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9.46 pm

The Minister of State, Department of National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat): I welcome the support that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) gave in the midst of the qualifications with which he rounded off his speech. I appreciate the general support, and some qualifications and criticisms, from both sides of the House. In the short time left, I shall answer as many points I can. I do not object to having only a short time to answer, because it is important that as many hon. Members as possible should contribute to such an important debate.

I shall start with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who made a point that was also raised by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy(Dr. Moonie)--that is the fifth different pronunciation of the name of his constituency that he has had to suffer. They asked about the status of the documents that we are considering.

The first, the royal charter, is not amendable by either House of Parliament, but had any criticism of deep substance or a proposal for change emerged in the other place or from tonight's debate, it would have been possible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to include it in the charter. We shall consider what has been said about the charter--I shall come to the agreement in a second--and decide whether any changes should be made.

As regards the agreement, there is a most extraordinary parliamentary convention, which I must admit makes sense to me thanks only to the good offices of the House. When the agreement was debated in the other place, it was a draft agreement, but it could not have come back to this House under Standing Order No. 55 as a draft agreement. It had to come back as an agreement or contract and a contract has to be signed. It was therefore signed a week after the debate in the other place. It came back to this House in a state where an amendment could have been put down, but it would have been up to my right hon. Friend and me to take it away again and bring it back to the House. It is a peculiar status. We shall consider that and decide whether there is anything that would justify the House being asked again to run through

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this interesting debate, which is itself the end of many other debates such as those on the White Paper. Anyway, that was really just to help the House.

I thank the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy for the real courtesy with which he always puts his points. It is much appreciated on Government Benches. He rightly discussed the changing landscape of broadcasting. That is what is behind everything that we are debating and discussing tonight. It is indeed changing. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, we are not having the licence fee for the full 10 years of the charter, but merely for five years because things may change so much that it would not make sense.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire(Mr. Fabricant) mentioned the tremendous changes in technology--in a technological passage of which I could not understand the detail, although the strategy was very clear--saying that, within a few years, one could find out whether anyone was using a video recorder or a television set.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy mentioned the important matter of television sporting rights. The House will understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put forward the document "Informing the Debate" precisely because we want a debate, we want it to be informed, and we want to discuss the matter when the Broadcasting Bill returns to the House.

I heard the arguments with no surprise, because they have been aired many times, not least between thehon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and myself. I told him on 20 November that I wanted the matter to be discussed during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill, which is the proper place to discuss it. That is what I said and that is what will happen. As everyone who has the interests of sport at heart will realise, there are important arguments. People who have been used to watching sport "free-to-air" want to go on doing so. On the other hand, the sports governing bodies get a tremendous amount of money from television--90 per cent. of funding for cricket, I think. Of the 32 rugby league clubs, 26 are pretty well insolvent. If it were not for the money that comes from television, they would be in a serious position. A difficult series of arguments have to be balanced.

Mr. Hawkins: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Sproat: No, if my hon. Friend will excuse me. He is as knowledgeable as anyone in the House on the matter, but I have only nine minutes in which to wind up the debate. I pay tribute, however, to the assiduousness with which he has pursued his views on the matter.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy, mentioned the English regions and the English National Forum. We are suggesting this to the BBC: we believe that it should be independent and independence means that one does not tell it what to do all the time. As far as the English regions are concerned, we believe that it is right to go that far down the road of saying, "Here is the way in which we think you ought to structure it." There is an English National Forum, and if the BBC in its wisdom decides that it wants to keep it as a kind of equivalent to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland national councils, it

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may do so. If it wants to keep the radio councils, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North wishes to do--

Mr. Patrick Thompson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Sproat: If my hon. Friend will excuse me, I have only a few minutes and he has made his argument powerfully. The BBC can keep the radio councils if it wants. That is what independence means and that is why we did it.

