HC Deb 12 January 1998 vol 304 cc118-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

10 pm

Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing the debate this evening. It is perhaps appropriate that it is the first Adjournment debate of the new term, although it is a bit late in the day for "Listen with Mother".

I should first thank the organisations that have given me support and campaigned on this issue, most prominently the Children's 2000 campaign, and Susan Stranks, who will be known to hon. Members who are older than me as the former presenter of "Magpie", a children's television programme. She is very well placed to speak on this subject.

I thank the Radio Authority and the BBC for their advice and information, and thank Ministers for their guidance on this matter. I should also mention in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), who in the previous Parliament, as chairman of the all-party parenting committee, put this item on the agenda.

My argument in favour of a dedicated national children's radio channel is fourfold. First, radio is a medium of the future. The digital revolution that is starting apace in this country will affect radio as much as—if not more than—television and other media. Secondly, radio, unlike other electronic media, is accessible to everyone who can afford a radio set in their house. Thirdly, at the moment, the children of our country, who make up 20 per cent. of the population, are not serviced adequately by current radio provision. Fourthly, and most important, children—particularly very young children—would and could benefit enormously from greater provision of a comprehensive children's radio service.

Radio unlocks the imagination of children in a way that visual media—television and computers—cannot. There are strong arguments, from educationists and from psychologists, to back up that point of view. Radio provides great support, and has done so for teachers in schools for many years. It also provides support—this is often overlooked—to parents who are struggling to settle their children, especially in the evening. Most important from the child's point of view, radio is great fun. It also helps the child to develop a sense of confidence and identity.

On the digital revolution that is taking place in broadcasting, the national franchises for digital radio will begin to be advertised in March this year. The awards for commercial radio franchises will be made in September. By the end of the year, it is likely that up to eight, possibly 10, new channels will be broadcast nationally. Following that, many other channels will be available, both commercial and BBC, locally and regionally.

Radio will become interactive. Children's interests should be taken into account at this stage of the development of digital radio if they are to be given a fair crack of the whip. Radio not only has a great future, but it is very cheap. It is much cheaper to produce than television, and access is cheap. It is estimated that the average household in the UK already has five radio sets, and few families do not have access to radio. Despite the recent rapid growth in the number of computers available in both schools and homes, access to radio compares favourably with television. To coin a phrase, radio is a medium for the many, not the few.

The problem is that digital radio has yet to take off in terms of the number of sets in people's homes, which is why the argument has been put forward in favour of using the analogue channels that are currently available. However, there is no reason why schools could not be provided relatively quickly, and certainly more cheaply compared with other media, with digital radio sets.

Children are being served by neither public sector nor commercial radio. The BBC's annual report lists by category the number of hours broadcast on radio per year for each service. Of the 42,500 hours of radio broadcast on five national channels last year, only 403 were dedicated specifically to schools radio. The number of hours dedicated to children's entertainment was even lower.

Television is extremely well serviced. It has good education and entertainment programmes, but it has been subject to intense debate and scrutiny. The Broadcasting Standards Commission report published in December examined the effects of television on children. In her introduction to that report, Lady Howe said:

Children are less able to make their voices heard and their cause often has to be championed through the adult. Often this adult is the parent, responsible for the child's well-being and concerned for its development. It is my belief that children have the right to access a varied and diverse diet of programming. If that is true of television, it is also true of radio.

Of the 220 commercial channels currently provided throughout the UK, none is dedicated to children's services. There is broad support for the idea of enhanced children's radio services. Not surprisingly, children's charities such as Barnardo's, Mencap and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have strongly supported the idea. Parent groups, teachers' unions and educationists have also signed up. Local government educationists and, I notice, the two Government advisers—Professor Brighouse and Chris Woodhead—have also given their support. Some might say that it is the only matter on which they have agreed in the education debate. So the support is there.

