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Mr. Gale: I have no quarrel with that at all; thehon. Gentleman and I are at one. I am saying that we need to be careful. We all want to avoid expensive tokenism. It is very costly to pick up a team of London-based actors and actresses and move them somewhere else simply to try to pretend that we are filling those studios, particularly if a local production company has been contracted by the BBC to make programmes. I can only say good luck, because regional broadcasting is not about the token shifting of people.

I am taking slightly longer than I had intended to, but I have given way several times. I should like to mention the licence fee, for which I have fought.

I am pleased that the BBC will continue to be funded by the licence fee, because it is the most sensible way to provide money for this peculiar animal. Paragraph 42 of the White Paper said, I think absolutely correctly:

One must have a licence to pay for all United Kingdom services, but in fact it pays only for the BBC. It goes on:

I find nothing wrong with that, except that it is unsophisticated. As we move into the next generation of technology, it will be possible to pay the licence fee--not pay-per-view, please, or subscription--to watch television at home by smart card. That will prevent the nonsense of imprisoning people for the non-payment of licence fees.I am not suggesting that those people should have a free ride, and I have never believed that anyone should be able to watch free television at the expense of someone else. In those circumstances, that would be straightforward evasion.

Once we have smart cards, other things will become possible. I should like the Minister to consider that possibility for the future. It is time for the House seriously to consider, in the light of new technology, licensing every receiver. I do not mean licensing just every television, but also every video recorder.

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The licence fee, give or take a few pounds, is £90 a year, which is very cheap for the viewing and broadcasting enjoyed. On a unit cost of £30 per receiver, since the average modern household probably has two television sets and one video recorder, that would be£90 a year. The old-age pensioner who has only one television would pay only £30. The mugs in the House--I am one of them--who have more receivers of various types dotted around the place, would pay much more, as we should.

One would obviously have to create special provision for hotels, guest houses and other places that need multiple receivers. The basic principle of having a lower unit cost but charging per unit can and should be considered in the light of the potential for encryption.

Mr. Fabricant: I have some doubts, as does the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), whether the licence fee can be sustained indefinitely.I should like to ask my hon. Friend how his system of licensing every television set and video recorder would be enforced. A television detector van can detect one or possibly two television sets working in a house at any time, but it cannot easily--I would argue that it is physically impossible--detect a video recorder.

Mr. Gale: I did say, in the light of modern technology. In the next 10 years, every new television will have an encryption box built into it, with a common interface. It will be possible to plug a card into that common interface to provide any one of many services, one of which should permanently turn the television set on or off.

It is now possible individually to address every receiver by signal, and the receivers will know whether the licence--the pay-per-view, if one likes--has been paid. Also, people who cannot afford to pay a lump sum down payment might be able to pay their licence fee in weekly or monthly instalments. The BBC does not like that possibility, because it believes that it might create uncertainty about how much revenue it will receive. I do not believe that that would happen, but it is a possibility.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) asked why the Government voted against the sports proposals tabled by the Opposition in the other place. There are two answers to that, both of which are absolutely straightforward.

The first is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage has made it plain that she wants to go out to consultation and to listen, not only to one vested interest--the viewer who wants his televised sport free--but to another interest, the sports providers. She wants to try to find a pathway through that maze before reaching a conclusion. The other place was therefore not the place to table the amendment. The second answer is that the amendment was badly drafted and misunderstood, which is why their Lordships voted against it.

I passionately believe that the solution is what the BBC has dubbed "unbundling". It is necessary to create four categories of auction: the first would be for live transmission; the second for full repeat coverage rights; the third for highlights; and the fourth--this is very important and has been overlooked--for radio. Radio

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rights are terribly important for those who are blind or sick, for travellers and for others who cannot physically watch television sets.

Once the live rights have been sold, what happens if they go to an encrypted channel? That does not necessarily mean Sky, because in a couple of years' time we could well find Carlton premium digital broadcasting terrestrially, so it means any subscription or pay-per-view service. The House has the right to say that, if the live rights go to one of those, the immediate full repeat rights shall be sold by auction to the highest bidder, which may be ITV or the BBC, but which must be a free-to-air, universal-coverage terrestrial station. The edited highlights could be sold to anyone else in precisely the same way.

