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I urge hon. Members to bear in mind the fact that it is an extraordinary view of the promoters of the events if it is believed that they will wish to sell the rights in the full knowledge that the events will be shown only to a minority of people in Britain.
Column 45to many people, in particular the elderly and the housebound. It is essential that they are not prevented from watching by some arrangement--not necessarily pay television, which I appreciate is ruled out--which means that ITV or the BBC, the national networks, are priced out of showing major events such as the cup final, the grand national and Wimbledon. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that that will not happen?
"However, we are conscious that the Cup final is an important international happening, and it is therefore unlikely that we will see the day whereby it was broadcast only on satellite television."
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that one of the problems is that existing broadcasters have simply been downright stingy about the amount of money that they are prepared to pay? A little competition will help them to stump up well- deserved money for national games such as football and cricket.
Mr. Waddington : One hears little about the rights of promoters in all these arguments. One hears only about the rights of television companies. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for restoring some balance.
The quality debate raises the most important questions of all. Here, hon. Members agree, I think, that we must take extra care to distinguish genuine argument from the voice of vested interest, especially as this voice is sometimes subtle and seductive rather than shrill. It is not unfair to point out that the present franchise holders are not there just for the love of it--they are there to make money and they are very successful in that aim. That does not mean that they do not deserve a fair hearing or that they do not wish to provide a good service--I am sure that they do-- but some of the hyperbole that has been used should perhaps be discounted.
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham) : Earlier, my right hon. and learned Friend paid tribute to the high standard of British broadcasting. The Bill requires a "sufficient amount of time" to be given to programmes of quality. That is an expression of ardent idealism which reflects the spirit of mediocrity in which the Government are engaged. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that such language will encourage quality, or will it feed the fears that I and many of my hon. Friends have that, when he talks of an auction and a franchise, what will come out will be not so much a quality hurdle as a limbo dancer?
Mr. Waddington : I cannot agree with a word of what my hon. Friend says. He seems to overlook the fact that the words of which he complains are remarkably similar to those in the present broadcasting legislation. It is also a distortion to talk as though the only requirement which has to be met to pass the quality threshold is the requirement that there must be sufficient programmes of high quality. That is only one of the requirements which have to be met. First, the plans have to cater for a wide range of tastes and interests. Secondly, there will have to be high quality news and current affairs. Thirdly, there will have to be regional programmes, and some of them will have to be made in the regions. Fourthly, 25 per cent. of the programmes will have to be made independently.
Column 46Fifthly, consumer protection requirements will safeguard taste, decency, accuracy and balance. That is a lot more than my hon. Friend suggested.
Before an organisation is able to bid for a Channel 3 or Channel 5 franchise, it will have to pass a quality threshold. The chairman of the IBA, and chairman-designate of the ITC, Mr. George Russell, has described that quality threshold as a Becher's brook, and he is quite right. Those who wish to be franchise holders will have to provide diverse programme services which are calculated to appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests. They will have to give the viewer high quality news and current affairs programmes. There will have to be a sufficient amount of other programmes of high quality. A proper proportion of the material must be British or from other European countries. At least 25 per cent. of qualifying programmes must be made by independent producers. Channel 3 will be required to show regional programmes, including programmes produced in the region. Between them, Channels 3, 4 and 5 must also cater adequately for schools programmes.
Furthermore, even if a company gets through the quality threshold, the ITC will have power in exceptional circumstance to accept other than the highest bid. If it were possible to spell out all the circumstances which might be considered exceptional, we would do so, but I do not believe that it is. If the ITC uses the power, however, it will have to state and justify its reasons.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : Nowhere in that list is there any definition of children's programmes, the times at which they should be shown or the percentage of them which will be other than schools material. Television is one of the most vital ways in which children receive stimulation and it is crucial that they should continue to receive high-quality programmes. Will the Home Secretary undertake to write such a requirement into the Bill?