On the appointment of the new chairman,Sir Christopher Bland, I fully understand that thehon. Member for Kirkcaldy did not impeach or impugn his neutrality. I am sure that most hon. Members understand perfectly well that Sir Christopher will be absolutely apolitical as chairman of the BBC. A number of hon. Members made the criticism that we should somehow have consulted the Labour or the Liberal Democrat parties and that it was discourteous of us not to do so. The fact of the matter is--I checked this out--that the appointment of the chairman of the BBC has never been the subject of consultation. I do not necessarily rest my argument on that as a matter of principle, but it is certainly a matter of practice.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Conwy(Sir W. Roberts), who probably has more experience in these matters than anyone else in the House, spoke from that deep experience; he spoke powerfully of the importance of regionalism. All that I can say without going into details is that we entirely agree and there is nothing in the agreement or the charter to prevent the BBC from doing exactly what my right hon. Friend wants. When the statement of pledges is finally produced, I hope that there will be pledges covering many of his points.

We already have an outline statement of pledges--I totted them up and there are currently about 88. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I do not regard those as sufficiently specific--they are not yet good enough--but we expect the BBC to come forward with specific pledges. One of the most important duties of the governors, which has been made specific for the first time in the charter and the agreement, will be to monitor the situation--and I do not mean monitor and then do nothing. In the annual report or another similar document, they will say, "Here is what we promised last year; here is what has happened over the previous 12 months. We have succeeded or we have failed--if we have failed, here is how we shall put matters right." There will be an increase in accountability--we must see how it works. I hope that all hon. Members will accept that it is a powerful new way of pinning down the BBC.

I know that many hon. Members in the debate have said that many splendid promises are being made and there are good intentions and aspirations, but they have questioned whether they can be guaranteed to happen. They cannot be guaranteed, but if the BBC says, "Here is what we intend to do," at the beginning of the year and "Here is what we have done," at the end of the year, viewers and listeners, as well as Members of the House, will be able to see exactly what the BBC has achieved.

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The right hon. Member for Gorton said that he feared that the BBC was becoming just another broadcasting company without much distinction from any other commercial broadcasting company. I agree with him to the extent that that must not be allowed to happen. The BBC's first duty is to be a public service broadcaster.I accept entirely the right hon. Gentleman's slightly visionary--I use the word in an admiring sense--and accurate view of the future. I remember that that view appeared, valuably, in the first paragraphs of the Select Committee report. We are entering into a new world of commercialisation and the BBC can benefit greatly from commercialisation. From memory, I recall that it currently generates £300 million a year from its videos, books, magazines, merchandising and cassettes. With BBC World, BBC Prime and the joint ventures that are to come, much more money can be invested in the public service broadcasting side of the BBC.

I agree that in any such accountancy transactions, there will always be matters of transparency, which must be rigorously audited--they will be. For the first time, a strict requirement has been placed on the BBC governors to ensure that that auditing is right, transparent and accurate--they have the legal responsibility for it.Hon. Members may say that the governors have always had that responsibility in one sense. Yes, in one sense they have, but we are nailing it down for the first time. Incidentally, it is the first time that the independence of the BBC has appeared in the charter; we have always assumed it, but now we are going to make it an imperative.

In an extremely powerful and well-informed speech, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) criticised some of the BBC's editorial practices. He gave the absolutely shocking example of when one of his questions was transposed in a programme, so that it became the question to another answer. In the latest 1993 issue of the BBC's "Producer's Guidelines", every producer is specifically required to have regard to what the BBC calls "straight dealing". If my hon. Friend can prove that what he said happened, it is entirely contrary to the "Producer's Guidelines".

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) asked about the rules. "Rules" is a slightly misleading description of the "Producer's Guidelines". Mr. Birt says in his introduction that there are not many rules in the "Producer's Guidelines". However, a copy of the present guidelines is in the Library of the House of Commons and as soon as the new code is produced--which I do not expect before the Broadcasting Bill--I shall place a copy in the Library. My hon. Friend and all those who mentioned taste, decency and impartiality should know that we shall have the opportunity to discuss those issues in the Bill when we discuss the new Broadcasting Standards Commission.

Question put and agreed to.


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    Housing (Hyndburn)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McLoughlin.]

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