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Column 543Paragraph 2.6 rightly states:
"it will be necessary for the BBC to have clear objectives as a public service broadcaster after 1996."
That is undoubtedly true, but what should those objectives be? What exactly is the BBC for?
Here the Government's difficulties are greatest. Ideology presses for privatisation, but pragmatism has rightly ruled that out. That leaves the Government unable to produce a convincing answer to the question: what should the key objective of our main public service broadcaster be? Their ideological hostility to the public sector has prevented them from formulating a convincing statement of that mission.
The White Paper presents a bland list of desirable somewhat bureaucratic attributes that the corporation should exhibit, and it is hard to argue with any of them. For example, the first of the 10 objectives is
"giving priority to the interests of audiences".
That should indeed be an objective, but it will hardly be one whose pursuit will engage the passions and energies of the people whom we shall need to drive forward Britain's key player in the coming multi-media revolution.
The other nine objectives listed for the BBC are no more helpful than the one that I have quoted. At the heart of the White Paper, where there should be clarity and vision, there is a void. I suggest that the primary objective for the BBC should be to provide the United Kingdom benchmark for quality in the multi-media era that we are entering.
We are all aware that the danger attached to the coming explosion in broadcasting quantity is that it will be accompanied by a collapse in quality. The continued operation of the BBC independently within the public sector, financed by the licence fee, is our guarantee that that need not happen. That is a vital mission, worthy of the talents and skills of the corporation. Quality of service to the whole nation must be built on a BBC that remains in the public sector. The BBC's public service role is not an outdated relic of a bygone age that will eventually subside into extinction, as several Conservative Members, while supporting the White Paper for now, have suggested. I do not accept that idea. The public service role is the key to ensuring that broadcasting in the information age will be stamped through with the hallmark of quality.
The public sector commitment is a guarantee of quality of service in a rapidly changing environment. It will ensure long-term investment in talent, skills, and research and development, and will provide the stability and freedom in which creativity and, above all, quality and universality of service can thrive within broadcasting. We cannot afford to allow quality to be reduced to being the preserve of an exclusive market niche. It must be maintained as the consistent hallmark of United Kingdom broadcasting, available to everyone. There are several unresolved issues within the White Paper. It suggests two distinct roles for the BBC but does not explain how those are to be reconciled. If the advertising revenues of the commercial operations of the BBC began to fall, what would be the implications? How far would the quality of broadcasting be preserved under such commercial pressures? Would the BBC's reputation for impartiality and quality be compromised and undermined?
Column 544The White Paper makes it clear that the aim of the commercial arm is to generate money to supplement income from the licence fee. One would assume that that would enable the licence fee to be reduced, as some hon. Members have suggested, but the implication of that trend is made clear in the Select Committee report, which states: "it might be very difficult, if not impossible, to justify the existence of a licence fee at all."
The more successful the commercial arm, the greater the threat to a publicly funded broadcasting service enjoying the benefits that freedom from commercial pressures allows.
The Government may claim that the licence fee will never be replaced, but will such a claim survive when a future Minister assesses the request from a profit-making BBC to increase the licence fee?
We can choose. Are we going to embrace the opportunities of the new communications technologies, which are presenting themselves to us, and make them work for us, or are we going to sit back and watch the future unfold? The White Paper is welcome, as far as it goes, but it leaves many important issues unresolved and we cannot allow many of them to remain so for much longer.
Mr. Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In my rush to allow the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) to speak, I did not remember to declare an interest. From time to time, I advise the BBC on certain technical matters.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I am delighted that this White Paper has finally been brought before the House for debate. I am equally delighted to be making my first speech in the Chamber in my new capacity as a spokesperson in the shadow Heritage team of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith).
While we welcome the White Paper, we have some criticisms of it. None the less, it is far better balanced than we could possibly have hoped for at one time. I do not want to be too much of a party pooper--there seems to have been a cosy consensus across the Floor of the House--but some of us remember the way in which the BBC has been browbeaten, cowed and intimidated during the past 16 years by an orchestrated campaign by the Conservative party and Conservative Members. We also remember when the attack on the media was compounded by the dog's breakfast of the Broadcasting Act 1990. Some of the eulogies that we have heard, especially from Conservative Members, must be taken with a relatively large pinch of salt.
