Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You were clairvoyant earlier when I wanted to ask a question. I know that you are diligent in drawing hon. Members to order when questions do not relate to ministerial responsibility. Will you read the supplementary questions of Conservative Members to the Prime Minister yesterday, some of which did not relate directly to the responsibility of Ministers? Would you make it clear to Conservative Members and Ministers that if they want an opportunity to question the policies of the Labour party, the Liberals or any other party, there is a simple way of doing so, and that is to have a general election?
Madam Speaker: Not for the first time do I draw to the attention of the House the fact that our system operates on the basis that it is the Government who are responsible to the people through the House for their policies, the implementation of them and the effect that they have. It is never more apparent than at Question Time that the House should seek to question the Government on their policies. That is what Question Time is all about. I remind all Back-Bench Members of that, and those who occupy the Front Benches. It is those on the Government Front Bench who are responsible for the policies that they implement. They are answerable for those policies, and never more than at Question Time.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you have had a demand for a statement from the Home Secretary on a Cabinet Committee document, a copy of which I have in my possession, which sets out how the Government will
Column 152deal with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board's scheme following the Court of Appeal ruling of 9 November 1994 that the scheme was illegal. The document suggests that the tariff scheme is being introduced because it will save up to £100 million a year. The Government intend to proceed by way of enabling legislation, thereby avoiding detailed parliamentary scrutiny.
I hope that you agree, Madam Speaker, that that is not the way to drive legislation through Parliament. What advice do you have for me for the sake of many thousands of victims who will lose financially as a result of the Government's intentions? Surely Parliament should be given the opportunity to debate the Cabinet Committee document as soon as possible.
Madam Speaker: That hardly seems to be a point of order for me. I cannot comment on a leaked document--I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that that is what it is. I have received no request for a Minister to make a statement. The hon. Gentleman must find other ways to pursue the matter.
Mr. Alan Simpson, supported by Mrs. Diana Maddock, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Sir John Hannam, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. John McAllion, Mr. Terry Rooney, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. David Rendel, Mr. Gary Waller, Mr. Michael Clapham and Mr. Harry Barnes presented a Bill to limit the amount of value added tax payable on certain energy-saving materials; to require the Secretary of State to compile a definitive list of such materials; and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January and to be printed. [Bill 31.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the ownership of the media.
My Bill will reverse the growing trend towards monopoly ownership of most of what we see on our television screens and read in our newspapers. The purpose of the Bill is to protect our culture and democracy from the barbarism of the unregulated market. I hope that it will appeal to democrats of all political persuasions. I am glad to say that it has attracted support from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Although our television has always been carefully regulated, it has long been the situation that many of our national and regional newspapers are controlled by unscrupulous megalomaniacs. Now, the same people are taking control of our television. Rupert Murdoch, who owns five national newspapers, also has what is effectively a controlling interest in satellite television, which, we are told, will be in one home in two by the end of the century. Michael Green, of Carlton, has acquired Central Television, and with it a 36 per cent. stake in Independent Television News and a similar stake in Independent Radio News. Granada Television, headed by a ruthless profiteer, Mr. Gerry Robinson, has acquired London Weekend Television and with it a 36 per cent. stake in ITN, all in defiance of section 32 of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which says that no shareholding in ITN may exceed 20 per cent., precisely with a view to preserving its independence.
Every day, the frontiers that regulate the independence and quality of our television are pushed back a little further. The Government are under enormous pressure to remove what restrictions remain and to let the market rip. And not only the Government. Seeing the possibility of a Labour victory at the next election, a massive bout of free-lunching has been unleashed by the vested interests concerned, and its purpose is to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends charged with responsibility in these matters that big is beautiful, that the triumph of the market is inevitable and that it will not diminish the quality of the product. One of the purposes of the Bill is to stiffen the resolve of my hon. Friends.
The rise of Messrs. Murdoch, Green, Robinson and others has already led to a marked decline in standards. Documentaries such as "This Week" have disappeared. "World in Action", one of the last refuges for inquiring journalism, has been under heavy pressure. Even ITN's "News at Ten" is not safe as the new masters press for its removal to a more obscure slot, to make way for an unending diet of bland American movies. Already there has been an obvious decline in quality at ITN, a reluctance to invest in foreign reporting, and an increasing tendency to conduct long and pointless live interviews between an anchorman in Grays Inn road and a correspondent rarely more than two or three miles away. The other day on ITN there was a lengthy item on Kermit the frog.
