HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc488-510

11 am

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I am grateful to have been allowed a debate on this important issue. I declare an interest—the profound debt of gratitude I owe to the BBC for having dismissed me some 20 years ago. I joined the corporation as a journalist straight after university, and had a wonderful six or seven years.

However, I became involved in politics, standing for Parliament in Solihull in 1974 and arguing, in the way that embryonic politicians do, that the BBC should change itself. I argued that it should allow women to read the news, and should employ more black and Asian journalists. At the time, those were outlandish ideas. I also said that BBC journalists should be better paid—a preposterous notion.

Alas, I committed an inexcusable professional error, so the BBC, rightly and condignly, dismissed me. That probably saved my sanity. I cannot imagine what would have happened to me if I had remained a BBC employee.

I do not want the debate to take the form of BBC bashing, which is an occupational malady for politicians. Politicians who complain about the media are rather like sailors who moan about the weather, and spin doctors who complain about the media are rather like snakes who protest about being in the snake pit.

We are discussing not so much the right of Members of Parliament to be heard on the BBC as whether the BBC is taking steps that will lead to its decoupling not so much from Parliament as from the people.

I am no unconditional worshipper of Parliament. Frankly, much of what is said here is tawdry, tedious and, as we have heard during some recent days and nights, time-wasting. The modernisation of the House is long overdue. The people's will and the people's voice have been heard, are being heard and will be heard in many different ways; expressions of the people's views will be heard other than through the House.

I would make a small wager that Parliament will survive. Ministers will come and go, Speakers and Deputy Speakers will come and go, but Parliament will go on and on. The purpose of the debate is not to substitute Parliament for the editorial control of the BBC, but gently to suggest that the BBC may not survive as a publicly funded institution if it insists on de-linking itself from Parliament.

Politicians, separately from what is heard in the House and its Committees, will of course continue to be heard on the airwaves. Ministers will queue up to be "Paxmanned", and will stumble out of bed for early morning television and radio shows. I do not suggest that the voice of politicians is likely to be unheard or even reduced.

The voice of politicians as Ministers, as the Executive, will continue to be powerfully heard, and the rent-a-quote merchants, the stunt boys and girls who force their way on to the airwaves now and then, will be heard, too. Indeed, if the BBC reduces its parliamentary coverage, we shall see more of politicians in other ways, on the streets with stunts and cheap campaigns designed to get coverage.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Although the BBC has a justifiably excellent reputation both in Britain and abroad—we must remember what happened during the attempted coup in the Soviet Union in 1990—what sort of BBC would there be without this place? Without parliamentary democracy, the BBC would be merely a state organ, such as exists in countries that lack parliamentary democracy. Is it not a pity that the BBC bosses do not recognise that?

Mr. MacShane

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but I am trying to keep my speech as short as possible so that as many hon. Members as possible can contribute to the debate.

We are not talking about politicians being kept off the airwaves; the loud, the powerful and those who represent Government will always get a hearing. However, beyond those people are the myriad voices and views of Members of Parliament working in the House and in its Select and Standing Committees, raising all sorts of issues and reflecting all sorts of perspectives.

It is true that many of those are "off message", as we now say—idiosyncratic or difficult. So be it. The BBC may want to make its coverage of Parliament as bland as possible, but we do not have to sit idly by while that happens. It is essential that the House, and, through the House, the nation should understand what is happening.

The BBC is proposing a fundamental and permanent downgrading of its parliamentary coverage. First, "Yesterday in Parliament"—probably the main link between Parliament and the people—is to disappear. Secondly, "The Week in Westminster" is to lose its present format and slot. Thirdly, the excellent "In Committee" programme is to go.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Liaison Committee, which consists of the Chairmen of all the Select Committees, met last week and authorised me to write to the chairman of the BBC about the importance of "In Committee"—a letter to which Sir Christopher Bland has replied.

Select Committees now have much more important tasks, seen by the public, than they used to. On many days, including today, what happens in them is front-page news. However, such items do not show how Committees come to their conclusions, which is of enormous importance. Would it not be a disaster if the BBC failed to recognise its obligation in such an important matter?

Mr. MacShane

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. One of the critical remarks often made about the House is that, as today, the green Benches are relatively empty. However, it was ever thus. When Sir Martin Gilbert, the distinguished biographer of Winston Churchill, walked around here with me once, he said, "Do you know that, when Winston Churchill made those memorable speeches warning of Nazism in the 1930s, the House was empty?" It is not the presence of Members on the Benches that makes the debates and the voice of the House important, but what is said here, free of any influence other than the duty to conscience, constituents and the national interest.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his excellent judgment in choosing the debate, and also on his opening remarks, one of which I believe was a quotation from Enoch Powell.

May I reinforce what was said by my predecessor as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)? Of course, Select Committees' deliberations occasionally make the front page of the newspapers, but the only leverage that a Select Committee has—this is much truer of the other Select Committees than of the PAC—is exposure to the light of the aspects of government that it scrutinises.

The "In Committee" programme provides the only real exposure that the scrutiny carried out by many Select Committees receives, and it is vital not only for the task of the BBC but for our task. If the BBC removes "In Committee", as appears to be the plan, it will cut the effective powers of scrutiny of the House of Commons.

Mr. MacShane

I hope that the chairman of the BBC will listen to those two powerful interventions from the previous and present Chairmen of the most important, senior and influential Committee of the House.

As I said, "Yesterday in Parliament", "The Week in Westminster" and "In Committee" are to go. BBC2's morning report of Parliament will disappear and I understand that the BBC is threatening to do away with the regional television parliamentary programmes. Any one of those changes would have been cause for concern, but in their ensemble, they represent a concerted attempt to downgrade coverage of Parliament in a fashion unprecedented in the BBC's history.

In its defence, the BBC has been disingenuous, if not deceitful. Its army of spin doctors has been fanning out, pretending that what is proposed is only a minor change. Yet at stake is nothing less than a dismantling of mainstream, accessible broadcast coverage of Parliament. The transfer of programmes to graveyard slots or on to the ghettos of long wave, or the absorption of parliamentary coverage into generalised current affairs programmes, will massively reduce the opportunity or choice of listeners to hear what is said in Parliament.

I am particularly concerned about the BBC's cleansing of "Yesterday in Parliament" from the "Today" programme. It has been more than disingenuous in its justification of expelling parliamentary coverage from "Today". The BBC says that, as soon as Members of Parliament come on to the air, audiences plummet, but the BBC's figures do not remotely justify that claim.