Those who care about the quality and independence of television in the United Kingdom, regardless of party, can breathe a sigh of relief that the BBC has thankfully been regarded as a privatisation too far. The BBC is a public service broadcaster. As we have heard from all parties tonight, it is an institution in which the people take great pride, and I welcome the decision to spell out that public service role in the new royal charter--a charter that we in this House will not be able to debate directly.
Column 545There is much to value in the BBC's traditions and yet the BBC must always be open to change. The new technology that is driving the changes is exciting and we welcome the prospect of a new generation of interactive citizens, in addition to today's passive viewers. We must always remember, however, that the increase in channels, which digital, cable and satellite will undoubtedly open up, is meaningful only if it represents a choice of high-quality, watchable programmes--the sort of programmes to which the British public are used--rather than an excuse for channel surfing through trash and trivia. Replication should never be confused with choice. The next Labour Government will continue to look to the BBC to set the quality benchmarks by which we shall judge all television output. The four, core terrestrial channels are still the only services for 80 per cent. of households and will continue to be for some years; hence there must be a balance in our judgments today between preparing the BBC for its future in cyberspace and ensuring that it plays to its traditional strengths. Equally, it must continue to earn its reputation, not least in news. A BBC that took its lead from the tabloid pack, that regurgitated No. 10 briefings undigested, and that collaborated in soundbite-ism would be a BBC less worth defending. Modern public service broadcasting, in John Birt's words on Friday,
"must put reflection as high as disputation."
He of course knew that most of us would hear those words before today's debate. His challenge, and ours, is to do something about them.
In the absence of an effective Parliament, it is often the BBC which bears the added burden of being the nation's political health service; and public understanding of the issues is the BBC's most effective immunisation campaign. The BBC and journalists everywhere will be helped in this task by an incoming Labour Government introducing a freedom of information Act-- strongly promoted and fought for not least by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher)--and enshrining the freedom of the press for the first time in British law by incorporating in it the European convention on human rights.
Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman will know that I support the idea of a freedom of information Act. However, if we had such an Act to enable journalists to explore matters that should be in the public domain--Robert Maxwell when he was alive, for instance--should there not also be privacy legislation to protect people against intrusions into their privacy which have nothing to do with the public interest?
Mr. Allen: One of the articles in the European convention on human rights confers on all British citizens, for the first time ever, a right to privacy which would need to be balanced against the freedom of speech that is also to be found in the convention.
Hon. Members from all parties have agreed that the media world is changing rapidly and that, to continue its role as the United Kingdom's public service broadcaster, the BBC will have to change too. In recent years, it has tried to prepare itself for the road ahead, but we should
Column 546not forget that the toll exacted to avoid privatisation and to retain the licence fee as its main source of income has been a human one. The words spoken today by the Secretary of State in support of the licence fee did not come easily; they were won by the jobs of 6, 000 people who no longer work for the BBC. It has been a painful process, but it has allowed the BBC to survive in a hostile political climate. In effect, it was out to compulsory competitive tendering, and, at a cost, it won back its own job. History may judge that to have been a brilliant political operation, but we should never forget that it was achieved at a very high price.
The White Paper represents a fundamental contradiction that the Government have posed for the BBC: that of maintaining its values while accommodating the demands of commercialisation. That is a contradiction which will haunt the broadcasting industry for the duration of the BBC's new charter. We see that already, with advertising appearing on the two new channels, BBC World and BBC Prime, and with links between BBC1's "Big Break" and the Daily Mirror and between "Antiques Roadshow" and The Sunday Times . Already, the ITV companies are getting anxious about the possibility of unfair competition.
Mr. Jessel rose --
Mr. Jessel: Yes. Given what the hon. Gentleman has said about commercialisation and the position of the Government, may I ask him whether he is aware of the fact that the National Heritage Select Committee, whose report in a sense helped to pave the way for the White Paper and which is chaired by a distinguished member of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), argued--as the right hon. Gentleman has also personally argued--that the survival of the BBC will depend in future on commercialisation? Will the hon. Gentleman read the views of his right hon. Friend on that point carefully?
Mr. Allen: As I shall explain later, it is clear that the Labour party fully supports how the BBC is making the most of its assets. We agree that those assets should be utilised 100 per cent. abroad as well as domestically. But that is, in essence, to preserve the BBC as we see it: fundamentally, a public service broadcaster--that is certainly our priority. It is in no sense to give it schizophrenia, whereby one day it is a commercial broadcaster and the next a public service broadcaster. That is certainly our priority.
