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9.5 pm

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : What we have just heard from the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) is the frustration of the elitist, who simply cannot bear to think that people will have a choice and that they will be able to make that choice for themselves. Elitists believe that they are so clever that they can make everybody's choices for them. They cannot cope in a modern world. It is not the Government who are deregulating broadcasting or the White Paper that is deregulating television ; it is the technology and the choices that will be freely made by the people. Surely the purpose of taking part in this debate-- [Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen had the courtesy to listen, they would understand the argument. Surely the purpose of taking part in this debate is to understand the fundamentals that we want to preserve in television and to bring forward into the new era. I feel genuine disappointment with the speech of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), because he talked about the problems--I did not disagree with some of what he said--but he did not say a word about what he and his party would do and what he believed were the important matters to bring forward.

There are two stages in the auctioning of franchises. It is important that we go through the quality threshold, but is it seriously suggested--as the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook did--that the current system of franchise allocation works well? I do not believe it does.

We should look at the successful application which was originally made by Harlech Television and what happened in the outturn. One could hardly say that that was a success for the current system, because Harlech Television's application never transpired. It made promises that it knew it could not fulfill. The same happened with the original London Weekend Television. I believe that London Weekend Television was baled out by Rupert Murdoch. I am not saying that that is a good thing, but the fact is that London Weekend Television could not keep its promises. Then, of course, there was TV-am Limited run by the "famous five". Anybody working in television, as I was at that time, knew that putting presenters in charge of a television station was like putting lunatics in charge of an asylum. They knew that it would not work, and it did not work. The old system must stand condemned for some of the situations it has created. A new system is needed, and I welcome the auctioning of franchises.

The BBC circulated a briefing on the White Paper which is extremely good. One line, which is important, says :

"The BBC will need to adapt within this more competitive environment. But we are also the fixed point in an expanding market."

I agree with that. The solid attacks that were made on the BBC by Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, notably The Times , represented a deliberate pre- emptive strike against it. Rupert Murdoch recognised that without the BBC and its standards of quality, Sky would not have to offer anything like the same quality or spend similar sums as the BBC on its programmes.

The BBC is important and we must ensure that it continues to be a high- quality source of programming and, as has been said, the cornerstone of broadcasting. It must, of course, adapt, but it must remain the benchmark of quality. It must widen its source of funding, however,

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because there will be a genuine difficulty as the licence fee becomes less and less acceptable to people. If there is a broad range of satellite channels, cable and MVDS, people will not want to pay a licence fee for channels that they may not watch often.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : The set, not the BBC.

Mr. Hughes : The hon. Gentleman may agree with my next argument so he should be cautious of heckling. We need a new lease of life for the licence fee, because I believe that it is important to continue it. I urge the Minister to consider what we should do to ensure that quality and diversity are offered by the new multi-market and to ensure that the BBC continues to offer quality programmes. We should consider a proposal that was originally made by Alan Peacock in his report--we should have an arts council of the air. When the proceeds of the licence fee start to be phased away from the BBC, a substantial proportion of it should be paid to a new body that would act in the same way as the Arts Council. We cannot second guess how good or bad television programmes will be, but that new council would be able to consider the available programmes across the broad range of broadcasting. That council could have a productive role by highlighting the shortage of experimental comedy, certain drama or the type of social programming that we want at peak times. Such programmes could be paid for out of the substantial sums available from the licence fee. That would give us an absolute guarantee of the choice and diversity that is genuinely desired by all hon. Members. It is easy to lampoon the Broadcasting Standards Council as the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook did when he discussed the chairman, but I suspect that he would be rather uncomfortable if he sought to lampoon the deputy chairman of that council. Anyone who knows Jocelyn Barrow knows that she is fiercely independent, hardly a poodle of the Government--she is a black educationist who is respected by both sides of the House--and that she is doing a magnificent job to ensure that the BSC is able to make a contribution.

I believe that Jocelyn Barrow recognises, as we all should, that parents think that there is something wrong with some television programmes. Parents know what is needed. When one goes to the cinema the certificate of the film gives a guarantee of the broad content of it. If the film carries a U certificate one knows that it is reasonable and safe for children to see. Why not have a certification system for television? I accept that it should not involve previewing, as that would give far too much power to the BSC and it would be too cumbersome to operate. I believe that the television companies should operate a self-certification system. Therefore, parents and others, need only look at the newspaper to know what sort of programmes will be on and whether they want to watch them. I believe that the system, in common with the system in Canada, should also include a guide to the sort of language used in the programmes. I urge the Minister to consider such a system.