Less well known is the growing body of academic opinion from educational psychologists about the clear benefits for children's education of the radio and sound tape media. For example, Professor Pam Enderby at Sheffield university's speech therapy unit has argued strongly for the benefits of learning language and literacy from radio as opposed to the visual media of television and computers. Sally Ward of the speech language centre in Sheffield has listed the educational benefits of radio.

The imagination which radio brings out in children is foremost. That is essential for language development and literacy, because of the relationship between the spoken media and literacy. That enables the child to develop a greater attention span, whereas the visual media, by their nature, often serve to cut short a child's attention span.

Parents and others complain that children do not listen and will not sit still. Like the academic studies of this issue, I blame the television and computer screen. Radio has the reverse effect.

Despite its shortcomings, the BBC has recognised the educational opportunities of radio. Currently, 84 per cent. of primary schools order the BBC's school tapes. They would benefit enormously from a more comprehensive provision broadcast directly to them.

Sally Ward from the Sheffield centre has listed other advantages, such as teaching English as a second language, and teaching blind children and children with special needs. Radio is especially beneficial to hospital-bound children. It provides back-up to parents and carers while they are looking after children. Muslim girls could also benefit, because, for cultural reasons, they do not have access to mainstream activities outside the school curriculum. Homework clubs could also benefit enormously, according to Sally Ward's research.

In my opinion, the BBC has not done nearly enough. It is our major public sector broadcaster. Its chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, in his introduction to last year's annual report, re-emphasised the ethos of public service broadcasting in the digital age. He said: As the BBC enters the digital age, some fear that it may lose sight of its core purposes amid the excitement of new services and commercial ventures. Let me be clear. Despite all the changes … the BBC is, and will remain, a public service broadcaster. Despite that, children, who represent 20 per cent. of the population, are excluded from BBC provision.

Arguments about the failure of children's radio in the past do not hold water. Radio 5's initial launch saw some increase in children's services, but the general public, teachers and children were not aware of them, because they were not promoted. In any event, the ratings for radio under public service broadcasting should not be the be-all and end-all, as Sir Christopher Bland said. I am told by the BBC that there are never more than 9,000 people listening to classical music on Radio 3 through the night. As we enter the digital age, with a greater number of specialist channels, the argument about ratings for the public service sector becomes weaker.

I have emphasised the need for a children's channel. In the digital age, parts of channels rather than full channels will become the norm. We should build support for that now; the BBC is considering it, and should develop it further. There is support in the House for that idea.

In the past, many hon. Members signed the early-day motion bemoaning the plight of "Children's Hour" and "Listen with Mother". The BBC's ethos is that of a public sector broadcaster, and it is in its interest to provide a children's service. When the World Service is attacked or under threat, politicians and the BBC rush to its defence. How much stronger the BBC would be if it had a children's channel.

Commercial radio has the possible use of sections of the analogue channels. We know that 225 has technical difficulties, but perhaps regional use and local, short-term licences could be considered. We also know that, with the advent of digital, at least four national channels will be available. I would urge the Radio Authority and its members to look at the strong option of providing these opportunities for children's radio.

The commercial arguments that have dogged the campaign in the past do not hold water, especially bearing in mind the fact that the criteria for the award of the franchise involve the totality of the multiplex, not just individual channels within it. Indeed, variety on the multiplex is a requirement of the award of the licences.

There are many opportunities for children's broadcasting. The millennium dome as a centre for children's activities and for the digital revolution could provide a superb platform for children's broadcasting. The new opportunities funding scheme being launched by the Government for school support could provide a source of money for research, for testing and—perhaps in the long term—for a sustained radio channel in partnership with the commercial sector.

Radio is cheap and accessible to all. It is a great educational tool. Radio helps youngsters' imagination and helps them develop a sense of identity. Radio, in short, is the best medium for children. Indeed, it is the best medium for most people; and it is the least expensive to access. I urge the Government to consider these ideas. I urge the Radio Authority and the BBC to improve children's radio services. The Government's quite proper efforts to improve literacy and numeracy among youngsters could be given a tremendous boost by radio.

