§ The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Peter Brooke)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of the BBC.
I am today publishing a White Paper with the Government's policies for the BBC's role and operations after December 1996, when its present royal charter expires. A copy of the White Paper, with a user-friendly summary, will be available in the Vote Office when I have finished speaking.
In developing these policies, we have been able to take account of advice, ideas and comments from a wide variety of sources. We had the replies from many organisations and individuals to the Government's consultation document, published in November 1992. I am grateful to everyone who wrote to us, and especially to those who arranged conferences and seminars so that the issues could be discussed. The BBC put forward its own views about its future, which provided a useful focus for public debate, and it has continued to develop its proposals, taking account of the debate about its future and changes in the world of broadcasting.
We also had the benefit of the National Heritage Select Committee's report, "The Future of the BBC", which was published in December last year. The Committee took evidence from a large number of interested parties. The White Paper includes the Government's response to the Select Committee's report and its recommendations. I have, of course, not yet had time to consider the Select Committee's report entitled "Sports Sponsorship and Television Coverage" which was published earlier today.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
The right hon. Member had better hurry up; he will not be here next week.
§ Mr. Brooke
The Select Committee's views on listed events and subscription channels have attracted a great deal of interest and the Government will take careful note of them. The White Paper acknowledges that the present restrictions are necessary and that there are arguments for strengthening them.
Our consultation document made it clear that the Government saw a continuing role for the BBC as the major public service broadcaster in the United Kingdom. But new opportunities are being created by technological developments. The Government believe that the BBC is well placed to evolve into an international multi-media enterprise, building on its present commercial services in this country and overseas. We will do all we can to encourage this process.
The responses to our consultation document showed that there is considerable public support for the wide range and diversity of the programmes and services which the BBC provides for audiences throughout the United Kingdom. However, public support for the BBC would diminish unless the corporation could demonstrate that it was cost-effective.
The BBC has, in the last few years, set in hand extensive, and often painful, measures to improve its efficiency, reducing its overheads and reorganising its operations. It is in the midst of a difficult process of modernisation, which the Government expect to continue in the years ahead. The results so far are encouraging. As 316 a broadcaster, the BBC has been able to invest over £100 million more in programmes. As an organisation, it can face the future with more flexibility and with a clearer view of how its various activities contribute to fulfilling its strategic purpose—to provide broadcast services of information, entertainment and education.
In the light of that, the Government will recommend that the BBC should be granted a new royal charter for a term of 10 years from January 1997. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] A new agreement between the Government and the BBC would govern its operations; that would replace the present licence and agreement.
The new royal charter will set out the responsibilities of the governors and the national councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The board of governors will have a strategic oversight of the BBC's activities and management. The governors and the national councils will have a special responsibility for ensuring that the BBC's services reflect the interests and needs of the public throughout the country, and for improving the BBC's accountability to its audiences and to Parliament.
Within the United Kingdom, the BBC should continue to take a lead in programme making and to provide its present television and radio services. Those will be funded from the licence fee, at least for the time being. The Select Committee, after considering all the options, concluded that the licence fee was the best available method of funding the BBC's services. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] The Government agree with the Committee's view. However, we propose that there should be a review of funding from the licence fee before the year 2001 in the light of technological and other changes.
The BBC will, of course, continue to be editorially independent and we shall expect it to maintain high standards in all its programming. Like other broadcasters, it will continue to have obligations to observe due impartiality on controversial issues—
§ Mr. Brooke
—and to ensure that programmes do not encourage crime or offend against good taste, decency or public feeling.
Overseas, the BBC will continue to broadcast World Service radio, financed by grant in aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That service has more than 130 million listeners and it is widely recognised for the reliability and accuracy of its news. That reputation is an asset of great value, both culturally and commercially. The Government consider that the BBC should be encouraged to exploit further its commercial potential.