As well as the implications for the service provided by the BBC, serious political implications must be considered. The BBC's independence and integrity are its most valuable assets and must not be compromised. Yet by entering into deals with satellite and cable companies as well as other terrestrial broadcasters, the BBC may be drawn into conflict over issues of ownership, control, fair competition and autonomy. It is a danger, and we and the BBC must guard against it.
Many hon. Members have referred to the funding of the BBC and the licence fee. The Labour party's position is crystal clear: while the licence fee is far from perfect, it remains the best means of raising the bulk of the BBC's revenue, both today and for the foreseeable future. The stability of income which the licence fee represents
Column 547safeguards the BBC's most important assets: the ability to make long-term plans and commitments, and to promote the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
Dr. Howells: Does my hon. Friend agree that there are special problems in the relationship between BBC Wales and S4C, the Welsh Channel 4? BBC Wales has spent a considerable part of its funding on making Welsh language programmes for S4C, with the result that precious few funds remain for making English language programmes for the 80 per cent. of us in Wales who do not speak Welsh and, moreover, programmes that could help BBC Wales to break into nationally networked programming in a much bigger way.
Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend makes eloquently the point made by several other hon. Members tonight. The Labour party would press the BBC to ensure that adequate sums of money are allocated to Wales and Scotland, but specifically to Wales, so that English language programming can be developed as my hon. Friend suggests is appropriate. I would go so far as to say that, under an incoming Labour Government, a Welsh Assembly would wish to deal with that issue rapidly.
The BBC's dependence on the licence fee allows it to take such steps, provided that pressure from my hon. Friend and other colleagues is made clear. It also allows the funding of minority programmes and allows the BBC to retain its editorial independence. Sadly, all that may be undermined by the Government's failure to guarantee the licence fee beyond 2001. It is an unnecessary uncertainty, which is rapidly becoming the trade mark of the National Heritage Department.
We accept the logic behind encouraging the BBC to become a more commercial entity but we want to ensure, as do all interested parties, including the BBC itself, that that is done fairly and in a way that does not risk the BBC's strict public service obligations. The ITV companies are understandably concerned that the BBC will compete with them and, if it used the licence fee to subsidise sales of programme rights, the BBC could obtain an unfair advantage. We want a healthy, competitive BBC but, equally, we want to ensure that it is not at the expense of ITV and Channel 4.
The Broadcasting Act 1990 is not a good precedent for the Conservatives' stewardship of television's finances. Farcically low bids for the ITV franchises and the dog's breakfast of the Channel 4 funding formula proved that. For the sake of broadcasting, let us hope that the commercialisation of the BBC does not produce such unintended consequences.
As we would expect, the Conservative White Paper does not adequately discuss democracy and accountability. Opposition Members feel that the BBC is too important an institution to be the mere creature of the Executive. It should be established legitimately by Parliament in statute law. An Act of Parliament would allow open public debate about the role of the BBC and its future.
The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) mentioned the statutory instrument. It was amazing to realise that something as significant as BBC World or BBC Prime would have been established without the official knowledge of the House--let alone a debate--had not the procedural device of praying against the order been used in this place.
Column 548Constitutional safeguards would be necessary, were the BBC to be established by Act of Parliament. I believe that the tyranny of a passing elected majority could be almost as unhealthy as the tyranny of the Secretary of State, but it is not beyond the wit of Parliament to devise safeguards, especially with the new Government committed to reinventing our democracy. It is an undemocratic outrage that the House is prohibited by the Executive from examining or amending the royal charter when it deals with such important matters as the public service obligation and the strength of our commitment to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
The board of governors also needs to be reviewed. Even the governors do not claim to be representative, and they are accountable only to the Government of the day. The National Heritage Select Committee recommended that the process by which the governors are appointed should be made "more extensive and public". We agree, and we would suggest that, as a minimum, that must mean the ratification of any proposed appointments by the National Heritage Select Committee.
Equally, in addition to the annual report and accounts, the Government should ensure that Parliament is given a full day on the Floor of the House each year to debate media matters, and the BBC specifically. If we can do it for the armed forces--next week, we shall do it for the Royal Navy--we should do it for the BBC. An institution as important as the BBC requires equal treatment. We are also worried about the handling of viewers' complaints and regulations, a subject mentioned in the White Paper. The Broadcasting Standards Council, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, the ITC and the separate regulatory bodies for radio and telecommunications appear a confused and confusing arrangement to the consumer wishing to complain or to find something out.
