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9.31 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): This has been a welcome and interesting, if short, debate on which there has been considerable agreement amonghon. Members about some aspects of the BBC. The BBC is an extremely important part of our national life and our media, and it is crucial to the quality and the range of public debate. According to an Independent Television Commission survey, probably more than 70 per cent. of people use it as their main source of international information. It is important to our cultural life and as our voice abroad. The BBC is also present in an expanding area of the world's economy, and it is important to the economy of this country.

There is general agreement on those aspects of the BBC, and the Secretary of State made many of those points. We welcome that, but in the past few years the Government have had a funny way of showing the support and enthusiasm for the BBC that the Secretary of State mentioned. I welcome what I took to be her conversion, because every year in the past few years the Government have cut funding to the BBC and to the World Service, and it has happened again this year.

The Government have squeezed the editorial staff of the BBC and raided the offices of BBC Scotland to seize the Zircon tapes. There has been a general hostility, if not scepticism, from the Government and from many Conservative Members. If the Secretary of State has had a conversion and has a new attitude towards the BBC, we welcome that. This debate is a good test of the quality of the new charter and of the genuineness of the Government's avowed enthusiasm for the BBC.

The Government must accept some of the dissatisfaction that hon. Members have expressed about the status of this debate. The Secretary of State said outside the House that she will take hon. Members' views on the charter into account. Some hon. Members have also quoted the letter of the chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey, in which he made it clear that the Government have said that the charter is unamendable.

The two statements cannot be reconciled. If the charter is unamendable, the views expressed by hon. Members in this debate will not be taken into account, which tends to reduce its significance and importance. The Minister may say--he may give an assurance--that at least the BBC, in its ability to amend its statement of pledges and contract with the public, will take into account the views of hon. Members. That would be welcome, but the Government

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have made it clear that they will not take into account those views in the wording of the charter, and they have not put themselves in a position to do so.

As hon. Members of all parties have said, these are important matters because we are entering an important period--one of new competitors, cable television and, from next year, Channel 5. Alongside new technologies there will be changes in society. They will be very important years for broadcasting, and we must get things right. Unless we have the right structure, the right charter and, especially, the right quality of programmes, we shall not be able to respond to those changes.

Much has been said about the quality of programmes. In view of the debate in another place a few weeks ago, there has inevitably been much reference to the significance of listed events. This may be a small issue, but it is a resonant one and it reveals the balance between the involvement of the BBC, the market and the pricing of programmes that have to be bought in.

I hope that the Minister of State will tell the House whether the Government intend to accept the will and intention of the other place, if not the exact wording of the relevant amendment. Most of us agree that the amendment was not perfectly drafted--my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) said that--but I hope that the Minister will say that the Government intend to find a way to amend the Broadcasting Bill themselves. Will they withdraw their previous statements, given to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) and others, that this is simply a matter for market forces? It clearly is not, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the Government recognise that fact.

When the Government draft a better amendment, perhaps they will consider the experience of a country such as Australia, which has handled the matter much more successfully, wittily and constructively. There are other ways to reconcile the market and the public interest. The Government still have a little time--but not much--to come up with an Australian-type model or some other solution.

Behind much of today's debate lay the question of public service broadcasting and what we mean by it. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) discussed it. What we mean by public broadcasting is a difficult topic and it changes over time. There are tensions between the size of audience, the size of public investment and the quality and popularity of programmes.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton is right to say that a public broadcaster, receiving money from taxpayers and licence payers, must be a generalist broadcaster and be as concerned with high quality in popular entertainment, comedy, soaps or game shows--there is a big difference between the best of those and the lazy, sloppy and unthinking ones--as it is with high quality in the specialist programmes.

The hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) made an interesting speech. It was good to hear from the Conservative Benches an intelligent speaker making a clear statement in favour of what the BBC can contribute to specialist broadcasting. I believe, however, that he was wrong to push it so far and to say that that was to the exclusion of a more populist and generalist approach. The two can be reconciled. There is

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room in an organisation such as the BBC--in its national, regional and local programming--to supply the specialist needs, which the hon. Gentleman rightly said are important, and to show a wide range of the highest quality popular entertainment programmes. That is not a contradiction, and it cannot afford to be. I believe that the BBC now understands that, and it is important that it should.

There are other ways of testing public service broadcasting. We have not yet dealt thoroughly with the BBC's contribution to education. Most of us think that we are lagging behind our competitors. There will be an enormous premium on skills for the next generation, and the contribution of the BBC, as the universal broadcaster, will be crucial. The right hon. Member for Conwy(Sir W. Roberts) rightly alluded to that fact.

