HC Deb 07 February 1991 vol 185 cc396-7
1. Mr. Kennedy

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will assess the likely impact of the Broadcasting Act on the local television coverage of Grampian and the highlands and islands; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I am confident that the north of Scotland will in future continue to receive the same high–quality service as it currently enjoys.

Mr. Kennedy

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's recent decision to offer guarantees over three years to preserve the integrity of the present Grampian boundaries for television purposes. But is he aware of the legitimate anxiety that still exists in the north of Scotland generally —in Grampian, in the highlands and islands and the northern and western isles—that beyond that period a predatory bid—say, from central Scotland—could result in there being only one independent television company covering all of Scotland? Given the diversity of views and of regional interests across the country, that would he wholly unacceptable to north of Scotland interests.

Mr. Baker

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support for my decision. It means that in this round of bidding, the licence for the Grampian area cannot be bid for by its larger neighbour. The licence can, of course, he bid for by other groups or companies, but the television group has a restricted interest in that. After 1993, it will be possible for the smaller television companies to be bid for by their larger neighbours. Mergers or takeovers will be permitted from the end of 1992–93 at the discretion of the Independent Television Commission.

Mr. Wilson

I, too, welcome what has been done, but does the Home Secretary recognise that a new irony has been created in that, until 1993, the only companies that cannot take over Grampian or any small company are those next door to them, which arguably would be the more suitable if there had to be a takeover? It is odd that Mr. Berlusconi can take over Grampian but Scottish Television cannot. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there would be a more stable state of affairs if, once the areas for transmission had been defined and the franchises awarded for a set period, that remained the position until the next awarding of franchises and that until then any hostile takeover bid was automatically ruled out of court?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is a moratorium. Perhaps during that period sensible mergers will come about. It has been said that some of the smaller companies might not be viable for long. That is not ruled out, but it must be at the discretion of the ITC. I assure the hon. Gentleman and others whose constituencies are in the areas of the smaller companies that at the bidding stage and in the case of a change of ownership in the future, good regional programmes will continue to be made and shown. Section 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 specifically requires that. There are also requirements that regional news shall be of a high quality and that a suitable proportion of regional programmes shall continue to be made in the region.

Mr. John Greenway

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what matters to people in the Grampian area and in the highlands is not who owns the franchise but that, as he said, thanks to the scrutiny of the House, there is a much stronger regional requirement in the Broadcasting Act than previously was the case? People in the highlands and Grampian region can look forward to the future in the knowledge that there will have to be a properly structured regional service, whoever may own it.

Mr. Baker

I can confirm exactly what my hon. Friend said—the Broadcasting Act 1990 contains that requirement. A strength of independent television is the good quality of regional television companies. Many of them have established large production facilities and do a very good job. We wish to ensure that they continue to do so.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Although we all welcome the moratorium that the Home Secretary announced on 28 January, not least those of us who represent constituencies covered by the effective Grampian Television, what procedures will the Home Secretary bring into force to ensure that during the moratorium there will be a clear analysis of the position? It will be small compensation to have a short–term moratorium if, later, Grampian Television and other regional programmes are taken over by a predator with no interest in the area.

Mr. Baker

My powers in that sector are clearly restricted. It is now the ITC's responsibility to police the round of licence bidding and, after the moratorium, to consider whether mergers should take place. It will be bound by the provisions of the statute and will take into account the points made.