The chairman, in his letter to Madam Speaker dated 21 November 1997, said that Radio 4 loses 1.3 per cent. of its audience between 8.30 am and 8.45 am and, when "Yesterday in Parliament" comes on, it loses 0.9 per cent. Frankly, 0.9 per cent. is not a massive loss. Most people have finished their breakfast and are on their way to work after 8 o'clock, and that is when the "Today" audience plummets.

According to the chairman's own statistics, in the period between 8.30 am and 9 am, it is the sweet and caressing tones of Jim Naughtie and Sue MacGregor that lose more audiences at a faster rate than the voice of parliamentarians.

Mr. David Davis

The hon. Gentleman will not be invited on to the "Today" programme again.

Mr. MacShane

Alas, the only time I was on the "Today" programme was when I attacked the BBC, so I have some hopes. Those who stay on message never get on it.

What else do we know about the audience for "Yesterday in Parliament"? Between June 1996 and June 1997, the audience for "Yesterday in Parliament" went up, not down. We also know that, when other material is broadcast in the Monday morning slot, the audience is no greater. We also know from evidence given by the BBC to the Select Committee a fortnight ago that only 80 per cent. of Britain can receive long wave, to which the BBC proposes to transfer "Yesterday in Parliament". If one goes into Dixons to buy a modern radio, one often finds that long wave is not available on the radio.

We know, too, that up to 1.3 million people—about the combined sales of The Times, The Guardian and The Independent—are connected to Parliament on week-day mornings. That is a goodly part of the population. "Yesterday in Parliament" represents less than 1 per cent. of all that Radio 4 broadcasts, so sacrificing it seems wholly unnecessary. Its slot in the "Today" programme is vital because, like it or loathe it, "Today" cannot be ignored; it is our national newspaper of the day. It is not just for Members of Parliament or, as The Guardian so charmingly put it the other day, for pointy heads and policy wonks—whoever they are. It is listened to by civil servants, business leaders, journalists and teachers throughout the country, wanting to hear, wanting to know, getting a chance to learn what Members of Parliament have to say in the Commons and in Select Committees and what is said in the other place.

Listeners can hear the awkward squad—those parliamentary roundheads and cavaliers who dare to be Daniels, who dare to stand alone, who dare to have a purpose firm and dare to make it known. Cleansing them from the "Today" programme may suit some spin doctors on both sides of the House and the Executive, but their voices should be heard.

Still, the BBC, like all great bureaucracies, is made of rubber; it comes bouncing back with unconvincing arguments. "We are giving you more time," it says—yes, but fewer listeners. As the Critical Quarterly, in its remarkable black paper on education, put it 30 years ago, "More means worse." We already have a parliamentary channel on cable broadcasting Parliament around the clock. Hansard is available on the Internet. Wall-to-wall coverage of Parliament will not help anyone.

As a former journalist, I am particularly saddened because "Yesterday in Parliament" is a superb piece of broadcast journalism. It distils, into a little under 15 minutes, 12 or more hours of parliamentary proceedings. Extending it to 30 or 45 minutes, or even two or three hours, will weaken the force of that journalism. I do not want more Members of Parliament on the air, but I want the nation and its listeners to have the possibility of hearing what is said and done in the House in their name at a time and on an airwave when they are tuned in.

I have said that the BBC's arguments are disingenuous. Its statistics simply do not add up. But the BBC has been more than disingenuous; it has been deceitful in promising that real consultation would take place. In essence, what was floated, proposed and lobbied for last summer is what will take place.

I do not like to use the word "contempt". That is an overused word in Parliament. But the BBC chairman has not been straight with the Speaker. As so often happens to the great and the good when they accede to that post, they immediately go native and become mouthpieces for whatever the BBC bureaucratic moloch wants to do.

We must be realists. The BBC is not King Charles I in a fight with the Commons. The world will not stop if 15 minutes of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) or the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) are replaced by Mr. Humphrys making sure that no Minister or shadow spokesman can form a sentence with a beginning, middle and end without being interrupted.

Yet I fear for the future if the BBC refuses to listen and act on this debate. If the BBC thinks that Parliament is no longer important, the time may come when Parliament attaches no importance to the BBC. As someone who believes in the BBC, I ask myself whether that is the end game—a furtive, shabby, dishonest decoupling of the BBC from its unique character in the world as a publicly funded, editorially independent but parliamentary accountable broadcaster.

Are those who dream of privatising the BBC—we know some of their names—pushing forward that agenda? The broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings in a mainstream outlet of the BBC is nearly as old as the BBC itself. In ending that service, the BBC is telling the nation not only what its chairman and his officials think of Parliament, but he is announcing urbi et orbi, that the marriage between the BBC and the British public may be drawing to a close. Is that what the BBC wants? Is it what Britain wants? I urge the chairman, even at this late stage, to think again.

11.17 am
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and I congratulate him on securing the debate. He supported me when I raised the issue at business questions some 10 days ago, and I am delighted to endorse every word that he has given us this morning. I am sure that other hon. Members on both sides of the House will share that view.

My text is C. P. Scott: Comment is free but facts are sacred", which we might update by adding that commentary is fun but reportage is serious and sacred. That is what we are discussing today. We are addressing not simply the numerical figures of audiences or the new ghetto which will be created for those who take an interest in our proceedings, but the character of some of the programmes that the BBC now proposes to give its listeners and viewers.

It is not only Members of Parliament who have considered those programmes to be important in the past. The BBC itself has always viewed those programmes as extremely important and as part of its duty to its public and the nation. I have quotations from several episodes in the BBC's history to prove that point. The BBC's annual report and accounts for 1945 state: From the opening of the new Parliament in August 1945, a quarter hour period (10:45 to 11:00pm) was devoted in the Home service to a summary of each day's proceedings, under the title 'Today in Parliament'. This made it possible to keep listeners more closely informed on Parliamentary matters. In 1946, the then assistant Postmaster General, Mr. Wilfred Burke, said: Another new condition is one to which the House will attach considerable importance. That is the new obligation laid upon the Corporation to broadcast a daily report of the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. No less a person than Mr. Herbert Morrison, the then Lord President of the Council, said in 1946: It is one of the duties of the BBC to keep the country informed about Parliament. In 1982, a report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting stated that the BBC shared the wishes of members of both Houses that the proceedings of Parliament should reach as wide an audience as possible; in their judgment"— the BBC's judgment, not that of the House of Lords— the new format of 'Yesterday in Parliament' was more likely to achieve this than the old. The BBC's annual report in 1985 stated: Recorded actuality from both chambers and from committees regularly finds a place in news and current affairs programmes in the networks, the regions and local radio where there has been growing demand. There was no sign then of the BBC claiming that parliamentary coverage was, literally, a turn-off for its listeners and viewers. The 1985 annual report also commented: The BBC's commitment"— a strong word— to full and serious reporting of parliamentary affairs is reflected in such programmes as 'Today in Parliament', 'Inside Parliament' and 'The Week in Westminster' where recordings are used to good effect. The new format of 'Yesterday in Parliament' within the 'Today' programme has improved audiences. As the hon. Member for Rotherham said, that comment does not suggest a falling audience—far from it.

