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Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey) : I shall speak briefly in general support of what my hon. Friend the Minister has said this evening. A considerable time ago the European Commission tried to get involved in the broadcasting scene. At that time we rightly refused to encourage it unless it was able to become involved on a pan-European basis. That is why the fundamental shift that my hon. Friend has put before the House tonight is so significant, not just because the Commission has accepted the Council of Europe's suggested lines of approach, which are wholly preferable to those suggested by the Commission, but because it sets a very important precedent. It suggests that when transfrontier broadcasting can extend far beyond the boundaries of the Commission's competence there might be within the Commission an awareness that it might have to introduce some system which conforms to a far wider grouping of nation states. That is an extremely important precedent.
Column 873I fully understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) and others find it pretty nasty that there are possible threats to the integrity of television producers in using material which they consider the British public might wish to see. Since the advent of independent television, there have always been pretty significant restraints on the use of imported material. I think that I am right--my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong--in saying that the percentage of imported American material is still a factor which, under IBA regulation, has to be observed within reasonably acceptable limits.
The way in which the directive works out, if and when it is finally ratified, will depend very much on the climate of producers and the public at the time. I am charitable enough to believe--and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South should take heart from this--that many issues that have come before the Commission and have resulted in directives have been applied theoretically as part of Community statute law and have not had a huge impact in various parts of the Community. The French seem to be able to devise a Poitier connection for getting round most obstructive measures, and I have little doubt that broadcasters, whose ingenuity is prodigious, will find ways and means of finding new material from other sources which might have some Community tag attached to it even if it is routed to our screens in some funny or strange way.
What concerns me most was my hon. Friend the Minister of State's passing reference to satellites over Europe, the footprint, and what will go on inside the footprint. It appears that there is great uncertainty as to how far domestic regulation or Commission regulation will have any effect upon the satellite exposure we are about to experience. To what extent does my hon. Friend the Minister feel that the steps announced tonight will be able to embrace that in a sensible yet sensitive way? We all wish to see the development and effective use of broadcasting waves as they become available for use for this purpose and we all wish to see no restraint, in a fairly general sense, of the access of the public to the media.
However, there is a real problem in the origination of satellite material and in the competence that the owners of satellites might easily find in relation to the European Community or the Council of Europe itself. The satellites operate from very distant places. My hon. Friend the Minister must be a little more sanguine if he is to believe that the step he has talked about tonight will have a measurable effect on that development in non-terrestrial broadcasting.
In general, we have come a longish way since the proposals of 1984. I welcome the proposal that my hon. Friend has laid before the House. I am certain that it is not the end of the issue and I am certain that, as time moves on and pressures move on, there will be changes and additions made to the proposal. The right to offer some competence to the Commission in this area is sensible. The first steps it is now taking are infinitely more sensible than its original ones.
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) : I had some sympathy with the sentiments of my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) in his amendment, but it is a shame that he did not find it
Column 874in his heart to pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Minister in securing the convention on transfrontier television. About a year ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I am member, visited Brussels and Strasbourg. In Brussels, we spoke to Lord Cockfield, who was then a European Commissioner. Perhaps I should not speak for my colleagues on the Committee, although I am sure that they would share my view, but I was most concerned by the languid, arrogant and almost laissez-faire attitude that the Commission appeared to be taking to what we regarded as a pressing problem, which was the imminence of the arrival in this country of satellite broadcasting and the total lack at that time of any control over the content of the programming that would and could be received in the United Kingdom.
It is fair to say--and I made some passing reference to this only 24 hours ago in this Chamber--that I am a proponent of satellite broadcasting. I see in it tremendous opportunities for education, for the exchange of culture and language, multi-channel broadcasting and choice. I do not share the view of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) that we should fear it. I do not believe that it is a threat. I see it as an opportunity, although it is only an opportunity if it is properly used and controlled.
For that reason, having visited Strasbourg, the Select Committee on Home Affairs in its report on the future of broadcasting recommended that the Council of Europe convention proposals should be pursued with all possible speed. I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South that it is, if not entirely, then very largely, due to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister in Stockholm and elsewhere that the convention was agreed and was open for signature in Strasbourg at the 40th anniversary plenary session of the Council of Europe last month.
