HC Deb 24 November 1992 vol 214 cc741-53 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Peter Brooke)


Madam Speaker

Order. Would Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quietly and quickly, so that we may proceed with our business?

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that I do not take points of order until the end of questions and statements.

Mr. Brooke

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The BBC's present royal charter, granted in 1981, expires at the end of 1996. We now have an important, and rare, opportunity to consider the role, objectives, organisation and funding of the BBC in the years ahead. Earlier this year, in our general election manifesto, we said that we would issue a discussion document about the future of the BBC taking account of its special responsibilities for providing public service broadcasting.

I am publishing that discussion document today. It is right that I should acknowledge the work done by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) in taking the preparation of this document to an advanced stage.

I should like to take this opportunity to say something about the context of this debate on the future of the BBC. Broadcasting is changing rapidly and radically both in this country and throughout the world. Everywhere, the number of services is increasing, as new television channels and new radio stations open, using cable and satellites as well as conventional methods of transmission. Increasingly, programmes and services are being designed for audiences in more than one country and some services can be received in millions of homes throughout Europe.

The position is unrecognisable from that which existed a few years ago, and has altered even within the last year. In the foreseeable future there will be opportunities for even more services, on satellite and cable systems. Looking further ahead, the introduction of digital transmission may ultimately increase the number of channels which can be provided, first from satellite and eventually on the terrestrial network. We expect digital audio broadcasting to provide more radio services in this country in the next three or four years.

Since broadcasting began some 70 years ago, and until quite recently, there have been few outlets and little difficulty in finding programme material to broadcast. In this country we devised a framework which enabled broadcasters to achieve diversity and quality in their programmes. Now, the number of outlets is increasing and all the outlets are looking for material to broadcast.

This opens up new prospects for United Kingdom broadcasters both in this country and throughout the world. In this country the BBC's services are popular and widely used. Over 90 per cent. of the population use the BBC's television services every week; about 60 per cent. use its radio services. The BBC's services are part of the daily life of the majority of people in this country. As I know from the letters I receive, and as all hon. Members will know, our constituents often care deeply about the programmes it broadcasts.

Externally, the BBC's World Service Radio, which this year celebrates its 60th year of broadcasting, is highly respected, particularly for the reliability of its news. The service is estimated to have 120 million regular listeners. BBC World Service Television, which is a commercial venture, is already providing news and current affairs programmes throughout most of the world. Internationally, there are new opportunities for the BBC and for other British broadcasting organisations and programme-makers.

The Government believe that the BBC should continue as a major public service broadcasting organisation, but that is not to say that there is no need for changes. Change there has to be if the BBC is to meet the new challenges that are being created by changing circumstances.

However, there are a number of possible ways forward. In the discussion document, we have tried to set out some of the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of options. We now wish to listen to the arguments and to weigh them, before deciding on the proposals to bring before the House.

The essential issues in the debate are likely to be the future objectives of public service broadcasting; the range of the BBC's programmes, services and functions; how the BBC should be financed; how it should be organised to provide its services more efficiently; and the ways of making the BBC responsive to its audiences and accountable for its services. All those issues are linked and need to be seen as part of a coherent policy for the future.

I hope that there will be a well-informed, considered and constructive debate. The BBC will shortly publish its own proposals for its future. I would like to encourage other major organisations to publish their responses to the discussion document and the BBC's proposals. In that way, we should all have a better understanding of the issues and that should help us to reach sensible decisions.

I am particularly anxious to hear the views of the public about the BBC's services. I would like to hear what audiences want from the BBC. I am therefore publishing a short popular version of the discussion document, which I plan to make available in public libraries and citizens advice bureaux.

The BBC has its supporters and its critics on both sides of the House, but I hope that, in pursuing an informed debate with a degree of passionate interest, we shall not forget that the BBC has informed, educated and entertained most people in this country for most of their lives.