Perhaps the most important statement of all was made last December by the Minister for Arts, whom I am delighted to see in his place on the Government Front Bench. He said that the BBC agreement contains one specific programming requirement introduced…in 1948 and re-iterated in 1996, that the corporation 'shall transmit an impartial account day by day, prepared by professional reporters, of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament.—[Official Report, 11 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 1258.] Given that background of commitment to regular reporting and its importance to our House, the other place and the world at large—the programmes are popular and people want them—why are we now given several extraordinary excuses as to why those programmes no longer have a place in the schedules? The hon. Member for Rotherham effectively dealt with the ludicrous argument about the fall in audience between 8 am and 9 am. It is absurd, and I do not know how anyone could come before the Speaker or any other House authority and pretend that that was a good reason.

The figures show that, outside the "Today" programme itself, there are more listeners for "Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament"—the listenership is growing—than for any other programme on Radio 4 except "The Archers". I am devoted to "The Archers", but if we have to start having murders, suicides or tractor accidents to persuade the BBC that we are important enough to be broadcast at a reasonable hour, that implies that the BBC is tearing up the commitment given under Lord Reith and in every era since.

I come from a scattered and sparsely populated rural area in Cornwall and I am, therefore, especially concerned about the notion that long wave is somehow an adequate substitute for FM. That is patent nonsense. Ever since this debate was announced, I have tried to persuade the BBC to provide me with a map to show the coverage of the United Kingdom achieved by long wave. I am told by the BBC that it is an "imprecise science"; in other words, it does not know. It can provide a map of the FM coverage of the United Kingdom, but it cannot provide a map that shows the areas in which long wave is easily received. Even some parts of London find it difficult to achieve good reception of long wave. The sudden suggestion that the quality of the receivers and the transmitters will be dramatically improved in weeks so that everyone can listen to long wave is patent nonsense.

All those arguments were "exposed"—I use the word advisedly—by Mr. Peter Hill in The House Magazine in October last year. He wrote a skilled, careful, scientifically based article, as we would expect from a former senior and distinguished reporter of the BBC. I find it extraordinary that the chairman and senior officials of the BBC are still repeating the arguments that have been so effectively disposed of. At a cross-party meeting that several hon. Members had with the controller of Radio 4, he was still repeating some of those arguments even when they no longer held water.

As I implied at the beginning of my speech, I believe that there is a hidden agenda behind the BBC's moves. It is not simply a numbers game, because the very character of the programmes is at risk. I shall take one example of that. "The Week in Westminster" is to move to Thursday evening, which will more than halve its audience, and that is bad enough. However, as a sop to the House, the BBC proposes to broadcast the programme in weeks in which the House does not sit. How can a programme called "The Week in Westminster", which purports factually to report parliamentary matters, be broadcast when the House is not sitting? The answer must be one of two options. Either the programme will become a report of the week in Whitehall and be all about the Government, not the House—but that is not what the BBC is pretending—or it will not be reportage at all, but commentary. We have a huge amount of commentary already on all channels, radio and television. We ask only that a small portion of the schedule is consistently addressed—every week and to a real audience composed of the whole United Kingdom—to reportage of the Houses of Parliament, including, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said, what happens in the Chambers and in Committees.

By definition, "The Week in Westminster" on a Thursday evening will not look at the whole week. It will contain nothing about Fridays. Is Friday now unimportant in the House? If so, someone should tell the Speaker, the Whips and the House officials. It appears that Friday will no longer exist, simply because the BBC, at the stroke of a pen, is to dispose of the programme to Thursday nights.

More important, "The Week in Westminster" would dramatically change in character. It would no longer report what the nation's representatives are saying and doing in this place—it would be about the Government or would be a commentary on the parties and political affairs outside this place.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I have followed the hon. Gentleman's speech carefully and he is doing a great service to the House. Does he agree that, to all intents and purposes, the executives of the BBC are trivialising and making peripheral what goes on in Parliament? We do not want that, and I do not believe that that is what the people of this country want.

Mr. Tyler

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We do not agree often, but he has put the point succinctly and it leads precisely into my concluding point. Those who want to see and hear their parliamentary representatives working in this place, representing them, will be treated by the BBC as a tiny, insignificant and unimportant minority. They will be consigned to a scheduling ghetto. That is not just an insult to Parliament but an insult to our constituents and to the BBC's listeners and viewers. I hope that the BBC will think again.

11.28 am
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The other day, I received a note from the public affairs unit of the BBC—I presume that one has gone to other hon. Members—that began "Dear David" and asked whether I would signal my support for the proposals. It is surprising that I received such a note, whether it began "Dear David" or otherwise, bearing in mind my earlier interventions on the matter, including my Adjournment debate on 11 December 1997, during which I was, to say the least, extremely critical of the proposals. My hon. Friend the Minister replied to that debate, as he will to today's.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and the hon. the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, we must emphasise that what appears to be a technical matter—broadcasting on long wave or on FM—has great relevance to the proposals. I said in my Adjournment debate that "Today in Parliament" had lost more than half its audience since it went over to long wave in 1994. Parliamentarians as well as listeners would agree that it is an excellent programme. It is perhaps too long for the morning, but in the evening it provides good coverage of what has gone on in both Houses of Parliament. The BBC must have known that putting "Today in Parliament" on long wave would substantially reduce its audience. The BBC cannot be naive about the matter, and I can think only that it deliberately made the change because it believes few people want to listen to Parliament's proceedings and few are obsessed by politics and current affairs, and that it could find other listeners.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, the BBC is making a great deal of the fact that the Friday programme, which is briefer than the Monday to Thursday programmes, will be extended. However, that late evening programme, which is the only one broadcast on FM, will move to long wave only, so there will be no real gain for it, as the BBC is perfectly aware.