The main changes that we propose for the future, therefore, are aimed at the development of the BBC's commercial activities, particularly its international television services. As the Select Committee recognised, a new and expanding global market is opening up for broadcasting services. Broadcasting has been transformed from a mainly national to an international activity. Moreover, broadcasting, as we have known it, is likely to become only one strand in an international media market, which will include some services and products which combine elements of different media—sound, pictures and text—allowing users to decide which they prefer.
Those developments will greatly extend the variety and choice available to everyone in this country and elsewhere. 317 The BBC is well placed to take advantage of that growing international market. It is well known internationally; it has highly skilled production staff, a large production capacity and considerable programme archives, and it has experience of operating commercially at home and abroad.
However, we should not risk licence payers' or taxpayers' money on commercial ventures. That is why we have encouraged the BBC to forge new partnerships with the private sector. In that way, it can take advantage of the private finance initiative and of the commercial expertise of its private sector partners. Understandably, the BBC is anxious that those partnerships should allow the BBC to keep editorial control over its programmes. That will help it to protect its brand name, which is recognised worldwide.
The Government believe that the BBC should compete commercially, but it must also compete fairly. The BBC has published a commitment to fair trading and it is preparing detailed guidelines. We shall want to examine those guidelines closely and ensure that they are implemented effectively. For that reason, it is essential that its services financed from the licence fee and the grant in aid should be operated separately from its commercial activities.
We are exploring with the BBC various options for the future of its transmission services. Those include privatisation, in full or in part. The BBC is preparing for an early introduction of digital broadcasting services for radio and then for television. Digital technology is more efficient in the use of the frequency spectrum and it opens up the possibility of even more services. It also offers opportunities to United Kingdom manufacturers of equipment and receivers.
The purpose of those studies, which should be completed toward the end of the year, is to seek to combine the early introduction of digital broadcasting services with the advantages of privatisation. Those include the benefits of private sector finance, since the Government do not intend to increase the licence fee to pay for introducing digital services. The Government and the BBC are clear that functions should be kept within the BBC only when there is a compelling reason for doing so.
Although we intend that the BBC should continue to be established by royal charter, a number of the Government's proposals will require legislation. When there is a suitable opportunity, we propose to repeal the provisions in the Broadcasting Act 1990 which prevent the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority from licensing services owned or partly owned by the BBC. In future, any commercial broadcasting services operated by the BBC would have to be licensed by the commission or the authority.
More generally, we intend to give the commission and the authority new powers to license and regulate commercial digital television and radio services. Reflecting widespread concern over standards, we also propose to merge the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. That will provide a clearer focus for the public's complaints about broadcasting services and reduce the number of regulatory bodies.
Madam Speaker, the Government recognise that, in the BBC, the United States—[Interruption.] Madam Speaker, 318 as I directed that sentence to you, I shall read it again. The Government recognise that, in the BBC, the United Kingdom has an organisation which is a world leader. It makes more programmes than any organisation outside the United States and Japan. Over 99 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom can receive its services, and most people use them regularly. From the perspective of my Department, no other organisation provides such active and creative patronage of the arts or does so much to make major national and artistic events, and the cultural heritage of the country, accessible to everyone.
In the next 10 years, there are likely to be significant and rapid changes in broadcasting and the media generally. No one can foresee the outcome of those changes, either nationally or internationally, but it is clear that they offer huge opportunities both for the BBC and for other United Kingdom broadcasters.
The Government wish the BBC to be in a position to take advantage of these opportunities. Our policies keep a wide range of options open for the BBC's long-term future. We confirm its role as the United Kingdom's major public service broadcaster, but we are encouraging it to develop into a multi-media enterprise with international interests. That prospect is reflected in the title of our White Paper: "The Future of the BBC: Serving the Nation; Competing World-wide".
§ Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)
We thank the Secretary of State for the White Paper. We welcome it. We have had a long wait, but we are glad that it is here at last.
We have never wavered in our support for public service broadcasting, unlike the Government. We believe that for a democracy to flourish, it is crucial to uphold individuals' rights to free expression and information. We believe that the BBC's role is crucial to that—it is central. The BBC is part of our national life and its future should be guaranteed in the way that it is by the White Paper.