The BBC has both embodied and communicated our national heritage. There are fundamental questions to be asked about the future of public service broadcasting and the role of the BBC in providing it. The Government believe that the public service broadcasting organisations exist to serve their audiences, and it is the wishes, interests and needs of audiences that we should keep at the forefront of our minds as we consider the BBC's future after 1996.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

The Minister delivered his speech as quickly as he apparently expected me to read the document. It is insulting to the House to deliver a 43-page document half an hour before it is due to be discussed.

I begin by welcoming the publication of the Green Paper. At least we now know where the Government stand and what we have to oppose. The Minister has assured the House that the next five months will be a period of widespread consultation. We trust that will be so. The Labour party will wish to make its own significant contribution to that debate.

Labour's media policy will be based on the principles of freedom; the absence of censorship; the ability of broadcasting authorities to present alternative views of the world; choice; access; quality; and accountability. On public service broadcasting, accountability should be not to the Government but to the public.

The Minister made it clear that for no broadcasting organisation, including the BBC, is the status quo an option. The need to sharpen efficiency is clear to all. No one would disagree about the need for increased efficiency and accountability. We also want an expansion of the excellent and respected BBC World Service, both radio and television.

The Labour party remains completely committed to the concept of public service broadcasting. We are concerned about certain elements of the Minister's statement. Naturally, we all favour wide consultation, but we want to see a reassertion of the value of public service broadcasting at the forefront of the Government's proposals in five months' time.

The Labour party will oppose any attempt to privatise the BBC, even at its edges. Privatisation of the BBC will face a united Opposition in the House, and the opposition of millions of people up and down the country. Will the Minister take into account the views of people such as Sir David Attenborough, the distinguished natural history programme maker, who has warned against the "castration" of the BBC by the Government, and voiced the fear that, under the Government, the BBC is being gravely eroded, the morale of its staff seriously damaged and the very things that gave it its unique stature and strength destroyed. We shall guarantee the funding of public service broadcasting by the BBC, and believe that the licence fee should continue as the basis for financing the BBC. Will the right hon. Gentleman join us today in making that commitment? Will he support index-linking the licence fee for at least 10 years—the same period as the BBC's charter? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Obviously, Conservative Members have made up their minds even before the consultation process has started. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that index-linking the fee would ensure stability for the BBC and enable it to be free of any attempt at editorial control, by the Government or anyone else?

In a lecture to the Royal Television Society a few weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman spoke about editorial independence, and said that it was his intention to uphold the tradition that Ministers responsible for broadcasting policy do not interfere in the content of individual programmes. That may be his personal preference, but what about the rest of his colleagues? How does the right hon. Gentleman explain "Tumbledown", "Death on the Rock", "Real Lives" and the Zircon programme? Does he agree that the Government have debased democracy by their handling of such programmes?

Is the right hon. Gentleman conscious of the fact that the BBC board of governors has come in for many legitimate attacks from various quarters? It has too often rolled over at the whim of politicians and retreated at the first whiff of displeasure from the Government.[Interruption.] The very gentlemen who have put pressure on the BBC are making the loudest noises this afternoon. The board of governors has been discouraged from making the sort of programmes that embarrass and infuriate Governments.

Will the Minister assure us today that the misuse of patronage—a feature of the Government's years of office —will now be coming to an end? Will he in future appoint people who have the bottle to defend the BBC, assert its rights and create a public row when it comes under threat? One of the options in the document is a Public Service Broadcasting Council. In our view, that is little more than the machinery that the Government and their supporters would use to undermine the principle of public service broadcasting—death by a thousand cuts.

I shall ask the Minister three questions. Is not the Public Service Broadcasting Council to be used as a Trojan horse by the supporters of a completely free market in television—a back-door method of privatising the BBC? Does he agree with his predecessor, the right hon. arid learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), who said today on television that such a suggestion would mean dismembering and driving a stake through the heart of the BBC?

