HC Deb 21 June 1995 vol 262 cc311-8 1.30 pm
Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

I shall try to be brief, as I wish to share my speaking time with my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who has done a lot of work in this area over the years.

The debate is not about whether we are for or against the Welsh language: it is about freedom of choice. I was employed for 15 years as a tutor organiser with the Workers Educational Association, and much of my work involved organising classes in Welsh language and culture in community centres. Those classes were supported by the Labour-controlled Gwent county council, of which my hon. Friend was a prominent member. So I start from the position of wanting to see the Welsh language flourish.

About 12 months ago, I read an article in the Western Mail which stated that people in north Wales who cannot receive the S4C television channel had secured all-party backing for their claim that they should not be deprived of Welsh language broadcasts. The article went on to state that Welsh nationalist, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians agreed at a meeting that it was a civil rights issue, and that people in Delyn should receive coverage of all local programmes.

One should compare that tolerant sentiment with the intolerance often expressed by some Welsh nationalists and by those people within the Welsh language movement in response to demands from communities like my own—where English is almost inevitably the first and only language—that they, in turn, should have access to English language Channel 4. I was reminded of that intolerance when I read an article in the Western Mail responding to a petition demanding that communities throughout Wales should have access to English language Channel 4. Those who made such demands were compared with Hitler and his belief in one kingdom, one people, one language.

Many of us have come to expect that sort of response from Welsh nationalists on that and other issues, but it is insulting to many people in my community who fought and died opposing Nazism and to those people who are still fighting, in a different way, whenever such prejudices are expressed. While it is a question of civil liberties when the people in north Wales cannot receive Welsh language channel S4C, similar reasoning is not applied to those communities in south Wales and in other parts of Wales who demand access to English language Channel 4.

We recognise the right of the people of north Wales to receive S4C. We do not want English language Channel 4 at the expense of S4C; we want it in addition to S4C. In other words, we want to increase freedom of choice for viewers throughout Wales.

It is somewhat ironic that Cardiff, the capital of Wales, receives English language Channel 4, while communities like those in my constituency cannot receive that service. Although only 2.2 per cent. of the people of Blaenau Gwent speak Welsh, they are forced to receive a channel which they do not understand. Unlike people in other areas, they are not given the choice of viewing all Channel 4 programmes at a reasonable hour.

In my time as a Member of the European Parliament, and in the past few years as a Member of the British Parliament, not one person has contacted me defending the present position. However, time and again people have voiced their opposition to it, and have demanded access to Channel 4. That view was reflected in a recent opinion poll conducted by the Gwent Gazette, which covers my constituency. The poll showed that more than 90 per cent. of my constituents demanded access to English language Channel 4. That and other opinion polls have showed the support for the position that I am arguing today. They also reflect the people's depth of feeling and anger at their exclusion from receiving that television channel.

While the opinion poll was conducted in Gwent, it must be remembered that the problem is not peculiar to Gwent, as only about 40 per cent. of Welsh people can receive Channel 4.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

My hon. Friend has referred to the Welsh people's depth of anger and frustration. As a Member of Parliament, I felt anger and frustration when Welsh language programmes were available on both BBC 1 and HTV. S4C was devised to serve two purposes: first, to allow Welsh language broadcasting to expand; and, secondly, to remove from the two major channels Welsh language programmes that were causing tremendous offence. I think that my hon. Friend should be reminded of S4C's dual purpose.

Mr. Smith

I accept my hon. Friend's point. I think that that situation was having a detrimental effect on the Welsh language. However, the present situation is having a similar effect. We have managed to contain the anti-S4C feeling, but, if the present situation continues, people will not call for Channel 4 in addition to S4C, but will demand it in place of S4C. I am certainly not of that view.

S4C has responded to my points by saying: if Channel 4 is available in Wales, should not Welsh language channel S4C be available in the rest of the United Kingdom? That is an interesting response. S4C says that it does not object to Channel 4 being provided in addition to S4C. It also states that approximately 70 per cent. of Channel 4's programmes are also broadcast on S4C. However, it is important to recognise the time of day at which those programmes are broadcast—it is very rarely during peak viewing time.