We are relieved that the Government have abandoned their calls for privatisation—apart from some age-old Thatcherites in odd parts of the House today. We are pleased that that has been abandoned. We also welcome the continuation of the licence fee, but would appreciate clarification on whether it will be index linked up to the review at the end of the decade.
In a sense, it is sad that the Government have simply gone for the status quo. We would have been more ambitious for the future development and growth of the BBC. We believe that there is a need to respond to the changes that have taken place in Britain since the previous royal charter, and the decline in our shared sense of national identity and community. We would have wanted more in the statement today. [Interruption.] I will give some examples.
Can the Secretary of State tell the House why, in his statement today, he has not encouraged the BBC to continue to do and emphasise what it is good at, which is good-quality programming, especially in education? Today, there was an opportunity to emphasise education, which would have given us the opportunity to have an extra teacher in every classroom and every household in the country. It is sad that that has not happened.
It would be useful if the Secretary of State could tell us why the Government have not made up their mind on the future of transmission services.
§ Ms Mowlam
They have not. I have had only 20 minutes to read the paper, but it is clear that the Government have not made up their mind on transmission services. What they have done is say that there may be a future, there may not; it may be privatised, it may not.
The Opposition want a time limit from the Secretary of State for that discussion. We want a date to be put on that continued question mark over the future of transmission services. The future of the BBC depends on keeping transmission services in house. If digital is to be developed, which is what we would like, it is important for licence fee holders and the BBC to know about that decision sooner rather than later. [HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] Yes, that was the second question.
My third question is why, apart from one throwaway line, did not the Secretary of State reassert the importance of regional programming for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions? When he talks about regionalism, we want to be sure that he means that the BBC skills base will be located in the regions and that it will not continue the march of the media to London.
The Secretary of State acknowledged the internal changes that have taken place in the BBC. Will he also acknowledge the serious morale problems that it faces as a result of the growth of short-term contracts? It would be valuable if the Secretary of State would emphasise instead the value of staff loyalty, which can result from the stability that long-term contracts bring.
The Secretary of State mentioned streamlining and accountability, and merging the Broadcasting Standards Council with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission—a merger which has already been discussed by those two groups for many months, and we welcome it. Why did he not get to the heart of the question of accountability in the BBC and deal with the appointment and remit of its governors, and with changing the royal charter to an Act of Parliament, to enable an open and transparent debate in the House?
We welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement about the BBC's worldwide service—a decision which the BBC announced many months ago—but would like further clarification that licence fee money will be kept separate for domestic production, rather than for international growth. [Interruption.] This is the second-last question, for those hon. Members who are getting touchy.
We also want to know why the Government have waited so long before allowing the BBC to compete internationally against dominant players, such as Murdoch's News Corporation. Such folk are already trying to drive British newspapers out of the market with the present price war, and we want to be sure that British broadcasters do not face the same future.
Finally, why, when the Secretary of State just paid lip service to editorial independence, is he not at long last going to lift the ridiculed and discredited broadcasting ban, as the Irish Government have already done?
§ Mr. Brooke
I thank the hon. Lady for her initial welcoming remarks. She asked a serious of questions, which I will try to answer concisely.
320 On the licence fee, there will be a review of the formula under which it is calculated, at the time of the new charter in 1997. That will precede the review of the licence fee process, which will be before 2001.
As to the hon. Lady's observation that we have not encouraged the BBC to produce good programmes, I fear that in my statement there was a clear proclamation about the BBC's programme making and, as the hon Lady knows, its commitment to education is age-old.
As to the future of the transmission service, on which the hon. Lady asked a specific question, I said in my statement that consultants would study the matter in conjunction with the BBC, which has acknowledged the possibility that that service will be privatised fully or in part. That analysis and one of the relationship with the digital expansion programme will be conducted during the balance of the year.
On regional programmes and the skills base, the BBC has already announced the extent to which it will move programme making out of London, not only to the other countries of the United Kingdom, but to the other regions of this country.