Does the Minister accept that, if the proceeds of the licence fee are to be open to commercial broadcasters to make the sort of programmes that the Government refused to oblige them to make under the Broadcasting Act 1990, that will mean less cash for the BBC to make programmes? Will he understand that, if this were to provoke the BBC to seek to maintain revenue by taking limited TV advertising, that would compromise the editorial independence of the BBC and imperil the financial base of the new Channel 3?

If the BBC is to get less of the licence money through the PSBC, is it then expected to sustain programme quality and diversity at regional and national level, and its paramount contribution to live music and the arts? [Interruption.]

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

The hon. Lady would do credit to the BBC drama department.

Mrs. Clwyd

I am amazed that hon. Members are so dismissive of very important principles on public service broadcasting.

Does the Minister understand that, even before the debate starts, the loss of 7,000 jobs in the BBC by the end of the year threatens its long-term programme-making ability at a time when many of the commercial channels have opted out of production? How can the Minister defend that, when it has all been done without the knowledge of viewers and listeners, and before the shape of the BBC into and beyond the next century has been decided?

The BBC used to pride itself on being a centre of excellence. Is the Minister aware that the morale of those working for it has been severely undermined, because they feel that the values that gave it its strength and stature are under challenge?

Does the Minister acknowledge that the debate over the future of the BBC has added importance because of the botched fiasco of the blind bid auction of commercial TV licences carried out by his Government, which put cash before quality and which will restrict the range and variety of programmes before the end of the year? What proposals does he have to take action against commercial television which does not live up to the promises about quality?

Finally, we are not alone in having no faith in the Government's willingness to restore and sustain the independence and integrity of the BBC, given their constant attacks upon it and the expensive mess they have created in commercial television and within ITN. It is to Labour that viewers and listeners must look to promote the unique role in broadcasting which the BBC has earned and which the Labour party wants to encourage in the years ahead.

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Lady's observations, at least in their early stages, were stronger on asseveration than on interrogation. She enunciated the significant contribution that the Labour party would make, and then read out a considerable agenda. In the process, she clearly showed that she had read the discussion document, because those subjects are all contained within it.

She indicated that her test of the conclusions of the Government at the end of the consultation period would be the assertion of the importance of public service broadcasting. That assertion has been made at the beginning of the consultation process, and I would be astonished if it was not made at the end.

The hon. Lady quoted Sir David Attenborough, and I am delighted that he is making his contribution to the debate. I hope that many other distinguished contributions will be made too.

As to the licence fee, on which the hon. Lady gave us the Opposition's view, we shall want to consider all the options for financing the BBC. That is the process of consultation, but so far none looks obviously better than the licence fee.

The hon. Lady attacked the board of governors. I have no hesitation in defending it, just as it defends the BBC itself.

The hon. Lady made a lengthy contribution, including questions, on the Public Service Broadcasting Council. I made it clear in advance of publication of the document that my attitude towards the consultation process is open-minded. Clearly, it would have been less than open-minded if that element had not been part of the agenda of the exercise.

The hon. Lady made some observations about the management of the BBC at present. Although we are looking to the renewal of the charter in 1996, the BBC has to continue to manage itself during the interim period, and I am not in the least surprised that it is taking steps under current circumstances.

The hon. Lady said that the morale of the BBC was in severe straits because it was under challenge. I have to ask her what Lord Reith would have said if anyone had told him that the BBC's morale was affected because it was under challenge. Lord Reith would have given a dismissive response to that observation.

The hon. Lady made proper reference to quality. In the context of the ITV transactions, the quality threshold came before the cash bid.

The hon. Lady ended as she began, with asseveration rather than interrogation.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when a multiplicity of commercial outlets leaves the BBC in a somewhat unique position, the definition of the phrase "public service broadcasting" should be revised, so that there is one for the BBC and a different one for all the other interests that are providing television programmes?