It is also interesting to note that the highest proportion of viewers who watch Welsh programmes on S4C regularly are those in managerial and technical occupations. Only 5.1 per cent. of those who are not in paid work watch S4C Welsh language programmes. Some 1.2 per cent. of those who cannot speak Welsh watch Welsh language programmes on S4C regularly, compared with 9 per cent. of the total population.

I have taken those figures from the Welsh Office social survey which was published in February this year. It is also interesting to note that only 4.6 per cent. of the population of Gwent bother to tune in to Welsh language radio. According to the Welsh Office survey, approximately 80 per cent. of the population of Gwent never watch Welsh programmes on S4C. The Broadcasting Act 1990 states that Channel 4 should be provided for so much of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland as from time to time be reasonably practicable". The legislation must be changed if areas like mine are to receive Channel 4 by right. I think that that would be fairly simple to do, as one could just replace the words "England, Scotland and Northern Ireland" with "United Kingdom".

The matter may also be resolved through the use of additional transmitters. I know that S4C would say that there is a problem with cost. I do not wish to push the point too much, but I think that it is somewhat ironic that S4C should take that position, when one considers that it is probably the most subsidised of all the television channels. We should also consider the possibility of rescheduling, so that programmes can be televised at the same time but in different areas, depending on the language of a particular community.

It is also argued that we should wait for the digital system. I am sure that will result in major advances, but the decoders will cost between £200 and £500. Many communities in Wales that cannot receive S4C or Channel 4 English language programmes are also the poorest communities. I was interested to read an article by Andrew Neil in The Independent on 16 June, stating: There is every chance that the digital revolution will be dominated by Sky and its leading shareholders News Corporation, which control the essential system. So there are problems ahead.

According to recent correspondence from representatives of S4C, they would be concerned if people's failure to receive Channel 4 led to an anti-S4C feeling. I have responded to that point, but I am aware that there is such a danger unless the problem is resolved.

For some people, the only measure of Welshness is the Welsh language, so for them, the only television channel relevant to Wales is S4C. Such an argument insults the majority of people in Wales, who are English-speaking. When people talk about civil liberties, they mean civil liberties only for those who speak the Welsh language, whereas the rest of us recognise the value of both languages and the diverse cultures that make up Wales. We should build on that diversity and encourage it. Access to S4C for the people of north Wales is an issue of civil liberties and we ask them to recognise the civil liberties of those who wish to view the alternative Channel 4 in the English language.

1.41 pm
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), and I am delighted to give vent to the feelings of the people I represent. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to the Secretary of State for agreeing to share the time and allow me to take part in the debate.

Welsh, it is said, is the language of heaven. While I have no sure knowledge of that, I have no intention in my sojourn in this life of preventing it from being spoken. The deliberate suppression of the Welsh language in the last century was one of the worst acts of our Victorian forebears. If Welsh is to survive all the pressures, and not a few prejudices, of the 20th century, it should be encouraged wherever possible. Welsh medium broadcasting has a part to play in that.

I am proud of the fact that, in the past decade or more, Gwent, through the Labour-controlled county council, has invested large sums of money in education for young children who want to be educated through the medium of Welsh, but the language will survive and flourish only if people are encouraged to use it. If they perceive it as being foisted on them against their will, they will react accordingly. Recent history is proof of that.

I remember as a young reporter on the Free Press at Pontypool writing about public protests over Welsh language broadcasting going out at peak times in English-speaking areas.

The emergence of S4C was a progressive and positive step. It encouraged the language, while removing the antagonism to it from many television viewers, but I fear that, unless we address the legitimate demands of the English-speaking Welsh people to be given the choice whether to watch S4C or Channel 4, we risk a renewed backlash. In an attempt to avoid that, I pressed S4C to consider the possibility of rescheduling, to which my hon. Friend referred.

I asked S4C to consider rescheduling so that people in different parts of Wales could watch different programmes at different times. In that way, it would be possible for the English-speaking majority in south-east Wales to watch a programme in English, while in north and west Wales, where Welsh is often the first language, a different programme could go out in Welsh. I hope that S4C will respond positively to that suggestion, but I recognise that it is but a halfway house.

In an early-day motion last week on S4C in Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent and I underlined our support for S4C, but in all honesty we had to state quite clearly that S4C does not cater for the vast majority of people in Wales whose only language is English.