As to the hon. Lady's question about morale, of course I acknowledge that during a period of management change as rapid as the one the BBC has undergone, there is potential for demoralisation. The management of the process, about which the hon. Lady specifically asked, is a matter for the BBC. Some Government Members were disappointed that one or two members of the Labour party were not prepared to cross picket lines the other day. Whether her question in this instance is asked on behalf of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union is something which the hon. Lady may clarify later.
As to accountability, the White Paper makes quite clear the separation of the role of the governors from the act of governance and the avoidance of their getting involved in management. The hon. Lady will know that she finds common cause in seeking an Act of Parliament with a number of my hon. Friends in this Chamber and noble Friends in another place. They might find common cause with her on grounds other than her own, but she will know that if we were to have such a debate on an Act of Parliament, it would range fairly wide.
As to separate accounting, I said that the BBC has published its fair trading commitment, and it is due to publish further details. I said in my statement that the Government will be analysing and scrutinising those closely when they come.
The hon. Lady asked why the BBC was not allowed to compete earlier. I am not sure to what she was alluding in saying that there was a restraint upon the BBC. I shall simply remark about her article in The Independent—newly minted this very day—that she addressed a number of issues which people in other places were thinking about at least two years ago.
Finally, the hon. Lady asked about the Irish issue. As I said in my last parliamentary answer on the subject, it is a matter which is kept under review.
§ Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement to the House today? May I congratulate him, too, on the fact that, at a time of increased speed in technological change in the broadcasting world, he has resisted the temptation of going for too much change in the BBC at this moment? Surely most 321 people in this country—at a time of vast increases in the number of television and radio channels—welcome the BBC as a sort of friendly rock of ages. They know, and like to know, that they can find Radio 4 in a familiar place on long wave.
What does my right hon. Friend have in mind when he talks about increasing commercial services on the BBC? Is he talking about encouraging more sponsorship of artistic programmes on the BBC? Surely in due course it will be necessary for the streams of revenue from commercial activities to be intermingled with the licence fee. Finally, where does he see the role of the governors as a supervisory body as being different from their present role?
§ Mr. Brooke
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks about the stance that the Government have taken in the White Paper.
The particular expansion of commercial services is clearly intended to take place overseas, but my right hon. Friend will be aware that BBC Enterprises has become more profitable during the past year and there clearly will be some expansion in the United Kingdom.
The role of the governors is reasserted in the White Paper, but, in my response to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), I alluded to the fact that the governors are there to provide the overall regulation of the BBC, and are not intended to be involved in a detailed way in management.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
May I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that he intends to renew the BBC's charter and licence fee? We want a thriving, widely appealing, impartial and vigorously independent BBC which competes in world markets and gives value for money to the licence payers.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that his proposals for the cosy self-regulation of the BBC by its board of governors do not go far enough? Should not their responsibilities be given to an independent regulator for all television broadcasting which can secure its charter obligations, monitor the operation of the BBC agreement and prevent the possible misuse of the BBC's licence revenues?
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Gentleman asked why we could not have a single independent regulator for all broadcasting. The Government believe that the BBC's public service broadcasting role is better regulated and overseen by a separate regulator or regulators, in the form of the governors, because it is a distinct role. We propose that that should continue.
§ Mr. David Evennett (Erith and Crayford)
Some Conservative Members feel that privatisation is very good for all industries in this country. Can my right hon. Friend tell us why the BBC should be exempt from it? I welcome his statement as far as it goes, but will he consider the whole question of commercial sponsorship for programmes, and also consider ways of improving the BBC's standards for the benefit of all licence payers? A number of my constituents are very concerned about not getting value for money.
§ Mr. Brooke
The Government ruled out the privatisation of the BBC, for the reason that I gave the hon.
322 Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)—its public service broadcasting role. That role is better conducted in its present form, as it has been for the past 70 years.
As for my hon. Friend's more general question, it would be wrong to think that we are engaged in business as usual. What has been said about the BBC, and within the BBC, over the past two or three years has demonstrated that a major revolution has been taking place in the corporation, which the Government have applauded in terms of the results that have been secured.
