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Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister advert to that matter at least three times during Prime Minister's questions, so I shall not attempt to add to what he said. Like everyone else, however, I am waiting with bated breath to know the policy of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): May I press the Leader of the House on the need for an urgent debate on bed shortages in the national health service? He will be aware that, recently, both a judge and a magistrate have issued summonses against the Secretary of State for Health. He will also know that the Government's own study into the provision of intensive care beds found that a considerable number of patients were denied the possibility of intensive care because those intensive care units were full. The shortage of beds in the NHS is reaching crisis point, and it is not good enough to suggest that we can debate that properly during questions next week to the Secretary of State for Health.
Mr. Newton: Of course I understand that questions do not provide the same kind of opportunity as a debate, but they certainly provide an opportunity to make points such as those raised by the hon. Lady. As I have said twice, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will be here on Tuesday. I should add only that the number of intensive care beds has risen from just over 2,500 to just over 2,600 in the past six years.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East): Is the Leader of the House aware of the concerns that are being expressed by the people of Coventry, particularly in the Willenhall area, about the situation at Baginton airport, bearing in mind the fact that, for a number of years, small airports have not been subject to any regulation? Will the right hon. Gentleman also undertake to talk to the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, who has said that a report known as "Aviation Regulations" is ready for publication, but that it is a matter of parliamentary time as to when he can bring it before the House? Will he
Column 467arrange for that report to be brought before the House urgently, so that it can be debated and the people of Willenhall and the surrounding areas can be reassured?
Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East): Has the Leader of the House read the remarks made yesterday by the chief executive of Channel 4, who attacked the Government's policy and that of the Secretary of State for National Heritage of diverting the profits of Channel 4 to the shareholders of the ITV companies? Will the Leader of the House make time for us to have a debate on the need for policies promoting investment in British programme making?
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman will note that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage has heard his representations direct. It is a matter on which I have also been lobbied, if I dare use that word, by Channel 4, so I am aware of the arguments. The funding formula and the associated risk were the basis on which the companies bid for their licences and, to put it mildly, it would be difficult to move the goalposts in the light of that.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the Hill Livestock (Compensatory Allowances) (Amendment) Regulations 1995 (S.I. 1995, No. 100) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Bates.]
Question agreed to.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will have heard the Leader of the House say that a statement is being made this afternoon by way of a written answer concerning the public sector pay awards. It is clearly a matter of considerable public interest, especially as thousands of jobs in education, the health service and other public services are in doubt. As Hansard may not report such questions until tomorrow or possibly Monday, what papers are being made available in the Vote Office this afternoon giving a full explanation of the Government's public sector pay awards?
Madam Speaker: Those questions should be put to the Ministers concerned: they are not for me. I have noticed that the three Members who are rising are those who were not called during business questions. I hope that they are raising points of order and not points of frustration that they might have made during business questions.
Mr. Arnold: I referred to a document entitled "Clause IV: A Model Reply to the NEC". It has obviously been printed in vast quantities on photocopiers in the House where this particular copy was found. It also says:
"printed and published by the Campaign for Socialism"
at an address in Glasgow, but clearly it was printed in the House at the expense of the taxpayer.
Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is making allegations that it was printed in the House. He must therefore have evidence of that. If he has, I hope he will pass the evidence and the material to the Sergeant at Arms' Office, so that proper inquiries can be made.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): On a point of order. I am sure that you remain as confused as I am, Madam Speaker, because the Government seem to have got the calendar of saints in the same confused order as the rest of the country. Do you know whether the St. David's day debate will take place on St. Winwaloe's day, as announced, or on some other day, but it certainly will not take place on St. David's day?
It is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) once remarked to the House, because our daffodils will have wilted by St. Winwaloe's day, and it is crucial that we have the debate on the same day. After listening to the confused statement by the Leader of the House, I have no idea when the debate is taking place.
Madam Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have in his top pocket a calendar. I do not have one, but I understand that Wednesday 1 March is St. David's day. I am not sure whether or not the debate is to take place on St. David's day, but as for daffodils, the hon.
Column 469Gentleman should not despair. I have about a hundredweight of daffodils in my garden, and if he is short of them, I shall see that he gets a few from me.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will know that disabled people suffer from a wide range of difficulties, including hearing difficulties and problems with wheelchairs in crowds. Therefore, when there is a lobby of Parliament such as the mass lobby of disabled people that is taking place today, there are difficulties in organising meeting facilities in Methodist Central hall because of the lack of access.
