1.5 million homes, of which about one third have access to the new broadband cable networks, 280,000 people receive their television pictures through cable, and about 65,000 of those are broadband cable subscribers. Who would have forecast such promising figures this time last year? Those very encouraging developments serve as a further illustration of the potential for increased viewer choice.

Mr. Worthington

Some aspects of the cable authority's work are extremely puzzling. Recently in the greater Glasgow area there was an invitation to tender for the franchise. At the moment half of the city is served by Clyde Cable, which was the only tenderer. The cable authority, however, turned down its submission, but no explanation was given. I am utterly puzzled about the non-accountability of that authority.

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman, together with representatives from the tenderer, might like to discuss that matter with the director-general of the cable authority. The decision about to whom cable franchises should be awarded strictly lies with that authority, and I am certain that the chairman or the director-general would like to explain to the hon. Gentleman the difficulties of that particular case.

The question of night hours has always interested my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North and he mentioned it in his interesting remarks today. As my hon. Friend will know, the Peacock report recommended that the BBC should lose both sets of night hours in order that they could be used to introduce more competition in broadcasting. In the White Paper, we accepted the case for removing one set of night hours to allow a new player onto the field, but, at the same time, we accepted that to remove both sets would hamper the BBC's plans for offering night time subscription services in a way that promised to enlarge viewer choice and to establish a firmer base for subscription technology.

We have, as my hon. Friend knows, approved the BBC's medical downloading service, which now has over 3,000 subscribers receiving the service, and arrangements are in hand to supply the necessary decoding equipment to 4,000 more. The BBC has now indicated its interest in developing further such services. I am pleased to tell the House that we have agreed, in principle, to the BBC introducing a similar downloading service for the business community, which will be a nightly, hour-long service of business and financial information, put together by Broadcast Communication plc. That approval is subject to our being satisfied that proper arrangements are devised to regulate the content of the advertising, which will be carried on the service to reduce the level of the subscription fee. Those medical and business services represent a promising start on which we hope that the BBC will continue to build to develop the market for subscription services generally.

We are, in the meantime, giving serious consideration to the arguments that the BBC, my hon. Friend and others have put to us for allowing the corporation to retain both sets of night hours. However, the Government share the view of the Peacock committee that there are strong arguments for using that part of the broadcasting clock as a means of introducing new competition into the scarce UHF frequencies.

Mr. Gale

Before finally going down that road, will my hon. Friend consider that if the subscription services are being developed well now—which is encouraging, and the news he brings us today is especially encouraging—the BBC will need the other night hour channel if it is to provide public service in, for example, election coverage —a matter of small consequence to this House—when events taking place late at night require air time for their broadcast.

Mr. Renton

I understand that point, which is at the heart of the BBC's case about why it should be allowed to retain both sets of night hours, and I can understand that it is anxious to get on with the process of introducing more subscription services to convince us of the force of its arguments.

Media ownership has been a matter of great concern to the House ever since the White Paper on broadcasting was published in November. It has been raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North and the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. The White Paper made clear our determination that ownership in the independent broadcasting sector should remain widely spread, and that unhealthy concentrations of ownership and excessive cross-media ownership would be prevented. The White Paper set out general principles on which new ownership rules might be based and we have considered carefully the many comments we have received on the subject.

In a written answer this morning, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced our detailed proposals for ensuring effective ownership controls. The House will want to study my right hon. Friend's announcement in detail. However, I should like to draw particular attention to these main points. The essence of the Government's approach is that the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority should not be given discretionary powers for dealing with ownership questions. Instead, there should he clear rules, which they will be given the power to police and enforce effectively.

Among those rules will be the following. First, no company or group will be allowed to hold two large or contiguous regional Channel 3 franchises, and powers will be taken to introduce further restrictions, if necessary, by reference to audience share. There will be a clear definition of what is meant by a "large" franchise.

Mr. Holt

How big is large? We have a relatively small one in my region and we would not want to lose it.

Mr. Renton

That will eventually be decided by Ministers; it may be included in a statutory instrument, and we shall he ready to listen to representations about how large "large" is.

Secondly, national newspaper proprietors will be debarred from holding more than 20 per cent. of any DBS, UHF TV or national radio franchise; and national newspaper proprietors will be prevented from having a signficant financial interest in more than one such franchise. These limits will also apply reciprocally to the holders of such franchises investing in groups controlling national newspapers.

Thirdly, no operator of a non-DBS satellite service receivable in the United Kingdom will be permitted to have more than a 20 per cent. interest in a DBS, UHF TV or national radio licence and cross-interests exceeding 20 per cent. between DBS, UHF TV and national radio licensees will not he permitted.

Fourthly, advertising agencies will be precluded from holding commercial television or radio licences, as will local authorities and bodies whose objectives are wholly or mainly of a political nature.

Finally, we intend to abolish the rule which has hitherto precluded non-EC ownership of local delivery operators; no other ITC or Radio Authority licences will, however, be able to be held or controlled by a non-EC company or individual.