As for the licence fee, I think that my hon. Friend will find that in many other countries service of such quality is not available for the price that we must pay here.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his excellent statement. How could I do otherwise, given that practically everything that he said is contained in our unanimous Select Committee report?
May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the extension of 10 years in the BBC charter on which he has decided—in line with the Select Committee's recommendations—must be used by the BBC not simply for "business as usual", but to enable it to reassess its role and realign itself in the new contexts of media presentation and technology that will arise during the period concerned? The BBC must either dwindle into a low—audience, public broadcasting service or become what the Secretary of State has rightly said that it should become—an international multi—media enterprise.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the partnership that the BBC has already arranged with Pearsons, and its approach to the large American media company Cox Enterprises, are part of the way forward, but that the BBC needs to associate itself with a large telecommunications company such as British Telecom so that it can become a major international player in the media game? While protecting the public service ethos for which the BBC stands, such a partnership could help it to take part in the great and exciting future that is opening up for the people of this country in entertainment, education and information.
§ Mr. Brooke
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gave my statement. He took a slightly selective view in saying that we had agreed with every single recommendation made by the Select Committee; but we were not an enormous distance away from it.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the BBC's use of the next 10 years, but I think that he will agree that what has happened over the past two or three years has provided it with a springboard for the kind of thinking that he envisages. I shall not comment in substance on his remark about telecommunications, but the convergence in technologies with which he is familiar will drive media organisations such as the BBC in the direction of telecommunications.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
It is not often that I can say that I fully support a statement made by my right hon. Friend. Does he accept that the British Broadcasting Corporation has the finest reputation in the world as a broadcasting medium? The independent television companies do not wish the British Broadcasting Corporation to be privatised and to advertise; the proposals 323 in my right hon. Friend's statement give it the greatest opportunity that it has ever been given. Although I cannot speak for the all-party media group, which I have the honour to chair, because we have not yet taken a poll, I am sure that the group would fully endorse what my right hon. Friend has told the House this afternoon.
§ Mr. Brooke
I do not think that I would be trespassing on the confidentiality of conversations between my hon. Friend and myself if I revealed to the House that, 10 years ago, he told me that I was then the best pairing Whip that he had known in our party. It is extremely generous of him to follow that with another compliment a decade later. More than one compliment a decade might go to my head, but I am grateful to him for what he has said, not least in his position as chairman of the all-party media group.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Is the Minister aware that the Select Committee found that 10 million households have no regular weekly wage; 1.2 million of them cannot—not will not—pay their television licence; and 200,000 are prosecuted?. Is he further aware that the Committee recommended that we should stop criminalising that offence and impose a fixed penalty like that imposed for not paying car tax, and that the BBC should introduce some form of hire purchase?
Four times as many women as men are prosecuted, because single parents and pensioners are at home during the day when the van usually goes round. That attitude to the poor is a major social problem, which is in danger of being shoved to the bottom of the back page of the report but about which the public are extremely concerned.
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Gentleman is being true to himself because he has raised that subject with me before in similar exchanges. I recognise what he says, but the fact remains that, on a daily basis, the licence fee is less than the cost of a first-class postage stamp. Many people will think that that is good value. On the pursuit of those who cannot pay the licence fee, TV Licensing and the BBC recover about twice as much in evaded fees as it costs them to engage in that recovery. There is widespread feeling in the country that the pursuit of those who are not paying their licence fee is appropriate. However, it is right that the hon. Gentleman should continue to remind us that it constitutes a real problem for some people.
§ Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a good case for reviewing the licence fee from time to time, not only in view of the pace of technological change but because there appears to be evidence that the BBC is overmanned and still subject to restrictive practices? There must be room for improvement there.
What pressure will be put on the BBC in future to improve its domestic as opposed to overseas service? Many of us feel that its overseas service is a model of objective reporting, far removed from the service that we sometimes find here, which appears to be much more motivated by its producers' political prejudices.