When a lobby takes place in Parliament, would it not be appropriate for there to be facilities enabling Members to communicate with a wider group of disabled people and for microphones to be available in Westminster Hall, instead of their being removed by the authorities of the House, as they were today, when masses of people were there to make representations on tomorrow's Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill?
Madam Speaker: The best possible facilities have been made available by the House and its authorities for the use of Westminster Hall, which holds more than 1,500 people. It is a large hall, and the authorities and the police have done their best to make it available for those who might be disabled and who wish to lobby their Members of Parliament.
Loudspeaker equipment is available in Westminster Hall only to the House authorities for crowd regulation. There are many people there. The idea is that, when Members of Parliament go to Westminster Hall to see
Column 470their constituents, the House authorities can let the lobbyists know that Members of Parliament are present and which part of the hall they will be in, so that they can lobby their Members of Parliament. Everything possible is being done to see that those lobbying can reach their Members of Parliament and that they can meet them in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): With regard to what you said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), Madam Speaker, about the statement which Ministers will make at some point on the vexed question of pay for millions of people--nurses, teachers and others--do you agree that that matter will exercise the minds of every Member of Parliament, and that we all need to know exactly what the Government will do?
On many previous occasions you have deplored the fact that Ministers make statements outside the House when they should make them in the Chamber. On what is probably the most important question of the week, which will affect millions of our constituents, the Government refuse to make a statement so that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members can ask vital questions. Do you agree, Madam Speaker, that the Chancellor should make a statement about that very important question?
Madam Speaker: I have no authority to bring the Chancellor or any other member of the Government to the Chamber to make a statement. It is for Ministers themselves to decide whether they will make a statement orally at the Dispatch Box, or will provide a written answer to a question. The Government have chosen to respond in this case by way of a written answer, which should be available now in the Vote Office and in the Library of the House of Commons.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Bates.]
[Relevant documents: The White Paper entitled `The future of the BBC: serving the nation, competing world-wide' (Cm 2621) and the Second Report of Session 1993-94 from the National Heritage Committee on the Future of the BBC (HC 77).]
The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Stephen Dorrell): This Adjournment debate is an opportunity for the House to comment on the contents of the White Paper, "The Future of the BBC", which my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) brought forward in July last year. The White Paper set out a very clear view about the future of the corporation. It announced the Government's intention to renew the BBC's charter for a 10-year period to the end of 2006. It set out how the Government intended the BBC to develop through that period and how the BBC's accountability mechanisms should evolve in the changed world in which the corporation would be operating.
I think that it is fair to say that the White Paper was well received, both in the House and outside, and this debate constitutes an opportunity for hon. Members--who have had a chance both to read the White Paper and to hear people's reactions to it--to set out their considered views about the contents of the document.
I have said that the White Paper contains a very clear view about the future of the BBC and that is, of course, summarised in its title and its two subtitles. The aims of the BBC through the next charter period are encapsulated by the subtitles, "Serving the nation" and "Competing world- wide". I shall examine both those themes because they are important to the future of the BBC and to the future opportunities of British broadcasting.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): The Minister referred to the subtitle "Serving the nation", and he will be aware of the arguments in Wales and Scotland about securing adequate services and the need to ensure that there is strategic input into decision making at the BBC. Does he accept that, since the White Paper was drawn up, technology has changed so quickly that the advent of more television channels is imminent? Wales needs another national English language television channel that is comparable to the existing Welsh language channel. Will he take that point on board in his considerations today and in the outcome of the debate?
On the comments that the hon. Gentleman made about changing technology in broadcasting, it is important to begin by considering that aspect of the broadcasting market. Any plans for the future of the BBC have to be made against a background of recognition that the marketplace is changing quickly. Like all changes that are technology driven, their precise speed and direction are
Column 472difficult to predict. It is important that the future structure of the BBC is tailored to a reasonable projection of where those technology changes are likely to lead us.
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): While I agree with the Minister in part, would not it be better if the Government were prepared to tailor technology to suit the future of the BBC rather than the other way round? Is not it time that the Government gave British Telecommunications plc--our biggest telecommunications company--the right to broadcast, link in and work with the BBC, rather than allowing a mass of American companies to broadcast in this country?
