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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I hope that there is a strong commitment in the contract to the maintenance of high-quality British children's programming. So far, I have not heard that mentioned. If we consistently allow all our programmes to be bought-in cartoons, we shall not only underplay our commitment to the British culture and the British language, but sell our own children disastrously short.

Mr. Dorrell: I agree with the hon. Lady. If she checks the record, she will find that the development of expertise in children's programming was one of the points that I mentioned as a strength of the BBC. It is certainly contained within the BBC's wider commitment to the original commissioning of broadcasting, both within the corporation and from independent producers, for the United Kingdom domestic audience.

In terms of the key interests that will be covered by "Promises to Audiences", clearly the balance of different types of broadcasting material, as the quotations that I read out make clear, will be at the core of the promises that the BBC sets out in the document--that is, the balance between drama and children's programming and the balance between education programming and news and current affairs. That is part of the contractual document that the BBC will set out in "Promises to Audiences".

The second theme that the BBC will answer in the document is the subject that I debated with the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) this week-- access for disabled people to different types of BBC broadcasting material. The third subject refers directly to regional balance within England, and national balance within the

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United Kingdom. Paragraph 3.24--I assure the House that this is the last quotation from the White Paper--makes the point in unambiguous terms. It states:

"It is important that the BBC should make and commission a reasonable proportion and range of its national output, as well as programmes for local audiences, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in the English regions. An undertaking to do this should be included in the new Agreement, and an analysis of hours and range of output made in different parts of the country for broadcasting locally and throughout the United Kingdom should be included in the BBC's Annual Report."

I expect that the BBC will want to include some precision about the nature of that understanding in "Promises to Audiences", so that there are yardsticks against which the audience and Parliament can test its delivery of the general principle that will be set out in the agreement signed between the Government and the corporation.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Taking paragraphs 3.24 and 6.22 together, what is the Government's view of the phrase "cultural patron"? What does the right hon. Gentleman regard as the BBC's responsibilities, particularly in Scotland, but doubtless in Wales and elsewhere, as a cultural patron? What does it mean in terms of finance?

Mr. Dorrell: I am not sure whether I warm to the term "cultural patron", but I warm to the term "public service broadcasting". Public service broadcasting should include a concept of local content, of local production, and of talking to a local audience in a language that the local audience talks, and doing that with material that reflects the quality standards to which some of my hon. Friends referred.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Dorrell: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and then I must make progress. I have already detained the House for nearly 45 minutes.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): Despite the assurance of the declaration of intent contained in paragraph 3.24, there is widespread concern in Scotland about what is regarded as the over- centralisation of the BBC in London, particularly in respect of drama and the production of drama. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that he will keep a tight weather eye on that matter?

Mr. Dorrell: I am happy to give not only the hon. Gentleman but the House that assurance. It was to give a tangible form that I suggested that I expect that the BBC will want, in its statement of "Promises to Audiences", to seek to tie down the undertaking in the agreement in a form that allows us to check year by year the delivery of the undertakings that it has given.

Mr. Dalyell: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State said that he did not warm to the phrase "cultural patron". It was not my phrase; it was his phrase. It is in his own document, at line 5 of paragraph 3.24. It is--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. It might be a point of substance, but it is not a point of order.

Mr. Dorrell: I accept the hon. Gentleman's correction. I was seeking to suggest that part of the public service

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obligation was to deliver the service that the hon. Gentleman was seeking to suggest should be--I agree--part of the core of the BBC's activity.

Mr. Wigley: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dorrell: No. I want to move on. I am very grateful, as ever, for the hon. Gentleman's help.

I have spent a fair amount of time talking about my understanding and view of how the BBC should develop its serving the nation mission. I want now to deal with its role as a worldwide competitor in the changing broadcasting marketplace that I talked about. I regard it as a major opportunity for the BBC and I also regard it more generally as a major opportunity for Britain.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dorrell: Let me develop the argument a little bit further. That marketplace brings benefits to this country, because broadcasting and the consumption of broadcasting material are a fast-growing marketplace, for all the technological reasons that I quoted, not just in this country but all round the world. That this country is the home of the English language should give us a particular advantage and an opportunity to develop that marketplace. The BBC's strong presence in that marketplace already gives us a firm base on which to build. There is a clear opportunity for British broadcasting, and particularly for the BBC.

