Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport) (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the recent outbreak of botulism in Lancashire.
The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke) : I regret to report to the House that there has been a serious outbreak of an extremely rare form of food poisoning in the area of Manchester, Blackpool and Preston and also in Clwyd in Wales. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in extending my sympathy to those suffering from this particularly unpleasant form of food poisoning. Currently, we are aware of 14 cases clinically diagnosed as botulism, 12 in Lancashire and two in Wales.
Inquiries at Youngs Fruits Ltd. of Folkestone, Kent, where the implicated hazelnut puree was manufactured, have shown that the company supplied eight other small dairies, in addition to Acorn Foods, and Forshaw, Littletown Farm Dairy named yesterday, with puree for use in the production of hazelnut yoghurt. The local public health authorities for the areas where these additional dairies are located have all been contacted. Environmental health officers are visiting these dairies and arranging for immediate withdrawal of hazelnut yoghurts manufactured by them. I should stress that no cases have been associated definitely with hazelnut yoghurt from those eight dairies. In addition, the possible association between one case and the consumption of hazelnut yoghurt produced by Forshaw, Littletown Farm Dairy which was referred to in statements yesterday is unclear at present.
The eight other dairies which received hazelnut products from the Folkstone farm are :
Lord Crathorne's Dairy, Cleveland ;
Stockmeadow Farm Dairy, Staffordshire ;
Ann Forshaws Farmhouse Yoghurt, Preston ;
Madresfield Dairy, Worcestershire ;
Bodfari Foods Ltd, Chester ;
Yieldingtree Packers, west midlands ;
Grange Farm, Buckinghamshire ; and
Battledean Farm, Gloucestershire.
Inquiries are still not complete, however, and my Department maintains its advice that, for the time being, the public should not eat any brand of hazelnut yoghurt.
Mr. Fearn : Can the Minister state exactly when the chief medical officer was informed of the outbreak? Can he also inform us when he first let the public know? He mentioned that the outbreak is confined to Lancashire and Wales, whereas information seems to be coming through now that one of the yoghurts was purchased in Gosport. Can he also state why the Bristol research centre on food safety is due to be closed and why five out of the seven horticultural stations are due for closure? Does he agree that the figure of food poisoning cases for this year is 60 per cent. up on last year and that his Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are possibly to blame for this? Surely they are putting the botch in botulism.
Column 704although if blame is established it must be faced by those responsible. No blame has yet been attached to anybody and I believe that that is a sensible position to maintain.
The hon. Gentleman asked when action was first taken. We were first informed of the diagnosis on Friday evening of last week. My congratulations go to the neurologists in Manchester and to the communicable diseases surveillance centre for their prompt action in identifying and diagnosing this very rare condition. It takes some time to discover exactly what the cause of this most unusual neurological condition is and they were particularly good in spotting the correct diagnosis as quickly as they did.
Once we knew, of course, we began to take very prompt action over the weekend. A local warning was issued to the public by the authorities in Lancashire on Sunday 11 June on the advice of my Department. On Monday 12 June my Department issued further statements warning the public not to eat hazelnut yoghurt. Meanwhile, over the weekend, the two dairies mentioned specifically in the statement were contacted by the local public health authorities and all hazelnut yoghurt produced by those companies was withdrawn from sale. Since then the other eight dairies supplied with hazelnut products by Youngs Fruits Ltd. have been contacted and all their hazelnut yoghurts are being withdrawn from sale.
My Department has been communicating rapidly and instantly first with the environmental health officers in the case of the farms affected and then with those who serve the areas where people are distributing the products of those farms. We are today issuing general information to environmental health officers because they will require specific scientific advice to add to what we have already said.
As all hon. Members will know, very quickly over the weekend we began to issue the most prudent warning possible to the general public, who needed to be alerted first. That advice was that nobody should purchase any brand of hazelnut yoghurt until the position had become more clear.