Mr. Waddington : It is almost inconceivable that a person would pass the diversity and catering for a wider range of tastes and interests requirements if he put nothing in his schedules in the way of children's programmes. [ Hon. Members :--"Where does the Bill say that?"] There is nothing in the present legislation either. When broadcasting legislation was last considered, the House turned its back on the idea of long lists of requirements, so why should one be considered necessary now? For a bidder to pass the quality test, the ITC will have to be satisfied that his plans will cater for a wide range of tastes and interests.
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute) : The Secretary of State talks about quality requirements, but can he explain to the House and to the people of Scotland why there is no mention of Gaelic broadcasting in the Bill, especially when we have heard so many discussions about it in the past year and as his predecessor promised in June that proposals for Gaelic broadcasting would be presented? The people of Scotland are disgusted at the whole performance.
Channel 3 and Channel 5 are intended to be popular, mass audience channels. We should not try to turn them into new versions of Channel 4 and BBC2. Nevertheless, the requirements that I have outlined are exacting and are
Column 47hardly a prescription for yob television. Indeed, the safeguards are greater than those which exist at present. Where, for instance, are the powers now to find franchise holders, or to require them to put up substantial performance bonds as a guarantee that they will live up to their programme promises? The ITC will have far more extensive enforcement powers than the IBA, one of whose problems has been that it has had few sanctions at its disposal short of the nuclear weapon of licence revocation.
Some people hanker for a detailed definition of quality, but frankly I do not think that that is on. The ITC will be able to issue illustrative guidelines, but it will not issue a blueprint--rightly so, as there is no single right way to pass, for instance, the diversity test. The winning applicant's detailed programme promises will, however, be incorporated into the licence conditions. There will be a clear commitment to quality, capable of rigorous enforcement.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : Does the Home Secretary agree with the Minister of State that parts of the Bill are not set in stone? Is he prepared to reconsider the basis of Channel 5 and the suggestion made by the Select Committee on Home Affairs report of a national channel made up of local affiliates?
Already there have been demands for all sorts of additional statutory requirements for programming, but if we were to give way to all the demands of the various lobbies and special interests, the new legislation would finish up far more onerous and prescriptive than the old. As long ago as 1954, Parliament wisely rejected the list approach. Those who seek guarantees for, for instance, religious or children's programmes, can take comfort from the multiplication of outlets as channels increase and from the diversity requirement on both Channel 3 and Channel 5. I imagine that the ITC would take some convincing that a service which did not offer any programmes of that kind was genuinely diverse, but this is also where the complementary nature of Channel 4's remit comes in. In addition to its public service obligations, it will continue to be required to cater for any tastes and interests not adequately met by Channel 3 and 5. I wish to concentrate on key topics rather than go through the Bill clause by clause, so I will give no more than a brief guide to its structure. Part I establishes the Independent Television Commission in place of the IBA and the Cable Authority. Both George Russell and I want a smooth transition and maximum continuity of expertise. If the House gives the Bill a Second Reading, I will announce shortly the setting up of the ITC and the Radio Authority in shadow form. Part I also deals with the regulation of Channels 3, 4 and 5, Channel 4, Wales, satellite services, and services using the spare capacity of signals such as teletext. It requires the ITC, among other things, to issue codes on how the due impartiality requirement is to be applied, on programme standards more generally and on advertising and sponsorship. Part I also includes requirements for schools programmes and subtitling for the deaf.
Column 48Part II deals with local delivery services-- local multi-channel franchises using cable and/or microwave transmission.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Conservative Members are trying to listen to the excellent exposition by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. We cannot hear because of the bunch of yobboes on the Opposition Benches below the Gangway-- [Interruption.] Could they please be asked to be silent?
Mr. Waddington : It would be a pity if they went out of here as ignorant as they came in. It might be to their advantage to listen. Among other things, part II makes local delivery operators responsible themselves for the content of any foreign services which they carry from countries outside the EC and the Council of Europe. Part III establishes a new Radio Authority in place of the IBA radio division, and deals with the regulation of national, local, satellite, cable and institutional radio services, and with spare capacity services using radio signals. The key requirement in this part is that radio should expand in such a way as to increase choice for the listener.