The other benefit in that context, of which we should also be aware and which we should welcome, is that the larger the audience who see a programme inside or outside the country, the greater the opportunity to defray the cost of making it over a larger base. It gives us a larger programme-making budget. In a like-for-like situation, it reduces the cost to a certain audience of seeing a certain programme. It is therefore strongly in the interests of the domestic audience and of Britain as a broadcasting base that that international marketplace is exploited.

If we are to do that through the BBC, it is important that the terms on which that opportunity is to be exploited are made clear. It is important that we safeguard the interests of domestic licence payers, who do not pay their licence fees as an investment in an international broadcasting business. They pay their licence fees to secure a domestic broadcasting service. That is one reason why it is important to be clear about the terms on which that exploitation takes place. The other reason is that there are other United Kingdom players in that international marketplace, and we should not use licence payers' money to give the BBC a distorted advantage in an international marketplace over other United Kingdom broadcast programme makers. That is why the Government set out in the White Paper clear proposals for ring-fencing the international competing function, and set terms requiring the partner in that function to take the commercial risk. That is the proper function of the private sector partner, not of the licence payer.

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I hope that the framework set out in the White Paper will be accepted on both sides of the House as an example of the link between the public and the private sector that will allow us to deliver our objectives without prejudicing the interests of the licence payer. Mr. Flynn rose --

Mr. Dorrell: I shall give way, but this will be the last time.

Mr. Flynn: The whole House will rejoice over the sinner who repents. The Secretary of State is saying what many people in the House and elsewhere were saying a decade ago. If it were not for the stubbornness of the previous Prime Minister, who insisted that the BBC world television service should follow one pattern alone, that service could have built on the pre-eminent role of the BBC radio world service, and we could have been the No. 1 player instead of coming in late in the day, having allowed others to become pre-eminent. Will the Secretary of State say one word of remorse about that?

Mr. Dorrell: No I shall not, because the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the proposal made at that time. That was precisely that the licence payer should take the commercial risk. The argument in favour of the structure that we have now is that the commercial risk is borne by commercial interests. The licence payer benefits by defraying the cost over a larger audience, and therefore from the reduced price for individual programmes.

Finally, the process of renewing the BBC's charter will now continue and, having heard the views of the House today, the Government will produce draft documents. The agreement, in particular, will be for the House to approve and the other documents will be available, so the House will be able to see the total picture when it makes the decision on the agreement, and will have the opportunity to debate it before it comes into force.

The BBC has been through a time of substantial change and, as is always the case, change has been a bruising process. The BBC has changed and continues to change, and it now has a major opportunity to take advantage of the kind of marketplace that we have been discussing. I hope that the proposals in the White Paper will ensure that the BBC will be well placed to take advantage of that opportunity, and I commend them to the House.

4.51 pm

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury): The Opposition, like many other people throughout the country, greeted the White Paper with considerable relief. Compared with what might have been, and with what the Government at one stage actively suggested, much of the White Paper is warmly welcomed, especially the commitment to the BBC as the linchpin of public service broadcasting in this country. We wholeheartedly endorse that commitment.

Before I turn to the detail, perhaps I may be permitted to say a word or two about the director-general's speech in Dublin last Friday. There is a vital need for robust, sometimes acerbic probing of what politicians say and what they mean. That testing process is part of the role of Parliament, and some aspects of our work here are evidence that we can carry out that role well, although others show us carrying it out rather less well.

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That testing process is also part of the role of the media. I hope that John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman will continue to lift a cynical eyebrow and ask adversarial questions. That process is an essential part of our democracy. If Mr. Birt was telling the "Today" programme in a not-very-coded fashion to be more gentle with the Secretary of State for Health, or indeed with me, I hope that it will take no notice whatever of him.

The director-general has a point, however, when he talks about the need to include in the media's consideration of politics a more in-depth considered analysis of some of the real issues. The clash of sharp question and prepared soundbite is all very well, and perhaps it is inevitable in a fast -paced news programme, but there must be room for something more; otherwise the output becomes gesture politics, and the electorate deserve and will appreciate something better than that. While the media are thinking along those lines, perhaps the Government should do so, too. The need for a proper freedom of information Act has never been more obvious.