The system could be enforced and policed by the Broadcasting Standards Council, which in addition could consider the watersheds of when programmes should be

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shown. The BBC 9 o'clock watershed-- although it is breached on many occasions--is important and is taken seriously by the BBC. We need watersheds to ensure that programmes with an entirely family content are shown until 7, 8 or perhaps 9 o'clock in the evening so that parents may know that what is on television at certain times is suitable for their children to watch.

The chairman of the BBC said on 24 February last year : "I have given the Home Secretary an undertaking that the BBC will take firm steps to eradicate unnecessary and gratuitous violence, sex and bad language."

It is unfortunate that he celebrated almost the anniversary of making that statement with last night's edition of EastEnders, which was peppered with unnecessary and gratuitous bad language. One of the main characters carried a knife and threatened violence--gratuitous violence, one might say-- against people, and I am not sure whether I use an unparliamentary expression when I say that the programme ended with an unnecessary and gratuitous gang bang that, in my view, added hardly at all to the story.

It is important to protect people who want family viewing but who at present do not have any idea of what will appear on television. That is not to say that adult programming and various types of wide-ranging programmes should not be shown late at night. But at family viewing times people have a right to be protected and to be given some information about what will appear on their screens. The White Paper makes sense of the changes that will take place. It will make the future work in a way that Labour Members have not even comprehended, because they have not looked seriously at the problems involved. One cannot pick winners with certainty in this business. It is not clear who the winners will be.

The paranoid fantasies that we have heard have a long tradition. People said that Edison's light would not work and would never be popular and that Stevenson's Rocket would have people suffocating at over 20 mph. Labour Members are saying much the same today about television. Indeed, one need only recall the speeches that they made when ITV and local radio were introduced to realise that they are as wrong now as they were then. I congratulate the Government on the White Paper.

9.17 pm

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : It is a privilege for me to wind up the debate on behalf of the Opposition. We have had an exceptionally intelligent debate and I hope that as well as listening the Government will learn from what has been said by hon. Members in all parts of the House.

There has been a great measure of cross-party agreement on subjects such as the future quality of programmes and the need to ensure the preservation of regional programmes, and doubts have been expressed about the system of tendering. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) referred to the need for better levels of sub-titling throughout television programming. The level of cross-party support is such that it is almost guaranteed that when the Bill comes before the House in the next Session the Government will impose the guillotine on our discussions.

When the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) was advancing the proposition that in the next few years the licence fee would become less acceptable as,

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by his thesis, the popularity of satellite viewing grew, I wanted to remind him that the set, not the BBC, was licensed. The BBC gets the licence money, and it would be most surprising if the Government did anything which resulted in their forgoing that money in their coffers.

I repeat our welcome for the chance of a greater real choice of diverse and quality television and radio programmes which advancing technology makes possible, nationally, within the regions and in Scotland and Wales. Used sensibly, change can widen access for citizens, including those in our ethnic communities who now have only a small voice. It can also open eyes and ears to worlds as yet unknown. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) took us in an exceptionally able way into that important matter. The White Paper, however, will not achieve this.

This issue is simple--will more broadcasting mean better broadcasting which expands the standards set by the BBC and ITV companies, or will it, as many inside and beyond broadcasting fear, lead to financial pressures which will push down quality, limit diversity and lead to the sameness that typifies most of our tabloid press?

There has, at least, been a frankness about the free market future that the Government aim to establish. Mr. Leslie Hill, managing director of Central Television, told me in reply to a complaint about a cut of one third in the number of "Central Lobby" current affairs programmes :

"Programme-making decisions will increasingly be commercially led. I believe this to be the inevitable result of the enormous financial and, ultimately, competitive pressures to be applied to ITV." There was another dreadful warning from Mr. Andrew Neil, executive chairman of Mr. Murdoch's Sky television and sometime editor of his Sunday Times. On 15 January Mr. Neil told The Observer : "The entertainment channel will be like ITV without the public service broadcasting bits."