There is talk of new technology bringing in 20, 30 or 40 channels. It is said that we will have more choice, but in fact we will have less. We are headed down the American road--40 channels with nothing worth watching on any of them and our culture colonised by American junk television. Our domestic television
Column 154production capacity will be wiped out, just as our film industry has been. Indeed, it is already happening. The industry is being remorselessly casualised. Since the Broadcasting Act, the number of full-time jobs in commercial television has halved. Who will provide the training for future generations of television film makers when the present generation is gone? Or are the new masters just intending to poach from the BBC?
What I fear most is not political bias, but the steady growth of junk journalism--the trivialisation and demeaning of everything that is important in our lives, and its consequent effect on our culture, a flat refusal to address what is going on in the world in favour of an endless diet of crime, game shows and soap operas, and the unadulterated hate that is already a feature of our most loathsome tabloid newspapers. In the long run, there is a danger--I put it no higher--that, with an increasing concentration of ownership and progressive abandonment of standards, television will become fertile ground for demagogues, offering simple solutions to complex problems. One has only to look at the rise of the religious right in America, or to Italy--governed until recently by a man who owns three major television stations--for a clue as to where the future may lie. My Bill has three principal purposes. First, it seeks to enforce diversity of newspaper and television ownership in the belief that healthy competition rather than monopoly is the best way to ensure the survival of our democracy.
Secondly, the Bill seeks to provide for a minimum level of quality in the firm belief that that is the best way to protect our television from the rise of junk culture.
Thirdly, the Bill seeks to create a level playing field between commercial and satellite television. At the moment satellite television is exempt from many of the regulations that apply to terrestrial television.
I shall list some of the specific measures contained in the Bill. First, there is a requirement that no national newspaper proprietor shall be permitted to own more than one daily or one Sunday newspaper. Surplus assets must be placed on the market within 12 months of the Bill being enacted.
Secondly, no one who is not a citizen of the European Community shall in future be permitted to own more than 20 per cent. of any company owning British national or regional newspapers or British terrestrial or satellite television. That provision is based on similar regulations that already apply in the United States. Thirdly, no company which has a controlling interest in a British national newspaper shall be permitted to own a stake of more than 20 per cent. in a British television company, terrestrial or satellite. Fourthly, no company that has a controlling interest in either terrestrial or satellite television broadcasting to the United Kingdom shall be permitted to own more than 20 per cent. of a British national newspaper.
Fifthly, a given percentage of the output of any television company, satellite or terrestrial, broadcasting to the United Kingdom, shall be produced within the EC. That will extend to satellite television a provision which is already enforced on terrestrial stations.
Column 155Sixthly, no company shall be permitted to own more than 20 per cent. of ITN, IRN or any other national broadcast news service and any surplus should be disposed of within 12 months of the Act coming into force.
Seventhly, no company with a controlling interest in any local television or radio station or in any local newspaper shall be permitted to own more than 20 per cent. of any other media outlet covering the same catchment area.
Eighthly, no company shall be allowed to own more than 20 per cent. of the encryption system for satellite television and any surplus shall be placed on the market within 12 months. Hon. Members will be aware that at present Mr. Murdoch has a monopoly of the encryption system which prevents anyone else gaining access to the satellite market.
Ninthly, substantial regional commercial television production facilities must be maintained in at least the six largest population centres outside London.
Tenthly, a training levy will be imposed on any television company employing more than 100 people which does not spend a given percentage of its income on training.
Those measures should appeal to civilised people of all political persuasions. They are, as I have said, designed to protect our democracy and culture from the barbarism of the unregulated market. In many respects they merely enshrine or build upon regulations that already exist. Overall they will have the effect of introducing competition into areas where fair competition is being progressively stifled or eliminated.
We should not be afraid of regulation. Our broadcasting system has been carefully regulated throughout its existence and, as a result, it is widely admired around the world. I am anxious that it should remain so and that is the purpose of the Bill. I commend it to the House.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire): There we have it. Behind the Colgate ring-of-confidence smile of the Leader of the Opposition we have the authentic voice of socialism on his Back Benches. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) uses the words "barbarism of the market" and "ruthless profiteer", but nowhere in the Bill does he acknowledge the existence of new technologies and the way in which the market operates in the United Kingdom and the world in general.