We welcome the proposal to merge the BSC and the BCC. However, as the ITC will now have regulatory responsibility for BBC World and BBC Prime, we need to consider whether it would make sense to take the merger one step further. In an age of convergence of media and communications, we could have a unified organisation for all broadcasting organisations, possibly an umbrella organisation, which could have the ability to monitor issues of ownership and output throughout the range of electronic communications.
Whatever the framework, we must master the new technological environment, not be mastered by it. The information super-highways should not become the conduit for second-hand, second-rate imports. We must match every technological leap with enhanced British programming. We must develop our own cultural agenda and, where necessary, fight for it as fiercely as the French have done for their cultural agenda. That must include fighting to sustain parts of the BBC service that could be threatened by increased commercial competition.
For instance, the coverage of important sporting events should remain a priority of the BBC. The list of key sporting events such as the cup final, Wimbledon and the grand national is part of our cultural heritage and, as such, those events should be available on terrestrial television.
The BBC should not fear the growth of cable and satellite. On the contrary, the potential for new developments is immense. An active Government will in future encourage the cable companies to continue to develop sub-regional, or even city, channels, perhaps
Column 549building on the work of the Channel 5-to-be. Their demand for high-quality, locally made programming could dramatically boost the BBC in co-operation with ITV, the independents and local authorities. We need to ask the BBC directly what it is doing to capitalise on those opportunities, for there are tremendous opportunities in education, health and local services.
Many cable companies are already cabling schools for free and are crying out for high-quality television and services to offer with that cabling. Much as we support BBC and ITV regional television, it, too, must change and exploit new challenges. It must increasingly be a resource to nourish the localities and less an outpost for the centre. It will be encouraged in that role by the regional and national assemblies that an incoming Labour Government will create. Those assemblies will want to see a bouquet of audio-visual industries grow locally. The development of that local skills base will be the seedcorn of, and underpin, our global position in the next century.
The White Paper records the BBC's intention to launch digital services, which will allow for a large number of new channels by the end of 1997. We await a Government who have the vision to encourage and promote those initiatives in partnership with the private sector. The information super- highway is, however, the latest example of how the Government have missed the opportunity to help the private sector to work in partnership with the public sector. The Department of National Heritage is silent, I am afraid, on that matter, as it is on so many others--the interactive are being led by the inactive. The Department has offered no super-highway initiatives, no ideas on Channel 4 funding, no proposals on privacy and freedom of the press and no White Paper on cross-media ownership and restrictions. As his answer to the question posed the other day by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made clear, the last film seen by the Secretary of State was "Doctor Dolittle". Little has been done either to promote the digital revolution that will open up the possibility of dozens of niche channels. That will require conditional access mechanisms that can scramble signals and allow them to be decoded only by recognised subscribers. The Government should be acting now to prevent consumers being forced to buy a number of different decoders.
It would also be unacceptable if a de facto standard which conferred monopoly power on the owner and offered the danger of unfair price increases were to emerge. The Government should start working now, perhaps for a common European interface, enabling a choice of conditional access systems, to ensure fair competition and consumer choice in the digital broadcasting market.
The final issue raised in the debate was transmission. The change there is basically a sop to the rabid right which feels cheated that the whole of the BBC has not been privatised. There is no guarantee, however, that if the BBC's transmitter network was privatised the result would be lower transmission costs across the board. Indeed, the privately owned NTL has a monopoly of transmission services to the ITV companies, which complain continually that their transmission costs are higher than they need be. With all the opportunities of
Column 550digitalisation about to come on stream, it would be nonsense were the BBC transmission services to be diverted into a privatisation battle. That would mean delay and contracts governing which managing director got which salary cut and which share option. The privatisation tail would be wagging the digital dog.
In conclusion, the White Paper is to be welcomed, if only as a disaster avoided. The result of a Government running out of steam, allied to nimble political footwork, has been the survival--at a cost--of the BBC as one of Britain's key assets. The next Labour Government will ensure that the BBC spends its energy not on survival or on confusing commercialism with efficiency but on seizing the opportunities for growth presented by new technology and on continuing to set a standard for public service broadcasting both here and abroad.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat): It is an unusual pleasure to be asked to reply ta debate in which there has been such a large measure of cross-party agreement. It has also been an exceptionally well-informed debate. I should like to take the various speakers chronologically and answer the points that they raised.