The bits of which Mr. Neil was so scornful are those that form the foundations of our present broadcasting system. They lay down an obligation to broadcast "information, education and entertainment" and to

"maintain a high general standard"

together with

"a proper balance and wide range in their subject matter." No wonder that Mr. Murdoch wants nothing to do with them. Those clear obligations are replaced in the White Paper with a mealy-mouthed

"requirement to show regional programming"

and to show

"high quality news and current affairs"

and, as an afterthought,

"possibly also current affairs in the main viewing periods." In the White Paper, any specific obligation of public service goes out of the window. That is because the Government simply want to hand over ITV to the men with the deepest pockets who will meet a so-called quality threshold no higher than a pile of £50 notes. Why do the Government not learn? Do they not remember that a previous Conservative Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw, recognised when Channel 4 began that, while financial resources without talent cannot provide quality television, neither can talent without financial resources? Lord Whitelaw built upon what was already in place. The present Home Secretary wants to do a demolition job.

It is not just the broadcasters who are apprehensive. What about the viewers and listeners whom the

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Government claim are at the centre of their broadcasting policy? What has happened to their views and voices in this debate? As Mrs. Jocelyn Hay, chairman of the Voice of the Listener, said in the winter edition of Airwaves, the IBA's magazine :

"When the Government wants to involve Sid in its privatisation plans it begins years in advance and embarks upon advertising campaigns costing tens of millions of pounds. It offers financial lures and free telephone calls so that Sid can learn how a shareholding democracy works. But what has it done when planning to change the nature and structure of our broadcasting services?" She goes on to recall that the Government's contribution has been a Green Paper on radio at £5 a time, the White Paper that we are discussing today at £7.20 and--wait for it--a free 12-page summary of the main proposals of the White Paper, stocks of which, incidentally, were exhausted in less than three weeks. That is how much viewers and listeners have been involved.

Mrs. Hay goes on to make the following points, upon which I hope the Minister of State will comment. She says :

"the Green and White Papers are full of references to the Government's desire to serve the consumer, but neither contains any sign of any actual intent to strengthen the position of listeners and viewers. There is no mention, for example, of the new light touch' authorities having advisory councils, the one means by which listeners and viewers can currently make a positive input to broadcasting policy. Nor is there any sign that the Government intends to rectify the situation in which broadcasting is the only national service without a statutory consumer body positively charged with supporting the public interest."

The White Paper also threatens the Home Secretary's personal drive to encourage active citizens. As Community Service Volunteers say : "Every year approximately 10,000 hours of air time are devoted to community programming. 30,000 voluntary or charitable organisations are involved. As many as five million people phone the helplines for information and advice. Three million volunteers are recruited annually. Vital information on issues like health, education and employment opportunities is conveyed to the public."

But the Government plan to destroy that essential public service. On behalf of nine charities, Miss Viv TaylorGee, the producer of the Thames Television "Help" programme, warns :

"The many educational and community programmes to which large and small charities have access now will have little chance of survival. ITV companies are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, and the massive explosion of new channels will make it very unlikely that educational and community broadcasting can compete in companies that have to go flat out for high ratings and advertising revenue." When talking of the rights of viewers and listeners, the White Paper floats the idea of merging the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which deals with complaints about unfair treatment and the invasion of privacy, with the preposterous Broadcasting Standards Council. The House will remember that Professor Alan Peacock said in The Times today that the council

"has no function in a free society."

If that merger takes place, it is important that matters of unfair treatment and privacy should be dealt with separately from complaints about sex, violence and standards of taste and decency. It is important, in the upheaval, that viewers and listeners who feel wronged and whose privacy has been invaded can know that there is an independent body which can handle their complaints properly. The Government might see virtue in encouraging and enabling the present commission to make its work more widely known as these are important rights for viewers and listeners.

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The community programmes are some of the "bits" that Mr. Neil may be glad to see the back of, but their absence demonstrates that for all the Government's fine words it will be the men with money who decide what we shall see or not see. It reminds me of an ITV programme some years ago called "Never mind the quality, feel the width". With the so-called "positive programme requirements," how is the proposed ITC to apply the Government's threshold? If the intention was serious, bidders would first have to put money on the table conditionally until they had demonstrated exactly in terms of the proposed budget how the quality of programmes and variety would be ensured. If the Government were prudent in selling off this powerful national asset, they would insist that those making bids should have to specify the number of hours that they planned to make and show for the arts, education, religion, drama, documentaries, children's programmess and current affairs and they would be required to identify in the budget how much they proposed to spend on each of those categories. I hope that the Minister and the Government will think about that. Otherwise, the so-called "quality threshold" will be meaningless. Bidders must have money for the assurances given at the time of bidding to be brought into reality. As the Campaign for Quality Television argues, that is the only way in which the ITC can properly assess how franchise promises are to be carried out. With regard to Channel 4, I hope that the Government have been impressed by the evidence given to the Select Committee by Mr. Michael Grade, who called for an income safety net to guarantee the future and independence of Channel 4. He said :

"The greatest threat would be shareholder pressure, an economic downturn in advertising revenues and an all-out full frontal attack from ITV on our audiences and revenue."