Mr. Dorrell: With respect, I am not sure that the regulation of BT reflects the Government moulding the future of technology. Certainly, the future of technology is not within the Government's gift, and nor should it be. What is, however, is to ensure that the cabling of Britain is undertaken by more than one company--
Mr. Dorrell: To provide the consumer with choice in a competitive marketplace, with the likelihood of consumer wishes being more effectively met. The reason why it has been the Government's policy from the beginning to restrict the development of the existing BT cable network into the cable television market has been made clear by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. He has also made clear the reasons why that policy will be sustained.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): If there is to be competition between companies to provide cable, how do the Government envisage that we avoid having our streets dug up more than once? Does not he think that there should be a statutory control to ensure that the same ducts are used?
Mr. Dorrell: With respect, the Government got to that question at least five years before the hon. Gentleman, because there is, of course, precisely such a statutory regulation. That is the precise purpose of the licensing system operated through the cable authority. The purpose of the regulatory system is to ensure that there is--as the hon. Gentleman put in the conditional--a competitive marketplace.
Mr. Skinner: But why does not the Minister understand that just because the cable companies said something in the House a few years ago about what they wanted to do, it does not follow that it is happening underground? They will continue to dig up the roads. The trouble with the Minister is that he does not know what is happening in the real world. He should see more films, then he might find out.
Column 473listening to the debate, but so far I have not heard, at least for the past five minutes, the word "BBC" or anything to do with the BBC.
Mr. Dorrell: I am grateful for the opportunity to return to the subject of the BBC, but not, if I may, before observing that it might have been with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in mind that I went to see Bun uel's film "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie". I am not sure that it was precisely directed at the hon. Gentleman.
That exchange illustrates the extent and pace of technological change that is driving the broadcasting market. That is important as a context for the debate, because it demonstrates clearly that the BBC is operating in a fast -growing sector and one that contains within it major opportunities for all broadcasters in Britain, including the BBC. It is important that any plans for the future of the corporation are made against that background.
It is important to bear something else in mind when considering the future of the BBC: we are not starting, in the development of this fast-changing marketplace, with a clean sheet of paper. We are starting substantially better off than that, because, during its 70 years, the BBC has established an enviable reputation as a quality broadcaster and contributor to our national heritage and national life. That reputation is based on a broad- based expertise in the making and scheduling of programmes and the development of public esteem, both in this country and abroad.
Many hon. Members will have admired the BBC's drama, light entertainment and education programmes and its programmes for children. Earlier this week I was in Bristol, and was able to admire a specific example of the BBC's expertise--its natural history programmes.
Hon. Members occasionally comment on the BBC's skilful current affairs coverage, and its ability to maintain a balance in news and current affairs programmes. There will always be debate about how those programmes can be improved further, but that does not alter the fact that the BBC has established an enviable reputation in regard to news and current affairs broadcasting.
In planning the corporation's future, we must recognise the opportunities created by a changing marketplace. We must build on the enviable reputation that the BBC has established during its 70-year history.
My right hon. Friend mentioned news and current affairs, however. Will he join me in condemning a specific story in Friday's 6 pm and 9 pm news bulletins? The BBC's news and current affairs department went out of its way to mislead viewers about events in the Chamber earlier that day in connection with the veal debate.
Mr. Dorrell: I did not have the advantage of seeing those broadcasts. A characteristic of most politicians is their speed in commenting on programmes that they have not seen; I shall refrain from doing so myself.
Column 474Although we are all occasionally annoyed by material produced by the BBC, and indeed by all broadcasters, the unavoidable and welcome truth is that throughout its history the BBC has made a serious effort to maintain independence and has established a public reputation for doing so. We should build on that.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC has a more exceptional reputation than any other broadcasting organisation in the world? Does he accept that, while we must move with the times and the changing market, the Government should not do anything that might damage the BBC's opportunity to remain pre-eminent in broadcasting throughout the world?
Mr. Dorrell: I entirely agree; indeed, I shall go a step further. I do not content myself with merely not damaging the BBC's capacity to build on its reputation. The purpose of the debate surrounding the renewal of its charter was, rightly, to ensure not only that we did not damage that capacity, but that we could enhance it and give the BBC as many opportunities as possible.
Two themes are highlighted in the subtitles of the White Paper. First, there is the theme of serving the nation. Although the international exploitation of BBC material presents important opportunities, the BBC's primary role must be as a mainstream domestic broadcaster: that is its core activity, and that is where we should begin in considering its future evolution.
I have mentioned the fast-changing broadcasting marketplace, but the House should bear another element in mind. While we should take into account the technology-driven change that is affecting the marketplace, we should not overestimate the pace of that change or its implications. I sometimes hear people talk of technology-driven change in broadcasting as if they expected the broadcasting marketplace with which we have become familiar suddenly to crumble and disappear. That is not true. For the foreseeable future, the five terrestrial television channels will remain the main television market in Britain. The White Paper makes it clear that we intend that the BBC should continue to deliver two of them.