I start with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). I was very grateful for the general welcome that he gave the White Paper and that was echoed by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) from the Front Bench. However, he raised a number of points where there was at least a shade of criticism of what we had done. For example, he welcomed the retention of the licence fee as a means of providing the BBC with £1.6 billion a year, but wondered why we had to have a review in five years' time. The Government decided on a continuation of the licence fee, but, as a number of hon. Members said, the extraordinary speed and complexity of the change in technology means that we do not want to set ourselves into a straitjacket on any matters on which we can help the BBC.
One or two hon. Members--including my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon, North (Sir J. Gorst) and for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), in his extremely good speech--mentioned that not everybody was happy with the idea of a licence fee.
Many people outside the Chamber do not like having to pay for their licences when they can get ITV for free because of the
advertisements. It is proper that the House of Commons should say that it is a vexed question. The majority of those who have spoken have been in favour of the licence fee, but the Government thought that it would be right to review it in five years' time and I am sure that that is correct.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury asked when we would bring forward proposals for digitalisation. That is a good question. It is also a complicated question, and trying to work out what the regulations should be when we have to multiply by six or 10 the number of frequencies that can operate on digitalisation as opposed to analogue is extremely complex. However, later this year we intend to bring before the House our proposals on that extremely important matter, particularly the regulatory framework to deal with it.
Column 551The hon. Gentleman--and many others--raised the important issue of the regionalisation of the BBC. Perhaps it would be helpful if I gave a few facts for hon. Members to ponder now and later when they read Hansard . The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) speaks from a Labour point of view about what should happen in Scotland. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) speaks from a rather different point of view. I certainly have no doubts about the seriousness with which the matter is regarded in Scotland, although I would differ from him as to the solution that I would impose. As the House will know, in 1993, the director-general asked his adviser, Mr. David Hatch, a senior manager at the BBC, to perform a wide-ranging review of regional network production and the representation of the entire United Kingdom on the network. The BBC's new regional policy resulted directly from the recommendations of the Hatch report.
The BBC's aim is that by 1997 the proportion of network production--that is, television and radio programmes for broadcasting throughout the UK-- made outside London and the south-east will increase from one fifth to one third--an increase of 67 per cent. That amounts to a shift of £75 million out of the south-east of England--£65 million in television and £10 million in radio--increasing expenditure on network programming outside London from £188 million to over £250 million a year, an increase of 33 per cent. The amount of drama made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be doubled by 1997, to nearly 20 per cent. of all BBC drama. At present, each year the BBC spends about one third of its total income--some £496 million--in the regions, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That covers the cost of local, regional and network services.
The House will have a chance to debate the matter, probably after Easter this year, when we lay before the House the royal charter and the agreement that the BBC will make with the Department of National Heritage. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that we would not be able to debate the subject, meaning that hon. Members would not be able to change details of the royal charter through debate in the House. However, hon. Members will have the opportunity to debate the matter extremely fully.
Mr. Maxton rose --
Mr. Maxton: I reiterate the point that I made earlier. The BBC can fulfil its regional programming commitment simply by sending crews from London to Scotland to film a series of plays. They stay for a couple of months and then return to London. That is not giving production back to the regions; that is simply retaining it in London and making films outside London. I hope that that is not what the BBC means in making its commitment.
Mr. Sproat: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I understand that the BBC does not just want to make films or programmes in Scotland about Scotland for the Scots; it wants to make films and programmes in Scotland that will be screened throughout the United Kingdom network. We are not talking about the Jameson syndrome, where someone from London travels to Scotland to make a programme with no Scottish character or flavour.
Column 552I come to a question that is perhaps rather difficult to explain convincingly. It concerns whether the governors of the BBC should be elected or whether, as the National Heritage Select Committee recommended, they should be selected by that Committee--not an unusual proposition. When the Government of the day select the governors of the BBC, they do not do so with party political issues in mind. I have no idea how most of the present governors of the BBC vote. They comprise a former Chief Whip of the Labour party and a prominent member of the trade unions. I do not believe that asking the House to choose--whether on the Floor of the House or in a Select Committee--the governors of the BBC will do anything other than polarise the issue and make it more political. I think that that would also be true of a Labour Government. Although allowing the Government to select the governors may seem to be politicising the issue, in my experience that is not so and it is proven by the present membership of that group.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury referred to the deteriorating balance of trade in television programming. It is a worrying matter. However, any balance of trade deterioration in programming is not due to a deterioration within the BBC. In fact, the BBC's import and export of television programmes is in credit. The programming balance has shifted throughout television because there are so many satellite and cable stations using American films. Of course, that does not mean that it is not sad that we do not have a balance of British films on television, including on cable and satellite. The hon. Gentleman did not suggest that, but as this is a debate about the BBC, I think that the House should know that the BBC's balance of trade in programming favours British programmes. The hon. Gentleman said that we should not have recommended that the general advisory council be abolished and that there should be an English regional council. As far as the general advisory council is concerned, the BBC takes advice from many bodies. The Government believe that the BBC should increasingly seek specialist advice and also directly consult its own audience. In that context, we do not believe that the charter should continue to require the BBC to maintain a general advisory council. The BBC has set up 10 English regional councils, the chairmen of which meet in the English regional forum, and the BBC board of governors is advised by the forum on policy in the regions.
