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Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham): Was not the hon. Gentleman in the House on a day in the spring of 1994 when my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), then the Secretary of State for National Heritage, announced that it was Government policy to have a new charter? My right hon. Friend said some very positive things about the BBC, which echoed the view of the Select Committee on National Heritage, of which I am proud to be a member.

Dr. Moonie: One swallow, however, does not make a summer.

Mr. Jessel: It was nearly summer.

Dr. Moonie: Absolutely, I must have been away playing cricket at the time.

I do not wish to suggest that nobody on the Conservative Benches has the future of the BBC at heart, or to suggest that Secretaries of State do not do their best to discharge their obligations. I referred to some of the comments that I have heard made over the years by Conservative Members, which certainly do not lead me to believe that the BBC would be safe in their hands in the long term. Fortunately, of course, that is not likely to happen.

The Labour party will continue to give its support to the BBC and to the work that it does at home and abroad. With the reservations that we have expressed tonight, we offer our support for the charter and agreement before the House.

6.34 pm

Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate, because I was employed in broadcasting by both the BBC and ITV for many years before I came to the House. We have heard quite a bit about Scotland and it is high time that Wales was mentioned. Before I come to that subject, I shall refer to the situation generally.

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The BBC's charter renewal for a further 10 years comes at a time of enormous change in the broadcasting world. Not only do we have the development of cable, satellite and wire services--all of which will offer a wider variety of services to the home than have been available through the traditional house or set-top aerials--but we are approaching the period of digitisation of the analogue channels. That will open up the possibility of an amazingly wide spectrum of choice for viewers and listeners. There will be so much choice that the recipients will probably be very grateful for some guidance on the plethora of programmes and services available.I understand that the BBC is already considering providing that guidance. The Broadcasting Bill, which is currently in the other place, deals with the problems of digital services, but those matters cannot be far from our minds as we discuss the new charter because the shape of future services is likely to be moulded during the decade ahead.

In passing, I shall pay tribute to the work that the BBC has done on digital services. It has established the first digital audio broadcasting service and the sound quality is superior. The BBC has also shown that it can translate its existing analogue services to digital wide-screen receivers, but it has expressed the opinion to the Government that

The increasing multiplicity of services becoming available and the increasing competition for viewers, listeners and resources of all kinds is the cyclorama against which the BBC charter is being renewed. That it should be renewed is not a major issue. The days when some thought that the BBC had a too dominant and too pervasive position in British broadcasting and was insufficiently challenged are going, if not gone. Our major current concern is to conserve the best of the BBC and to ensure that it is in a sufficiently strong position to continue to provide the public services of the very highest standard that we have come to expect.

We are all fully aware of the important role that the BBC has in portraying Britain to the world and there is a new emphasis on that aspect in the charter and in the ancillary agreement.

In its worldwide operations, the BBC faces powerful competition backed by truly vast resources, and there is a very real fear that the BBC, in meeting that competition, will somehow be diverted and may reduce its efforts at home. That is why in the briefing for this debate--I am sure that we have all had a copy--there is a representation from the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union which highlights the BBC's proposals to reduce television programming for schools by20 per cent. and radio broadcasts to primary and secondary schools by 37 per cent. However, that is simply evidence of the concern about the Home Services, and that concern is also expressed by the National Consumer Council. It would like the governors to have

I am sure that the fear that the Home Services will be sacrificed by the BBC lies behind the worried comments that have reached us, especially from the national regions

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of Wales and Scotland--which have expressed grave doubts about the new description of the role of their national councils.

I want to stress how important are regional services to the people of the regions, and those provided by the BBC have a new premium attached because of the takeover threat posed to ITV regional companies by their larger brethren. In the regions, the public are not reassured by promises made by distant predators that they will maintain local programme output. They may observe the letter of their promises but the programmes will not be locally inspired.

Mr. Fabricant: Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was considerable fear in Staffordshire--in particular, in Lichfield--when it was announced that London Weekend Television would be acquiring Central Television? However, as there are in effect two independent licences with the Independent Television Commission, Central's coverage of local news and current affairs has not decreased but has been enhanced by that larger amalgamation.