Part IV re-enacts the provisions dealing with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, and part V puts the Broadcasting Standards Council on a statutory basis. Part VI applies the law of obscenity, incitement to racial hatred and defamation to all British broadcasting services.
Part VII substantially strengthens the powers and penalties available against pirate broadcasting. Part VIII contains the new offences of supporting an unacceptable foreign satellite service, and deals with miscellaneous matters such as listed sporting events and transfer to the BBC of responsibility for collecting the licence fee.
I am pleased to be able to tell the House the good news for which the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) was waiting. At a later stage we shall be bringing forward provisions on Gaelic broadcasting. These will be based on a Gaelic television production fund, to be paid for by the Exchequer and administered by a committee of the ITC. The fund will commission the production of programmes in the Gaelic language. We plan that the ITC should have power to require relevant Channel 3 licensees to show Gaelic programming. The programmes would be made either by broadcasters or by independent producers. We intend that the fund should be able to finance 200 hours of Gaelic programmes a year in addition to the present 100 hours, which we would expect the BBC and the relevant Channel 3 companies to maintain.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : The Home Secretary will appreciate that many representatives of all parties have campaigned long and hard on that issue. How did he decide on the sum of £8 million? He mentioned a committee of the ITC. What direct representation from the Gaelic community will there be on that committee? Token Gaelic representation is insufficient, as we want those people to have real clout.
Mr. Waddington : A number of those matters are open to discussion. The hon. Lady will hear the details later, and I do not think that anyone would bless me if I went through them all now. It is worth bearing in mind that there are 80,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland--less than 2
Column 49per cent. of the Scottish population--so I should have thought that most fair-minded people would consider our proposal to be a very good deal indeed for Gaelic speakers in Scotland.
There are also some matters not now in the Bill. I should tell the House that we shall be bringing forward provisions ending the cosy duopoly of programme listings, privatising the IBA transmission system and dealing with transitional arrangements. Also on this supplementary agenda are the detail of the independent production requirement on the BBC, provisions in regard to offshore pirate broadcasters and the ending of needle-time restrictions on the playing of records by radio stations.
Finally, I remind the House that a Conservative Government introduced ITV in the early 1950s, independent local radio in the early 1970s, Channel 4 at the beginning of the 1980s, and the independent productions initiative a couple of years ago. At each stage the pessimists prophesied doom and gloom --and every time they have been confounded. On 22 May 1952, Lord Reith likened the introduction of commercial broadcasting to smallpox, bubonic plague and the black death, and on 25 March 1954 Herbert Morrison for the Opposition said :
"we regard the whole present scheme as objectionable and, indeed, futile this Bill is the enemy of a reasonable culture in broadcasting and television."--[ Official Report, 25 March 1954 ; Vol. 525, c. 1472- 74.]
Today's pessimists should consider how their comments may sound in 30 years' time. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook) : At least the Home Secretary will agree with me that today we debate fundamental changes in the organisation of broadcasting in the United Kingdom. As broadcasting has such a crucial effect on all our lives, we are also considering a major influence on the conduct and character of our country during the rest of this century and beyond.
The criteria against which the Bill must be judged are the quality of broadcasting which it encourages and the choice of programmes that it would make available to listeners and viewers. The Government claim, as the Home Secretary appeared to be doing today, that their proposals are likely to increase choice and improve quality. They are almost alone in that contention. The most distinguished and experienced figures in broadcasting are united in the belief that, if the Bill becomes law, standards will fall and choice will be diminished.
The Bill also fails when measured against an obligation of even greater importance than choice and quality--the protection of democracy.
In Britain an increasing threat to genuine democracy is the concentration of the ownership of newspapers and
Column 50broadcasting companies in the hands of fewer international media companies. Some parts of the Bill might have been written with the express intention of meeting the needs and fulfilling the ambitions of one of them--Mr. Rupert Murdoch. Already the Government have allowed Mr. Murdoch to acquire two national newspapers without the scrutiny of a Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry. In part, the Bill might have been dictated during one of Mr. Murdoch's cosy lunches with the Prime Minister.