The Government must acknowledge the fact that education investment for the BBC is going down. Next year, new television education programmes are to be cut by 20 per cent., from 113 hours to 90 hours, and new radio education programmes are to be cut by 37 per cent., from 144 hours to 88. For night-time schools transmissions, new programmes are to be cut from37 hours to a ridiculous five hours.

Can the Government and the BBC be serious about our universal national broadcaster contributing to skills and quality? They are missing something if we are to cut the hours of educational broadcasting. That is wrong. Will the Minister answer my questions tonight, and respond to the education debate? He must realise that there is something seriously wrong.

The Minister must also realise that serious reservations have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about regionalism. The right hon. Member for Conwy rightly drew the distinction between the words "may" and "shall". Although he raised the issue, he was rather easily satisfied on the point, and backed off rather quickly.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), in a different way, raised other real problems concerning the genuineness of regionalism, which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) also questioned. It is no good taking a broadcaster to Manchester from London to do a programme. That is not regional broadcasting.

The figures cited by the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) were stark and correct, and they bear repetition--85 per cent. of network programmes are still made in London. The BBC says that it is serious about regionalism and about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but that figure shows that something is wrong.

It is ridiculous that, although 17 per cent. of the population live and pay their licence fees in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, only 3 per cent. of programmes are made there. There may not have to be an exact correlation between the two, but that is too great a discrepancy. The people of our islands who live in those nations have a right to be aggrieved.

The extremely imprecise commitment that thehon. Member for Perth and Kinross mentioned--that broadly one third of programmes are to be made in the regions--is not good enough for a universal national service. What do the Government intend to do about it? Will the Minister of State make a note, and respond to

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that question? Is he satisfied with the speed, the commitment and the genuineness of the BBC's move towards regionalism?

Something else that we have not talked about tonight, which constitutes an equally good test of the quality of public service broadcasting, is the World Service. Everybody agrees that it is a jewel, and a huge international influence, but if that is so, why have the Government cut its funding? The Voice of America and Radio Moscow are our competitors. If the Government are serious about getting our voice across in the developing world, cutting the funding makes no sense.

That is not simply a cultural matter but has economic repercussions. We get contracts where our voice is clear and strong and our influence is felt. The Government are fools to themselves to cut investment in the voice of Britain abroad, and a service for which we are trusted and known throughout the world. What they are doing is crazy.

The universal service is also reflected in the quality and range of public involvement in the charter and in the actions of the BBC. We have not paid enough attention to that. The present situation is far from satisfactory, so I hope that the Minister will answer a few of the following questions.

Why has the BBC abolished the General Advisory Council? Why is it merging the regional advisory councils with the radio councils? We do not yet know how many regions there will be. The Minister of State said a year ago in the House that there would be 10, but that has not yet been confirmed. Is that the right figure? If not, how many will there be? What will their role be, and what is to be the role of the English National Forum?

I repeat the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy asked: why are the members of the national broadcasting councils to be chosen by the governors and not, as in the past, by the General Advisory Council? As the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross rightly said, that is a different form of centralisation, and is undesirable and unwelcome. The BBC is a public corporation, and it should be seen to be involving and responding to the public. One way of doing that is through the advisory structures, but the tentacles through which the BBC can listen formally to the public are being slimmed down. That cannot be right. The structural changes mean that it will listen less. Hon. Members, regardless of their political persuasion, will not consider that satisfactory or desirable.

Hon. Members agree that broadcasting is entering a new age and that society is changing. In both respects, the charter, though welcome, is modest or even timid. It is fine as far as it goes, but it is not likely to last. Is it really the framework for the broadcasting future? How will it respond to change when we are settling the agreement before we have settled other broadcasting structures in the Broadcasting Bill? It is being done the wrong way around. How will the agreement respond to new commercial structures when there is no review of the capital structures? If the BBC is to be expected to live in a more commercial world, that makes so sense. It is ridiculous that we should not even discuss the restrictions on borrowing, which will remain as they are.

Why, if the BBC is going into a new broadcasting world, will it do so with fewer skills? It is reducing, and has reduced dramatically, its investment in training. What

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other employer entering a new technological world would slash its training as the Government have forced it to do over the past few years?

Will the charter be responsive to a changing society? Our society is changing its views on our nations, the regions and our identity. We are more multi-cultural than we were when the previous charter was written. We are falling behind on education and training. Those are big social changes and none is reflected positively in the charter.

We welcome the charter because, at times, it has seemed that it might have been a lot worse, but the Government must demonstrate tonight and over the next few months that they are not complacent and that they will take an intelligent and imaginative view. There are questions to answer and the Government must demonstrate the commitment and support that they have said that they will give. If they do not, the BBC is not, as it should be, safe in their hands.

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