Mr. Tony Banks

The Minister is making an important annoucement. As I understand it, it has been released in the form of a written reply by the Home Secretary. Is it now available in the Library? If so, would it not have been more appropriate for the Home Secretary to release the answer in a statement to the House during prime time?

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman has an extraordinary ability to carp when the Government have gone out of their way to try to be helpful. We heard only a few days ago that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North had won this debate on broadcasting and we worked with great speed to prepare the details so that the question could be asked yesterday and answered this morning, and so that I could make this speech today. Just for once, the hon. Gentleman should get rid of some of his bile and be thankful to this co-operative Government for bringing forward these proposals for discussion in the House—[Interruption.] I suggest the hon. Gentleman goes back to the poop-scoop if that is all that he can think about.

These rules, which build on the broad principles set out in the White Paper, should ensure that ownership in the independent sector remains widely spread. This will help to keep the market open for new entrants, and should be a shield against editorial uniformity or domination by a few groups.

Mr. Wheeler

Most hon. Members here today would agree that we have had an extremely informative and constructive debate, in which most of us have taken part and in which we have discussed in detail the vital issue of ownership. My hon. Friend the Minister has, in this debate, and in the written answer that he has made available, answered the concern that many of us felt about this matter. It is a cause of great regret that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who has just bounced into the Chamber, should approach the subject in this way.

Mr. Tony Banks

Have a care.

Mr. Renton

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North asked me whether a national newspaper would be able to own a substantial position in more than one television franchise, and the answer is no. The statement says: We … see a strong case for debarring national newspaper proprietors from having a significant financial interest —ie 20 per cent.— in more than one such franchise.

Mr. Worthington

This is a complicated statement, as it inevitably must be in a matter such as this, and I shall want to study it long and hard. I understood the Minister to say that a newspaper owner would not be allowed to own more than 20 per cent. of any terrestrial channel. However, that leaves out the fact that, increasingly, channels will be satellite as well as terrestrial. If I have understood the Minister correctly, would it not be better to bar those who control satellite channels from any kind of influence on terrestrial channels?

Mr. Renton

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's slight difficulty in fully following a detailed elaboration of the question answered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. No operator of a non-DBS satellite service receivable in the United Kingdom will be permitted to have more than a 20 per cent. interest in a DBS, UHF television or national radio licence.

No Government can stop British newspaper proprietors buying into overseas transmitters that have been linked to non-DBS services that are not controlled by this country. If a national newspaper proprietor in Britain has a more than 20 per cent. interest in such a non-DBS satellite service receivable in the United Kingdom, it follows from what I have said that he would not be able to acquire a 20 per cent. interest in the United Kingdom licence. That is the connecting route.

Mr. Corbett

The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) sought to make was on, as the Minister has acknowledged, an extremely important matter. While the House is grateful to the Minister for using the oppportunity of the debate to make the statement, it would have been of greater assistance if we could have had the written statement at some stage during the debate. That was the point that my hon. Friend was trying to make.

Mr. Renton

It was not my impression that that was the only point that he was trying to make. The question was tabled yesterday and answered at 11 o'clock, which is the normal time for answering questions on a Friday.

I was asked whether, under the new ownership rules, a local paper will be able to own a local community radio. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh who asked that question. No regional or local paper will be allowed to have more than a 20 per cent. interest in any regional or local ITC or radio authority licence with whose area it overlaps, and vice versa. There will be no restriction on out-of-area ownership by papers of local radio stations. For example, if a local newspaper wishes to develop its expertise in local news gathering by becoming interested in local radio stations in areas that are not contiguous with the area of the paper, it will not be barred from doing that. That is in line with the principles announced today by my right hon. Friend.

I shall now turn to the issue of quality. The clear restrictions on excessive concentration of ownership or of cross-media ownership that we have announced today, will be welcomed by all those who want to see diversity in our broadcasting system. They certainly show our determination to be serious in deed as well as in intent on the question of choice.

I say clearly to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington that the question of quality has always been at the heart of our thinking. We want to see quality not just on Channel 4 but on BBC and Channel 3 as well. The main strands of our thinking about Channel 3 are well known. There are requirements for news and current affairs, for a diverse programme service, and for authentic voices from all the United Kingdom regions so that there will be programmes not just of regional interest, but programmes produced in the regions as well.

We are determined that quality will still be the hallmark of much of British television in the 1990s, preferably more so than now. But quality, of course, means different things to different people. To some the quality of the series of programmes on the gnostic gospels produced by one of the smallest of the ITV companies, Border TV, was extraordinary. To others such programmes would be boring and to them quality might mean an ability to choose between four different films or four different American soap operas. Perceptions of quality are subjective and it is humbug to pretend otherwise.