§ Mr. Brooke
The rate at which the licence fee rises was reviewed in 1990 and again in 1993, and the formula will be looked at again in 1996–97. In a Green Paper in 1992, we said that the licence arrangement was an anomaly, but it was felt to be the best way to conduct the financing. My right hon. Friend will have heard me say, however, that 324 before the year 2001, the process of the licence fee, not the formula, will be examined again in view of opportunities provided by new technology.
On my right hon. Friend's remarks about services abroad, as opposed to those in this country, I was not sure whether he was distinguishing between television and radio, but I am certain that his remarks will have been heard by those in the BBC.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
Is the Minister aware that the attempt to introduce artificially a market system into the BBC has led to layers of bureaucracy and costing exercises that have no meaning, and has had a very bad effect on the security of those who work on the programme, and on their morale? Mark Tully and others who have great experience in the public service have drawn attention to that.
Is the Minister also aware that broadcasting is not just a matter of technology? The modern media are far more powerful than the mediaeval churches, and what we want in the next century is not just more of the same in other outlets, but access to the media and a diversity of opinion, fairly presented. I hope very much that when that comes forward, that will be a part of Government policy, because at the moment there are many people who get programmes that they may agree with or disagree with, but they do not have an opportunity to present their views to other members of the community through the broadcast media; that is the case for public service broadcasting.
§ Mr. Brooke
I have to remind the right hon. Gentleman, who referred to "layers of bureaucracy", that the process has released £100 million that has been able to be ploughed back into programme making. In the context of the BBC, and of those people who listen to it and watch it, that transfer of investment seems to me to be thoroughly in the interests of corporation and of audience. As to the diversity of opinion to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, obviously he is right that the changes in technology will open up large new options for us in several different directions, and I should be surprised if the recommendation that he makes were not in the spirit of the times.
§ Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North)
Will my right hon. Friend make it quite clear to the BBC that the extension of the charter period is not a preservation order on a grade I listed building, which may not be tampered with by developers or entrepreneurs, but merely a breathing space to enable the corporation to transport itself from the past to the future, which may not necessarily be one that will be supported by a licence fee in the far-distant future?
§ Mr. Brooke
I hope that my hon. Friend will find, when he analyses my statement, that nothing that I said was in contradistinction to what he has said. I referred to the options that would be available to the BBC in future, and the way that we were maintaining the flexibility of those options. I look forward to the BBC, in its special way, distinguishing itself in the next century as it has in the present one.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, although some of his friends may not like it, implicit in his statement is the fact that so—called free market forces do not deliver quality programming, and that the reason why the BBC is admired throughout the world and almost universally in this country—apart from by some strange people who attend Conservative party 325 conferences—is that it is a system which has been subject to democratic regulation and control? Will he finally acknowledge that it is fatuous to believe that the BBC can exist in isolation, while other areas of broadcasting are let rip without proper democratic regulation and control? When can we have a comprehensive statement on broadcasting, to cover ownership of satellite and cable, to cover quality of programming in satellite and cable and to cover the degree of British production provided by satellite and cable?
§ Mr. Brooke
I do not agree with the observation of the hon. Gentleman that, in his words, so-called free markets could not deliver quality television. It is one of the glories of our system, with public service broadcasting on the one hand and commercial broadcasting co-existing beside it, that we produce very fine television. I think that the system is the better for the introduction of commercial television, and I am conscious that the Labour party opposed that when it was introduced.
As to the question that the hon. Gentleman asked me about the next stage in developments, when I announced the cross-ownership media review in January this year, I said that the official stage in that should be completed by the end of June; that date has now passed, and we are therefore moving into the stage of consideration by Ministers.
§ Mr. David Mellor (Putney)
I also warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the White Paper, which recognises that there is as great a need for a strong, well-resourced and independent BBC today as there ever has been in its history. His decision on the licence fee must surely be right, not only for the BBC, but for independent television, since one of the strengths of British broadcasting is that two entirely separate rivers of finance flow—one from the public and one from commercial advertising.
Is the vote of confidence by the Government in the BBC entirely occasioned by the radical changes that the director—general and his team have been carrying through? If those radical changes had not been carried through, would it have been possible for the Government to take the view that they have in the White Paper?