With regard to the future of the BBC, the Opposition welcome much of the White Paper. We welcome its commitment to the public service remit and to the licence fee as the primary source of funding. The licence fee is, of course, an imperfect method of funding, but nothing that I have ever heard proposed is any better.

Why must there be a review of the principle before the end of the year 2001? Why put us through all that uncertainty again by putting a limit on the certainty that the Government are prepared to offer? Surely they could have given a longer perspective for the future of the licence fee. In that context, I noted with great interest that the Secretary of State said earlier that the burden of proof would rest with those who argued for change. If that is indeed the Government's position, and if it represents a slightly clearer commitment to the future of the licence fee than exists in the White Paper, I certainly welcome it.

Mr. Fabricant: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that technological change is setting the pace to a large extent? Digital terrestrial television is on the horizon, and there could be 12 channels tomorrow if the Government gave the go-ahead. Two years ago, the technology was not there. Surely it is right for the Government to say that the pace increases and technology moves on, so the BBC and other broadcasting organisations may have to be reviewed in the light of the changes--changes brought about by technology, not by the Government.

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that technology is moving on fast, but he would be a little pushed to provide digital terrestrial television tomorrow, because the transmission systems are not yet in place. He is certainly right that, within a couple of years, we could have 12 digital channels, and there are also the possibilities that open up with the provision of broad-band cable networks.

However, the key functions of the BBC as the public service broadcaster seem to me to be best guaranteed by the licence fee system, and I wish that the Government had been a little more forthright in saying that, rather than hedging their commitment with a time limit.

Sir John Gorst: I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary

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of State earlier. Is one of his premises the need for the BBC to command a reasonably large audience to justify being financed by the licence fee? If his argument rests on that basis, will he tell the House at what level of audience he would find that the BBC had lost so much support that he would wish to revise his opinions? That possibility could be a justification for taking a second look--perhaps half way through the 10-year period.

Mr. Smith: The second part of the hon. Gentleman's question revealed the failings in the first. Although the maintenance of public support through a compulsory licence fee has to be justified by reaching a substantial audience, the precise definition of what qualifies as "substantial" will change in time. There is no evidence that the BBC is losing audience share--indeed, at Christmas it gained it. The two justifications for the licence fee are: first, audience reach, and secondly, equally and if not more importantly, the maintenance of quality standards. That must be taken into account. The White Paper sounds an ominous note on transmission services. It shows that privatisation of BBC transmission is under active consideration. The Opposition totally oppose such a proposal.

Mr. Fabricant: Would the hon. Gentleman renationalise National Transcommunications Ltd.?

Mr. Smith: I shall come to that in a moment. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my argument, he may get the answer to his question.

I oppose privatisation for two main reasons. First, in such circumstances, the BBC would be at the mercy of prices for transmission that were determined entirely by others, which would almost certainly put up BBC costs.

Secondly, privatisation would bring progress towards digitalisation to a shuddering halt. The BBC already has a substantial technological lead in developing digital transmission. Digitisation, with all the exciting possibilities that the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) identified, is a process in which the BBC must remain at the forefront. If one put the BBC through the exercise of transmission privatisation, with all the uncertainties that that would probably generate for about two years, it would put all progress on digitalisation at risk. Some people in independent television argue--I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would follow their arguments--that the BBC transmission service needs to be privatised to provide competition for National Transcommunications Ltd. which, as a monopoly supplier, charges high prices to the ITV network. Problems arise because NTL is a monopoly supplier. Privatising the BBC, in the hope of providing competition, is not the answer. Why not free the BBC commercially to offer a competitive service? Then one would gain the benefits of competition without the uncertainties that would arise from privatisation.

While on the subject of digitalisation, when are the Government planning to produce the proposals set out in paragraphs 4.30 and 4.31 of the White Paper? Fundamental changes in the role of the regulators will be necessary as new digital channels become available, and how the new channels are made available will become

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crucial. I do not want the same process to be used for awarding digital channels as was used when the franchises for Channel 3 were recently awarded.

Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. It is very generous. Does he accept that NTL is at the forefront of the development of digital systems? Is he saying that he wants it renationalised for the same reasons that he gave for not privatising the BBC's engineering department? Why does he not accept that the BBC might well find it cheaper to be able to go, not merely to the duopoly of the NTL and a privatised BBC engineering department, but to other companies--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions are becoming too long. If hon. Members persist in making long interventions, they may find it difficult to catch my eye when they want to make a speech.