Most of all, radio is available to all children. The stories to which we listen as children stay with us for the rest of our lives. The personal and educational development that radio affords sustains us through life. I urge Members and Ministers—I thank them for their support thus far—to think about these ideas, and about how we can co-ordinate children's radio in future.

10.16 pm
The Minister for Arts (Mr. Mark Fisher)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) on securing a debate on a national radio station for children, and on playing out his case so effectively. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I both recognise the important role that radio can play in education and in the development and entertainment of children, the more so because of the way in which radio stimulates the imagination quite differently from television—and perhaps more effectively.

The Government and the Radio Authority are well aware of the support in Parliament and from organisations outside the House for a national children's radio channel. My hon. Friend has been assiduous in his representations on the issue, on which we have corresponded and about which I have answered a number of questions in the House.

As I explained in answer to a question from my hon. Friend on 10 November, the Government have received a number of representations on children's radio, including representations from Children 2000 and from Miss Susan Stranks, with whom my right hon. Friend has corresponded. My hon. Friend was uncharacteristically—and I suspect inadvertently—unchivalrous about her. One does not have to be very old to recall her excellent career in broadcasting. I fear that I am old enough to have been brought up listening to "Uncle Mac" and "Dick Barton, Special Agent", long before Miss Stranks was even a gleam in broadcasting's eye.

My hon. Friend's debate gives me a useful opportunity to set out the Government's position for a wider audience, and I am grateful to him for giving the House the chance to explore the issue in greater depth. It might be helpful if I set out what scope the Government have to determine the character of radio services, and their policy on the use of the powers at their disposal in the light of the intense demand for the spectrum available for the provision of radio services. I shall then consider the BBC issues that my hon. Friend raised.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Broadcasting Act 1990 established the Radio Authority to license and regulate the commercial radio sector, under the broad objectives set out in the statute, to increase diversity and choice of output in the independent radio sector.

The 1990 Act also requires the authority to license two national stations of a particular character. One has an output that is predominantly speech-based, and the other is a music station broadcasting mainly non-pop music. The Secretary of State has the power to revise or add to those categories of national service by order. Therefore, it would be quite within the Government's power to require the Radio Authority to secure the provision of a national station aimed at children.

The Radio Authority has already licensed three national services—Classic FM, Talk Radio and Virgin—and there is no further spectrum available on which the authority could construct a fourth analogue national service. Last year, the authority examined the feasibility of using a long wave frequency that was reassigned to it by the previous Administration from the BBC as the basis of a fourth national service.

The authority consulted extensively on the prospective use of the frequency—225 kHz long wave. As my hon. Friend knows, the authority concluded last month that it would not be practicable to deploy that frequency for a fourth analogue national radio service. That conclusion was reached in the light of objections from other European countries to the proposed UK service, which would cause interference to their existing radio services.

As there is no possibility of a fourth national analogue commercial radio service, the Government have not considered directing the authority to license a national analogue station of a particular character. As my hon. Friend says, we are entering the digital age in broadcasting, and the Government have given careful consideration to whether to use the powers in the Broadcasting Act 1996 which enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to direct that digital national programme services be of a particular character.

Plans are well advanced for the launch of national and local digital radio services. The Government think that the best chance of making digital radio a success would be to include a mixture of established and exciting new services to encourage the purchase of digital receivers. The Radio Authority plans to invite applications shortly to operate the national independent digital radio multiplex.

Digital technology has the potential to enable a broad range of different national and local radio services. However, the availability of radio spectrum will be limited at the launch of digital radio. There will be sufficient spectrum to enable only two national digital multiplexes at the launch of digital radio—one for the BBC and one for commercial radio. Using the current technology, we think that there will be capacity on each national multiplex for between six and eight digital sound programme services.

The BBC, which has been broadcasting digital radio services since 1995, simulcasts its existing five national services, and has been trialling a variety of new services, including live broadcasting of the proceedings of the House and extended sports broadcasting. The Government will shortly formally offer the existing three national commercial radio stations guaranteed capacity on the national commercial multiplex to simulcast their existing services.

