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6.6 pm

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy): First, may I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who has had to return home and is therefore unable to open the debate on behalf of

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the Opposition? I also apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not informing you of that fact before you entered the Chamber.

I welcome this opportunity to debate the draft charter and agreement for the BBC, which plays a unique role in our national life and is rightly recognised and praised around the world for the standards that it sets in public service broadcasting. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to debate the service that the BBC provides to us all.

The charter is designed to take the BBC forward, through the turn of the century, to 2006. The broadcasting sector is changing rapidly, so we can expect to see a different broadcasting landscape by the time the charter is considered for renewal once again. We must therefore ensure that we know what we are doing and that we get it right. If we set the wrong framework for the BBC, it will suffer in the years ahead and broadcasting in the United Kingdom will be the poorer for it.

As the Secretary of State said, the Government's proposals were contained in the White Paper published in 1994 and debated in the House a year ago. The drafts of the charter and of the agreement have been laid before us. The charter is to be noted and the agreement is to be approved. The problem is that we can neither add to them nor subtract from them--only approve or reject the whole.

The charter has already been debated in another place. Prior to the debate, peers had an opportunity to question the Minister in that House informally on the contents both of the charter and of the agreement. I know that many of them found that most useful, and it puzzles me that hon. Members here were not offered the same opportunity.

We have been approached by a number of organisations, such as Broadcasting for Scotland, that have made sensible, positive suggestions for minor amendments to the charter and agreement. Sadly, as Marmaduke Hussey, the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC, made clear in his letter of24 January to the national councils:

It would have been a little more respectful of the views and wishes of the House if the Government had not made their intentions quite so blatantly obvious before deciding to debate the issue. It makes me wonder why we are all standing around debating it. Perhaps the Minister of State will refer to that point in his reply.

Although the Opposition have no intention of voting against either document tonight, we want to register our dissatisfaction with the fact that they are unamendable and that we cannot make any adjustment or fine tuning. We do not believe that this is the proper way for the House to consider such an important national institution as the BBC.

We must also consider the charter and agreement in the context of the Broadcasting Bill that is before another place. Changes in the broadcasting landscape proposed in that Bill, while largely welcome, will alter significantly the outlook for the BBC. Although it is likely that the BBC will remain the broadcaster with the widest reach, it will be in a much wider field with many more competitors.

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It is regrettable that we could not first determine the new structure of the broadcasting world and then produce a charter to promote the BBC within it, rather than consider the charter before the Bill.

Labour Members welcome the more explicit statement of the BBC's public service objectives that is to be found in the charter. Those objectives stand beside new freedoms to provide commercially orientated services and are essential at a time of widespread anxiety about broadcasting standards and scope in years to come.

The BBC must be able to expand its output in the digital age and provide a diverse range of services on its multiplex, but we must ensure that the formal public service requirements set down in the agreement are adhered to. The new chairman has already mentioned a subscription sport service on a BBC digital channel. That may be attractive, but it must not be developed at the cost of the exclusion or withdrawal of sport from the free-to-air service.

The Government, too, must reflect on the issue. As they learnt to their embarrassment in the other place last week, public service obligations arouse great strength of feeling in many quarters.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman will realise that I am among those who have expressed strong views on the issue. He will also recognise that the Government have always had an open mind on the matter and, as their consultation paper makes clear, they are prepared to listen to representations. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the thorough way in which he has entertained representations from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Dr. Moonie: I would feel more confident if the Government had not voted against the proposal in the other place last week. Although I fully accept the good faith in which the Government entered into their proposals for consultation, perhaps there was some procrastination on their part in not wishing to be seen to make a decision too quickly. I fully accept that there may be faults with the amendment that was carried in another place last week and that the measure may require further amendment and certainly much greater discussion when we debate it, but there has been a clear expression of opinion and I am glad to say that the Government have suggested that they are prepared to accept the will of the other place.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin): Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that, if the Government have an open mind on the issue, they discovered it very recently? In June 1994, they rejected out of hand the Select Committee's proposal for listed events to be protected and, as recently as December 1995, Ministers repeatedly wrote to me and others saying that it was purely a matter for market forces and that it would be quite wrong for anyone to intervene.

Dr. Moonie: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nothing concentrates the Government's mind more quickly than a large number of what they thought were their hon. Friends turning out to be quite the opposite. Had our roles been reversed and the Bill had been considered here first, I suspect that the result would have been exactly the same.

The programme content requirements set out in the agreement are as important as the public service requirements. The requirements to inform, educate and

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entertain; to stimulate support and reflect the cultural diversity of the United Kingdom; to provide authoritative and impartial news and much more make the BBC unique in its breadth of coverage.

There are still concerns that, in some respects, the requirements are less onerous than those placed on other broadcasters. There is a long-running war of words between the BBC and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinema and Theatre Union about educational broadcasting. Most recently, BECTU stated:

That is a reasonable point and the Government should consider it seriously before they finalise the charter. It seems odd that Channel 4 has a minimum number of hours for schools programmes but that there is still no such requirement on the BBC.

To provide the diversity of viewing to which I have referred, the BBC must be able to develop its commercial activities freely. This is not an argument for the revenue from the licence fee to be reduced. The BBC accepts--and the Opposition agree--that, to expand and remain competitive in the broadcasting marketplace, it must generate its own income in addition to that from the licence fee.

It is right that the charter and agreement contain safeguards to provide public subsidy of private ventures, but the Government must not be over-restrictive--as they are with the Post Office at present--just to make a point about private ventures by public sector organisations.I understand that the Government are to review the BBC's capital structure and borrowing arrangements. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister clarify why that was not completed before the new charter was published?

The Labour party has long believed that the role of the governors of the BBC needs to be clarified. The charter is the first to recognise the existence of the director general, his deputy and the board of management. I cannot help thinking that the delineation of responsibility could be clearer.

The governors, by definition, are the "corporation" whose functions have been set out in article 7 of the draft charter, but some matters--such as industrial relations, which appear in article 15 of the charter--that are the clear responsibility of the board of management are still referred to as matters for the corporation. There should be a clearer divide, or I fear that many people will question whether the governors are sufficiently detached from the management of the corporation to play a proper regulatory and supervisory role.

The position of the chairman is particularly important. The recent appointment of Sir Christopher Bland raises a number of questions about independence and accountability. Sir Christopher has a great deal of experience in broadcasting, which I am sure will be of great value to the corporation, and we intend to watch his progress with interest, but it is easy to lose confidence in the Government's good intentions when consultation over the appointment, as requested by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, is refused. The appointment is

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made by the Queen in Council. It is of great national significance and it must be seen to be made in a scrupulously independent manner. I believe that the Government have failed yet another test of openness and accountability in respect of that appointment.

The BBC's accountability to its audience relies, in part, on its advisory structures--which have been referred to by the Secretary of State and by way of intervention. Those bodies should also be a source of advice and encouragement to programme makers. A number of concerns have been raised about the proposed new structures. In the present charter, the councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland control policy for the BBC in those parts of the United Kingdom. In the new charter, their role has been reduced to advising and assisting the governors in that task. I know that many of my colleagues do not welcome that downgrading.

The merger of the English regional advisory councils and the local radio councils has also caused concern, particularly among those with a keen interest in local radio. The BBC must recognise in its new structure that the interests of radio should not be subsumed in those of television.

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