I take the clearest example of the favour that Mr. Murdoch and his like are to receive, and it is the clearest proof that, in the true meaning of the words, the Bill will reduce choice and not increase it. Clause 157 deals with what are called "listed events"--a subject on which the Home Secretary gave a sort of answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). He was right to acknowledge that his predecessor had written the Bill, but we are intrigued about whether the Home Secretary has read it. It was clear that he did not understand what is meant by clause 157, which deals with listed events--great sporting occasions such as the grand national, Wimbledon and the cup final, which attract massive audiences. At present, no single company is allowed to acquire the exclusive right to screen them. We all know that the Bill prohibits them from being screened through pay television, but that is not the question.
Mr. Hattersley : It is exactly what the Home Secretary said but, unfortunately, it is not exactly the question that he was asked, which concerned protection against one company having the exclusive right to screen those promotions and against their being able to monopolise the screening. Under the Bill, that protection is being removed. It will be possible for a single satellite or cable company to acquire the sole right to broadcast, for example, the Grand National and to prevent national broadcasting companies from screening it at the same time or at all.
Satellite and cable television is currently watched by 3 per cent. of the viewing public. Let us assume that, by the time the Bill becomes law, the figure has trebled and Sky Television buys the exclusive right to screen Wimbledon, the cup final or the grand national.
Let us assume that Sky buys the right to screen the grand national. Last week, the Football Association behaved quite reasonably about this, but on the radio the Jockey Club said that in a free market it would sell its rights to the highest bidder, whatever the company might be. Instead of every family with a television set enjoying the chance to watch that national event, the opportunity would be restricted to fewer than 10 per cent. of British families. What sort of extension of free choice is that? It is simply the freedom of Rupert Murdoch to use his wealth and power to exploit the viewer. It represents his right to
Column 51dictate the terms on which British families enjoy television and the Government's willingness to be an accessory to that blackmail. Mr. Robert G. Hughes rose--
Mr. Hattersley : The hon. Gentleman is the most vocal and active Parliamentary Private Secretary that I have ever known. I shall give way after I have dealt with the question from the Minister of State which, like the PPS, he shouted from his seat rather than asking in the normal fashion.
The Minister of State asked why I should assume that Mr. Murdoch would want to buy the rights to one of those exclusive events. The answer is that that is what he always does when developing his broadcasting systems. It is his established technique. He buys a tempting programme and uses it as a loss- leader for the rest of the rubbish that he broadcasts, such as cartoons, old movies, pre-digested news and extended advertisements dressed up as consumer magazines. His aim is not to extend choice but to reduce it. By popular demand, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and then to the Minister of State.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for eventually giving way. Does he understand that if any satellite broadcaster or what he would regard as a minority broadcaster were attracting the size of audience that he supposes, with no basis for his figures, they would be unable to afford to pay as much money as other broadcasters? Without attracting an audience, they would be unable to compete. Therefore it would be self-correcting. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to deny the sports that he is talking about access to money for their products.
Mr. Hattersley : I say only two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, his suggestion is belied by the experience of other countries, where minority satellites and cable companies have got their foot in the door and prised it open by making exclusive claims for events and saying to viewers, "Either you watch what we offer or you do not watch that programme at all."
Secondly--I shall develop the point in a moment if I get the opportunity-- television, like football clubs and newspapers, has the unfortunate habit of attracting men who want to buy it not simply to make money but for prestige and political influence and as an entre e into other institutions and forms of life. They are prepared to lose to establish their position by saying, "I own this television company."