My hon. Friend referred to a poll conducted by his local paper, which sought to obtain readers' views. The South Wales Argus, the local evening paper serving my constituency and much of Gwent, conducted a similar poll, showing that readers were overwhelmingly in favour of being able to watch Channel 4 as well as S4C. I do not consider telephone polls a wholly satisfactory method of measuring public opinion; they do little more than give the flavour.

More significantly, some 8,000 people have already been prepared to put their names to a petition in support of choice, which I understand will be presented to the Secretary of State in October.

It is not that English-speaking Welsh people in the south Wales valleys are against the language. They simply want the same facility as those who live in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, to watch both television channels. I cannot emphasise too strongly that the debate is not about replacing S4C with Channel 4; it is about giving the people of Wales the opportunity to watch both stations.

I am fortunate that, in the part of Gwent where I live, I can already do that, but it is not the case everywhere. In the Graig area of Cwmcarn in my constituency, people are unable to receive any television, whether it is broadcast in English or Welsh. My constituents have to pay £100 a year to a cable company to pipe in the signal in addition to £100 for a television licence. As Mr. Ken James, one of my constituents, wrote to tell me, the quality of the television signal is appalling, and is affected by the strength of the wind across the local hills.

I have sought to give the Minister an idea of the feelings of people in my area on the issue. If we do not respond to public feeling, we are in danger of harming Welsh language broadcasting. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent has already outlined a possible solution, although not a simple or cheap one—the development of digital television broadcasting. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has secured an Adjournment debate on the issue tomorrow night, and I do not propose to stray into his territory. However, I would welcome a statement from the Minister about the early publication of a promised White Paper on digitalisation. It will help extend choice, but will not in itself solve the problem.

We also require a commitment from the Government to extending to Channel 4 the right to broadcast in Wales which is currently denied by the Broadcasting Acts 1981 and 1990. I understand that S4C may not necessarily oppose that.

Taken together, those measures will answer the legitimate complaints of my constituents, and at the same time ensure that the development of Welsh medium broadcasting continues without antagonism and rancour.

1.47 pm
The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)

I begin on a matter of some sensitivity. The reason why I have the pleasure of replying to the debate is that my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport is currently in South Africa supporting a rugby team. It is an important part of his ministerial duties to support our national teams. I am sure that I shall enlist the support of the Welsh Members present for wishing him Godspeed and improved fortunes in the remaining game for the English rugby team.

My first serious point is to say how much I agree with the basic line that the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) took about the importance of the Welsh language and ensuring that there is proper support for the development of Welsh speaking and proper respect for Welsh culture in Wales.

As both hon. Gentlemen said, it is not a matter of a choice between S4C as an agency for the promotion of Welsh television and English-speaking Channel 4. They both presented the case that they wished to argue to the House in terms of extending choice and access to English-speaking Channel 4. It is not an issue of Welsh people or their representatives in the House being against S4C or Welsh-speaking television; it is a question of their English-speaking constituents not wanting to be denied the opportunity to see English-speaking Channel 4 on the same terms as are available to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a perfectly fair argument for representatives of English-speaking Welsh constituents to make in this House.

It is worth pausing at this point to reflect on the contribution that S4C has made to the development of Welsh speaking and of proper respect for Welsh culture. As Secretary of State for National Heritage, I think it important not to seek to create an homogenised, centralised culture in Britain, but to build one that respects regional and local diversity and traditions. I regard the fact that my Department is responsible for the public contribution, in terms of finance, to S4C as part of a wider contribution to the delivery of a varied and pluralist cultural life in Britain—one that respects the differing traditions of various parts of the United Kingdom.

It is fair to record the fact that S4C achieves a significant audience share, not just among the Welsh-speaking population—its share of peak viewing is nearly 19 per cent. of them—but among the whole population of Wales: its peak viewing share amounts to 9.5 per cent. of them. As for audience reach, 66 per cent., or two thirds, of the people of Wales look at S4C at least once a week, although the programmes in question are not necessarily Welsh language ones. So S4C is not, as it has been constituted, a minority interest channel. It is a broadcaster that performs a service right across Wales, and it is used at different times in the week by two thirds of its population.

S4C has a distinguished record of developing various aspects of the cultural life of Wales. The reputation of its children's programming and its animation department spreads far beyond the borders of the Principality. Its animation programmes and its children's programmes reach audiences not just outside Wales but outside the United Kingdom.