The radio market will also continue to change, but not at such a pace that it will be unrecognisable in 12 months' time. The BBC will remain a strong provider of broadcasting services in that changing, but not excessively fast-changing marketplace. It is important to remember that the BBC will, for the foreseeable future, remain a broad-based public service broadcaster which, at some time in the week or another, broadcasts to the great majority of the British population. That is likely to continue. I hope that it does continue. In the context of the White Paper, part of the Government's purpose is to ensure that it continues. That is important because it is the proper justification for the Government's decision, announced in the White Paper, to continue the licence fee as the financing mechanism for domestic broadcasting in Britain.
The White Paper makes it clear that the licence fee is an "oddity"--the word used in the White Paper. It is true that, if we were starting from scratch, we might not finance public service broadcasting in that way, but, as I emphasised to the House, we are not starting from scratch.
Column 475The BBC is a well-established and well-loved institution and the burden of proof lies firmly on those who want to change individual and important aspects of it.
It is important to establish where the burden of proof lies. The case for maintaining the licence fee is important. It rests on two principal legs. The first is that the BBC continues to have a large audience share and a very much larger reach in terms of domestic audience. At some time in the week or another, it is a main broadcasting provider to the great majority of the British listening and viewing public. The second key leg is, of course, that the licence fee gives the BBC an independent flow of revenue outside the direct political process. That was the basis on which the Government set out their continued commitment to the continuation of the licence fee for the first five years of the 10-year charter in the changing marketplace.
It is important not only to establish the reason why we remain, for the moment, committed to the licence fee, but to reflect that, if those fundamental circumstances change, the argument that delivers the licence fee as the main financing source starts to weaken.
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): I acknowledge and agree with what my right hon. Friend has just said, but will he confirm that he agrees with the statement in the White Paper that there should be no cross- subsidy from licence fee payers to the BBC's commercial activities? How will we relate that proviso to the BBC's transmission services if they are privatised? What is the cost of those services? The figure of some £24 million is being bandied about, but does not that already include a considerable element of cross-subsidy and hidden cost covered by other sectors of the BBC? Is not that unfair?
Mr. Dorrell: My hon. Friend raises two related subjects. The first is the extent of cross-subsidy from the home broadcasting business to the external business. I shall come to that subject later. Transmission services are left as an open question in the White Paper. We are in discussion with the BBC on the matter. I cannot tell the House yet what result those discussions are likely to produce. I am told that the cost to the BBC of the transmission services is not separately identified. That is one of the issues around which the discussions are taking place.
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd): I am worried about what the Secretary of State has said. He referred to the core activity of being the major broadcaster in Britain. The BBC is also a programme maker. I was glad to hear the Secretary of State's confidence in the licence fee as a source of revenue which, presumably, will apply at least to part of the function as programme maker.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that the entertainments industry, the televisual and radio industry, is one of the largest in the world? The Americans calculate that that industry will be their largest overseas earner by the turn of the century. The BBC's great role may relate to the fact that it makes programmes of great excellence and that it is as important as any other industry in this country.
Mr. Dorrell: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. At the beginning of my comments, I tried to make it clear that I proposed to refer to the functions of the BBC under the two headings of serving the nation and exploiting the
Column 476wider international market opportunities. At this stage of my speech, I am addressing the issues that arise from serving the nation.
With regard to serving the nation, it is true that domestic programme content is one of the glories of the BBC and, it must be said, of ITV. The key objective is to consider the functioning and accountability of the BBC as a domestic broadcaster. I want now to consider accountability.
Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North): With regard to one of the two premises on which my right hon. Friend is basing the continuation of the BBC, what proportion of the BBC's audience would have to be lost before the Government believed that circumstances had changed and things should be different?
Mr. Dorrell: I cannot attach a figure to that. The principle that I am describing is not unfamiliar to the House nor is it unwelcome to the BBC. It is important that it is understood that the basis on which the universal licence fee rests is the BBC's claim to be a mainstream broadcaster to every home in Britain. That is the basis on which the development of broadcasting policy within the BBC must rest if we are to continue to justify to the audience the proposition that paying for the BBC should be achieved through the licence fee. I want now to consider the accountability of this public service broadcasting institution because that is at the heart of the issue of how we further improve--to take the theme of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)--the performance of the BBC in the years ahead. The White Paper clearly sets out three tiers of accountability or documentation surrounding accountability. The first tier is the document that will be very familiar to the House--the BBC's charter. Much of last year's debate took place under the heading of the charter's renewal.