Mr. Mellor : Currently, if a satellite channel proprietor--there are more satellite channel proprietors than Mr. Murdoch--were to put in a bid, the right given to the BBC and ITV is to match it ; they have no automatic right otherwise to show the programme. It is interesting that thus far no satellite operator has done so. The Bill makes one change, in that it says that it will be possible, although not on a pay-per-view basis, for the proprietor of a great national sporting event to sell to the highest bidder
Column 52In the right hon. Gentleman's pursuit of the Labour party's demonology theory about Rupert Murdoch, will he consider, first, that there is no reason why those who own a great sporting event should want to restrict its viewing to a few per cent. of the public? Secondly, the Labour party talks about money, but I wonder where the public interest lies, vis-a -vis the right of some broadcasting organisations to obtain sporting events at an undervalue or the right of the public who admire them to see them properly funded. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is the duty and obligation of the House, in perpetuity, to restrict the rights of individuals who promote sporting events to sell their products?
Mr. Hattersley : It is the duty of the Government to make great national occasions available to all the viewing public rather than a small proportion of them. That is the overwhelming view of the viewing public who have expressed an opinion.
I suspect that, like me, the Minister of State does not regard the grand national as the most important sporting occasion of the year, but, slightly to my surprise, many millions of people do. The Jockey Club and those who organise great sporting events have said on television and radio, in the Minister of State's terms, that they would sell the rights to the highest bidder. That seems to be not in the national interest but in the interests of a small number of satellite and cable broadcasters and perhaps in the interests of the Government, with their narrow view of these matters. It is not in the interests of media diversity and opportunity, which is what the Bill is supposed to be about.
Mr. Hattersley : I must get on. I shall give way in a moment but, like other hon. Members, I am restricted by the 6 o'clock rule. It is important that I do not forget it, as I am inclined to do. I take this opportunity to make clear Labour Members' absolute commitment to greater diversity of media ownership. I make it clear that to us the problem of media ownership is not simply cross-promotion--newspapers plugging their own television channels, which is the subject of the inquiry that was announced last week--but cross-ownership. We should have a general reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the concentration of media ownership in fewer hands. Its terms should be the extent to which British newspapers and broadcasting companies are owned by a handful of individuals, and how the Government can best bring about disinvestment and greater diversity in the industry.
The Bill will facilitate concentration in one particular. This is the second point that I raised with the Secretary of State and I hope that the Minister of State will make this clear when he replies. Under the Bill, the proprietor of a national newspaper is not allowed to own more than 20 per cent. of a Channel 3 or Channel 5 company--that is quite right. However, why does not that prohibition apply to all satellite companies? Such an obligation could be placed on satellite companies by requiring them to relinquish ownership of British newspapers if they want to broadcast into Great Britain. I understand that the Government--either their officials or Ministers--have told the British Satellite Broadcasting company that the membership-ownership
Column 53rule will be applied to it by secondary legislation--by some sort of order explicitly to prevent a satellite company that is based in Britain from being owned by or having any close connection with a British newspaper. If it is to apply to BSB, why will it not apply to Sky?
I present the Minister of State with another hypothesis. If Sky grows to the size of a Channel 3 company, why will Mr. Murdoch still be allowed to own five national newspapers--
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) rose--
Once upon a time the Government pretended that it was impossible to limit the connections between newspapers and ownership of Sky because that company is registered in Luxembourg. In the House of Lords, Lord Ferrers said that it was technically impossible to apply such a limitation. That fallacy having been exposed, this Minister of State discovered another reason for letting Mr. Murdoch do what he likes--to own a television company that broadcasts into Britain and five newspapers. The Minister of State gave his reason at a press conference a week last Thursday when he stated :
"A vast amount of money has gone into getting this thing" --"this thing" being Sky--
"off the ground",
and implying that we should not legislate. That seems a new principle of Conservative Government--those who spend enough money can make up the laws as they go along to suit their convenience-- Mr. Gale rose--
Mr. Gale : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not appreciate the difference between BSB, which is a domestic satellite licensed by the United Kingdom, and Astra which is a non-domestic satellite? Is he seriously suggesting that this control should not only be exercised over Mr. Murdoch, who happens to uplink from the United Kingdom but could just as easily uplink from anywhere else in Europe, but should be extended to every newspaper proprietor throughout Europe who uses a foreign satellite? If so, how will the right hon. Gentleman make that work under EC directives and the Council of Europe convention?