It is a matter of sadness to me and perhaps of some interest to hon. Members of all parties that since the convention was opened a number of countries that are members of the Council of Europe, of which the United Kingdom is proud to be one, have signed the convention. However, perhaps significantly, among the major European Community countries, France, Germany and Italy, which kicked up much of the fuss, had, at the last count, not signed the convention. The directive reflects much of the provisions of the transfrontier broadcasting convention. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South said that he felt that it was right that United Kingdom television companies should be allowed to broadcast "all and any of the best of television". With respect, I find nothing in the transfrontier convention or, by implication, in the directive that would prevent his television company, or any other, from doing precisely that. My hon. Friend the Minister of State picked me up when I said that the United States might become a signatory to the Council of Europe convention. There is not yet-- but there will be--provision for non-member states to add their names to the convention. It is likely that in due course the north American states, both the United States and Canada, and possibly Australia, may find commercial advantage in adding their names to the convention with a view to not only pan-European but possibly pan-world broadcasting. Companies such as
Column 875Cable News Network may well wish to take advantages of the opportunities for transfrontier broadcasting in Europe.
We should remember that when we in the United Kingdom talk about transfrontier broadcasting, we tend to talk in satellite terms because our terrestrial broadcasting is not by satellite. However, on the continent, and within the now 23 countries of the Council of Europe, transfrontier broadcasting can mean terrestrial broadcasting. Transfrontier is a much simpler concept. Indeed, some United Kingdom programmes are watched with great interest and enjoyment on the north coast of the continent.
That experience is much more common in othe European countries. The tiny Principality of Liechtenstein, for example, has no television station of its own and relies entirely on transfrontier broadcasting--on German, Austrian and Swiss programming--for its television reception. It has expressed real and genuine concerns about intrusions on its culture. Some of us in the Council of Europe have sought to encourage that state to establish its own broadcasting systems for precisely those reasons.
Although I shall not vote for the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South because I agree only with its first part and not with its second part, in support of it I should say that I believe that it is wrong that this House should address this issue at this hour in the morning of the day on which the Council of Ministers will discuss the directive.
The Select Committee on European Legislation reported that "the Commission has made it clear that it is not prepared to accept a number of major amendments requested by the Parliament, because these would have jeopardised the rapid adoption of the draft Directive."
It is referring to the European Parliament.
With great respect, there has been nothing rapid about the European Commission's progress in this matter. Indeed, it would still be discussing it cheerfully had it not been goaded into action by the Council of Europe convention, and largely by the actions of my hon. Friend the Minister of State. Having taken so long to achieve so little and to base its conclusions finally on the Council of Europe convention, perhaps it could be asked by the Minister attending the Council of Ministers later today to take just a little longer and to pay greater heed to the Members of the European Parliament. While the transfrontier broadcasting convention, which I have welcomed as has the House publicly, is a voluntary convention, voluntarily entered into, tonight we are dealing with something very different. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South makes clear in his amendment, the directive represents an imposition by an unelected Commission and I do not think that we can welcome that.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I must at the outset object to the hour at which we are asked to debate this issue and to the limit of an hour and a half for the debate. I believe that we shall hear a great deal more about the content of the directive, remembering that we must in any event translate it into our own legislation. When that has happened somebody might wake up to precisely what
Column 876is involved. I wonder whether they are awake at Broadcasting house and whether these deliberations will be featured in "Yesterday in Parliament" later today. This matter is of fundamental importance to all broadcasters, present and future, in this country.
Speaking from experience, the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) made what I would call a reasonable contribution. I sympathised to a great extent with what he said. I understand that one reason for including what he called an anti-American element is an effort by the French-speaking people in the European Community, and possibly some Germans, to withstand, as it were, what they see as the tide of English language.
In that, of course, we have a natural interest. Indeed, there are feelings in this country too, about certain aspects of north America culture which can penetrate our culture and air waves more easily than they can penetrate those of France and Germany. Certainly an effort is being made by those countries, and particularly France, to retain their cultural identity, and with that the hon. Member for Thanet, South will have some sympathy, as I have.
The points that I wish to raise are treaty-based. I said some time ago that many surprises would spring from the Single European Act, and tonight we have one of them. There was not a scintilla of a suggestion when we ratified that legislation that we would be faced with this type of directive.
I accept what the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) said about the need for some international arrangement on satellites. Whether that should be done through a Council of Europe convention, which this directive parallels, or through the competence of the treaty of Rome, is the point at issue. The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) spoke of the need for an international arrangement covering satellites and their standards.