Even this Government agree that Channel 4 has been a big success. Yet in the White Paper they toy with the idea of threatening that very success.

Under direct threat are some of our smaller regional stations, as the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) mentioned. S4C, which provides a Welsh language service, has a doubtful financial base after 1992 although, again, the White Paper says that it is a striking success. As the Campaign for Quality Television warns, that has implications both for independent producers and for the ITV company in Wales. S4C is now funded through a subscription on all 15 ITV companies and its future must be in jeopardy.

It is exactly that sort of cross-subsidy which has expanded the base of our television network. Its ending would threaten small regional stations. When I told the Minister of State that this would put some stations at real risk, he replied in a letter of 1 February :

"It will, of course, be for the Independent Television Commission to draw the regional map and there might, as a result, be fewer or different regions than at present."

The Minister knows that to step aside from an insistence on proper regional television coverage is bound to mean fewer regional companies and fewer separate regions. The Home Secretary looks puzzled. I will explain the reason for that.

Who will bid for a regional television company which, because of its location and population, can make ends meet only through the present subsidy system? Who will

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buy a franchise which is guaranteed to lose money? Under the White Paper proposals, its only hope to continue in some form--[ Hon. Members :-- "Which one?"] I am not naming stations--is to be swallowed up into larger areas covering larger regions, thus losing much of the regional variety that we now have. That is what the market place will mean to millions of viewers in the regions. There is no way that the BBC can make that up.

Mr. Wilson : I fully appreciate why my hon. Friend is not mentioning names. Will he acknowledge the real fear that we shall be left with one commercial station for the whole of Scotland? Will he further acknowledge that if market forces are left to determine the interests of minorities, such as linguistic groups, there will be no place for Gaelic speakers on television?

Mr. Corbett : I absolutely accept what my hon. Friend has said. I do not want to mention names because it would be unfair to the companies concerned.

The Government's approach throughout the White Paper is careless. Not for them any attempt to build on the basis of success, as would have been sensible for terrestrial broadcasting faced with massive competition from satellites. Not for them a planned advance adding to our present mix. No-- they prefer the bulldozer to the bricklayer. What they plan will turn broadcasting inside out for no better reason than that it is a way to make a few quid for the Treasury.

It is not the so-called market value of a franchise which should guide the Government if they have the genuine interests of viewers and listeners at heart. It should be the quality and diversity of the content, and the need to ensure that what happened in the United States of America, and lately in France and Italy, will not be allowed to happen here.

Do the Government want to run an even risk of millions of people having to rely for information on sewer sheets such as The Sun ? Do they want what Murdoch has done to much of journalism to happen to television? That is the prospect of their proposals. This White Paper is all about the Prime Minister's vendetta against certain broadcasters. From the smash-and-grab raid on BBC Scotland to the clumsy attempt to stop the showing of "Death on the Rock", she is a Prime Minister who brooks no dissent. She has a client press, with one daily exception. There is a huge deaf majority in this place. Now it is the turn of the broadcasters to be brought to heel, though not directly. The idea is to get the men with the money--those who get the knighthoods and the accolades from the Prime Minister--to sort them out. A Government who can dismiss as whitewash the report of the inquiry into "Death on the Rock", written by a former Conservative Cabinet Minister, and who can do so within 40 minutes of its publication and without having read it, are a Government who cannot be trusted to look after the real interests of viewers and listeners.

Perhaps the best comment on what the Government propose comes from the much -lauded Professor Alan Peacock who in The Times today said that the main aim of change should be

"ensuring that programmes of high quality which challenge the viewer and foster our national cultures continue to be produced." He added :

"This hope is expressed in the White Paper but it offers precious little guidance on how this is to be achieved."

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That says it all, and it encourages us to ask the House to decline to take note of this destructive White Paper.