The BBC has taken a propaganda line since last July when the proposals were leaked. Points of order were made in the House, and hon. Members will remember that Madam Speaker said that she was displeased by BBC proposals, but, all along, the BBC propaganda line—as has been shown during the debate—has been that people switch off because they are bored by the 15-minute or 16-minute recording of what occurred the previous day in Parliament. The reasons for fewer people listening from 8 am have been stated, although the BBC was originally reluctant to give the figures. Even now, the audience of "Yesterday in Parliament" is well over 1 million, which is larger than that of "Newsnight"—who knows what proposals the BBC has for that excellent programme?

Most people have no desire to switch off at all. I rang the BBC during the summer recess to ask how many people were listening to the substitute slot. The answer was that there was little difference between the number of people who listen to "Yesterday in Parliament" and those who listen to the substitute slot when Parliament is not sitting. Where is the evidence that listeners are bored and fed up with listening to parliamentarians for 15 or 16 minutes a day, and switch off such programmes when they come on air? There is no reason to believe that there is any truth in the BBC propaganda line.

The controller of Radio 4 said last summer that 350,000 listeners switched off when "Yesterday in Parliament" came on in the morning, but the BBC is now reluctant to repeat that comment. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Cornwall explained that people switch off between 8 am and 9 am for obvious reasons: they are taking their children to school, going to work, and so on. The BBC was willing to use its propaganda line, when it seemed that it might be effective, to discredit the reporting of Parliament.

One cannot have a great deal of respect for people who use such tactics, but I have the greatest respect for the journalists who are involved in "Yesterday in Parliament" and the evening programme. One can criticise from day to day, and ask why one item has been excluded and another has been given so much time, but the people involved are skilled, and there is no doubt that they do an excellent job, and have done so on radio and television since the broadcasting of the proceedings of the House. Their position is being undermined by their bosses, who give the impression that what they do is not of great value, which is unfortunate.

I shall not mention the other changes, because my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Cornwall discussed them in detail. The essence of the matter is whether the BBC recognises that it has a public service duty adequately to report the proceedings of Parliament. I have concluded that the BBC has a different view. I have said that I have the greatest respect for the BBC, its coverage and the way in which it broadcasts overseas events. I referred to the attempted coup in the Soviet Union, and said that it took place in 1990, but I was a year out: it took place in 1991. One remembers that Mr. Gorbachev learned the details of what was going on from the BBC.

One wants to defend that fine reputation; indeed, whether the BBC has been underfunded or had difficulties with the Foreign Office over funding for its overseas broadcasts, parliamentarians have come to the rescue and intervened constructively. Unfortunately, the view on domestic matters, and certainly on the reporting of Parliament, is that listeners are not interested in politics, and any old excuse is made to cut such reporting. Hon. Members are right to think that Ministers and spin doctors will benefit at the expense of parliamentarians. I do not believe that should happen without a great deal of criticism.

I said in business questions and repeat today that we know what sort of institution the BBC would be without this place and without parliamentary democracy. Its freedoms, like the freedoms and civil liberties of all the people of this country, come from one place only—the Houses of Parliament, where the rule of law is established. It is unfortunate that the BBC does not recognise that and act accordingly.

The proposals, which I understand the chairman of the BBC will discuss when he comes to the House on Thursday, should be thrown in the dustbin. Despite all our protests, including that of Madam Speaker, the chairman, the director-general and the controller of Radio 4 may push them ahead. That is their right, and we cannot tell them what to do, but if they treat Parliament in such a contemptuous way, and refuse to listen to our justified criticism, we shall inevitably show contempt for those who control the BBC.

11.37 am
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

This is a unique debate. I am not entirely sure, because my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has just entered the Chamber, but I suspect that there will be virtual unanimity on the anxieties expressed by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) about the BBC proposals for the reporting of Parliament.

Yesterday, I chaired a meeting of the all-party media group, at which Matthew Bannister put the case for the BBC. He put a good case, but a number of people disagreed with it. I repeat what I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler): the BBC is seeking to peripheralise and trivialise the coverage of Parliament. That concerns me very much. I have been here for more than a quarter of a century, and over that time the BBC's serious coverage of Parliament has been reduced. I believe that the current proposals will reduce it further.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to Peter Hill, a BBC journalist with considerable experience, who is totally committed to Parliament and who covers it remarkably well. As has been said, last autumn he wrote an article severely criticising what the BBC intended to do. Nor do I think that the House should take lightly the concern expressed by Madam Speaker. It is not often that the Speaker of the House of Commons publicly states her concern about what is going on, but Madam Speaker believes fervently in the role of Parliament, and thinks that it should be covered properly by the BBC.

Uniquely, I must agree with every word said by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He and I are generally very much on opposite sides. It is good to note the virtually unanimous condemnation—I use that word advisedly—of what the BBC intends to do.

I shall not repeat the arguments about the change from FM to long wave, for the simple reason that they have already been fully and accurately deployed; but I sometimes wonder why the BBC keeps referring to audience figures. I believe that the figures are wrong. Moreover, the BBC is funded in a unique way, and, in accordance with its charter, has a serious commitment to providing a public service. That commitment will be greatly damaged if it implements its proposals.

I mentioned Matthew Bannister. He is very articulate. I knew him for many years before he rose to the higher echelons of the BBC, and I have a high regard for him and his ability. When he came to the all-party media group last night, however, it seemed to me that he was very much carrying out the instructions of his media bosses. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet will confirm if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he tried to justify the proposal by saying that, far from cutting coverage of the House, the BBC was giving it extra time.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall pointed out, the BBC says with great sincerity that it will broadcast "The Week in Westminster" when the House is not sitting. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that "The Week in Westminster" will become a programme about Whitehall and government. It will consist merely of reporting and comment, rather than being a serious programme giving people what I think they want to hear. As an evergreen Back Bencher, I think that it is important to Members of Parliament that their constituents can hear what their representatives have said on the Floor of the House from time to time—with, of course, appropriate editorial treatment. After all, we believe—mostly—in the impartiality of the BBC's editorial staff.

It is amazing how many letters I receive from constituents saying, "Oh, Mr. Winterton, I heard you say so-and-so in the House of Commons last week." I find that very rewarding, and I think that rather more people follow what goes on here than the BBC would have us believe. You may say that this is not the right place for me to say this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but Mr. Tony Hall, the head of BBC news, is coming to the all-party media group on 25 March, and I hope that as many people as possible will come and tell the BBC's senior executive exactly what they think of its proposals. As an Opposition Back Bencher, I cannot stress enough how concerned I am, and how important I consider the BBC's public service duties.