Mr. Hattersley : What I am suggesting--this is perfectly compatible with EC regulations and with English law--is that if someone owns a company that broadcasts into Great Britain, that person shall not be allowed to own the British newspapers that he possesses at present. The control would not require us to take any action against the satellite broadcasting company ; it requires us to take action against the domestically based British newspaper. That can be done with complete ease, and should be done by anybody who does not believe in the concentration of the British media in fewer hands. The Government's attitude towards satellite television demonstrates most graphically the misconception at the heart of the Bill. Real choice for viewers depends on a diversity of programmes, not simply on the proliferation of the number of buttons on a set that it is possible to
Column 54press. If pressing buttons produces no more than alternatives on the same dreary themes, choice has not been increased- -it has been denied.
The Government confuse pressing buttons with making choices not least because, as the Bill demonstrates, they possess no coherent theory of broadcasting. The only attempt at a principle by which the Bill is guided is the weary old call for deregulation--an idea that clearly has not been thought through and which is not even applied with anything like consistency.
The Government preach deregulation but insist on possessing the power to veto appointments to the membership of the Channel 4 Corporation. When he replies, perhaps the Minister of State will tell us how this light-touch Government, this freedom-of-broadcasting Government, this deregulating Government, justify that little act of pointless authoritarianism. Opposition Members believe that the time has come to reduce, not increase, Government patronage. The Government appoint too many of their nominees to positions of authority and influence without check or limitation. In our view, neither the governors of the BBC nor the members of the Independent Television Commission should be appointed by the Government alone. They should be nominated by the Government and approved in office by a Committee of the House. Indeed, that rule should apply to all senior Government appointments.
A second proposal in the Bill is not so much incompatible with the claim of deregulation as in exact opposition to the notion. I refer to the whole of part V, which sets up the Broadcasting Standards Council. I admit at once that, in common with others, I was quite wrong about that institution. I feared that it was potentially sinister. I now realise that it is immediately ridiculous. It will possess no effective powers and have no real purpose, except to pretend to keep a promise that the Prime Minister gave at an unguarded moment and which she continues to repeat, although the Bill proves that what she continues to offer cannot and will not be realised.
In the debate on the Loyal Address, the Prime Minister announced that the Broadcasting Standards Council would be given the power "to keep the violence that is unacceptable off our screens."--[ Official Report, 21 November 1989 ; Vol. 162, c. 31.]
However, no such power is mentioned in the Bill. As is so often the case, I take it that the Prime Minister said what she thought convenient at the time rather than what she knew to be accurate. I maintain my surprise that Lord Rees-Mogg, for whom I have considerable respect, should be prepared to lend his name to this silly and pointless exercise, which has been made all the more silly and pointless by the Government's welcome decision to extend the obscenity and racial incitement laws to cover television. That should be the proper and only limitation on what broadcasters are allowed to broadcast.
Choice and quality in television depend in part on the way in which the franchises to broadcast are allocated and on the rules that govern that right, as well as on the price that is paid to maintain it. Companies can obtain contracts through a process which, in general, encourages a wide variety of high-quality programmes, or by a system that puts a premium on neither standards nor choice. In their proposals for licensing satellite companies, the Government have clearly abandoned all interest in quality and diversity. They expressly absolve the satellite companies from fulfilling the minimum obligations that
Column 55are required of domestic companies. Clause 31 (a), (b) and (d) absolves them from that duty. However, as the minimum obligations are in themselves wholly inadequate, the idea that the Government are protecting quality, diversity and choice even in the terrestrial channels does not withstand a moment's examination. The claims for quality and diversity are based on the concept of minimum standards that a company must agree to accept before it can bid for a franchise and which must be maintained after the contract is made if a financial penalty is to be avoided. But nobody believes that the financial penalty will be large enough to act as a real deterrent. I shall now make another of my assumptions--that the standards set out in the Bill are respected. But the question that immediately arises is, "What are those standards worth?" The answer is, "Not very much." When those standards were first set out, the then Home Secretary described them as a "threshold", but by the time the White Paper was debated, the metaphor had changed to "hurdle". I prophesied at the time that they would soon become a fence, but I had not allowed for the verbal exuberance of the new Minister of State, whom I heard on the radio two weeks ago describing them as a "Becher's brook".