The point about the Bristol research centre to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be answered in more detail by my right hon. Friends with responsibility for that, but I am informed that that research centre is not concerned with any work on food safety relevant to this outbreak. I see no connection between the horticultural centres and botulism in hazelnut yoghurt.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I have made it clear that we are concerned about the increase in food poisoning generally and we have made repeated statements about the action that we are taking. I am glad to say, however, that our figures on this very rare type of food poisoning are exceptionally good. There were only nine outbreaks in this country in the period from 1922 to 1988. I compare that with 210 outbreaks in the United States of America between 1971 and 1985 and 115 outbreaks in France between 1978 and 1984. So, fortunately, we do not have a particularly serious history of botulism. Indeed, the last case in Britain was in 1987 ; and I am glad to say that we have not had a death from botulism since 1978, when there were four cases from which two deaths resulted.
This case is obviously serious. We are now establishing as rapidly as possible all the facts that can be established about the origin of botulism and we shall act in every possible way if any reason for further action is indicated as a result of our inquiries.
Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston) : Are the experts yet able to say whether the trouble comes from a process in firms dealing with hazelnuts in this way, or whether there is a danger from the processing of hazelnuts generally?
Mr. Clarke : So far, we have good reason to believe that only the hazelnut products from the one firm at Folkestone are implicated in the outbreak. Obviously, botulism is widely prevalent in the environment and precautions have to be taken against it in the case of all sorts of food, although outbreaks are more often associated with meat and fish products. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence to suggest any trouble with hazelnut products in general and at this stage we do not know precisely what has caused the outbreak associated with hazelnut products from one firm in Folkestone.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : The Secretary of State has been congratulating himself on speedy communication, but is he aware that the director of environmental health in Preston has, at each stage in the matter, received his information first from the press, not from the Department of Health? Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman like to comment on that? Would he also care to ensure that the environmental health officers are the first to receive full information, and that, at all times, they have the resources necessary to do their work, as they are the first line of defence and the public depends on them?
Mr. Clarke : I do not know whether some people communicate with the press before they communicate with my Department, but all I will say is that as soon as my Department has received evidence it has communicated directly with the environmental health officers in the areas concerned. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we are talking about the weekend, and, for understandable reasons, it was not possible to raise all the directors of environmental health instantly. First, we went directly to those directors of environmental health in the areas where the farms concerned distributed the product, and, when we found where the product was being distributed to, we contacted the directors of environmental health there. Meanwhile, we have been giving public warnings to those who might purchase hazelnut yoghurt that they should not purchase or consume it.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) : May I congratulate, through my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, those in Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde district health authority on the way in which they have handled the matter and the nursing care that the victims have received at the Victoria hospital in Blackpool? When does my right hon. and learned Friend expect that further public statements on the matter will be possible, and what advice will he give on post-production quality control for future monitoring of this type of problem.
Mr. Clarke : It is too soon to have a full picture of the outbreak, but, as far as I can see at the moment, everybody acted extremely promptly once the diagnosis was confirmed. I stress that this is a difficult diagnosis to make because the average doctor, including the average consultant, has never encountered a case in his career. We acted promptly once the situation became clear, as did those responsible in the Health Service, and they are caring
Column 706for the unfortunate victims in every possible way. At the moment, most of them are stable and the prognosis seems reasonably good. On monitoring, the first step is to have a proper scientific investigation of exactly what went wrong so that we can discover what caused the growth of the organism in this particular product, and, in the light of that, to see what further steps have to be taken--for example, whether it will be necessary to strengthen the law.
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : Is the Secretary of State aware that the increase in convenience foods means an increase in the risks involved, which requires an increase in monitoring by more environmental health officers? What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman doing to increase the number of environmental health officers?
Mr. Clarke : The Government readily acknowledge that there is an increase in the incidence of food poisoning in this country, which is a matter of serious concern. It is quite possible that it is connected with the growth of convenience foods. For that reason, we set up the expert committee under the chairmanship of Sir Mark Richmond, vice-chancellor of Manchester university, to advise us generally on the microbiological safety of food, and we are taking every other step as well. However, the latest incident appears to involve a canned food, and canning is traditionally a pretty safe process that is not normally expected to give rise to the risk of botulism--certainly not in the case of a non-acidic food such as hazelnut puree. Nevertheless, every outbreak increases the sum of human knowledge, and we shall find out exactly what happened to allow that particular consignment of hazelnut puree to become infected.
Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East) : The general public will be reassured by my right hon. and learned Friend's comments today, by his prompt action, and by his recognition of the seriousness of the matter. Does he agree that the sooner there is informed research into why food poisoning is increasing and how risks may be reduced, the better for all of us?
Mr. Clarke : The overall expenditure on research connected with food poisoning is being maintained. If anything, it is increasing. It is always necessary to find useful avenues of research and I am sure that whenever we find them they will be given proper priority by those of my right hon. Friends responsible for the relevant research budgets. Beyond that, all I can say is that our record on botulism is very much better than that of most other countries, but obviously we shall make every effort to ensure that we sustain that good record.
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South-West) : The Secretary of State's advisers no doubt told him that clostridium botulinum is a spore-bearing organism and therefore is very likely to be found in canned food and is a danger when canning, especially meats. That is why the record in France is worse than in this country, because of the large amount of sausages and preserved meats, rather than heat-treated meats, that the French consume. The case in Wales that the Secretary of State described probably occurred in my constituency or in its vicinity, and I should like his assurance that he has liaised with the Secretary of State for Wales.
Column 707I should like an assurance also that environmental health officers, who are struggling to keep at bay a tide of food poisoning outbreaks in this country, will have the resources and the ability to stem that tide in future. The current case is relevant because it involves small outlets that were supplied with a large amount of infected food product. Only environmental health officers can possibly help to prevent a recurrence in future.
Mr. Clarke : I hear what the hon. Gentleman, who I believe has professional expertise in the field, says. I am advised that the very much higher incidence of botulism in other countries is associated particularly with the home preservation of meat, poultry, game, fish, vegetables, and some kinds of raw fish. I do not believe that canning usually gives rise to that particular danger to any marked degree. We will find out what went wrong with the canning process at Youngs Fruits Ltd.--if anything did go wrong--and then we shall all be better informed.
Environmental health officers have a vital task, and my Department communicates with them promptly and effectively as soon as it has the scientific basis for giving the advice that EHOs require. The question of resources devoted to environmental health officers is primarily a matter for local government, but obviously resources need to be applied consistent with the risk that the public appears to face.
Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth) : My right hon. and learned Friend knows that there are two cases in my constituency, and, on its behalf and on behalf of the north-west, I thank him and his Department for the speed with which they acted over the weekend, which is always a difficult time. Radio and television bombarded us with many warnings, which were most helpful and surely saved many people from being poisoned.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that people have been poisoned since time immemorial and that poisoning will continue for as long as diseases find clever ways of beating us and our cures? Nevertheless, we thank the doctors and other medics for acting so quickly. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the parents of children and the adults who have been affected that they have a very reasonable chance of a full recovery, and that there is every reason to believe that the disease--which is a killer disease--will be contained?
Mr. Clarke : I was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) yesterday. I was meant to be campaigning in connection with the European elections, but I found myself addressing television and radio reporters and reinforcing our warnings to the public about the consumption of hazelnut yoghurt. The media in the north-west gave wide coverage to my warnings and those of the Government's chief medical officer. Everyone acted promptly, and I again congratulate the medical staff who diagnosed the problem and those who gave the treatment. Fortunately, although it is a dangerous disease, its treatment has advanced considerably in recent years. The news on the present patients is as reassuring as can be hoped for.
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford) : To reassure the public, can the Minister say for certain that the source of the problem is hazelnut puree and not any of the milk products involved? Do any of the firms which he has named manufacture any other flavours of yoghurt, and, if so, are they still available on the market?
Mr. Clarke : We have strong reason to believe that the hazelnut puree is responsible for the outbreak. That particular canned hazelnut puree is used only in yoghurts. In fact, yoghurt is mentioned in the title under which it is sold. Therefore, at the moment there is no reason to believe that any other type of yoghurt or dairy product is implicated in the outbreak. Obviously, in all cases of food poisoning we encounter great difficulties when trying to trace the exact source and cause. All we can do is to carry on giving the public the full extent of our knowledge as it unfolds.
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) : May I press the Secretary of State to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) : what action has been taken by the Welsh Office in response to the cases in Clwyd? Has it provided advice to the public?