Mr. Brooke

On pages 16 and 17, the discussion document deals with the question of how public service broadcasting should be defined, and its particular component parts are specifically identified. The question which my hon. Friend asks may well emerge out of the consultation process.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, when the charter is renewed, the House and the Government will be judged not just by the dangers that we have circumvented but also by the opportunities that we have grasped; and that the major danger, which is inherent in the Government's Green Paper and was explicit in the debates on the Broadcasting Act 1990, is that the BBC will be put on starvation rations and its public service role attenuated by a concept that embraces the idea that individual programmes are public service programmes rather than a totality of the service—which appeals some of the time to all of the people, but not all the time to everyone? The discussion paper allows the Minister a far-ranging debate, but will he acknowledge that the firm financial independence of the BBC is the basis of its role as a defender of free speech and of the nation speaking unto itself?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is aware of the scale of the BBC's present resources and revenues, although I recognise that some sub-division was implicit in his question. I acknowledge that firm financial independence is critical to the future of the BBC. I am also clear, although the hon. Gentleman did not allude to it himself, that, given the contribution which Britain makes through its various broadcasting organisations to the quality of broadcasting throughout the world, it is extremely important that we maintain a solid production base in Britain.

Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his Green Paper and the manner in which he has made his statement to the House today. As I understand it, he is asking the public to join in a full-hearted debate about the future of the BBC, and I congratulate him on that. There have been occasions when broadcasting policy has emerged after more cloistered consideration than that, and I am not sure that it was always to its benefit that it did so. Is it not right that the public, who after all watch hours and hours of television, as we all do, and listen to the radio every week, should have a view on the matter? It is their BBC, they pay for it, and it is right for the Government to ask their opinion before making up their mind.

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the fact that the BBC has recently been able to announce a further £120 million out of existing resources for programming as a result of savings on its bureaucracy is a sign of the great advantages to everyone, not least the BBC, of having a BBC that is a modern organisation, not one structured as of yesterday? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be most regrettable if the debate that he has opened by full-heartedly asking for opinions in a non-dogmatic way were to degenerate into a narrow partisan squabble? That would be to fall below the level of events, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will take note of that.

Mr. Brooke

I am particularly grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, and genuinely pay tribute to his contribution to the Green Paper's evolution. I absolutely endorse his remark that this is an invitation to public contributions to the consultation process. The BBC is a national institution that belongs to the public in the fullest possible sense. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the savings that the BBC has been able to effect have the capacity to be ploughed back into extra quality.

I also endorse my right hon. and learned Friend's observation that, if we can make sure that the debate does not become partisan but is directed at the good of the BBC, we will have a better BBC at the end of it.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Will the Secretary of State specifically reject the notion that the BBC, domestically at least, might be limited to a narrow range of programmes—many of which, if broadcast, might prove unattractive to private companies? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, without variety, public service broadcasting cannot succeed and might not survive—and that, were it not to survive, broadcasting in general would rapidly deteriorate?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. In its specific context, I will not precisely prejudge the debate and the consultation that is to take place, but I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to what I told the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)—that an important feature of the whole process is that we should emerge with a major production base in this country that can give quality to the world.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if we are to pay attention to the interests as well as the voices of listeners and viewers, we must maintain in the public service sector a variety of services, and let the BBC make an input into the various systems by which they will be transmitted?

I put one particular cash point to my right hon. Friend. Compared with the cost of satellite and cable subscriptions, less than £2 a week for the BBC is a boon to lower-income families and to pensioners, and they have a strong interest in maintaining the full BBC services.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for again emphasising the public's position. All of us taking part in the debate are conscious that the massive changes in technology that are occurring are becoming more available at economical prices. That not only enormously increases range and choice but makes more important the debate that we are to have on the BBC.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the consultation period, as apparently stated on page 11 of the Green Paper, under which his Department asks for comments and replies before 30 April 1993? Such a time scale could preclude proper and appropriate inquiry by the Select Committee on National Heritage. I hope that whatever time scale the hon. Gentleman lays down will not preclude the Select Committee conducting an appropriate inquiry.