The only criticism of that proposal that I regard as serious involves the question of how the technology is to be provided. The answer is that the physical coverage of the event, whatever it is, can be provided in precisely the same way as the European Broadcasting Union provides coverage of winter sports, skating, the Eurovision song contest and so on. The original owner of the rights--the Football Association, Aintree racecourse or whatever--contracts with a broadcaster--the BBC, ITV, Sky or an independent broadcasting company--to cover the match, and those who use the rights thereafter can put on their own commentary.

I am afraid that the listed events system has had its day. It has never seriously worked. One man's pleasure is another man's poison. What Labour Members want to watch I may not want to watch, and I may not even want to watch what people on the Government Front Bench want to watch, either. It is not possible to satisfy everybody. However, it is possible to create arrangements whereby everybody has the opportunity at some point to watch the event free to air. Surely that is what we seek to achieve.

I shall make three quick final points. First, the charter mentions violence, and it is right to do so. The BBC has said that it supports the idea of a 9 pm watershed, not a9 pm waterfall. However, given the introduction of video recorders and time-shifting, the watershed is effectively no longer reliable, so it is much more incumbent upon the broadcasters to ensure that whatever they broadcast, at whatever time of the day or the night, does not offend standards of taste and decency, and is not violent.

I should like to put down a marker for the Minister.I hope that, when we are dealing with the Broadcasting Bill, he will seriously consider the perpetuation of the "must carry" regulations for terrestrial broadcasting on cable. As more and more people acquire cable, they will increasingly receive their programming by cable alone, without an aerial or satellite dish of any kind. At that point, it will be vital that the public service channels--certainly the BBC; we can argue later about whether "must carry" should apply to independent television too--be perpetuated on a free-to-view basis on cable television.

Finally, concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about the lack in the pledges of a definition of the provision for children's programming on television and radio, and for education, especially schools services. The charter says that the BBC must provide

Such programming is most important, on two counts. Both schools and people at home have relied heavily, and will continue to do so, on a high standard of public service

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broadcasting specifically created for children and young people. Those young people will be the viewers and radio listeners for the BBC of tomorrow. We need to look after them.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, I must point out that, although I have no power to limit speeches, unless Members are willing to limit their speeches voluntarily there will be many disappointed Members left at the end of the debate.

7.53 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland): The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) cares a great deal about broadcasting, so it is understandable that, on one of the rare occasions--it may also be a formative occasion--on which we can discuss the BBC, he wants to adopt a somewhat encyclopaedic approach. Although I speak for my party as its sole contributor to the debate, I shall try to be a little more brief. That is partly because, although we are debating what is called a draft agreement, I believe that the die has already been cast. I understand that the motion before us is to approve the agreement, and if the House does so, it appears to me that that will be the end of the matter. If the Minister wishes to intervene to clear up that question now, I shall be happy for him to do so.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton(Mr. Kaufman) said that this could be the last occasion on which we debate a charter and an agreement. I hope that that is true. In the world into which we are moving, I do not believe that that will be an appropriate way in which to legislate for the BBC.

The present mode of legislation grew up in an age in which there were great concerns about the impartiality of television. It was felt that the power of the BBC was such that it was appropriate, and constituted a safeguard of its independence, to adopt the solemn procedure of the charter. That is inappropriate now. We need the opportunity to make provision for a much more detailed framework for public service broadcasting, which will provide much closer control and accountability than the present three tiers of accountability--the charter, the agreement and the pledges.

When an independent television or radio station breaks the terms of its agreement or the programming code, the Independent Television Commission can take punitive action against it, ranging from a formal warning, through the imposition of fines to, in the most extreme cases, the revocation of the company's licence. Those powers have been used--for example, in December 1994, the ITC fined Granada Television £500,000. The radio authority has similar powers, and has fined several radio stations for breaking the programme code. No such sanctions, however, can be applied against the BBC. Although the rules have the status of a legal agreement, the BBC cannot be fined because in effect that would be to fine the licence payer.