I was struck by an article in the bulletin of the Independent Programme Producers Association of spring 1989, which reads in part as follows: A lot of people in Britain do choose to watch programmes that do not attract mass-majority audiences. It would be a diminishing of choice to eliminate such programmes, or to make it costly to view them, or to substantially reduce their number, frequency, range, diversity, appearance in reasonable viewing hours, funding and so on. The logic of choice as a political ideal is to ensure the healthy survival of those TV organisations and companies which do provide nationally, at low cost to the individual viewer or family, just such programmes. Those are sentiments with which I have much sympathy.

Our commitment is that more choice and better quality shall go hand in hand with greater competition. Thus, we are committed to maintaining the remit on Channel 4, including the commitment to innovation and experiment, and we fully understand the case for not putting that remit at risk while encouraging a greater freedom and independence in Channel 4 by requiring it to sell its own advertising. Together, those commitments to the remit and to the growing amount of orginal drama and other work from the independent producers—the companies that are not controlled either by the BBC or by ITV companies —mean that we are clearly committed to a concept of diversity and variety that goes beyond the status quo of today, and that certainly does not confuse choice with a simple proliferation of more of the most popular types of programming.

In this context, the BBC is, I am sure, planning its strategy for the 1990s. Apart from the nudge towards subscription, encouraged by the announcement that I made a few minutes ago, and the proposal for the removal of one set of its night hours, the White Paper does not aim to set out an enabling framework for the BBC in the 1990s as it does for the whole of the commercial broadcasting sector.

My hon. Friends the Members for Surbiton and for Langbaurgh asked about the future financing of the BBC. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that the licence fee cannot be regarded as immortal, and that is a matter that should be considered for both television and radio, but not now. It will be considered early in the 1990s, when the charter comes up for review.

In paragraph 3.2 of the White Paper, we agree with the Select Committee on Home Affairs that the BBC is still and will remain for the foreseeable future the cornerstone of British broadcasting". However, we have said that this does not mean that the BBC has to involve itself in every aspect of broadcasting or that it should be insulated from change. I hope that those sentiments will be echoed by the BBC management, by the BETA, and by the work force, and that they pick up the comments made earlier today by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West.

I note that in a talk recently given to the BBC's board of governors and board of management conference at the end of April, Dr. Veljanovski said: The BBC must define the distinctive parts of its product. This will be a matter for conscious choice by management in the light of the competition. But the definition of the BBC's output cannot be solely a reaction to competitive threats. It must cast itself in the role of the quality broadcaster—the IBM of broadcasting. Interesting and provocative words, I thought.

I said earlier that the 3,000 submissions that we have received in answer to the White Paper were generally interesting and full of ideas. However, the exception that proves the rule is the Labour party's submission, which is deeply negative and depressing. All it appears to offer is the need for more regulation and a pessimistic fear of the future. I have read it three times and I know that its simple message is, "Stop the satellite, we want to get off." There is no policy, no vision, not even any speculation.

As to quality and negotiations for the new franchise, the kindest thing to say is that the shadow Minister who wrote that submission had not read the White Paper. The shadow Minister who wrote the paragraphs on broadcasting in the Labour policy review published yesterday did something different. Rather than not reading the White Paper, he has lifted paragraphs from it. Paragraphs 108 and 109 of the Labour policy review are all about the reward of franchises. After substantial assurances about the range, content and quality of the programmes offered, they use what those who have served on the Select Committee on Home Affairs will recognise as the precise words of paragraph 6.17 and 6.19 of the White Paper. I am, therefore, somewhat puzzled about which shadow Minister is responsible for the media. When we debated the Right of Reply Bill, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said that a future Labour Government would establish a Ministry to deal with the arts and the media; that there would be a media Minister. We have heard nothing about that since then, including in today's debate. Is the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington or the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central in charge? Perhaps there is someone in charge called the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Erdington.

The whole vision of the Labour party consists of two inquiries, one into the financing of the BBC and the other into the availability of advertising to finance the extra broadcasting services. It is no wonder that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) prefers his slot on the Sky news channel.

The Government's policy is one of choice, quality and vision in a difficult, fast-moving world in which a whole series of decisions inter-react. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North for initiating a debate that has enabled us to consider some of the challenges ahead.

1.36 pm
Mr. Gale

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank the 11 hon. Members on both sides of the House who have taken part in the debate and have brought to bear the weight of a considerable amount of professional expertise on a subject that is of increasing importance to everyone in the United Kingdom. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Minister and his team of officials, who were given notice of the motion only on Wednesday and who have worked hard to provide the answers to the points raised today. I, at least, appreciate that.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) are anxious to begin the debate on the Territorial Army and so, without further ado, I conclude this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the communications opportunities offered by technological developments in terrestrial and satellite broadcasting and cable distribution systems; urges Her Majesty's Government, when creating a legislative framework for the future of radio and television broadcasting and interactive services, to pay particular attention to the need to continue to stimulate quality programming and maintain diversity of ownership and choice; and further calls on Her Majesty's Government to establish a coherent policy for the promotion of United Kingdom and pan-European satellite services.