The Council of Europe is a good forum in which to achieve that. But what if the European Community says, "We shall not keep within the Council of Europe on this. We claim competence by majority vote to make an alternative set of proposals which are not parallel to those of the Council of Europe"- -or, for that matter, even with those which the Government could not accept? We would then be in dead trouble because, as the Minister conceded, the matter would be decided by weighted majority vote.
The articles under which the directive is promulgated are strange. Article 57(2) speaks of
"the co-ordination of the provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the taking up and pursuit of activities as self-employed persons."
It is significant that the heading of the memorandum which the Minister produced on 7 June also used those words. It read : "Amended proposal for a Council Directive on the co-ordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the pursuit of television broadcasting activities."
The opening words of that heading follow the wording of article 57(2). The clue to it all lies in the final words :
"the pursuit of television broadcasting activities."
That is not mentioned in article 57.
It is based on another article which comes at the end of a chapter about what are called "Services"--broadcasting is a service--and that is article 66, which is so short that I can read it all ; "The provisions of Articles 55 to 58 shall apply to the matters covered by this Chapter."
Column 877It is rather like having a provision at the end of an Act of Parliament saying, "This part of the Bill applies to everything contained in an earlier part of the Bill."
As I understand it, that particular mechanism gives competence to the Community. Who, on initial reading of the Single European Act, would envisage such a backtrack mechanism? If I have that wrong, and if the Minister has the time to reply to the debate, I am sure that he will correct me. It is an example of the surprise package. All matters of regulation relating to all services of all sorts come within the ambit of article 57 which, in certain aspects, carries majority voting. In fact, the issue is even more complicated than I have suggested, but I have tried to give the bones of it. In view of the time I shall conclude, as other hon. Members wish to speak. I feel bound to point out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you have powers under Standing Orders to postpone the conclusion of the debate if you feel that the matter is of such importance as to warrant that. I am not necessarily suggesting that you do so, especially as the matter has to be decided in the Council today. This is an example of the very narrow window of time in which we have to deal with these matters.
Mr. Spearing : Under the complex rules of the Council of Ministers, if the Presidency so decided the matter could be put to the vote. Again, it is a matter of procedure of when the question should be put. The Presidency could put the question and wrap up the matter. The Minister is nodding. I do not suppose that the Presidency will think fit to do that because there is a consensus that it is not yet time to take that decision. It is another example of the way that this House and this country are being constrained not only by the terms of the treaty, unexpected though they are, but because of the procedures adopted by the Council of Ministers.
My final point about broadcasters is that a few weeks ago there were four important debates on the European Community. The first related to a new withholding tax, the second to merger control--which is departing these shores for Brussels--the third to public procurement and the fourth to the six-monthly White Paper. The first three matters were legislative. They were not reported on an otherwise well-regarded programme called "Today in Parliament". Its half-hour report at the end of the day did not cover any of those three debates. The programme, which is broadcast from 11.30 pm to midnight, went out two and a half hours ago and, therefore, cannot have reported this debate which, ironically, is about broadcasting. I have mentioned that as an important footnote to yesterday's debate on television and a dedicated channel. I hope that among the 200 channels there will be a dedicated channel covering all debates in the House.
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Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : I wish to say a few words, which I hope the Minister will consider. We are discussing the vital issue of transfer of sovereignty. If anyone thinks that that is not important, he should read the Hansard of the debate in January 1987. The then Minister made it abundantly clear that he would fight for the Council of Europe proposal because it was abundantly different from an EEC directive. The Government said that they would fight all the way and would do everything possible to ensure that there was unanimity. They made it clear that in their view the EEC did not have any control and that the Council of Europe proposal was right.
The Minister is well aware that night after night, when no one in Britain is aware of what is happening, we are transferring responsibility from democratic bodies, Government bodies and bodies over which we and the people have some kind of control, to the non-elected EEC Commission.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) mentioned the recent debate on merger control. We gave the Commission the power to send inspectors into British firms to ask for information and to impose fines for which they need not go to a court. This directive--which, of course, will be accepted--gives the Commission powers over British broadcasting and British broadcasting companies. What do we do about it?