If the BBC's qualities, which are evidently, and almost universally, recognised to be in decline, are to be sustained in the face of the competition that is growing at

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an exponential rate--digital broadcasting, multi-channel choice and new information technology--the frail framework now provided will not do.

I find the failure to define the role of the governors adequately, and to recognise the primacy of their role as public trustees of the BBC's impartiality as set out in the charter, one of the most disappointing of the many disappointing aspects of the process of re-establishing the BBC with a new charter. There was an opportunity to distinguish clearly between the role of the governors as regulators and trustees of the public interest, and the responsibility for strategy and management, which should properly fall to the aptly named board of management, in close collaboration with the national broadcasting councils. Clear thought should be given to the role and powers of the board of governors, acting as regulator, to deal with matters such as one of the more disgraceful episodes over which Marmaduke Hussey presided.

It is hail and farewell time, and I say farewell to Marmaduke Hussey with scarcely a tear in the een. I refer to the "Panorama" programme--not the one with Princess Diana but the one in which the BBC, three days before the local elections in Scotland, decided to interview the Prime Minister. That showed a notable absence of sensitivity not only to Scottish general opinion but to the opinion of its own broadcasting council in Scotland. The governors should have intervened, but they did nothing about it.

In collaboration with colleagues in the Labour party, we had to take the BBC to court because the governors had so failed in their duty to sustain impartiality. We took them to court and, of course, we won. That shows the need for greater clarification of the regulatory role of the governors. It is highly undesirable that something as fundamental as the impartiality of the BBC should have to be challenged in court to sustain it.

The new structure of BBC broadcasting described in the draft agreement sets out some provisions on programming that are far from going in the direction pointed out by the former Secretary of State for National Heritage in the previous debate on the matter. He, understandably, advocated that there should be much greater precision about duties and that performance should be measurable. That framework has scarcely been provided for in the agreement.

Attention has been drawn by more than onehon. Member to the inadequate statement in the agreement about regional broadcasting and the not wholly convincing response from the Secretary of State. When she speaks of paragraph 2.2 of the draft agreement providing for two television services

she really means that one service "must" or "shall"; the other does not need to. It is a distortion of the plain meaning of the language. I hope that that will be attended to by the BBC, but if the matter were ever to be tested in a court, I cannot see that there is any ambiguity about it. The Secretary of State's reluctance to accept amendments to the charter and agreement is an inappropriate inflexibility.

When these matters were discussed in another place, it was said that the views of the upper House would be considered and weight would be given to what was said. Are we to understand that what is said in this House is not to be given any weight?

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There is a plain error in paragraph 2.2(c), which refers to

Scotland has two services for general reception, Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidheal, which is the same allocation as for Wales. The BBC has pledged, in this rather ephemeral document, to retain those services and their frequencies but there should be a requirement that they be protected against any future change in commitment.

It seems almost impossible to get the issue of programme making clear in the minds of those responsible at the BBC. The statement of pledges goes no way towards meeting the general feeling in the House the last time that we debated BBC matters that it was appropriate that all parts of the United Kingdom should make programmes for viewing by the rest of the country. In fact, the whole approach of the BBC has been to treat regionalism as being about the provision of core local programmes covering such matters as local news and local parliamentary affairs. It does not recognise that it is important that drama made in all parts of the country should be seen on the network or that sport in all parts of the country should be available on all parts of the network. Comedy and other programmes made in different parts of the country on many other aspects of our multi-cultural society should be carried on the network. At present, not even lip service is paid to that. It should have been inherent in the new structure.

In the debate on 9 February last year, the then Secretary of State quoted this passage from the White Paper:

He then commented:

Since that aspiration, which I endorsed and strongly supported, was expressed, we have had the BBC's response in its illustrative statement of pledges of November 1995. There was nothing quantitative about it. It said virtually nothing about those matters, although it referred to dedicated programmes of regional journalism, regional television news summaries, weekly current affairs programmes and so forth. I do not know whether the BBC is disingenuous or whether it has a strong centralist impulse--it is probably the latter--but it falls far short of what the House would regard as an appropriate part of public service broadcasting. It will be to the great detriment of broadcasting in Scotland if that is not recognised.