A matter that was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, although the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury raised it first, was the merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The hon. Gentleman said that he welcomed the merger, and, obviously, we are grateful for that support. But my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) went further and said that, although he welcomed it, he hoped that the new body would have the opportunity to research matters such as the effect of television programmes on children, and so on. That was not something that I had originally thought that the new body would do, but it is an interesting idea and we shall certainly look at it closely.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) raised a point regarding Mr. John Birt: although Mr. Birt has had to put up with much criticism about the number of jobs lost and other changes
Column 553in the BBC--the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that the loss of some 6,000 jobs has been a heavy price to pay-- it is the pruning of the bureaucracy in the BBC that has enabled it to put an additional £100 million a year into programme making. It has been a price to pay, but it has not been frittered away. It has gone right to the heart of what we all want to see the BBC doing.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who courteously told me that he would not be able to stay to hear the end of the debate, made a rather dazzling speech. Those who sat on the Select Committee are no doubt used to that dazzle, but I found it very effective. He said that, too often, the BBC is, or appears to be, impervious to listeners' views. I do not know what it used to be like, but from now on it will not be a case of being impervious, because it has as well structured a programme as one could ask for in the circumstances. It will be conducting a series of local seminars throughout the United Kingdom, to hear what listeners and viewers have to say about what it does.
Information about what the BBC intends to do will be set out in its statement of "Promises to Audiences"--a slightly creepy title, so perhaps we can find a better one. The promises made in that statement will be sent to all viewers with their reminder to pay their television licence. The viewers will be told, "Here is what the BBC said it would do. If you do not think that it has done it, write in and say so, and the BBC will, in all reasonable circumstances, take action on what you say."
A rather more careful consideration of complaints made to the BBC will in future be made by the BBC itself. It has set up a new complaints unit. In the first eight months of operation, the unit received some 590
Column 554complaints, of which it upheld 102, which is quite a serious number for a body that investigates complaints about itself to justify. No doubt the package of the statement of promises and the complaints unit is not perfect--no doubt there is more that the BBC can do and it will not stop the BBC making mistakes--but it is certainly a refutation of any charge that the BBC is impervious to the criticisms that listeners and viewers might make.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has been extremely ill, and I thank him very much for rising from his sick bed and coming to the Chamber today. He gave the White Paper a slightly back-handed welcome and said that it was not the best of all worlds, but that at least it was not the worst of all worlds. He asked about the Government naming the Scottish governor. I should make it clear to the House, particularly to the hon. Member for Angus, East, that although it might be the Government who make the decision, the appointment of the governor of the Scottish BBC is made on the recommendation of the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is, perhaps, not quite as far as the hon. Gentleman would like to go, but at least it is not, as he was saying in another context, a decision made in London on a London basis.
This has been an impressive and exceptionally valuable debate. It is a rather melancholy thought that the further we move from automatic party lines, the better debate we have. We shall have a chance to return to the subject when the royal charter and the agreement are laid before the House; we hope that that will happen at Easter or thereabouts.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Bates.]
On Tuesday this week, Birmingham city council's urban renewal committee reported to the full council
"That the Committee's inability to reduce the backlog of Mandatory Grant Inquiries with existing resources is a serious source of concern. That the backlog of inquiries in December was over 9,000. That the Urban Renewal Division is receiving an increasing number of applications which have to be dealt with in six months and that this is adversely affecting the planned grant programme which is based upon date order inquiry."
I intend to spell out what is behind that concern, using my own words and information that I have gathered from many sources around the city, for which I take full responsibility.