The Secretary of State will acknowledge that the figures which he quoted to the House confirm that this is the most serious outbreak of botulism for decades. Given the alarming increase in food poisoning, when will the House see the regulations on food hygiene, which have been lying in the Department in draft form for two years this month? I wish to take up the Secretary of State's reference to the Bristol food research laboratory which he maintained was not carrying out research into food poisoning. Will he acknowledge that that was partly because last year the Government cut the grant for research into salmonella food poisoning? When will the Government start to reverse their irresponsible cuts on research into food safety? In response to the concerns expressed about environmental health officers, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there are currently 430 unfilled vacancies for environmental health officers? Will the Government reverse the cuts in training places which have partly contributed to the national shortage?
The Secretary of State said that it was far too early to attribute blame. Will he at least acknowledge that this is one time when he cannot blame the consumer? Shoppers need not another leaflet from his Department giving them advice, but action to ensure food safety. When will they receive it?
Mr. Clarke : I realise that the hon. Gentleman has a duty to oppose. However, when discussing serious issues of this kind, he should not scratch about to find faintly associated causes of complaint, which is what he is doing. The new responsible official Opposition might join in the public warning. I would hope that any Labour Government would, like this Government, speed up efforts to find out what has caused the outbreak.
We are in close touch with the Welsh Office. The Government's chief medical officer is responsible to the Government, and our advice was addressed to the entire population of the United Kingdom. The advice is that, until further notice, people should not eat any brand of hazelnut yoghurt, and that advice is sustained.
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the food hygiene regulations which he mentioned have nothing to
Column 709do with this outbreak of botulism. He also knows that, as a result of the consultation, we are seeking to resolve the conflicting scientific and other advice which we have received and will produce the regulations as soon as possible. I have already talked about Bristol, where the research station is not engaged in food safety research
I remain reasonably confident--I look to my right hon. Friend for advice-- that it is doing no research of any kind relevant to botulism.
I have already dealt with the question of the number of environmental health officers. The resources devoted to them are a matter for local government. We all appreciate that there is an increasing problem of food poisoning in this country, and local authorities, like everyone else, must address their priorities in that connection.
The hon. Gentleman began by saying that this was the worst outbreak of the decade. That sounds sensational until we recognise that there have been no deaths from botulism in that time, and that the country has a singularly good record on botulism in general. The hon. Gentleman should make sure that the points that he makes on this particularly difficult issue are well founded.
Several Hon. Members rose --
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future of commercial television. I apologise for its length ; a good many complicated matters need to be taken together.
The White Paper proposed a two-stage procedure for awarding licences for Channels 3 and 5 under which applicants would first have to pass a quality threshold--consisting of positive programme and consumer protection requirements--and would then go on to offer financial tenders. The Independent Television Commission would be required to select the highest bidder.
Many of those who commented on the White Paper expressed concern that those proposals might lead to a loss of quality in programming. We recognise that concern, and propose to strengthen the quality threshold. We do not consider that it would be right to do so by adding more detailed requirements in the legislation to supply specific types of programme. We therefore propose to strengthen the quality threshold by broadening the third positive requirement in paragraph 6.11 of the White Paper to read :
"to provide a reasonable proportion of programmes (in addition to news and current affairs) of high quality, and to provide a diverse programme service calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests."
It will be for applicants to interpret that combined quality and diversity test in drawing up their programme proposals. Those who fail to satisfy the ITC that they can meet the requirement will not have their financial bids considered.
A number of suggestions have been made about the form that the financial bid should take. The chairman of the IBA proposed that it should comprise a sum fixed by the ITC and a bid by the applicant of a percentage of advertising revenue. I support that combination of elements but, to make the bidding process clearer, propose that they should be reversed. Accordingly, the ITC will fix a percentage of net advertising or subscription revenue for each licence to form the minimum sale price. Applicants will then be required to bid a lump sum, which they will pay in addition if successful. For successful applicants, both sums will be paid annually over the period of the licence to avoid the imposition of debt burdens on licensees. Applicants will also be required to post a bond with their tender applications. Successful bidders will be required to add to that an amount which, together with the first, will add up to a substantial performance bond. This requirement will strengthen the enforcement powers of the ITC, making them stronger and more flexible than those of the IBA now. Those who fail to meet their programme promises given at the quality threshold stage will stand to lose a proportion of the bond.