Mr. Brooke

The Government and the right hon. Gentleman, as the Chairman of that Select Committee, were able to reach a concordat on a previous item of business that the Select Committee discharged, which enabled it to deliver its report in the time frame that it wished. I have every confidence that we will be able to effect a similar pattern of co-operation in future. Equally, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman feels that five months at least gives us a good start.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, in which he mentioned a wide open debate. How specifically will he incorporate discussion and debate on the BBC's future into the public domain?

Mr. Brooke

We specifically published the popular version of the Green Paper to which I referred in my statement, and which we will make widely available. I believe that it is also the case—and would be surprised if it were not—that the BBC, other broadcasting organisations, and the media generally will seek to enlarge the debate. If we can bring to it the passion and commitment that has characterised debates relating to particular channels, the public will have served us very well.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I welcome the reluctance of the Government in the Green Paper to consider advertising to raise funds for the BBC, not least because of the fragmentation that it may mean for commercial channels and the escalating number of cable channels. Does the Minister accept that the other side of that coin is the need to guarantee funding for the BBC? In that context, will he examine the need to develop English language television programmes emanating from Wales, to match the Welsh language programmes which have been developed so well, to give a full service to both language communities in Wales?

Mr. Brooke

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statesmanlike observation about the productions that emanate from Wales. I cannot give him a precise commitment, but I caught the essence of his suggestion, and I respect him for it.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

My right hon. Friend has made an excellent start to the debate. Behind the matter hangs the shadow of the size of the licence fee and the burden that it creates, especially for the elderly, who examine some of the services provided by the BBC—pop music channels with highly paid disc jockeys and variety programmes with, arguably, too highly paid presenters. Will my right hon. Friend examine whether those services are required in a public service broadcasting organisation? I suggest also that he consider some phone-in input for the public to open up the debate.

Mr. Brooke

When my hon. Friend studies the document in detail, he will find that it raises the question whether the various component parts should continue to be part of the BBC remit. Those of us who are engaged in the debate will welcome a multiplicity of ways in which contributions may be made.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is the Minister aware that the strongest resistance to the BBC comes from the poor—one-parent families, pensioners, and unemployed people who resent the £80 "poll tax" that they must pay? Is he aware that many of them never have that amount of money in one lump sum? That is why so many people do not pay the fee and the BBC must send out vans to detect those who do not pay.

Will the right hon. Gentleman promise to examine a system by which poor people can pay weekly amounts towards their television licence? By that, I do not mean a system by which people buy stamps a year in advance but still pay a lump sum of £80. Is it not time that the poor were able to afford the BBC licence with dignity, instead of spending—in the case of a single pensioner—a week and a half's income on it?

Mr. Brooke

I understand the hon. Gentleman's question. Although the figure is only 22p a day, I recognise that it is a large amount of money for some households. The way in which the fee is collected is a matter for the BBC. I am conscious that the BBC is examining alternative ways in which the fee might be collected, along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Mr. Stephen Milligan (Eastleigh)

Will my right hon. Friend elaborate a little more on the proposal in the Green Paper for the Public Service Broadcasting Council? Is he aware that some Conservative Members are worried about the proposal because, if it is introduced, it will mean that less funding will be available for the BBC and more funding will be given to independent productions which might have been made in any case? "Brideshead Revisited" is a good example. It was a programme in the public interest but did not need public finance.

Mr. Brooke

I recognise that the references to the Public Service Broadcasting Council in the document suggest a variety of purposes to which the council might be put. However, I re-emphasise that we are talking about a consultation process. I have no doubt that other hon. Members besides my hon. Friend will want to make their contributions on the subject.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

We in Northern Ireland welcome the opportunity of examining the charter of the BBC. I particularly welcome the part of the Minister's statement which referred to ways of making the BBC responsible to its audiences and accountable for its services. I hope that, when that matter is examined, the Government will ensure that the BBC pays attention to representations from its audiences and does something about them, rather than merely listening to them.