I shall draw attention to the need for a major policy change in the way in which we fund urban renewal; although I shall concentrate on my constituency of Perry Barr and the city of Birmingham, I am aware that what I shall say applies to virtually all inner-city areas in our great conurbations.
Of course we have a resource problem; it would be futile to ignore it. The scale of that problem is clear from, for instance, the existence of 9,500 inquiries about urban renewal grants in the city of Birmingham. If only half those qualify and the average is £10,000, that will mean £47 million. Birmingham's housing investment allocation for the whole city--for private, council and housing association homes--is only £38 million.
It goes without saying that I believe that we are not investing enough. I shall not insult the Minister by spending time on an issue with which I understand he cannot deal, but I hope that he can deal with the reallocation of current funding. Let me explain why I think that he should act as quickly as possible.
Following the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, a new concept of urban renewal was introduced involving renewal area schemes and a new right to a mandatory renovation grant for poor owner-occupiers. Birmingham--always at the forefront of quality urban renewal--declared four renewal areas in 1991, that in central Handsworth being in my constituency. It has drawn up a 10-year programme to deal with the physical, social and economic aspects of community life rather than dealing only with housing, as did the old system of housing action areas.
My constituency is the largest in Birmingham. Three of its wards--Oscott, Perry Barr and Kingstanding--are in the outer city, and were farmland 70 years ago. Handsworth, my inner-city ward, contains housing more than 100 years old. About a third of that ward was designated a renewal area. It contains 2,800 dwellings, 95 per cent. of which are in private ownership-- that is, owned by the occupiers. In 1991, 82 per cent. were either unfit for occupation or qualified for relevant works, and 54 per cent. of residents were in receipt of means-tested or unemployment benefit. The ethnic mix, measured by head of household, is as follows: 44 per cent. are white, 23 per
Column 556cent. black and 25 per cent. Asian. Obviously, the figures for the population are slightly different--31 per cent., 21 per cent. and 44 per cent. respectively.
Central Handsworth, therefore, well met the criteria for a renewal area. It is a goodly sized area, a vast number of people there are on means-tested unemployment benefit, and a massive amount of housing is unfit and requires attention. I accept, of course, that poor owner-occupiers in poor-quality housing live elsewhere in that ward, but it is not possible to declare a bigger area that meets the criteria.
Area renewal--the concept of doing up whole roads and adjoining roads as part of urban renewal--has been tried and tested as the best means of improving the quality of life, including the health of residents. It is better than isolated, one-off house improvements, known in the trade as "pepper-potting". That may be okay for the householder concerned, but it does nothing to uplift an area and so encourage investment, economically and socially. Furthermore, if an area is not dealt with, it will eventually literally fall down or have to be pulled down, along with those pepper- potted improvements, so wasting an awful lot of public money.
Owner-occupiers have a responsibility to look after their homes, to maintain repair, and, where possible, to make use of the equity of the asset to assist in renewal. I wish a lot more could be done on that latter point.
Not all owner-occupiers are well off, as is shown by the figures that I gave earlier. However, there is a wider collective community responsibility to ensure that each generation passes on to the next the universal benefit of good-quality housing. Otherwise, we bequeath to future generations an horrendous position. Every house will virtually have to stand for between 3,000 and 4,000 years at the present rate of renewal and rebuild.
So what is the problem? After the first four years of the renewal scheme, I and the city council recognised substantial slippage in the programme. Not only have minor works ended, but, in the Handsworth renewal area, there has been an absence of community and economic development work, which was envisaged in the renewal area strategy. No work on industry or on the social side of the community has been undertaken.
In addition, the same roads and dwellings of my constituents have slipped off the end of recent annual programmes--for example, the remaining part of Crompton road, Hill grove, Leslie road, Willmore road and part of Wellington road. Many others are at risk. It will cause premature concern if I list them tonight, so I shall not do so.
Why is that so? Birmingham is the lead authority on urban renewal. We invented the concept of enveloping. In one year, some time ago now, when greater flexibility existed in the rules, the city council managed to secure externally more than 9,000 dwellings, although it did not do the work itself. By securing, I mean re-roofing and looking after the external part of those old properties, so that they would at least be standing and be fit and available for internal work at a later date. The urban renewal work of Birmingham is used as a model, not only in this country but abroad.
The reason for the problem is the mandatory renovation grant system. It applies to any dwelling that meets the unfitness standards, irrespective of where it is. In Birmingham, more than 9,500 current inquiries are taking