The role under the charter of the national broadcasting councils of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been to control policy in their countries. That power is

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felt by many to be the foundation of their authority. It is not granted to them under the charter that we are considering; instead, they are required to advise and assist. That is a significant change and powers similar to those missing from the national broadcasting councils turn up in article 7(1)(d) of the new charter, which requires the governors to consult the national broadcasting councils on any issue concerning funding, programming and resources and to take due account of any representations that they receive.

That transfer of a power to the governors establishes for the first time a direct constitutional link between them and the national councils and relieves the problem of conflict of interest for the national governors--they no longer have to represent the board of governors and their council. It places the initiative firmly in the lap of the governors and does not require them to incorporate any representation from the national council. The draft charter requires amendment to give national councils the power to initiate a strategy and objectives for their country.

On the question of advice and consumer input, under the current charter, the General Advisory Council forms panels to select members of the national broadcasting councils. The draft charter abolishes the General Advisory Council and transfers the power to select members of the national broadcasting councils to the governors. Once again, that would seem to enable the governors to fill the councils with compliant appointees and to take away from consumers, the regions and the nations a truly representative nominated membership. That is another area in which the charter ought to be amended before it reaches its final form.

The Minister of State, who is to reply to the debate, told the House on 9 January 1995 that England would have 10 regional councils and that, together with their chairmen, they would constitute the English Regional Forum. Many people understood him to be saying that that organisation would effectively become the national broadcasting council for England and be given constitutional status within the charter, but that is apparently not the case. Clause 13.1 of the draft charter states:

It does not mention the English National Forum, which has already been established by the BBC. With no constitutional status, the forum is powerless and England is bereft of a national body within the structure of the BBC. That is not fair to England and can only encourage the continuing centralisation and the metropolitan character of the BBC. That ought to be attended to before the charter is given effect. The draft charter, rather than strengthening the regional voice of the BBC, seems carefully constructed to draw power to the centre. If it continues in its current format, it will prevent the BBC from achieving the goal of effective regional and national decision making and programme producing.

The structural weaknesses are probably the single most serious feature of the complex documents that we are considering. There is still time to change them and, for that reason, I have concentrated on that issue. Although a general debate on the BBC could encourage one to embark on many other matters, I shall mention only a couple more.

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At this time, the question of the independence of the BBC is important. I was not pleased by the manner in which the Secretary of State appointed the new chairman of the governors, Sir Christopher Bland. I understand that she looked into the precedents and decided that it was appropriate for her to make the appointment without consultation. Undoubtedly, she appointed someone who has great qualities and experience of commercial broadcasting, which will be of great service to the BBC. I also believe that there is no reason to fear thatSir Christopher will not be entirely objective--in a political sense--in the way in which he conducts himself in his new role. In a position of that kind, however, it would have been sensible to have reached some agreement, and consultation should have been held before the appointment. It would have strengthened the position of the governor from the beginning.

A second matter is the position of the arts and the BBC's role as a sponsor. The corporation spends about £300 million per annum and there are huge pressures on it to reduce its funding of orchestras, for example.I profoundly hope that those pressures will be resisted.I would have liked the fundamental documents to have done much more to spell out the BBC's commitment to the live arts and to new art. That commitment has played a distinguished role in the past and been a major contributory factor to the BBC's worldwide reputation.

I share the views of the hon. Member for North Thanet about the inadequate provision of production targets for the BBC in education. If Channel 4 can operate against targets on quality and duration, I see no reason why the BBC should not similarly be prepared to do so.

This is a significant turning point in the history of the BBC. Its control of the airwaves is slipping away from it, its hold on the licence fee is loosening and it is clearly torn between broadcasting to a mass audience and broadcasting quality programmes to a small audience. It does not always satisfy those conflicting challenges. Sometimes, I do not even think that it knows where it is going when dealing with those questions. In spite of all that, the BBC still commands the support of many people in this country and is admired in other countries, as it develops its image through commercial collaboration abroad. I wish it well and hope that, in the time that is left, the Secretary of State will strengthen the accountability structures and provide much more precise measurement yardsticks to ensure that the quality that we have valued is retained--I think that the Minister hoped for that when he last spoke on the subject.

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