If there is any doubt in the minds of hon. Members, they should look at paragraph 2 of the proposals, because there it clearly and precisely states that
"The Commission shall ensure the application of the provisions in Article 2(1)"--
which are concerned with the majority European broadcasts-- "and Article 3 in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty." The Minister is, of course, saying what Ministers consistently say late at night--"We are glad to say that the directive is not so bad as it once was". We heard the same comment the other night about heavy lorries. We shall have heavy lorries, but they will come two years later. We had, too, the debate on mergers. Tonight the Minister is really saying, "Do not worry about this directive, because it will not do anything that will upset British broadcasters."
I hope that hon. Members will look at clause 2, because that says that we shall have to give reports about what every British broadcasting company is doing to the non-elected Commission. It will consider those reports, give opinions on them and give advice as to how the proposal should be changed. The Minister says that it is only the majority of broadcasts that must be Euro-broadcasts. Even that is not terribly clear--and that includes some Council of Europe Members. Sadly, what the Minister did not say was that, under article 3, there is a specific proposal for the Council of Ministers by a majority to change that to whatever figure, conditions or considerations that it might want. The Minister must be aware of that. It is because the Government fought this so severely and so well in 1987 that we now have something completely different. When we have something in the Council of Europe, we know that there the basic control and responsibility is left to a democratically elected parliament and bodies appointed by that parliament.
I wish that our party Whips would appreciate how serious it is when we transfer control to a non-elected
Column 879committee. We are doing that night after night in the House, and no one is hearing about it. There was a time when I heard the Prime Minister's splendid words about how we would fight this unnecessary transfer of sovereignty. We were going to stop the Single European Act being used for what it was not intended. We were to promote free trade. What we have, however, is not the free trade that we want, but the transfer of more and more responsibility to the non-elected Commission.
For those who say that they are not terribly worried about the content of the directive, let them think about what happened recently about the sixth directive. When we debated that directive in the House we were told that there was nothing in that that could be used to affect Britain's zero VAT rating. Yet, as the Minister is well aware, we have had two recent court cases in which the Commission interfered with our zero rates.
We are doing something terribly serious tonight. If hon. Members read the directive or read the debate of 1987, or if the Minister studies the files in his Department, they will appreciate the seriousness of the matter. The Government fought a very hard battle to stop this becoming a Euro- directive. The Government said that they would fight it by "might and main". They knew that the issue here was not the question of how much sovereignty, but the question of the transfer of that sovereignty. What we are doing is starting a process whereby the control of broadcasting is switched to a non-elected body of the European Commission. That is a most dangerous thing for our democracy and, in the long term, Parliament will regret it. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), some other hon. Members and I are a thorough nuisance keeping people up when they could be asleep. Probably our action is pointless, as our views will have no effect because of the decisions that will be taken tomorrow. Our action is utterly pointless, as this House has no power. At the end of the day, however, I do not believe that we should be fulfilling our obligations to our constituents and doing the job for which we are paid if we did not say that this decision was shocking, shameful and undemocratic. I believe that Parliament will live to regret it.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : I have a paper with me that was issued from Brussels entitled "Common position adopted by the Council on 13 April 1989". To my surprise, I found that it was published on 10 April, apparently three days before the document was adopted. That is extraordinary.
Some of my hon. Friends have already have said that the legislation will be implemented by way of a United Kingdom statute. That statute must be construed in a manner that is consistent with the directive. If there are any inconsistencies, the European Court of Justice will determine the matter against the statute in favour of the directive. Parallel to the directive are the provisions of the Council of Europe convention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) has already said that other third-party states outside the EC may become subscribing members to the Council of Europe convention. Effectively we could be faced with
Column 880a tripartite problem--a United Kingdom statute that is interpretable through our courts to the European Court of Justice ; the provisions of the directive which are within the framework of that European Court and the Council of Europe convention that could be interpreted in a different way. The directive's provisions cover--
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question necessary for the disposal of the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business).
Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 11, Noes 68.
Division No. 239] [2.37 am
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Golding, Mrs Llin
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Roger Gale and
Mr. Jonathan Aitken.
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Miller, Sir Hal
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Moynihan, Hon Colin
Porter, David (Waveney)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Sackville, Hon Tom
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Kenneth Carlisle and
Mr. David Maclean.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put :--
The House divided : Ayes 58, Noes 7.
Division No. 240] [2.48 am
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)