We have considered carefully the arguments about the criteria for deciding tenders. I do not believe that at the tender stage, before it is clear to whom the licences will be awarded and before the nature of any network arrangement is known, it will be possible for the ITC to make fine distinctions between the quality of programme service offered by different applicants, all of whom will have passed the strengthened quality hurdle that I have
Column 711announced today. We must avoid a return to the opaque and sometimes arbitrary selection procedures of the past, but some flexibility needs to be written into the procedure.
We propose, therefore, that the ITC should be required in the normal course to accept the highest bid, but that it should have a power, in exceptional circumstances, to select a lower bid. This power would operate only in exceptional circumstances, the ITC would be required to give its full reasons, and exercise of the power would be subject to judicial review. In addition, there would be an exceptional power for the Home Secretary, acting on the recommendation of the ITC, to veto the selection of the highest bid if its funding came from a source that was undesirable in the public interest.
The White paper proposed that in addition to the sum bid at tender applicants would have to make a levy payment to the Exchequer. The proposals I have just announced for the fixing of a proportion of advertising or subscription revenue as a part of the tender price overtake our original proposals for a levy. Successful candidates will have only to pay the two-part tender price I have outlined. There will be no levy in addition.
Some people have wondered whether the Government would impose a moratorium on takeovers at the beginning of 1993 and whether they would insist on compulsory networking for Channel 3. The Government's view on both issues has not changed since the publication of the White Paper. I understand that the chairman of the IBA is considering permitting takeovers in the period from 1990 to 1993, subject to the normal anti-monopoly rules and bearing in mind our proposals for the re gime after 1992. It would not in these circumstances be either sensible or necessary to impose a moratorium on takeovers thereafter. Networking will be a matter for the Channel 3 companies themselves to decide without Government compulsion. Basic fair trading laws should ensure that no companies are excluded unfairly from any networking arrangements. We shall consider whether any further provisions are needed in the legislation to regulate the operation of any new network system in the interests of free access and fair competition. We have received a number of representations on behalf of the 4 million viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing. We agree that particular provision should be made for them. We have therefore decided that Channel 3 and Channel 5 licensees should be required to provide teletext sub-titling for some of the programmes in their schedules. They should provide more than is provided at present. The White Paper proposed that Channel 5 should be shared between at least two licensees. In the light of the start-up costs of the new channel and the competition it will face from the established terrestrial channels, we have now decided that Channel 5 should form a single licence. It will thus be better equipped to compete with the existing terrestrial channels.
Similarly, the White Paper proposed that there should be a separate night hours licence for Channel 3. Many of those who responded to the White Paper doubted whether a separate night hours licence would be viable, so we have looked at this again. We want to ensure, so far as possible, that the night hours are fully used. I accept the argument that they may be better exploited commercially if they are
Column 712linked with services provided at a more commercially attractive part of the broadcasting day. We have therefore decided not to disturb the present situation under which the night hours may remain connected with the peak viewing period. However, we will review the position if we find that the night hours are not being fully used. Under our proposals, the ITC will be free to allocate licences for other times of the day, such as a breakfast time service. The White Paper proposed that the ITC would be responsible for the map--for the geographical division of Channel 3 into regions. This has been generally welcomed. The Government have noted with understanding the statement of the chairman-designate of the ITC, Mr. George Russell, that he would see advantage, if possible, in retaining the existing regions.
I turn finally to Channel 4 and S4C, the Welsh channel. The White Paper made clear the Government's intention to maintain the remit of Channel 4 while at the same time providing for the selling of its advertising separately from that on Channel 3. We have considered the comments we have received on the three options in the White Paper, and in particular the helpful report by the Home Affairs Select Committee. I have written today to the Chairman of the Committee expressing the Government's gratitude for its work on Channel 4 and setting out the Government's decisions. A copy of that letter has been placed in the Library.