9.36 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : What a lot of rubbish the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) talked in his last few sentences, and what a pity it was, because, that apart, I agree with him that this has been a fascinating debate, ranging from culture, through distribution systems, to Gaelic broadcasts. Points have been made by Members on both sides--by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden)-- with which I profoundly disagree, but there have also been contributions from both sides that I found fascinating and interesting and with which I had a lot of agreement. I could gladly take two hours to answer this debate, but as I have only 24 minutes I will save the polemics and get straight down to answering some of the many points that have been raised.

First, I can assure the hon. Member for Erdington that the stocks of our leaflet--the small-size version of the White Paper on broadcasting--are not exhausted. They have never been exhausted. We are still sending them out. Indeed, we have sent out several thousand, including those sent to the Voice of the Listener organisation, to which he referred.

I think that we should all like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) and all the other members of the Home Affairs Select Committee for the excellent report they produced on the future of broadcasting.

In his concise and excellent speech my hon. Friend raised a number of points, two or three of which I should like to deal with straightaway. I join him in applauding and endorsing the appointment of George Russell as the new chairman of the IBA. We hope that George Russell will continue as the chairman of the ITC. I agree that it is very important that he presides over the transition between the IBA and the ITC. Indeed, the White Paper stresses the importance of a smooth transition to the new regulative structure, and I should like to tell the House that, after discussion with the IBA and the Cable Authority, we envisage--

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East) : What about Chalfont?

Mr. Renton : I should be delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman about Lord Chalfont. In fact, his name was not raised in this debate, but it was an excellent appointment and the deputy chairman of the IBA has very wide knowledge of broadcasting, apart, of course, from his recommendation of being an ex-Labour Minister.

We envisage, subject to parliamentary approval, that the responsibilities of the IBA and the Cable Authority during the transition period should be merged within the proposed new Independent Television Commission at the earliest opportunity, and that the proposed Radio Authority should take over the

responsibilities of the IBA radio division on broadly the same time scale. Such an approach, as the House will appreciate, will give the staff greater certainty about what future options will be open to them and will ensure continued effective regulation of the ITV system, independent radio and cable in the period before the new regulatory regimes come into force.

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I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North that it is our intention, and I am sure it will be the intention of the ITC, that if the quality standards are not observed by the independent television companies, the winners of either the Channel 3 or the Channel 5 franchise, the franchise can, and indeed must, be ended after the issue of appropriate warnings.

I hope that I can have the attention of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North that it is essential for our policies against the concentration of ownership to be in the broadcasting Bill that we will bring before the House. I remind the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook that we said clearly in the White Paper that we were laying down principles on which the full set of rules would be based. We invited consultation and comment on how more flesh should be put on those principles as we formulate the clear rules.

Mr. Hattersley : Can we have the clear answer that we were promised to a very simple question? Was the Minister right when he said on television that Mr. Robert Maxwell, the owner of three national papers, would be free to buy Central Television, because the Minister did not regard it as a national set-up?

Mr. Renton : I have the text before me. That is precisely not what I said.

Mr. Hattersley : Yes, it is.

Mr. Renton : No, it is not. I have the text here. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it absolutely plain earlier and I will repeat this point for the right hon. Gentleman who seems to have difficulty getting it into his head, I am not quite certain why. People should not be too quick to assume that there will be no limit on newspaper interests in regional Channel 3 licences. That is the position.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan- Smith) said-- [Interruption.] It is a great pity that Opposition Members are having such problems about this issue. We have said clearly, and this is in the White Paper, that we welcome comments on the forming of the full set of rules.

Mr. Wilson : That is not what the Minister said.

Mr. Renton : That is precisely what I said. I was very pleased that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook gave me a copy of the transcript because it endorses what I said.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside raised particular points about the regional basis of privatised transmission. He will be aware that we recently appointed Price Waterhouse to carry out a study of transmission once it has been privatised. It is clear that the different costs of transmission in different areas of the United Kingdom will be taken into account in the tender price. I shall be visiting Grampian, Border and Scottish Television in the next few weeks and I will listen very carefully to what they have to say about the differential costs for transmission once privatisation has taken place.

Mr. Rees : The independent companies as a group met us and have given us information. They say that unless something is done, transmission will have an effect on the smaller companies. Surely it is not a matter for Price Waterhouse. If the figures are shown to be right, something should be done.

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Mr. Renton : I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has not misunderstood what I said. We all accept that Grampian is heavily subsidised in its transmission costs at the moment. That is a well-known fact. Price Waterhouse's terms of reference include looking at the means of effecting privatisation most effectively and the likely effect of that on transmission costs.