Mr. Smith: Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker, too long and not especially enlightening. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is, no, I would not advocate renationalising NTL, but I would advocate providing good public sector competition, by putting the BBC's transmission network into play.

The White Paper contains a clear commitment to enhance the BBC's regional character, as some of my hon. Friends have already said. It is important that the voice of the regions and nations of the United Kingdom should become clearer and be heard more frequently, to counteract what many see as the BBC's metropolitan bias, and it is right for that aim to be established. So far, the BBC's response has been inadequate. It makes 85 per cent. of its network programmes in London and 97 per cent. in England. Only 3 per cent. are made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where about 17 per cent. of its audience live.

The BBC's radio network broadcasts 35,000 hours of programming a year. BBC Radio Wales contributes just 385 hours.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham): Surely the Secretary of State clearly accepted that argument.

Mr. Smith: He accepted the aim, but the reality is different. It is crucial that we insist that the BBC puts its practice where the principles of the White Paper already stand, and that is my argument.

Mr. Wigley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith: For the last time.

Mr. Wigley: I am grateful, because the hon. Gentleman's argument is right and that matter is critical for the future. Is he aware that we have slipped back in recent years? Between 1985 and 1989, BBC Wales produced 67 hours a year of programmes for the television network, but by 1993-94 it was down to only 41. We therefore need an effective monitoring system to ensure that any commitments are carried out. Any ideas along those lines will be welcome.

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall deal with the monitoring mechanism. He might have added that English language programming in Wales has suffered. Indeed, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) might note that, out of six regional outside broadcast facilities, the BBC has recently closed or

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drastically reduced three--Bristol, Birmingham and Belfast--with a proportional loss of jobs and equipment. He might also like to note that the Belfast design department has closed completely, leaving BBC Northern Ireland--a supposedly significant source of drama--to use facilities in the Irish Republic.

Mr. Maxton: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Smith: Yes, but this really is the last time.

Mr. Maxton: One of the dangers is that the BBC could fulfil its commitment simply by sending crews out from London to make programmes in the regions, rather than having them made by the BBC facilities in the nations and regions. I hope that the Minister who replies for the Government will deal with that.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend is right. It is crucial that programme making is centred on the region or nation and that programmes are not merely made about a region, but made drawing on the skills of people who originate from it.

In response to the White Paper, the BBC said that it would move £75 million of network programmes from London to the English and national regions. Of course that would help, although it would raise the contribution from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland only from 3 per cent. to 4.2 per cent. That, too, answers the point made by the hon. Member for Twickenham: fine words are all very well, but if the BBC programme production from those three nations amounts to only 4.2 per cent. of its total programme output, that is not good enough. Yet that is the aspiration put before us by the BBC in response to the White Paper. If it were fulfilled, it would move about six hours of television production a week out of London. The change proposed is minimal, but even that change has not yet been effected. We were told that an announcement was imminent in October, but it has still not been made.

The English regions are faring badly, as well. BBC Radio Cleveland recently announced that its chief engineer had been made redundant, along with 10 others in the northern region. Overall, BBC local radio reaches about 10 million listeners a week, yet Radio Cleveland will be left with only one engineer for the entire station. Such cuts damage the quality of service and fundamentally damage the local, regional and national character of programme making. We deserve better.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) asked about monitoring. A crucial monitoring function is performed by the broadcasting councils for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. They have an important role, but it is also important that they have a strategic, not just a day-by-day, monitoring function. It would help if those broadcasting councils made their minutes public so that we knew what they did on our behalf. Surely we also need an English regional council--not just the English forum which the BBC appears to want. That would be a much weakened body; we need a body to match, on behalf of the English regions, the work of the three national councils.

Mr. Cash rose --

Mr. Smith: I have already given way generously and I want to make progress.

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We also hear that the BBC wants to do away with the general advisory council. That must not be allowed to happen. It plays a vital role as a sounding board, offering advice--sometimes awkward advice--and identifying trends, not just responding to one-off events. The BBC appears to want an ad hoc arrangement, with consultation taking place only from time to time in respect of specific issues. That would not be good enough. We believe that there must be a continuing and consistent role for the general advisory council. I come next to the role of the board of governors, who are of course the primary guardians of the public interest. Some have argued in recent days that the governors should be elected in some fashion. I suspect that that might be too cumbersome an arrangement, but there does need to be greater accountability.