Under the provisions of the 1996 Act, my right hon. Friend has the power to direct the Radio Authority to require that the holder of the national commercial multiplex licence provides national digital programme services of a particular character. Therefore, it is in his power to require the national commercial multiplex licensee to include a new national radio service for children.

I understand my hon. Friend's excellent case for making such a direction, but at this stage the Government's priority must be the successful launch of digital radio. With only one national commercial multiplex initially available, it is important that the commercial radio sector determines the mix of programming that is most likely to encourage consumers to purchase digital receivers. If the industry thinks that a children's service will do that job for them, the Government will, of course, welcome the introduction of such a service.

The Government are not persuaded, at this early stage in the development of digital radio, that it would be wise to fetter the discretion of the Radio Authority and restrict the freedom of manoeuvre of the radio industry by imposing a particular channel, such as a national children's channel, on the sole commercial national multiplex that will be available on the launch of digital radio. With only a maximum of eight programme services available, three of which will be taken up by simulcast of the existing analogue services, such a direction would mean that half the national multiplex would be filled by programming dictated by Government and not by the commercial sector, which will have to make the investment in the new technology.

I assure my hon. Friend that we will keep the issue under close review as digital radio services develop. I hope that, in due course, more spectrum will be found to enable the expansion of digital radio services. At that point, the Government will assess whether a direction on the characteristics of any further national services should be made.

However, I must make it clear that the Government's general approach to the future of broadcasting and to the expansion in service provision that digital technology will enable, is to lighten the regulatory burden on the industry and to minimise Government direction and intervention. As the number of digital radio services increases, the ability to cater for all tastes and interests—including children's programming—is facilitated, and the case for Government intervention decreases slightly. As I have said, however, we will keep the issue under close review in consultation with the Radio Authority, listening to the views of people such as my hon. Friend, who feel strongly and passionately about the issue.

Organisations wishing to provide children's programmes may already apply to the Radio Authority for new analogue local radio licences, and I understand that two applicants for the last London FM licence proposed to broadcast children's services. In the same way, such organisations may negotiate with potential bidders for both the national and local commercial multiplexes to offer children's programming.

My hon. Friend suggests that the BBC should use the capacity it has been given for digital radio services to launch a children's service on digital radio. As he is aware, editorial decisions are a matter wholly for the BBC, and it is not within my power to direct that the BBC carries particular services. Nor would I want to interfere with the principles that have long governed the relationship between successive Administrations and the BBC.

As my hon. Friend knows, on 30 July, the BBC proposed changes to Radio 4. That followed extensive consultation and research. Since the announcement of the schedule changes, I understand that the BBC has been in contact with 25,000 listeners through the BBC radio helpline and viewer and listener correspondence. The current Radio 4 schedule has only one half-hour slot that is aimed specifically at children—at 7 pm on Sunday. That makes a total of 25.5 hours a year of children's programming. I understand that the slot attracts 21,000 children, and that the BBC plans to discontinue that slot under the new schedule.

BBC governors are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the corporation meets its obligation and pledges to audiences, among which is the requirement, set out in the royal charter and agreement, to include a high standard of original programmes for children and young people. The governors have taken a keen interest in the proposed changes to Radio 4, and are aware that their role is to ensure that the public interest is properly served. I am sure that Sir Christopher Bland, the board of governors, of which he is chairman, the BBC's radio management, and Mr. James Boyle, who is charged with the task of making the changes, will reflect on the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend.

I reassure my hon. Friend that I recognise the importance of high-quality broadcasting, on both television and radio, in the broad education and development of children across a range of age groups. Digital technology has enormous potential and, with an open mind, we shall continue to explore with the BBC, the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority ways in which that aspect of broadcasting can be developed in the digital age.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue in the House, and for enabling me to set out the Government's position. I suspect that all those who care about the future of radio and the future development of children will also be grateful to him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.