In terms of accountability, there is a sense in which the charter is not the most important document. In effect, it constitutes a constitution for the BBC. It sets out the responsibilities of the different elements within the BBC. However, it does not seek to define precisely the output purpose of the different elements of the BBC. That is contained in two other tiers of accountability--the agreement which we envisage the corporation will sign with me as Secretary of State and which will run for the 10-year period of the new charter, and the promises that the BBC will make to define, for its audience, its interpretation of the public service broadcasting obligation imposed on it.
I want to refer to those two documents and to concentrate in particular on "Promises to Audiences", because that is the more flexible key element in the enforcement of the accountability of that great public corporation. I shall refer to the agreement first. The agreement will set out the range of services that the Government and the BBC agree that the BBC will provide. It will set out the assurance of independence of management and programme editorial staff from political intervention, and the responsibility of the BBC's governors for the way in which that independence is used. The agreement will set out the undertakings of the BBC on the standards of programming material that it will broadcast and it will also set out the principles that I have just described which surround the licence fee.
Column 477In "Promises to Audiences", as I said, the BBC will set out its clear understanding of the public service obligation placed on it. It is against the target set out in that document that not merely this House--although certainly this House--but the wider public, will want to test the delivery of the service for which the governors of the corporation will be responsible.
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the constant diet, shown by the BBC and other television channels, of violence, pornography and bad language? Does he agree that the 9 o'clock watershed is a cop-out because children watch television after 9 o'clock and that in any event programmes of that kind coarsen and degrade everyone who watches them?
Mr. Dorrell: The White Paper, the agreement and the "Promises to Audiences" all make it clear that maintenance of standards of taste and decency must underlie any proper definition of the public service broadcasting obligation. However, all of us as individuals must recognise that when we are individually offended or angered by a programme, it does not necessarily mean that there has been a breach of the standards undertaken by the corporation. None the less, a serious commitment by the governors to deliver a proper, modern understanding of standards of taste and decency is expressed unambiguously in the White Paper, as it will be in the agreement between myself and the corporation.
Mr. Maxton: Does the Secretary of State appreciate that there is more than one audience in the United Kingdom? A variety of audiences is based largely around the regions and, especially, the nations that comprise the United Kingdom. How does he intend to ensure that the BBC is accountable to that diversity of audiences and not only to a single audience?
Mr. William Cash (Stafford): Will my right hon. Friend comment on impartiality and emphasise that the charter does not concern political impartiality, but impartiality on matters of public policy? Does he therefore agree that it is absolutely essential that, in matters of national interest, due weight is given to both sides of the argument in respect of the amount of time provided and the content of the matters raised?
Mr. Dorrell: My hon. Friend is certainly right. Impartiality includes even--occasionally--accounting for the views of the hon. Member for Bolsover. We need to ensure that the responsibility for managing impartiality is clearly vested with the corporation and that there is an accountability mechanism by which we may test our collective view of its effectiveness in delivering that pledge. I shall describe that mechanism to the House.
I shall draw the attention of the House to what I think are the key passages in the White Paper, which set out clearly the contract that the BBC will offer as a public
Column 478service broadcaster to its audience, as contained in its "Promises to Audiences" document. Paragraph 6.36 of the White Paper says: "The promises to audiences would include the BBC's objectives for its programmes and services as a whole . . . and would set out the role of each of the BBC's services in the United Kingdom funded from the licence fee."
That is clear and unambiguous. That paragraph also refers to paragraphs 3.25 and 3.26, which further clarify that principle. Paragraph 3.25 states:
"the purpose of each of the main national television and radio network services should be clearly stated and there should be objectives for some of the main strands of BBC output, such as news and current affairs, education and drama."
Paragraph 3.26 states:
"The availability of such objectives, approved by the Board of Governors, would provide a means of ensuring that the Governors and the BBC's senior managers, and ultimately Parliament and the public, would be able to assess how far the BBC had met the objectives, and so was fulfilling its role as a public service broadcaster. The Governors' assessment should be included in the BBC's Annual Report, which is presented to Parliament."
That contains the kernel of the approach to accountability, which is set out in the White Paper and which will be contained in the documents that will be presented to the House at the end of the consultation process. In that context, I want to comment on three specific elements of accountability which I know have been of concern to hon. Members and which I expect to see contained in the "Promises to Audiences" document.