Let me say to the hon. Members for Rotherham and for Walsall, North that I am not one of those Conservative and Unionist Members who believe that we should privatise the BBC or, force it to raise funds from advertising. I have never believed that, although I want it to become commercial in the sense of exploiting some of its services—for example, the tapes and compact discs that it produces. I think that it could market those more aggressively, and thus increase its revenue. It does a pretty good job—which could, however, be improved—in selling its fantastic programmes overseas; but it has a prime duty to give Parliament adequate coverage. I do not want to go into this in depth, but the BBC is right in saying that long wave is unreliable in many parts of the country. Is it therefore surprising that the BBC can state that audiences have been reduced, when not many people can receive long wave broadcasts of the standard that they expect?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham on securing the debate, and on the reasoned and robust way in which he put his case. His view is shared by Conservative Members and by the minority parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats. I hope that the unanimity in the House continues, and that, when Sir Christopher Bland and John Birt come to the House to try to explain what they are doing, they will receive a positive response. They, too, are coming to the all-party media group later in the year, on the day when they publish the BBC's annual report. We have a responsibility to give them a platform.

I agree with the hon. Members for Rotherham, for Walsall, North and for North Cornwall. We must not allow the BBC to implement changes to the disadvantage of this place, or allow such changes to be accepted by default.

11.48 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I do not entirely share in the unanimity. I have known four Members of Parliament for Rotherham, every one of whom has made a contribution to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made an elegant and important contribution, and we are in his debt.

I do not always agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on every subject, but I strongly agree with what he said about public service obligations.

The discordant note that I introduce is this. We shall have to cast a particular mote out of our own eye. The problem is that it is all very well for the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) to say that, in the past quarter of a century, serious coverage has been reduced, but something else has been reduced: ministerial interest, in both parties, in the proceedings of the House of Commons. I am concerned about the gradual bypassing of Parliament, which I think started with Mrs. Thatcher. More and more, statements are being made in Millbank or in Conservative central office, long before they are made on the Floor of the House. It is a question not only of etiquette but of the amount of attention, particularly of Ministers, that is paid to the House of Commons.

Yesterday morning, there was a major event in the history of the Labour Government. I am not concerned here about the merits or demerits of the minimum wage legislation, but it is something that was very close to the heartstrings of my party. I shall put it gently. If such a measure had been passed after an all-night sitting, and if their colleagues had been up all night getting it through, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan would have made it their absolute business to be on the Treasury Bench at least for the final speeches, and probably—certainly in Wilson's and Callaghan's case—for all the speeches on Third Reading.

For much of the legislation that has been passed in the past few months—it was the same during the Conservative Government—the Secretaries of State whose legislation it was were very seldom to be seen on the Treasury Bench. They left it to junior Ministers. What more important thing do Secretaries of State who are conducting legislation through the House have to do than to listen—on their own legislation, which they are promoting—to their parliamentary colleagues of all parties?

If the Government cease to listen to the House of Commons—as Governments in general are ceasing to do—what do we say to BBC senior executives, one of whom, who must be nameless, has asked, "If you do not take yourselves that seriously, and if Ministers do not take the House of Commons that seriously, why should the BBC take you so seriously?"? The debate is part of a wider argument on the bypassing of Parliament.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and entirely agree with the important point that he is making so strongly. However, I think that he will agree that two wrongs do not make a right, and that it is not entirely clear which is cause and which is effect. I think that one of the reasons why successive senior Ministers, and Governments generally, have treated the House with less courtesy and respect for its role is that they do not think that they will attract the media's attention if they do so. We witness today an empty Press Gallery for this debate. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree also that the media are not excused in paying increasingly less attention to the proceedings of the House simply because Ministers have followed them in making that mistake.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman has made the point more eloquently than I would have done. Others wish to speak. I shall only endorse what he has so pointedly said.

11.53 am
Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on making his case, and also on the restraint, in several senses, that he showed in developing that case. Specifically, he made no reference—he might have some acquaintance with or memory of them—to the complexities and, in a literary sense, corruptions of the career structure inside that enormous and—as he eloquently described it—rubbery corporation. He did not mention the pressures that those pressures generate, or the contribution that they make to an anonymity of responsibility, which makes it difficult to fix on a particular target or individual and to say, "If we can bring our case to them, perhaps we can correct this."

Meanwhile, as hon. Members have already said, we are witnessing the standard corporation technique, whereby, if one wants to get rid of a product, one makes very little of it. As supply is so limited that people cannot get the product, one says that there is no demand for it. It is a cyclical process. The BBC is engaged in that process, transferring programmes that it admits have higher ratings to "listening ghettos"—where no one can get at the programmes, or where one can hear them only with great difficulty, because they are broadcast at the wrong time of day. The process is self-fulfilling, and enables the BBC to say, "There is no demand for those programmes, so we may as well get rid of them."

The process is part of a larger one that I see developing within the BBC. It is a type of dumbing down. The BBC is giving much more air time and exposure to special interest lobbies and mini-focus groups that argue their case, although almost in political isolation, because they are not really politicians. They do not understand—as we do, as we are sent to the House by our constituents—political pressures in the round, although they have good soundbites, mini-rows and disturbances, and give trouble. However, those groups should be only on the fringe of politics, not at the centre, as the House certainly should be.

As the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) so eloquently said, for a variety of reasons, the House finds itself under pressure from many different sectors. In the eyes of many, our importance is diminishing. Therefore, rather than pay attention to what the House of Commons says, it is legitimate to listen to those various little focus groups, pressure groups and people who will make a scene on air or on television and give the programme "more of a kick".

I should like briefly to deal with the matter of that "kick"—the matter of ratings. It is no business of the BBC to determine its output by ratings—which are not and never have been part of its charter. I went to a lunch hosted by Sir Christopher Bland—I hope that I am not abusing his hospitality. He invited some prominent parliamentarians, and gave us a résumé of his future programmes and of what the corporation was doing. On all the items that he showed us, he declaimed their ratings and the acclaim from critics. He told us that the ratings for this or that programme were as good as those for ITV's programmes. That is not his business. Lord Reith never concerned himself with a programme's ratings. His duty, as he saw it, was to inform and to educate. That is how the BBC was conceived.

We can complain about the process, and we have right to do so, because it is deplorable. I know from my own mailbag that many individual constituents complain about it. The process can be corrected only by a strong and forceful personality who is not concerned with ingratiating himself with the establishment. The BBC requires an individual who will promote his various officials, editors and producers not on the basis of their impact on ratings or the acclaim that they garner, but on the basis of how they fulfil the BBC's fundamental duty, which is quite different from that of independent television companies—which have no duty except to their shareholders, and only minimal constraints imposed on them by censorship and the dictates of so-called good taste.