The White Paper makes an astonishing statement on page 54, in response to the excellent report by the Select Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The Government say:

"the Government does not consider that the appointment process"-- for governors--

"should be made public, nor that the names of prospective Governors should be submitted to the Select Committee for possible interview before the nomination is confirmed"--

Mr. Jessel: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a smell of food in the Chamber which I have never noticed before in all my years here. As some of us are trying, with considerable effort, to concentrate on the hon. Gentleman's speech and the smell of food is distracting, could you ask the Serjeant at Arms to make inquiries and to try to have it stopped?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I know, from having sat in this Chair on many occasions, that this is not the first such instance. I shall, however, try to ensure that the matter is put right.

Mr. Smith: Whatever the BBC board of governors may be responsible for, it is not the preparation of food in the Palace of Westminster. As I was saying, the Government, responding to the Select Committee, said that having the Select Committee interview candidates for governor before the nominations were confirmed

"risks deterring some candidates, and might make appointments more political."

I fail to understand the logic in that. If the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister make appointments, they are somehow non-political, but if the all-party Select Committee of the House interviews candidates and ratifies appointments, they become political. The very reverse is true. We would look sympathetically on a proposal to insist that candidates for governorship of the BBC be subject to interview and ratification by the Select Committee of the House of Commons.

Furthermore, as well as the BBC presenting its own report to Parliament each year I would argue that the governors should present a report on their work to the Select Committee, and that they should be subject to interview about it. That would at least introduce more accountability and transparency to all the important work of the governors.

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The British Film Institute has raised a number of problems with the Department to do with the difficulties of film production at the BBC. I note from what the Secretary of State said today that he now appears to remember that the last film he went to see was "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie". Looking at those on the Government Front Bench, I am more reminded of that wonderful old film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"--although I do not think that the precise casting has yet been determined.

The BFI has pointed out that when a film produced by the BBC has a good run at the box office before being shown on television, the audience that it can attract on television is greatly enlarged, but that the financial rules governing the operations of the BBC make that difficult. I hope that the Secretary of State will examine those rules to see whether mechanisms for showing films at the cinema before they are shown on television can be explored as a way of raising interest in and increasing the audience for BBC-produced films.

The White Paper includes a proposal to merge the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. We welcome it: it makes sense. When, though, will it happen? Will the Secretary of State consider whether the new, merged body should also take on a proposal made by the National Consumer Council, for a broadcasting consumer council? Surely that much-needed function would provide a good fit with the work of the current two bodies, and it could be usefully folded into the work of the newly merged organisation.

We welcome the advent of BBC World and BBC Prime. They offer major opportunities around the world, some of which the right hon. Gentleman has identified. I share the chagrin of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) about the loss of such a wonderful opportunity to get ahead of the game some 12 years ago. Progress is now under way, which is welcome. However, there must be a one-way valve in relation to the funding of BBC World and BBC Prime. Funds from the licence fee must not be allowed to subsidise commercial operations abroad. Naturally, if those commercial operations are successful and, over time, profitable, those profits can usefully be used to enhance the BBC's domestic work and, perhaps even in the foreseeable future, to ensure a diminution in the licence fee.

The work of BBC World and BBC Prime is particularly important because, as far as I can establish, we have a trade deficit in television programmes. In 1983, Britain's television companies had an £8 million surplus with the rest of the world; in 1993, they had a £115 million deficit. We should take no pride in that, because we have creative skill and talent here and make some of the best programmes in the world. The BBC is a prime mover in that success. We must not allow the all-American import policy of others to take hold any more than it already has. The importance of protecting our British cultural identity and industries is part of that exercise. Successful world television activity from the BBC could, in time, help to put that deficit right.

I hope that the BBC will explore, as it is beginning to, opportunities opening up in education, linking up with the Open university and the British Council to provide English language teaching and education on a worldwide basis. Opportunities in that respect are substantial and I hope that the BBC will seize them.