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman will join me in paying tribute to the services which the BBC renders in Northern Ireland. I attended the memorial service for Sir Richard Francis the other day, in which most memorable words were spoken about the role of the BBC in Northern Ireland. I am certain that accountability will mean not simply listening but demonstrating that the BBC, in the hon. Gentleman's phrase, pays attention to what its audiences are saying.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a crucial need in broadcasting to prevent a decline into pervasive mediocrity induced by unmitigated commercialism? While applauding his open-mindedness, may I urge him all the same to proceed on the assumption that the public service obligation of the BBC should be retained? Does he agree that the retention of the licence fee is likely to be a necessary means to that end?

Mr. Brooke

Yes. I reiterate to my hon. Friend both what I said in my original statement and what I said in answer to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). We strongly envisage that public service broadcasting will continue to play a key role in the BBC's activities at the end of the consultation period. I gave earlier the specific commitment for which my hon. Friend asked in his second question.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In these examinations, and in view of the appalling proliferation of radio outlets of all sorts, most of which put out nothing but a load of rubbish, would it not be advisable that the BBC's commitment to light entertainment of a rubbishy sort and to local radio should be much diminished?

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Bring back "Journey into Space".

Mr. Brooke

As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), I shall not prejudge that issue. Debate on that issue is an essential part of the consultation process.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

May I make my right hon. Friend reveal a little more of his own philosophy in these matters by asking him whether Melvyn Bragg is a monopoly? If he is, should he be regulated, deregulated or self-regulated?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. for the seductive temptation of his question. Mr. Bragg is someone whom I have got to know fairly recently, and I do not think that I should endanger my relationship with him immediately.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I am aware that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are mentioned several times in the text of the Green Paper, but the Secretary of State will be aware that the section which deals specifically with those national broadcasting services is but two paragraphs in a 43-page document. Will he distance himself and the Government at this stage from any suggestion the Government underrate the opportunities that might arise for those national services if they can distance themselves from the dead hand of London control?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the hours of Gaelic radio broadcasting which are already available. They are numbered in hundreds. The people of Scotland are lucky that those services are available.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC and ITV together have made a significant contribution to the culture and entertainment of the nation, and that we should think long and hard before upsetting the balance between a BBC funded by the licence fee and commercial television funded by advertising? Would it not be nonsense to create an Arts Council of the airways which would reduce the BBC's resources, in order to give money to commercial channels, which make significant contributions to the Exchequer?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend seems to be taking the same corner that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Milligan) took earlier. I am confident that he too will ensure that his voice is heard in the debate that we are about to have.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that the answer that he just gave the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who represents the Scottish National party, will not be welcomed in Scotland? What Scotland wants is a guarantee that the important role played by BBC Scotland in both radio and television is recognised by him, as it is not in the document; a guarantee that BBC Scotland will continue in the future; and an assurance that its finance will be guaranteed.

Mr. Brooke

In the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), I sought to pay tribute to the quality of regional broadcasting in the territories. I gladly repeat that tribute for the hon. Gentleman's benefit.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

If we really believe in freedom of choice and the freedom of the individual, should we not allow people to watch what they want to watch, free from intervention by any self-styled council of the great and the good? By the same token, should we not stop forcing people to pay for services that they may not want to use?