We shall have to initiate a fundamental change in the BBC—in attitude, conscience, responsibility and the sense of duty of those at the top. Until we do that, we shall have debates such as this one. The Press Gallery will remain empty, and no one will pay the slightest attention.

11.58 am
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for giving me a chance to raise the issue of regional television broadcasting of parliamentary affairs.

Many of us will have built up a quite close relationship with our regional BBC outlets and participate frequently in their programmes. It seems to me that there are two essential components in that regional broadcasting: first, that there are correspondents who go out of their way to build links with all the region's Members of Parliament, irrespective of party and position; and, secondly, that they are given adequate air time and are able not only to provide pieces for regional magazine programmes that follow the news, but to have their own slots throughout the week to broadcast genuine regional coverage.

That is especially important in areas such as Yorkshire—an area of interest both to myself and to the hon. Member for Rotherham. That we have a Leeds-based team is very significant: it is important that our coverage of Westminster comes from "John Turnbull, our man in Westminster", not from a national feed, and gives a genuinely regional perspective. People in Yorkshire and other peripheral regions respect that. The breadth of coverage is significant, as those in the team are able to move into the wider arena: for example, we have recently discussed issues such as the Child Support Agency and alternatives to prison sentences—broader issues, discussion of which involves residents of the region and their parliamentarians. I ask myself where else we could get that sort of coverage.

Hon. Members have recently waxed lyrical about the importance of the constituency link as we discuss alternatives to the present electoral system. If we are not to have regional coverage, all we shall be left with is the Government's pronouncements and national spokespeople talking; people will never hear what their region's Members of Parliament think from a regional perspective.

The other key issue is the following of political careers. In Yorkshire, we report the Leader of the Opposition as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). We have followed the career of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who is reported as such, all the way from local councillor to his current position as the esteemed Secretary of State for Education and Employment. It is that ability to engage with local politicians as local characters that is important, in that it cuts behind some of the hype and spin that are often seen here.

I hope that, as well as debating the topical issue of "Yesterday in Parliament", we shall seriously look at the future of regional broadcasting. We should treasure it and continue to provide to people in the regions a genuinely regional voice, instead of their having to rely solely on Government pronouncements and national spokespersons' responses.

12.1 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for the fact that I was unable to be here for the first part of the debate. The hon. Gentleman knows, because he was in the same Committee earlier this morning, that I have been chairing the Committee on the Public Interest Disclosure Bill and was therefore unable to be here earlier. I hope that the House will accept my apology.

Despite having heard only part of the debate, I should like to make a couple of comments on the remarks made. It has been suggested that the BBC is in danger of sidelining Parliament into ghettos and, by that means, demonstrating that no one is listening, thereby putting itself in a position of being able to kill off the programme. Some of that is going on: I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), heard Mr. Bannister last night indicate that "The Week in Westminster" was to be moved from its current Saturday morning slot to an hour on Thursday evening when, quite clearly, fewer people will listen. I regard that with sadness, because the breadth of Saturday morning programming means that people who ordinarily would not listen to "The Week in Westminster" might catch some of it and learn something that they might otherwise not have learnt.

Mr. MacShane

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the audience for "The Week in Westminster" on Saturday is greater at its end than at its beginning? Believe it or not, it is actually an audience grabber.

Mr. Gale

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although there are those who are unkind enough to say that that is because people are tuning in for the programme that follows "The Week in Westminster", rather than for "The Week in Westminster" itself.

Be that as it may, that argument fits uneasily with that advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who suggested that the BBC should not have to search for an audience. That is an elitist argument, which we have heard long and often. My right hon. Friend said that what is happening would not have happened in Lord Reith's day, but I hope that he will forgive me for pointing out that Lord Reith and his corporation did not face the competition in terms of outlets that faces the BBC today.

There are a dozen and more radio and television channels nationally, plus very good local radio channels and information available on the internet. Mr. Bannister told us last night that he was having great difficulty in persuading children to listen to the sort of programmes that the BBC puts on in the evenings, because young people have access to so many alternative information outlets. It is not surprising that the BBC has to consider whether anyone at all is listening to what it broadcasts. I suspect that, if not my right hon. Friend, then others would say in fairly short order, "Hang on—why are we paying our licence fee? Nobody is listening." I am not suggesting for one moment that the BBC should be populist, but I do believe that it has a duty incumbent on it to be popular and to present a breadth of programmes that attract an audience. Otherwise, as a broadcaster, I would have to say that there is no point in broadcasting.

Mr. Alan Clark

My hon. Friend's remarks are making me extremely concerned. His argument is essentially populist. There is strong competition to supply what it is thought people want and to titivate them and attract their attention by various means. However, the business of the BBC has always been to present the truth, the facts and objective commentary—to inform and to educate. It is a fact of life that that does not attract big audiences, but the BBC has to lump it.

Mr. Gale

On the contrary, the BBC over the years and currently does, on occasion, attract very large audiences, and all power to it for doing so.

I do not want to take much more time, but I want to comment on what Mr. Bannister said, because his views have been, not misrepresented, but partly represented this morning and I should like to present an alternative view. Matthew Bannister told Members of Parliament last night that the BBC was in fact extending the hours of coverage of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield recognised that fact in his speech, but what he did not say was that Mr. Bannister has also given a clear undertaking that, as and when—it would be sooner rather than later—digital sound broadcasting becomes widely available, instead of being available to an elite few who are able to afford expensive receivers, the BBC expects to be able to dedicate an entire channel to the broadcasting of Parliament. That seems highly desirable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said that Radio 4 on long wave was hard to receive, but I have to say that I listen to Radio 4 on long wave, not on FM, and I have no difficulty with it at all.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has pointed out that the proposals represent a huge expansion of parliamentary coverage, which builds on the large expansion in recent years. That contrasts with the attitude of newspapers and other media, which tend to ignore Parliament. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is up to schedulers, not politicians, to schedule programmes on the BBC? Does he accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), that part of the problem is us: we are boring and announcements are made on the "Today" programme and "The World at One", not in this place?

Mr. Gale

I was coming to that point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making it for me.

Radio 5 Live is an excellent service: it comes to the House and covers live Prime Minister's Question Time; in addition, when Ministers are good enough to come to the House to make the occasional statement, it covers those as well. Radio 5 Live covers in a very good form a great deal of current affairs, news and politics throughout the evening. Radio 4 currently provides excellent coverage, and it is clear that that will be extended.