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I return to where I began and stress the extreme importance of ensuring that we maintain the quality of broadcasting. A strong BBC with a strong public service remit is our best possible guarantee of maintaining quality broadcasting. We must therefore cherish and nurture the BBC's work while acknowledging that there is scope for improvement. The history is admirable; the future can be even better.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, the arrangement for announcing the public sector pay award was discussed. At 4.10 pm the Vote Office had two written replies from the Prime Minister and two reports from the individual pay review bodies. I contacted the office of the Secretary of State for Education at 5 pm to be told by the person who answered the telephone that he had no knowledge of a teachers' pay award and no one was available to advise me about it. I was then referred to the press office, which told me that a press statement was to be made and should be available at 5.30 pm in the Lobby, but no assurances were given that that press release would be available in the Vote Office.

That is extraordinarily discourteous to hon. Members who are anxious to have guidance about increases in public pay awards, and an extraordinarily inefficient way for the Government to deal with those matters. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, are not responsible for the availability of papers, but I wondered whether some messages could be relayed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that any press releases issued this evening on those weighty documents are made easily available to hon. Members.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. It is the responsibility of the Minister concerned, not the Chair, although Madam Speaker always hopes that announcements that should be made to the House will be made there first. The hon. Gentleman's point will no doubt have been noted by hon. Members on the Treasury Bench.

5.24 pm

Mr. David Mellor (Putney): Although I understand that it is not necessary to do so in these diseased times I shall make doubly sure and declare an interest: these days, I present a few programmes on BBC radio, for which a modest remuneration is appropriate. In commenting on the BBC in a political capacity, I therefore feel rather like the horse in the opera conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. In a rather indifferent performance, the horse came on and, on arriving centre stage, lifted its tail and did what horses do--loudly and horribly all over the stage. At that point, Sir Thomas said, "Ah, gentlemen. Not just an artist but a critic as well." In the event that it is necessary to double up that role, may I say that there is little for us to criticise this afternoon.

The BBC is one of the successes of my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), whom I am delighted to see in his place. His White Paper has managed to make most people who look objectively at the BBC and recognise its fundamental importance in public service broadcasting in a free society accept that it is not a partisan document. It takes a commonsense view and recognises, chiefly, that the Government's role in reforming the BBC has been much diminished by the energy with which the BBC has

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set about reforming itself. It is to be more Catholic than the Pope to endeavour to cap the extraordinary pace of change on which the present director-general has embarked.

It is a worthy sign of the learning curve, which even Ministers ascend, that the formulation of policy that led up to the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the reform of ITV pursued a different course. For a considerable time, a small group of Ministers pursued in private a range of proposals. They should have known that, the moment the proposals saw the light of day, they would have to beat a retreat from many of the points that had seemed so clear cut in a small room but would not appear so in the clear light of day before wider consultation.

I was asked with a few weeks' notice to pick up that Bill and take it through the House. The task of those presenting this White Paper to the House is considerably easier because lessons were learnt from that Bill. That is not to say that the Broadcasting Act 1990 was more flawed than one or two matters that have already been acknowledged. The ITV system needed reform, and many of those reforms are much better than their critics are prepared to admit.

Clearly, when dealing with a matter of such fundamental significance to a free society as the provision of information through the major medium of communication--the electronic media--it is crucial that it is done with substantial openness and a lively public debate. The provision of the Green Paper, the subsequent consideration of what was said, and the presentation of the White Paper entirely confirm the Government's wisdom in proceeding in that way.

I have a straightforward view about the BBC, which is that we need it now more than ever. I denigrate neither commercial radio nor commercial television and am delighted to see their expansion. I am pleased to see in their places a number of hon. Members who played a part in the last-minute alteration of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which permitted Classic FM to become a national radio station. They will be pleased to see that that has happened. The success of that station and many others proves that quality and commercialism are not inconsistent principles. An idea that seemed to be prevalent in certain quarters in the 1980s that, as commercial services developed, there would be less need for the BBC, has rightly died a death. One of the benefits of reform of the BBC is that the BBC has regained its self-confidence. At one time, it seemed to want to compromise, first, by saying that it was minded to accept that as certain things were done by the commercial sector, it would be wise for the BBC to withdraw from them. It risked becoming a cultural ghetto for everything that other people did not want to do. That was an insecure basis on which to impose on everybody what, I suppose, was an early variant of the poll tax--the licence fee.

Secondly, there were agonised discussions about what should be rendered up to the enthusiasm of the privatisers--whether it should be Radio 1 only, or Radio 1 and Radio 2, and so on.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): It is good to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman say that

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