Mr. Brooke

Let me repeat what I have already said to at least two of my hon. Friends. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) will make his own individual contribution to the debate that we are about to have. As I have said, however, I can think of no obvious improvement on the licence fee as a method of financing the BBC. It is therefore likely to form the basis on which the BBC's future will be secured.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Only half a page of the document is devoted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State tell us what he has in mind when he speaks of a "larger measure of autonomy" for those three countries? Will the views of people in Wales be expressed through a national council, or by some other means? Finally, what are the right hon. Gentleman's views on broadcasting in Welsh?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman has sought, like others, to confine his observations relating to a particular part of the country to a narrow range of pages; the document, however, is directed at the BBC in the country at large. As he has said, it contains reference to a "larger measure of autonomy", and a balancing question is raised —how that can be secured without a duplication of effort. In any democratic society, that is a nice balance, and it will emerge in the debate.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in terms of programme hours and output per licence fee, the BBC is one of the most efficient broadcasting organisations in Europe? Will he also confirm that, unlike Labour Front Benchers with their scaremongering—which, incidentally, would do credit to the BBC's drama unit—the National Heritage Department has reached no firm conclusion? This is a Green Paper, a discussion document, not a White Paper.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.

I should have said in answer to the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) that there is already a substantial element of broadcasting in the Welsh language. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to enter into a private debate with me on the matter, however, I shall be happy to respond.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Should we not recognise that part of the background to the Green Paper is the serious damage done to broadcasting by the Government's obsession with deregulation, along with the serious damage that resulted from the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the absurd franchise auction that took place then? It is ridiculous to see public sector broadcasting as a ghetto confined to a single channel. The ethos of quality programming should extend across all channels, and the Government must not undermine the other channels as they have done in the past.

Let me put a simple proposition to the right hon. Gentleman. The press in this country is governed by market forces—commercialism—and is held in low esteem throughout the world. Until very recently, broadcasting in this country was governed by principles of democratic regulation and control, and was admired throughout the world. I commend those good socialist principles to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Brooke

I am sure that it was a slip of the tongue that caused the hon. Gentleman to refer to public sector broadcasting instead of to public service broadcasting. I do not share his condemnation of the British press. Large parts of the British press are widely admired. I agree with him about the respect in which British broadcasting is held. The intention of the consultation process is to make sure that that admiration is maintained.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Although I welcome the opportunity to debate the matter, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not mind my pointing out without any disrespect that there is an alternative to paying a licence fee —that is, not to have to pay a licence fee. Now that we have commercial stations, it is important that people who want to watch them and not the BBC should not be required to pay £80 a year for the privilege of having a television set in their house.

Elderly and poor people, for whom I would expect hon. Members opposite to make a particular case, resent having to pay the licence fee. There is no need for them to do so in the present climate. We know that the commercial outlets will give sponsorship to the BBC and provide money for healthy competition with the commercial channels, which are often alleged to be swimming in the stuff.

Mr. Brooke

I am absolutely sure that, when my hon. Friend, who is fair-minded, sees the references in the discussion document to the potential financing, she will agree that the options have been set out. It is now for the nation to respond in terms of consultation.

Mr. Tony Banks

Is it not a fact that most Members of the Conservative party and Conservative Members of Parliament have already made up their minds? They loathe the BBC, just as they love capital punishment. If the Secretary of State could introduce capital punishment for the producers of "Panorama", those who sit on Conservative Benches would undoubtedly be overjoyed.

Will the right hon. Gentleman state clearly that he will publish the results of the consultation exercise, not hide them away? If the great weight of public opinion is that it wants the BBC to remain as it is, will the Secretary of State abide by that decision, or will he give way to the doctrinaire fools behind him?

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman said, "doctrinaire"—

Mr. Banks


Madam Speaker

I deprecate the use of such language.

Mr. Banks

I apologise.

Madam Speaker

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is one of the most articulate Members of this House, can find another phrase.

Mr. Banks

What about hon. dimwits, then?

Mr. Brooke

I have long admired the hon. Gentleman's precision of language, although not in this instance. I take issue with his observation that we on this side of the House, to use his phrase, "loathe the BBC." I made it clear in my statement that the BBC has supporters and critics in all parts of the House. That is what makes the debate worth while. I have made it clear in the foreword to the discussion document that I have lived abroad four different times for significant periods and that, as a consequence of that experience, I have a profound admiration for the service that the BBC provides.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We shall now move on.