The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) is absolutely right, as is the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), to lay the blame fairly and squarely in this Chamber. For this debate, there are more people in the Public Gallery than there are in the Chamber—there are about 13 Members of Parliament present. We are all aware of the pressures on Members' time resulting from constituency work or Committee work—I myself was guilty of that earlier this morning. It is not necessarily a fault that the fulcrum of debate has shifted from the Chamber of the House of Commons to other places, including the media, but we cannot blame the BBC for that.

Although critical of some aspects of Mr. Bannister's proposals, I broadly support them and I wish him well. I want to hear the extended coverage, because I believe that the BBC does a very good job.

12.8 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

It is right that we should be having this debate about the future of the BBC's parliamentary broadcasting, not just because it is a subject of close interest to Members of Parliament but because the broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament to the public plays an essential part in our democratic process. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on securing the debate and making his case so cogently. I also congratulate the other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed.

The BBC is so well established; also it is not just a British institution. I share the high esteem and affection in which it is held. It has brought the most important events of the century into the homes and lives of millions of people. Highly professional BBC commentators and interviewers have become household names. The BBC also performs an invaluable function through its regional broadcast services, strengthening the identity of communities and highlighting issues of local interest.

More recently, the BBC began to broadcast the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament, providing a direct link between the people and their representatives. There is no filter, no comment and no spin. Politicians are shown not as they might wish to present themselves to television and radio presenters and the public, but as they make their arguments and are held to account by their political opponents. Parliament is the heart of our democracy. Coverage of it is an unparalleled insight into how our democracy works.

The BBC is subject to pressure for change in the same way as other institutions. It has to adapt to changes in contemporary society. Not all such pressures are necessarily for the good or are likely to endure. In succumbing to them, the BBC may risk its unique relationship with Parliament and do a disservice to the democratic process.

The emergence of rich, vocal and powerful single-issue pressure groups as a major influence is one of the most significant changes in our national life in recent years. Campaigners have discovered that they can be more influential in impacting political decisions from outside the party political process than from within it. In Parliament, competing claims are balanced by Government and Opposition in the knowledge that both will eventually be held to account for their actions by the electorate. Outside Parliament, there is no counterweight to the shrill claims of single-issue groups. One example of how a decision on a serious issue can be derailed by a pressure group was the Brent Spar episode. Ironically, the ultimate effect was the reverse of minimising the environmental impact. The biggest challenge for the BBC and the other media is how to deal with the influence of pressure groups in their political coverage.

The growing importance of the media in political debate in recent years has led to the professional packaging of political arguments for the media as almost an art form. The soundbite culture has emerged. The tendency for Government policy announcements to be made outside the House of Commons, whether in exclusive press briefings or amid the razzmatazz of press launches, has undoubtedly reduced the accountability of the Government and the scrutiny that their policies receive. That practice has grown over the years, but it has mushroomed recently.

More seriously, Madam Speaker has repeatedly criticised Ministers for making announcements about Government policies outside the House. Regrettably, the desire to control the news has resulted in an incessant drip feed of headline-grabbing stories that often damage the credibility of the Minister, the Department or the project involved.

The BBC is caught between the need to preserve and enhance its audience figures and its overriding duty as a public service organisation. In the age of the soundbite and instant response, there is not the time for broadcasters to give the detailed consideration to political issues that Parliament can. Broadcasters are not in a position to demand information of the Government as Parliament does.

We live in an era of unprecedented news management. Perhaps it was ever thus, but the practice has latterly scaled new heights. The Prime Minister's press secretary recently complained that the BBC has become a downmarket, dumbed-down, over-staffed, over-bureaucratic, ridiculous organisation. Indeed. Governments can be tempted to avoid public accountability, but Oppositions have a duty to hold them to account. The BBC has a public service duty to assist that scrutiny fairly and openly.

Alastair Campbell's comments were greeted with dismay. However, commentators missed the point. As a professional news manager, he wants nothing more than dumbed-down, downmarket coverage. The raison d'être of his ilk is to replace substance with spin.

All Governments have sought to manage the way in which their policies are reported in the news media, but, by any objective standards, this Government have gone to extraordinary lengths to present themselves in a favourable light. That is why it is vital that Parliament should continue to be able to hold the Government to account and that the public should know about it.

The specific changes proposed by the BBC are not acceptable or appropriate. The number of long wave listeners is in decline. The BBC's audience figures for the two key programmes—"Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament"—do not bear close scrutiny. We have all taken on board the comments of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) about the removal of "In Committee".

We are told that the public find our proceedings boring. That does not absolve the BBC from its duty to present our proceedings to the public as they are. It is not their duty to make Parliament more entertaining by jazzing up their coverage or concentrating on the more trivial exchanges.

Increasing coverage by an average of eight minutes a day is no compensation for switching Parliament to the wavelength with a declining audience. I do not accept that the format of "Yesterday in Parliament" is what makes people tune out or switch off when it begins. Let me be clear: the Opposition oppose the proposed changes. I should be grateful for an unequivocal statement of the Government's position from the Minister.

Over the years, Parliament has sought to protect the finances, integrity and independence of the BBC. I was among the many Members of Parliament on both sides of the House who sought to prevent cuts to the World Service budget. The importance of the BBC is its unique status as a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee. That funding arrangement frees it from the financial pressures that beset purely commercial broadcasters. With that comes a special obligation to pursue the highest standards of broadcasting and reporting.

Just as Parliament has a duty to the BBC, the BBC has a duty to inform the public about the role of Parliament, including those aspects of Parliament that, while not dramatic, are an essential part of the democratic process. We believe that the proposed changes undermine that public responsibility. I hope that the BBC will accept its duty and urgently think again about the changes that it is proposing.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on securing the debate and introducing it with such clarity and force. The subject has been of considerable concern to the House since the BBC announced its proposed changes last July: there have been many written and oral questions Madam Speaker has corresponded at considerable length with the chairman of the BBC; my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) secured an Adjournment debate on the subject last December; and the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport took evidence on 24 February. It is clear from all that that Parliament is exercised. As the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has noted, it is nearly unanimous in its view today.

We have had an excellent debate. There has been general agreement about the excellence of the BBC's political journalism. It is because of that excellence and the proper rigour of scrutiny that that coverage puts on the Government and the work of the House that hon. Members are concerned about possible damage to its quality or effective reach. Two basic questions have run through the debate: what precise effect will the changes have; and, will they be consistent with the obligation placed on the BBC in its 1948 royal charter and agreement to transmit an impartial account, day by day, prepared by professional reporters, of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament"? Decisions about programme content and scheduling that express that obligation are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) said, wholly a matter for the BBC, which has and must have complete editorial independence, but the fulfilment of that obligation is important. Its purpose is not in doubt: to allow the public to hear the work of the House and to draw their own conclusions.