§ Mr. Brooke
I am particularly grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, who is right in what he says about the interaction with independent television and the fact that there is, if not quite a seamless robe, something that must be seen as a whole. That is one reason why those in commercial television are as enthusiastic as they are to see the BBC thrive. I wholly agree with what my right hon. and learned Friend said about the radical changes introduced by BBC management.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)
In welcoming the Minister's basic proposals and his warm words of praise for the BBC, I must ask him whether he agrees that it is unfortunate that most of that was not said three years ago. Instead, the interim period was used to keep the BBC twisting in the wind and to turn his lunatic friends loose on it with their dark nostrums. As a result of that period, much damage has already been done. There has been a collapse of staff morale and a weakening in the quality and provision of programmes, particularly at a regional level.
326 There have been cuts in the cultural and music provision. A pluralistic and diverse organisation has been forced into a Birtian corset when it should be much more diverse.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problems of the BBC will not be solved by such tinkering? The best way of helping the BBC to be the major provider and the major competitor on the international scene that we need it to be is to keep up its confidence and maintain the supply of money to it to enable it to do its job.
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Gentleman asked me why I did not say something three years ago. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has told me that I will not be at this Dispatch Box in a week's time. I certainly was not at this Dispatch Box in my present capacity three years ago. Like shadow spokesmen in the Department, people in my position are here today and gone tomorrow.
On the hon. Gentleman's final question, patently, the morale of any organisation is the greater if it has confidence in what it is doing and confidence in its future. I hope that the White Paper that we have published today will reinforce that sense of confidence in the BBC.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
Carrying on somewhat from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), may I ask my right hon. Friend to enlighten me as to why the licensing authority should require those who apply for black and white television licences to sign a declaration to the effect that their televisions are black and white?
§ Mr. Brooke
I must congratulate my hon. Friend on having asked me a question for which I was not wholly prepared. I suspect that the answer is that, when the appropriate monitoring service visits houses, it is found on a number of occasions that the television sets are in colour, but the licences are for black and white sets. I dare say that, in order to avoid the possibility of colour blindness, there is concern when the licence is taken out that the householder should be conscious of what sort of television he owns.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
Within the framework described by the right hon. Gentleman why has not a much more radical degree of autonomy and decentralisation been sought within the BBC to create BBC Wales, BBC Scotland and regional stations that can flourish and develop away from the Birtian centralised view of life? That view is centralised, despite the semantic changes that he has recently made. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not close his mind to those proposals.
§ Mr. Brooke
There is a limit to the amount of change that any organisation can make in a relatively short space of time. There is no question but that the present management of the BBC is moving power and authority out to the different countries of the United Kingdom and to the regions. I am sure that the BBC will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
Will my right hon. Friend deal with the nonsense of ethnic quotas? The programme credits and the faces of those reading the news show that ethnic minorities are at least adequately represented. They are welcome, valued and fortunate to be 327 here, but should not they be told that British culture and attitudes should predominate, not least in the British Broadcasting Corporation?
§ Mr. Brooke
That is essentially a matter for the management of the BBC, conducted under the law. It is responsible for its programming and employment practices.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
In the right hon. Gentleman's very comprehensive statement, he said that there were obligations on the BBC to observe due impartiality. Does it have a responsibility to promote British culture and identity? Can he assure us that Northern Ireland may be subjected to less promotion of Irish nationalist culture and identity, as it, too, is part of this nation and the BBC is there to serve the British nation?
§ Mr. Brooke
The responsibility of the BBC for the culture, heritage and arts of this country is something to which I alluded in my statement. One of the glories of the BBC is that it has been speaking on behalf of the whole nation for more than 70 years. Every minority can expect to be represented, informed, educated and entertained. As someone who was resident in Northern Ireland for part of his career, I pay tribute to the manner in which BBC Northern Ireland conducts that remit.
§ Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that, during the BBC's extension, one of the most significant improvements in technology will be digitised broadcasting? Does he further recognise that, no matter what the BBC does in that area, it will be against the backdrop of a diminishing share? He should take that into account when considering the possible licensing of Channel 5—a terrestrial channel. Digitised broadcasting and Channel 5 would enhance the considerable advantage that British industry currently enjoys in that technology. It would be good for our local electronics companies and it would be good for Britain's balance of payments.
§ Mr. Brooke
My hon. Friend alludes to something to which there was a passing reference in my statement, but obviously his reference to Channel 5 goes outside the statement. There is widespread recognition of the industrial opportunities and the broadcasting gains that can flow both from advances in digital and from the potential of Channel 5. It is certainly a subject of which my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and I never lose sight.
§ Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)
The White Paper makes a commitment to the transfer of a proportion of network production from London to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the regions of England. What assurances can the right hon. Gentleman give about the content of those programmes? Where will editorial control lie? It would not be good enough simply to transfer the production of those programmes, because it is important that they reflect the language, culture and tradition of each of those countries and regions.
§ Mr. Brooke
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reference to the BBC's transfer of network production. However, the opinions that we gathered during the consultation process showed that there are as many people who want the production in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, indeed, in parts of England of programmes that have a universal application for the nation, as there are 328 who want a strictly regional application. It is an exercise in balance that will have to be sustained within the countries and the regions themselves. However, it is a point which is not remotely lost on the BBC.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the BBC continues to give tremendous stimulus to music through its broadcasts, its orchestras and its promenade concerts and that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is completely wrong about it? I join in the general welcome for my right hon. Friend's decision on the 10-year charter and his references to the Select Committee's work, but will he accept that the licence system is not quite satisfactory? The evasion rate is 7 per cent., there are many criminal cases and all the expensive paraphernalia of detector vans. May we dare look forward to the day when eventually it will be possible to disconnect non-payers, as one would with water bills?
§ Mr. Brooke
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the tribute that he paid to the BBC's commitment to music and I pay tribute to his work as a member of the Select Committee. I alluded to the changes in technology that will make it possible to consider alternatives to the licensing system, let alone to examine the system itself, but he is right—there is resentment that some people in this country enjoy the benefits of television without paying for it.
§ Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)
During his deliberations, did the Secretary of State receive any representations from those people who are versed in technological Babel and who are calling either for a merger between the BBC and British Telecom or Mercury or for joint public-private sector ventures between the BBC and British Telecom or Mercury? Does not he recognise that that road leads inevitably and inexorably, first, to loss of editorial control and, ultimately, to privatisation?
§ Mr. Brooke
In response to an earlier question from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, I said that the issue of the convergence in the technologies would obviously overshadow the next 10 years of the licence fee, but I made no comment on the substance of the issue.
§ Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members—although obviously not all—are pleased by his reassurance that the licence fee will be the fundamental way of financing the BBC over the next phase? However, does he realise that our support is necessarily provisional because, in the rapidly moving world of telecommunications and broadcasting, we want the following principles to be maintained: continuity, universality and above all, quality? In the past, the BBC has been renowned for those things, but we want a reassurance that they can be achieved in future.
§ Mr. Brooke
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing what might be regarded as a new issue: the fact that maintaining the critical mass of the BBC to achieve the objectives that he described has been an important element in our thinking. As for the provisionality of his views, there will be an opportunity, prior to the year 2000, to review the licensing system.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
Will the Secretary of State accept that, while I welcome his 329 statement's broad approach and the principles on which that it is based, there is real concern among broadcasters in Scotland, Wales and, I am sure, in the English regions—there is nothing parochial about that concern—that they do not wish to broadcast inwards but they wish a fair opportunity to broadcast outwards to the rest of the United Kingdom? Does he also accept that an antidote to the centralist tendencies in the BBC or any large organisation is needed and that the Government have a duty to ensure that resources and the commitment are there to allow all parts of the UK to play a full part in the BBC?
§ Mr. Brooke
In answer to other questions, I have mentioned the moves that the BBC has already made, but all hon. Members will be watching closely to see what the outcome will be. The BBC's heart is clearly in the right place.