Mr. Mellor : The right hon. Gentleman's standards of taste and accuracy are no higher than usual. It was the chairman of the ITC, Mr. Russell, who used the phrase, "Becher's brook". I merely retailed it around for him.
Mr. Mellor : If it is the right hon. Gentleman's case that there is no quality threshold worth having, surely he should be reassured that the chairman-designate of the ITC and present chairman of the IBA says that it is to be a Becher's brook--that is, if the right hon. Gentleman is interested in reassurance rather than making cheap points.
Mr. Hattersley : I will come to a compact with the Minister that either we support everything that the chairman of the ITC suggests and implement everything that he proposes or, if the Minister will not accept that proposition, and pursue the metaphor, we can take a walk round the course to see how formidable an obstacle Becher's brook is.
Mr. Hattersley : I want to examine this barrier. Clause 16 defines the basic requirements that any company must fulfil before it can make a bid for a Channel 3 franchise. They include the requirements "that a sufficient amount of time is given to news programmes and current affairs programmes of high quality that a sufficient amount of time is given to programmes (other than news and current affairs programmes) which are of high quality a sufficient amount of time is given to regional programmes."
The Home Secretary, not normally a conciliatory man, will agree that those are not over-precise definitions of the standards.
Column 56I admit that they are only the beginning. There is also an obligation to appeal to a variety of tastes and include a proper proportion of programmes made in Europe. Again, those criteria do not suffer from an excess of intellectual rigour. Certainly, clause 16 gives the new ITC the right to define the terms. The Home Secretary must not pretend that the new ITC will be able to impose standards as exact as those upon which the IBA can insist now.
We were promised a light touch, and a light touch we certainly have been given. At present the IBA can ask for--it can demand--religious programmes, children's programmes, drama and documentaries. It is no good the Home Secretary saying to the House, "Don't worry, it is not written into the Bill but trust me and the Commission to propose it." According to the Government's propaganda, the purpose of the Bill is to lay down minimum standards. To take refuge in the idea that the minimum standards can be taken for granted without being specified is a negation of all that the Government previously claimed. More importantly, the new Commission cannot negotiate with the companies for the new right to broadcast.
When he replies to the debate, I should like the Minister of State to describe what will happen in the following circumstances. Two bidding companies apply for a franchise. In their prospectuses, both demonstrate their acceptance of the minimum standard set out in the Bill. One offers a programme prospectus that is superior to the other in terms of quality and diversity but it makes a bid lower than that of its inferior competitor. In those circumstances, can the commission award the contract to the programme company that offers the best programmes but the lowest tender? We know that the Bill does not allow that to happen, yet the Government continue to claim to care about quality.
The commission cannot invite the highest bidder to improve the quality of its programmes. Nor can it invite the company with the best programmes to increase its offer. Certainly, clause 17(3) provides for the Commission to reject the highest bid in exceptional circumstances. But no one has any idea what those circumstances might be. If the Home Secretary, who has written into his Bill the right to exclude a bid in exceptional circumstances, had the faintest idea what those circumstances were, he might have revealed them to us in his speech.
Mr. Spearing : Did my right hon. Friend notice that in justifying the procedure the Home Secretary prayed in aid taxpayers' rights and value for money for the nation? Will he invite the Home Secretary now, or perhaps in Committee, to calculate the difference between the hypothetical high and low bids in terms of quality such as my right hon. Friend postulated, and divide that difference between the two into a weekly amount that every household in the country will have to pay? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that would be a small sum?