Mr. MacShane

Some people have commented on the lack of hon. Members present. Is my hon. Friend aware that no fewer than 12 Standing and Select Committees are at work this morning, with up to 20 hon. Members in each? Is he also aware that the parliamentary Labour party is meeting at the moment, attended by between 40 and 150 Members? The absence of hon. Members in the Chamber does not mean that this House and MPs are not at work. To deny that work to listeners of "Today" will be a serious diminution of the reporting of the House.

Mr. Fisher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the former PAC Chairman, made that point in their very important speeches. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has returned to the Chamber. His speech reflected exactly the importance of Committee work.

Let us be clear about what the changes consist of. "Yesterday in Parliament" is to be broadcast for 23 minutes instead of the current 14 minutes, but it will be broadcast only on long wave. "Today in Parliament" is to be extended on Fridays by 15 minutes to include coverage of Select Committees, but will also be broadcast only on long wave. A new Sunday evening programme, "The Westminster Hour" is to replace "In Committee", to which we will come in a moment. As hon. Members have pointed out, the new programme will, rather bizarrely, run throughout the year and therefore during weeks in which the House will not be sitting.

There will be a new nightly television programme covering Parliament, a new parliamentary web site as part of the BBC's News Online, and "The Week in Westminster" is to move from 11 am on Saturdays to 8.30 pm on Thursdays—a slot devoted to Parliament and politics all the year round. Again, the same point about the sittings of the House applies.

The BBC claims that the proposed changes represent a net gain in parliamentary coverage. Overall, there will be an additional 55 hours of parliamentary and Westminster-related programming a year on radio and an additional 24 hours a year on television. However, much of that radio coverage will be on long wave.

Arguments expressed in the debate have tested the effect of the new schedule. Will there be a net loss of listeners in the shift to long wave? The answer is clearly yes. On the BBC's own projections, the audience for "Yesterday in Parliament" is likely to fall from 1.3 million to 700,000, so a 50 per cent. increase in programme time will be offset by a near 50 per cent. fall in audience.

The move of "The Week in Westminster" from Saturdays, following Ned Sherrin's "Loose Ends", to 8.30 pm on Thursday evening, is likely to produce a fall in audience from 732,000 to—probably—nearer 300,000. As hon. Members have made clear, that is a particularly strange change as the week ends on Thursday evening for very few of us, especially not in the House. As much as hon. Members like getting away quite early on Thursday evenings, the House has been sitting and working hard until late on Thursday evenings—and last week one of the most significant debates of the year, which reflected the concern of people who live in the countryside and touched many people, occurred on a Friday. It would have been missed by the new programme on Thursday evening. The answer to the question about loss of listeners is therefore clear.

Will the quality fall? The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne made important points about the loss of "In Committee". Although the multi-item, magazine format programme, "The Westminster Hour" will run for 50 minutes—instead of the 30-minute "In Committee"—will that compensate for hard, detailed reporting of Committees? It is not comment on that work that the public ought to have the opportunity to hear; the question is how the PAC and other Select Committees are scrutinising the work of government. That is why Select Committees were set up in the first place.

Mr. Tyler

The Minister has already referred to the curious fact that some of the programmes will be broadcast when Parliament is not sitting. Have the governors and the chairman of the BBC given Ministers any indication of exactly what reportage they intend to include in "The Westminster Hour"? Will not it simply be speculative comment?

Mr. Fisher

They have not done so yet; that remains to be seen. As hon. Members have said, it is likely that the programme will talk about politics generally—perhaps the work of Whitehall particularly. Although such general political comment is important all 52 weeks of the year, it is rather different from the BBC's charter obligation to cover the House day by day.

Mr. Gale

Unless broadcasters provide the dedicated channels for Committee work and proceedings on the Floor of the House that I and others have advocated for a long time, there will be some selection. The Minister is being slightly churlish. If the programme continues when the House is not sitting, one of the criticisms—which we have all made—that an enormous amount of Committee and other work is never covered, may be addressed. There is no reason why, in hindsight, a look at some of the very important work in Select Committees and other Committees should not be taken. I would hope to hear and see such material used when the House is not sitting.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman makes a point. In fact, although Select Committees do some work when the House is not sitting, they are notable for their work load during such times.

Mr. David Davis

I should make clear that, my concern is not for the PAC, which gets enormous coverage on a weekly basis, but for the sterling work done by other Select Committees, which is not often covered on any other medium but "In Committee" and will be lost in an hour-long, magazine format programme designed to cover something exciting rather than valuable.

Mr. Fisher

Behind all this there is a general concern about dumbing down. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made a good point about a dedicated programme, which would be possible now. Further opportunities will be possible once we have digital broadcasting. However, the problem of reach also applies to digital broadcasting. Is the charter obligation fulfilled by digital broadcasting to a very small audience, or are we talking about a more complicated matrix of reach and quality?

In some areas, reception on long wave, which is crucial to the changes is, according to the chairman of the BBC governors in a letter to Madam Speaker, "poor". Additional medium wave transmitters are used in Northern Ireland, northern England, east Scotland, Devon and Cornwall.

Mr. Bannister, who has been referred to, believes that the package taken in the round will enhance coverage of the proceedings of Parliament. It is clear that the strategy does not commend itself to the Public Accounts Committee—its Chairman has expressed his view forcefully—Madam Speaker or the House.

Mr. Spring

In the remaining few seconds of the debate, will the Minister indicate clearly his view and what he will say on behalf of the Government and his Department in discussions with the BBC about the future broadcasting of proceedings of the House?

Mr. Fisher

I make it clear that the Government's proper concern is the fulfilment of the charter and the charter agreement, which is what we are debating today. It is a complicated matter and I shall turn to it precisely.

Do the changes satisfy the obligation in the charter and the agreement? Does the way in which the BBC has proposed the changes satisfy the obligation to be accountable to Parliament? The answer to the first question must be yes. The programmes fulfil the obligation to transmit an impartial account day by day—even If that account is consciously scheduled so as to attract a smaller audience. The wording of the charter is about whether there is reporting day by day; that obligation is fulfilled. However, it is a matter of the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement, and that is what we are debating today.

Tomorrow, Sir Christopher Bland will hear in person the views that have been expressed today. In the next two weeks, before the Radio Times schedule is printed for 6 April—when the new programming is due to commence—he will have the opportunity to listen to the clearly expressed views of Parliament.