I oppose the Bill on two grounds. First, as I say, it does not acknowledge changes in technology and, secondly, the unilateral changes that the hon. Gentleman would like to see in the United Kingdom would put us at a great disadvantage compared with the rest of Europe and the world.
Column 156I quote two authoritative people. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), Chairman of the Select Committee on National Heritage on which I have the honour to serve, said: "Of course there are dangers in monopolistic cross-media ownership, but at the same time in my view without cross-media ownership there is no commercial viability in the new environment." The right hon. Gentleman is right and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South is wrong.
Here is another quotation:
"Traditional distinctions between printed press and broadcasting channels will be difficult to sustain when all forms of media use the same cable to deliver their output electronically. In those circumstances it may no longer be sensible to maintain restrictions on cross-media ownership in their present form."
That is an argument for less legislation, not more. Did it come from the Conservative party manifesto? No. Was it written by a Conservative Member? No. It came from a document called "Winning for Britain" published in June last year by the Labour party. Funnily enough, the Labour party got it right and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South got it wrong.
I believe in firm governance tempered by economic freedom and political and economic reality. If the Bill were ever to become law it would open the door for the Berlusconis and the Bertelsmans of this world. When the hon. Gentleman so traditionally attacks Rupert Murdoch he should remember that although News International, a United Kingdom-based company, has interests in The Sun , The Times and 50 per cent. of BSkyB, the Guardian Media Group owns The Guardian , The Observer , 36 local weeklies, 15 per cent. of GMTV and 20 per cent. of Trans World Communications.
I could tell the hon. Gentleman similar facts about Pearson, the Daily Mail and General Trust, and Reed Elsevier. However, I would rather have all those groups operating successfully than allow Berlusconi and Bertelsman to dominate the media in the United Kingdom, the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. For those reasons, I oppose the motion.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chris Mullin, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Cyril D. Townsend, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Denis MacShane, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Hugh Dykes, Ms Jean Corston, Sir Richard Body, Mr. Dafydd Wigley and Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.
Mr. Chris Mullin accordingly presented a Bill to regulate the ownership of the media: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 February and to be printed. [Bill 30.]
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Government's motion uses the term "party" three times. It says not "the Conservative party" but simply "party". In the ensuing debate we shall hear many references to the Conservative party and to political parties in general, so I should like your advice, Madam Speaker, on how that term is to be defined. The Conservative party as such seems to be non-existent. It has no definition in relation to the House and the 1922 Committee, which seems to be the umbrella organisation, has no standing orders. The Conservative party itself is not incorporated and does not publish an annual report and accounts. Indeed, it seems to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Prime Minister, without accountability to anyone.
Madam Speaker: That is all very interesting, but it seems to me that it is a matter for debate if the hon. Gentleman were to catch my eye. I am wondering what the point of order for me is at this stage.
Mr. Madden: The point of order is that the debate hinges on the central issue of majorities on Committees. I cannot understand how that debate can be conducted in an informed way if none of us is aware of how the Conservative party or Conservative Members of Parliament are defined. There is no such thing as a Conservative party.
Madam Speaker: Order. I have been enormously tolerant. This is all very interesting. I am sure that the House will be most interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's views on the matter, but they cannot be expressed on a point of order. I cannot say that I am willing to call the hon. Gentleman because I shall have many people to call, if I ever have a chance to get the motion under way. If the hon. Gentleman will come to his point of order, I might be able to answer it. Otherwise, perhaps he will save his remarks for the debate so that we can all enjoy them.
Madam Speaker: That is a very simple point of order. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the motion would not be printed on the Order Paper unless it had been thoroughly examined not only by me but by several other people. It has been considered by learned Clerks of the
Column 158House, but most importantly by me. It would not have appeared on the Order Paper unless it was perfectly in order for debate today. Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) rose --
That, unless and until the party which achieved an overall majority of Members elected at the preceding general election loses that majority either as a result of by-elections or through the secession of Members to another party, the Committee of Selection shall interpret paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 86 (Nomination of standing committees) in such a way as to give that party a majority on any standing committee.
I need only briefly describe the background, which I believe is familiar to the House. Under Standing Order No. 86, Standing Committees of the House are appointed by the Committee of Selection, which is enjoined to have regard, among other things, to the composition of the House.