The Government have decided that it would not be feasible at the present time for Channel 4 to become an independent commercial company competing with the other broadcasters if, as we think essential, it is to retain its remit. The financial outlook for Channel 4 remains uncertain with the prospect of new competition. We believe that the requirement in addition to provide a return for shareholders in a private company could put too much pressure upon Channel 4 finances and place its remit in jeopardy. But we see some difficulty in Channel 4 continuing to be owned by the authority which would be responsible for regulating its output--the ITC--and we believe that any financial underpinning given to the channel should be carefully circumscribed to provide clear incentives for cost-efficiency.
We have therefore decided that after 1993, if Parliament agrees, Channel 4 should become a public trust which will be licensed by the ITC and will continue to provide the service set out in the special remit. Channel 4 would sell its own advertising, and would be subject to a baseline budget of 14 per cent. per annum of terrestrial net advertising revenue. The baseline could be amended in secondary legislation. If the channel's revenue fell below the baseline, the difference would be funded by the ITC to a maximum of 2 per cent. of terrestrial net advertising revenue levied on the Channel 3 companies, but any surplus revenues above the baseline would be shared equally between Channel 3 and Channel 4. The trust would be required to hold its share of any surplus revenues to be used as a first call if there were deficits in later years. To reduce the need for a call on the guarantee, the ITC would be empowered to require cross announcement of programmes between Channel 3 and Channel 4. Complementary scheduling would be possible, but would not be a requirement. The Channel 4 licence would run for 10 years, but the arrangements would be reviewed after seven. I believe that is a satisfactory way of securing the future of Channel 4 with its present remit.
Column 713The White Paper concluded that the arrangements for the Welsh fourth channel should remain unchanged. Some have argued that it would not be consistent with the new and more free approach to regulation for the channel to be funded by a direct subscription on the commercial companies. The position is particularly anomalous in Scotland where the ITV companies are required to finance Welsh programmes as a first call on their resources even before they make provision for their own Gaelic speakers. The Government are sympathetic to these concerns, and have decided to make a small technical change to the funding arrangements for S4C. In future, S4C revenues will not be charged as a first call on the commercial companies but will be funded out of the proceeds of the tender through the ITC.
My statement covers most of the major decisions on the future commercial television system following the publication of the White Paper. We shall need to make announcements on the remaining issues, including the key question of transmission and the future of broadcasting in Gaelic, before long. Then we shall draft the Bill.
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : The Home Secretary and the House will understand if I do not respond in detail to the mini White Paper today. Clearly we shall return to the issue in the autumn when we consider the Bill.
The revised proposal for awarding the licences for Channel 3 and Channel 5 are no more than a figleaf behind which the Home Secretary seeks to cover his humiliation at the hands of the Prime Minister, aided by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In most important respects, the bidding for the licences has barely changed from that set out in paragraph 6.9 of the White Paper which stated : "there is no longer the same need for quality of service to be prescribed by legislation or regulatory fiat."
All that the Home Secretary has said today is that the ITC can have reserve powers to reject the highest bid, while explaining why. In my view that amounts to no more than a tiny teaspoon to bale out a well-holed ship. Is it not the very least that could be done to meet the statement made by Mr. George Russell that unless the ITC had these powers, he would find his position untenable? I commend Mr. Russell on his stand on behalf of the viewers' best interests. The rewording of the so-called positive requirement in paragraph 6.11 does no more than express in 35 words what took just 16 words in the White Paper. Simply adding the phrase "high quality" does nothing to guarantee that it will be delivered, nor does anything else that the Home Secretary said today. In any event, what is a reasonable proportion and who will decide it?
The statement is light on what exact amounts of money are to be provided by bidders who deliver the range and types of programme which the bid promises. The Home Secretary went out of his way to make it clear that he did not regard that to be necessary. The changes in the financial arrangements at least acknowledge that Channel 3 will face increasing competition from satellite services and are simpler and clearer than the original proposals.
I am still uncertain about what the term "financially sound" means. It seems that it will mean no more than checking on whether the cash behind the bid comes from drugs or vice. That is the problem. The Home Secretary's statement, like the White Paper, is too much about cash
Column 714and not sufficiently concerned with ensuring that the cash on the table will deliver real choice and quality in terms of range and standards. Will the Home Secretary confirm that bidders will not have to guarantee to programme current affairs in main viewing programmes? Is it not the case that the same remains true of children's and religious programmes?