Sir Wyn Roberts: I am glad to hear of that enhancement, but it cannot be guaranteed that such a thing will happen every time. There is considerable fear in some regions that although promises will be respected to the letter, nevertheless the regional character of programmes will be lost. The BBC and the Government have tried to combat that foreboding by writing into their agreement that the two television services that the BBC undertakes to provide may--as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) emphasised--include regional variations. To the House, the word "may" means that that undertaking is discretionary. Hon. Members who represent the regions would much prefer the word "shall" in that context.

We cannot believe that the Department of National Heritage did not mean to confer discretion. If it were otherwise, I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends would not have used the word "may". As the agreement is surely amendable, I hope that the word "shall" can be used instead. The use of "may" is sending out all the wrong signals to the public.

The BBC has committed itself to doubling the amount of drama made in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland by 1997-98, and to doubling music and arts productions in the regions within four years. That is all very fine and welcome, but it is not tantamount to providing regional services. Neither is the requirement in paragraph 3(2)(h) that Home Services

That is merely a commitment to more network productions from the regions. Although such productions are welcome, they could be made anywhere and need not reflect the region's character.

It must be obvious to the House that I distrust the metropolitan outlook and the domination that it spells, the coterie that shares it and the dominance that it has over our press and media. Life in the United Kingdom is the poorer because of it.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley: The distinction is made between shall and may because the measure will also

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cover BBC2, and it is unlikely that it will be involved.As to BBC1, in effect the meaning is "shall", but "may" appears in the documentation because it covers a range of channels. I hope that that thoroughly reassures my right hon. Friend.

Sir Wyn Roberts: I am grateful to my righthon. Friend for that assurance. I accept her explanation and commentary implicitly. It may be that members of Labour's Front-Bench team will not do so, but I trust my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Maxton: In the matter of the word "may", the right hon. Gentleman has to trust not the Secretary of State but the future governor of the BBC. He may not find that easy to do.

Sir Wyn Roberts: I find it easier to trust my righthon. Friend because I read in one of the BBC's commentaries that it interprets the word "may" as "shall". Nevertheless, we have an assurance from my right hon. Friend as to the meaning of the word. As she gave it on the Floor of the House, I am sure that others will respect her interpretation.

I was being critical of the metropolitan domination, which means that nothing that happens beyond Watford can possibly be of any consequence. That is a cardinal tenet of the pseudo-intellectual caucus that adheres tenaciously to the metropolitan view. No wonder the provinces feel deeply slighted. The BBC may lose out from the dilution of its regional identity. I hope that it does not allow that to happen. The regions are the nursery for future broadcasters and programme ideas.

That is the context in which the national broadcasting councils appointed by the governors of the BBC are to advise those governors on the attainment of objectives in their countries and on any significant change in the corporation's resources in a country, by making representations to the corporation. The councils' role does not seem significant. They will not have the power to control programme policy and content, as they do now. At the moment, in Wales, that function must be performed

It is a pity that those words are to disappear, because they are meaningful in the Welsh context. I hope that that obligation, and the spelling out of it in those terms, can be retained in the subsidiary documents.

The charter's dominant theme is centralist, which is understandable when one takes into account the challenges facing the BBC. However, those challenges are diffuse and hydra-headed in their profusion--and they are likely to become more so as digital services come on stream. Just as the main networks in the United States have been undermined to some extent by local, thematic and special interest services, the same thrust to achieve viewership in particular spheres may develop in the UK. I warn the BBC to be on its guard against any abandonment of its regional interests and audiences.

As one would expect, the BBC will have the power to run subscription, pay-per-view and other commercial channels. I hope that the Government will not shy away from granting similar powers to the Welsh S4C authority, subject to similar accounting safeguards, so that S4C may supplement its Welsh language programmes with English

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programmes--bought, produced or commissioned--to replace programmes lost from Channel 4 when it is separately available in Wales after digitisation. There is already the BBC example, where in special circumstances a similar statutory body is allowed to produce programmes commercially and to transmit them. That privilege should be granted to S4C.

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