I make the point to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside that if transmission costs increase in a non-subsidised situation for one particular regional company, that will be taken into account by the bidders for that franchise. They will know that future transmission costs will be considerably more.

Mr. Buchan : There may be no possibility of any profit in the Highlands of Scotland, and, therefore, the whole of the transmission costs will have to be subsidised by the Government.

Mr. Renton : I do not need the hon. Gentleman to tell me that. I read the submissions, and I know about the position of Grampian Television. That is why I decided to spend time talking personally to Grampian, Scottish Television, and Border Television. I wanted to learn first hand of their concerns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) was one of the relatively few hon. Members who mentioned the BBC's situation. He made the interesting comment that the BBC will have to redefine its role because of dwindling resources. There is a lot of confidence in the BBC at the moment, and that is emphasised in its submissions to the Government in the response to the White Paper. No doubt the BBC is re-examining its role for the 1990s, when there will be a possibility that, as subscriptions grow, the licence fee after 1991 will increase by less than the rate of inflation. In four or five years' time, the Government of the day will have to consider what must happen to the licence fee, once the BBC's charter comes up for renewal at the end of 1996.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), that ever- young television star, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) asked about a final objective element for the Independent Television Commission in the competitive tendering process. I realise that there is much feeling on that subject, but I cannot do better than remind the House of the words of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who said that the new ITC chairman is looking carefully at the interaction between the two concepts of the quality hurdle and the competitive tender. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) apologised for not being present to hear the winding-up speeches. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) raised the question of cable and its relationship with microwave distribution systems, and of the separation of the delivery and retailing functions. We said in the White Paper that we welcome specific comments, and that we will present our proposals by the end of April.

The objective behind the separation of delivery and retailing is to provide scope for competition in local services. We regard that as being an important objective and one from which we shall not be deflected. We are receptive to advice and comments by the end of February on the best way of ensuring competition. That is a particularly green part of the White Paper. We aim to

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announce our proposals in firmer form by the end of April so that companies interested in bidding for further cable franchises--and there is much interest in them--may have a clearer picture of the ecology into which they will be bidding.

My hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Mr. Browne) and for Thanet, North spoke of the Council of Europe's draft convention. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North for his kind remarks about the part that I played in that draft convention, and I also thank Home Office officials for the great deal of work that they did in that context. Successful completion of the convention is almost in sight. We hope that it will be concluded at the meeting of Ministers' deputies in Strasbourg at the end of February, and we shall do everything that we can to bring about that outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester is particularly anxious about article 16 of the draft convention which, as he well knows, is expressly intended to avoid a situation where a broadcaster sets up outside the borders of a particular country specifically to circumvent that country's normal domestic rules. I understand my hon. Friend's concern that that provision is protectionist and is incompatible with our aim of promoting transfrontier services. As my hon. Friend knows, we argued at length against it, but we recognise that a number of countries attach great importance to it and would not have signed a convention that lacked that safeguard.

We believe that, on balance, the potential damage to British interests posed by that provision is not so serious as to outweigh the clear advantages that we see in securing the convention, which will provide minimal rules of regulation for the world of transfrontier broadcasting that is just about to burst upon us in this country.

Mr. Bermingham rose --

Mr. Renton : I shall give way, but this is the last time.

Mr. Bermingham : The Minister will recall that the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) and I both raised with him the night hours on BBC2. Will he confirm that BBC1 and BBC2 night hours will remain with the BBC and will not be taken away into private franchise?

Mr. Renton : Of course I will not, and the hon. Gentleman does not expect me to. I have read the BBC submission. Obviously the BBC would like to be certain that it will have both night hours channels, but we have made it clear in the White Paper that we think it appropriate to consider giving others an opportunity to bid for that time. Every hon. Member who has spoken has talked, rightly, about the need to maintain quality in British broadcasting. I assure the House that few, if any, issues have so exercised all the Ministers considering the White Paper over the past 18 months. That is why we decided to maintain the remit of Channel 4, and why we left the BBC precisely in place as the cornerstone of public service broadcasting. Quality, however, is subjective ; it means different things to different people. To one it will mean more "EastEnders" or "Neighbours", to another more snooker, to a third more American football and to a fourth more opera or ballet. Arguably, a reasonable definition would be programmes that are better of their kind--good soap rather than bad soap ; "Hamlet" rather than "Titus Andronicus."

Mr. Grocott : Will the Minister give way?

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