In the ordinary course of events, even though the meaning of the phrase is nowhere more clearly defined, its intention has been clearly understood to be to ensure that the Committees reflect party proportions in the House and, therefore, to give a Government with an overall majority in the House a majority on the Standing Committees which consider legislation. Such difficulty as has occurred, with the principal exception perhaps of an occasion in 1976 to which I shall return in a moment, has normally been in applying the somewhat arcane mathematical formulae with which the concept is given practical effect, which has led at times to disagreement about the precise size of majorities on particular Committees.
Mr. Madden: The Leader of the House will admit that in the real world the Committee of Selection is told whom to select for Committees by the respective party Whips. Therefore, the prospect of the nine Conservative Members who have had the Whip withdrawn being selected to serve on any Standing Committees is remote to say the least. May I put to the Leader of the House the question that I put to Madam Speaker: how does he define the Conservative party in the House? The Whip has been withdrawn from nine individuals who happen to have been elected to the House in the Conservative cause. They do not belong to any organisation comparable to the parliamentary Labour party. The PLP has standing orders. The 1922 Committee does not. How does he define the Conservative party? Are Members who are known as Conservative Members part of any recognisable party structure or organisation in the House?
Column 159Conservative party can be recognised, I can recognise it when I see it, and there are more of us than there are of them and we are sitting over here.
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North): How does the Leader of the House answer the charge made on the radio at lunchtime today by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) that the motion on the Order Paper today is fiddling with the constitution?
Mr. Newton: For reasons that I hope to explain in a moment, I do not accept that view. As it happens, I did not hear my right hon. Friend on the radio at lunchtime. He may seek to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, and elaborate his point during the debate. I was explaining that in general, although not exclusively, the main difficulties for the Committee of Selection have arisen from determining the size of majorities, rather than from identifying who is to have a majority. In the circumstances that have arisen in recent weeks, following the action taken by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip in respect of eight of my hon. Friends and the consequent action by another of my hon. Friends on his own, there has been a strong divergence of view about what the phrase "the composition of the House" is to be taken to mean. We therefore thought it right for that dispute to be resolved on the Floor of the House, rather than leaving the Committee of Selection and its diligent Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), in continuing difficulties in fulfilling their duties week by week. The purpose of my motion is to resolve the matter and to do so in a way that would establish a firmer basis for dealing with any comparable difficulty in the future.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East): Can the Leader of the House assure us that, in promoting this motion, the Government intend that all Members of Parliament elected as Conservatives at the last election, irrespective of their present relationship with the party, will receive equal treatment by the Committee of Selection in the consideration of their qualifications for Committee membership? In other words, will there be no veto?
Mr. Newton: I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that there will be no veto. He will know that, unlike the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), we regard the selection of Committees as a matter for the Committee of Selection. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale nodding. Subject to that caveat, we would not wish to, nor would we seek to, exclude from consideration my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) or the other hon. Members concerned.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way as this matter is very important. We may be in danger of disfranchising the nine Members of Parliament about whom we are talking. As a member of the Committee of Selection it is well known to me, and I am sure to the right hon. Gentleman, too, that I am responsible for nominating all other Members, other than those who are part of the Conservative party or the official Opposition. As a result of what he just said, am I to be expected to make recommendations for Standing Committee
Column 160membership on behalf of those nine Members of Parliament, or will the Government officially put forward their names for inclusion in the membership of any Standing Committees that we may create?
Mr. Newton: I think that I made the position clear. On the hon. Gentleman's first question, the position is absolutely clear. No, we certainly do not expect him to take responsibility for nominating the Members of Parliament in question for selection for Standing Committees. I have made it absolutely clear--I shall repeat the words--that we would not wish to, nor would we seek to, exclude those Members from consideration as Conservative members of the Standing Committees--there would be no veto.
Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale): Perhaps my right hon. Friend could emphasise the fact that two of our hon. Friends who do not take the Whip serve on Select Committees and the Committee of Selection has made no attempt to remove them.
Mr. Newton: That is absolutely right and I stress that point. Three of my hon. Friends in the position at issue in this debate are members of Select Committees. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale raised the matter. Perhaps I might be allowed to acknowledge and agree with what he said. There is no intention of trying to remove those Members from Select Committees.
Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the problem does not arise with Select Committees because, by custom, a member of a Select Committee cannot be removed from it simply because he happens to disagree with the Government generally or on a specific matter. The problem does arise in respect of Standing Committees, however. Is it not the case that, as far as the Conservative party is concerned, most Members write to the Chairman of the Committee of Selection saying that they want to be considered for a Committee? The Whips Office also makes recommendations. There are a number of ways in which people can show their interest in a Committee. Even if we are not part of the official party for some temporary reason, it does not stop us writing to the Chairman of the Committee of Selection .
Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing): My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee of Selection may have had a slip of the tongue when he referred to Select rather than Standing Committees. Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that there is no question of the Committee of Selection seeking to remove people from Select Committees? They are appointed for a Parliament and can be removed only by a motion on the Floor of the House.
Column 161passed by the House. To avoid any doubt, there would be and is no question of seeking to remove any of the hon. Members in question from Select Committees.
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): Will the Leader of the House clarify some of the terminology that has been used so far in the debate? The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) referred to his colleagues who "do not take the Whip". That is not the correct terminology. It is a question not of not taking the Whip but of the Whip being withdrawn. In view of the statement which the Leader of the House was making about appointments to Standing Committees, will he say exactly what is meant by "withdrawal of the Conservative Whip"?
Mr. Newton: It is not for me to describe on the Floor of the House the internal arrangements of this party or any other. My purpose in tabling the motion and making a speech--I am making it with some difficulty in view of the number of interventions--is to explain what I believe is appropriate to the procedures and Standing Orders of the House, and their interpretation.
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow): Given that the Leader of the House said that the hon. Members in question will not be debarred from Standing Committees- -incidentally, Standing Committees are all that we are discussing today, and all that is referred to in paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 86, the motion and the amendments to it--will he explain what happened when the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) had the Whip withdrawn? When he approached the Whips Office to get on a Standing Committee, he was directed to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) to see whether he could get the position of another member of the Standing Committee.
Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend the Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household, who occupies the position opposite to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), assures me that that was not the case. In any event, it is not the case in the present issue.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): As one of the two hon. Members specifically referred to--I am a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture--will the Leader of the House be kind enough to give me one good reason why I should vote for this motion, given that the Government could prolong my punishment indefinitely if they win the vote?
Mr. Newton: I hope to give my hon. Friend a number of reasons why he should vote for the motion. On the latter part of his question, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others, including some of my hon. Friends who are in a similar position to my hon. Friend, have made it clear that we all wish to see the matter resolved as speedily as possible.
Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames): Is not the question put by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) the most central one? Is not the withdrawal of the Whip from an hon. Member, or its resignation by an hon. Member, tantamount to his losing membership of the parliamentary party? As that hon. Member's membership of the parliamentary party has then stopped, either temporarily or permanently, have not the Government put
Column 162themselves in a minority? Are not they therefore denying the logic of the position which they have, for whatever reason, decided to take?
Mr. Newton: I do not think that they have, for the reasons that I shall give in a moment. In effect, they will entail the House making a judgment about whether it wishes to enshrine the position of the Whips in the formal procedures and Standing Orders of the House in a way that has never hitherto been done.
"secession of Members to another party".
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain what will happen in a situation where a Member chooses to sit as an independent?
Mr. Gill: If the Leader of the House and other right hon. Gentlemen wish the Whip to be restored to me and the other seven who have had it withdrawn, would he be kind enough to tell me why they do not do just that rather than seek approval for the motion? The answer is self-evidently in their own hands.
Mr. Newton: I hope that with the best will in the world--I mean that; I am not just using words--my hon. Friend would not expect me now to go beyond what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his widely publicised interview on Sunday or to attempt to resolve the matter at this moment. The motion is meant to deal with the particular difficulty that we face and I hope that I may now be allowed to get on to put my argument.
Mr. Budgen: I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend said about the position of a Member who describes himself as independent. That might be the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body), who resigned the Whip. We, the remaining eight, are in a different position. We say that we are Tories and indeed the Prime Minister described us as being more blue than many of the Tories--it is only the Government who do not describe us as Tories. On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston may be in the position of being an independent. Perhaps my right hon. Friend can explain whether there is a distinction between the eight and the one.
Mr. Newton: It would depend on whether my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) declared that there was a difference in the position, which amounted to him viewing himself as a party of one or as an independent in the terms to which I have already referred. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West for what he just said about
Column 163his own position and that of most, at least, of the others concerned. I am also grateful to him for his article in The Guardian yesterday.
Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North): Surely the situation is this: if one has the Whip withdrawn, one has one's knuckles rapped; if one has been expelled from the party, one has had one's hands cut off. That is permanent.