It is unacceptable to Opposition Members--and to some Conservative Members- -that an individual should be able to own two Channel 3 licences. The Opposition believe that one person should be able to own only one franchise if there is to be real diversity in the new system.
I welcome the requirement for Channel 3 and Channel 5 licences to provide teletext subtitling for some programmes for the 4 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing. I hope that that will become mandatory for all news and current affairs programmes, and for most, rather than some, programmes eventually.
I also welcome the decision not to separate off the night hours. It was patently not sensible for the Home Secretary to propose in the White Paper to take the night hours away from the BBC while requiring it to maximise its subscription services.
Becoming a trust is the least worst option for Channel 4, although we would have preferred the status quo. What is disappointing is that despite the Government's tribute to Channel 4's "striking success" their proposals are unlikely to provide enough stability for it to meet its needs in the face of stiffening competition in terrestrial and satellite services.
Even after the statement, the Government's proposals will do no more than achieve lower quality, lower standards, less public responsibility and fewer regions within Channel 3. The proposals will not use technological change to bring about more real choice. The proposals are simply a route to undermining what the White Paper called--I hope not sarcastically--the "rich heritage" of British broadcasing. The statement reveals that the vandals have won--at least under this Government.
Mr. Hurd : The hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap into which his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) always falls. He has chosen to comment on inaccurate press reports about our proposals even though, by the conventions of the House, he has had a bit of time--not long, I admit--to study the proposals themselves. The hon. Gentleman has talked as though all the press reports were true. The next step, if precedent is to be followed, is that Mr. Des Wilson will write a learned article suggesting that I stimulated all the inaccurate press reports to lure the hon. Gentleman into the trap into which he has fallen. The hon. Gentleman has ignored the three changes made on the quality threshold in response to comments on the White Paper. First, the quality threshold has been stiffened so that it is similar to the proposal in the Broadcasting Act 1981. Secondly, there will be the exceptional power of the ITC. It is exceptional--I have explained the circumstances--to award a franchise to other than the highest bidder. Thirdly, and most importantly, there will be the performance bond, which the hon. Gentleman did not mention. It will give the ITC a power that the present Independent Broadcasting Authority does not have, which is a flexible and powerful way to enforce the promises that have been made. The ITC will no longer face the criticism that all it can do is to
Column 715remove the franchise, which is a power, like nuclear weapons, that is difficult to use. It will have conventional weapons with which to enforce promises.
The hon. Gentleman made two points about the news. It is clear in the White Paper that news will be a requirement and will have to be included in main time. Current affairs will also be a requirement, but there is no specific requirement about when current affairs programmes should be shown. It would not be reasonable to stipulate that in legislation.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomed our announcement about subtitling for the deaf. It is proposed that Channel 3 and Channel 5 licensees should, in the first year of the licence, provide 10 per cent. more hours of subtitling than was achieved on average by the ITV companies in the previous year. The ITC will thereafter set a reasonable target each year for an increase in subtitling. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I remind the House that we have a busy day ahead of us with no fewer than 120 groupings of amendments and a ten-minute Bill. I shall allow questions on this important matter to continue until quarter to five, but then we must move on.
Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North) : Will my right hon. Friend accept my welcome for his proposals, especially for the flexibility that he has shown? As many of the things that he has announced today are new, will he be open to further consultation on them with interested parties or are they now final until they are encapsulated in a Bill in the autumn?
Mr. Hurd : We have tried to listen, as was our duty, to the reactions to the White Paper and to reach a balanced reaction to them. Of course, people will continue to express views in the months ahead and it will ultimately be for both Houses of Parliament to reach conclusions. To that extent, our ears can never be shut. We have reached the conclusions that we think are sensible.
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South) : The Home Secretary has made a most important statement to which he said that there were three main aspects, but I have a long list. Is there some way in which we can have a debate on this matter, Mr. Speaker, because we cannot go through it in the next half hour and believe that we shall then have dealt with it?
Professor Peacock, who produced the Peacock report was concerned about the issue of competitive tendering in the original proposals. Has he been consulted? Does the Home Secretary think that Professor Peacock would be content with the changes that the Home Secretary has made?