S4C has also been an important contributor to the development of the independent production sector in Wales. It is clearly a Welsh-oriented station, and its support for the Welsh independent production sector has been an important factor in that sector's progress.

Finally, it is important to stress again that the easy availability of Welsh language broadcasting has made an important contribution—possibly the decisive contribution—to halting the decline of Welsh speaking and to heightening perceptions of, and respect paid to, Welsh culture. I regard S4C as one of the Government's successes. We legislated for its existence in the Broadcasting Act 1980, and we continued its existence in the Broadcasting Act 1990. It has been the biggest single achievement in living memory to demonstrate real public support for Welsh culture as a living, developing entity, not just the pursuit of a tiny and shrinking minority. All in all, S4C makes a significant contribution to the life of Wales.

The problem which the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent and for Islwyn put to the House is that, when setting aside spectrum space to allow this broadcasting to take place, a choice had to be made about access to the spectrum and about the terms on which S4C would have the chance to deliver all the benefits that I have described. As both hon. Members made clear, it is not a straight choice between English language and Welsh language broadcasting. S4C's schedules include a large element of English language Channel 4 broadcasting. The objective is to deliver roughly 75 per cent. Channel 4 English language broadcasting over the S4C element of the network—that is, 75 per cent. excluding Channel 4's news programming.

Thus, S4C is an important transmitter and broadcaster of English language Channel 4 programme material, and there is no straight choice between English, represented by Channel 4, and Welsh, represented by S4C. The latter seeks to deliver its Welsh mission by mixing English and Welsh language programming but according a higher priority to Welsh language broadcasting than has been delivered by any other means in the history of Welsh broadcasting.

More than once, the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent and Islwyn sought to argue that the offer of a clear choice between the S4C schedule and a recognisably English Channel 4 schedule was restricted by costs—either costs incurred by S4C or costs incurred by some other, unmentioned body. In the present state of technology, the limitation on providing a clear choice between two complete schedules—one the same as Channel 4 and the rest of the United Kingdom, the other run by S4C—is not cost: it is technical feasibility, or the availability of spectrum, given the state of modern technology. That is the answer to the conundrum that both hon. Gentlemen described.

The world of broadcasting is on the verge of a revolution which will make broadcasting in 10 or 15 years' time unrecognisable. The introduction of digital technology, not simply to terrestrial broadcasting but to cable and satellite broadcasting, opens the door to a world in which it will no longer be correct to talk about spectrum as the limiting factor on access to audience for a broadcaster. Ever since the beginnings of broadcasting, the limiting factor has indeed been access to spectrum, but as technology has developed, so we have learned how to narrow the broadcasting signal and make more efficient use of the spectrum.

The digital revolution takes the process a dramatic stage further. We stand at the dawn of the digital age of broadcasting; and the effect, over a period, of the introduction of digital technology to radio and television broadcasting will be progressively to remove the block that has hitherto limited access to audience by broadcasters. In future we shall be able to move—rather more quickly than most politicians realise—to a world in which the limiting factor on the establishment of new choices for viewers, and the development of new broadcasting stations, will no longer be access to a bureaucratically allocated spectrum but the straightforward economics of broadcasting.

Thus, a broadcaster who can find an audience prepared to pay for, or a sponsor prepared to support, a broadcast channel will find that spectrum is available. Then, subject to the regulatory regime for which the Government will remain responsible, a broadcaster who can design an economically sustainable station will be able to set up in business to demonstrate that his views on the viability of his station are correct.

Both hon. Members asked me what stage the Government have reached in delivering the promised White Paper on the introduction of the digital revolution. I can lift the veil concealing Ministers' diaries at least a little, and say that I shall be leaving this House to have a meeting on precisely that subject. I hope that the White Paper to which the Government are committed will be ready for publication in the next few weeks. It is quite close; it is in the final stages of preparation. It is the second stage of the changes that the Government plan to announce to the broadcasting world, following the media ownership changes that I announced at the end of May.

Mr. Rowlands

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dorrell

Very briefly.

Mr. Rowlands

Will the White Paper subsequently require legislation?

Mr. Dorrell


In conclusion, hon. Members put a problem to the House. The answer to that problem lies in the recruitment of new technology to deliver greater choice to the consumer. That is an objective that the Government warmly embrace.

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