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4.15 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland): I welcome the measure contained in new clause 26, which will help to put in place the mechanism to allow the proposed half hour of Gaelic programmes to be broadcast on one of the new digital multiplexes. While the measure is broadly acceptable, will the Minister clarify what he understands to be the purpose and effect of subsection (4)(d)? If the Gaelic Television Committee were to become a broadcaster in its own right, will that subsection enable it to provide programmes directly to the multiplex holder?

I commend to the Minister and to the House new clause 39, standing in my name and that of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie). The Gaelic Televison Committee welcomed the Government's announcement in Committee on 9 May that a minimum of half an hour per day would be allocated for Gaelic broadcasts on one of the new digital terrestrial channels. This has been seen as a definite step in the right direction, but there is concern that the committee will still be unable to operate as a broadcaster. The Gaelic Television Committee may still be held to ransom by broadcasters to subsidise what they decide are the Gaelic programmes that they ought to put out.

There may be some conflict of interest between the 68,000 Gaelic speakers, to whom the Minister referred, and the wider community that has been targeted by the makers of Gaelic programmes--with some considerable success--in Scotland. The Gaelic Television Committee is anxious that the interests of the Gaels should not be overlooked.

Mr. Dafis: Does the hon. Gentleman look forward to the day when similar provision as is made for Gaelic speakers in Scotland and Welsh speakers in Wales is made for speakers of the Irish language in Northern Ireland? Would he welcome the establishment of an Irish language television fund or committee that could provide programmes to be shown on the new Irish language television channel, Teilifis Na Gaelige, emanating from the Irish Republic?

Mr. Maclennan: I should be interested to see such a development if it stemmed from Northern Ireland. Most British Governments would be interested to hear such proposals, but it is not for me to put Erse words into the mouths of broadcasters in Northern Ireland. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about that interesting possible development.

I am anxious to ensure that the most cost-effective means of providing Gaelic services on the third multiplex is achieved. I believe that it could be, if provision were made for the committee to co-ordinate the feed of Gaelic

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programming into the third digital multiplex and for that committee or its agent to be licensed by the Independent Television Commission to provide the programme service to the multiplex operator. That is the purpose behind new clause 39.

There is concern that there is an imbalance between the power of the broadcasters and the duty of the committee, which is essentially a funder--in some cases, funding up to 100 per cent.--and is operating without a great deal of influence over the content of the programmes that it is funding. That situation requires statutory rectification. I hope that the Government will look with favour on that proposal.

The Gaelic Television Committee is a representative body and it has shown considerable expertise. It would discharge the role of broadcaster well. It would be in line with what would seem to be the Government's intentions--stepping up the provision of Gaelic--if they accepted the new clause.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries): As one of the instigators of the early-day motion that was signed by a large number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House suggesting that we give additional support to the Gaelic Television Committee, I think that the Government have reacted, bearing in mind what a success Gaelic broadcasting has been. I have visited the studio in Stornoway and met those involved. There has been warm acceptance throughout Scotland of the number of hours of Gaelic television shown. Indeed, a great many people who cannot speak Gaelic enjoy watching the programmes with subtitles. I am glad about the Government's reaction, and I welcome the new clause.

Mr. Sproat: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) for the tremendous work he did when he was at the Scottish Office to ensure that there was such an increase in Gaelic broadcasting. I am sure that the Gaelic-speaking community will be grateful to him for all he did.

I thank the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) for his explanation of his new clause. He wants to create out of the Gaelic Television Committee a body quite different from that set up under the Broadcasting Act 1990. As I explained in Committee, the statutory powers of the Gaelic Television Committee are confined to the payment of grants. It is exercising those powers to good effect, as shown by its figures for the number of hours of Gaelic programmes being transmitted.

The committee's structure, which was devised to take into account the scale of the Gaelic-speaking community and the nature of the broadcasting industry, remains valid at this stage in the evolution from the analogue to the digital age. Moreover, the Government have provided for the multiplex provider to consult the committee on the nature and scheduling of the programmes to be broadcast.

In response to the question of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, I emphasise, however, that I do not see a role for that committee as a broadcaster. It is a grant-giving and advisory body, and it is not our intention that it should be a broadcaster. Potential applicants for the third digital multiplex--

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): The Minister will know that the intention is to open up the supply of

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programmes into the digital field. Can he clarify subsection (4)(d) of new clause 26, and say whether the Gaelic Television Committee could be one of the suppliers mentioned in that subsection, because that would go a long way to meeting the concerns of the committee about being able to provide a supply of programmes when the digital field comes on stream?

Mr. Sproat: No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. That is what I was trying to tell the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. The Gaelic Television Committee is an extremely important body, both in the grants and advice that it gives and the part it has played in the success of increasing the number of Gaelic programmes in Scotland. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries said, many people who do not speak Gaelic enjoy watching the programmes with subtitles.

Having said that, I must add that we do not envisage an expansion of the role of the Gaelic Television Committee into the kind of supplier referred to by the hon. Gentleman. I emphasise, however, that the extra 30 minutes each day in peak time in Scotland, and the free giving of programmes that have already been transmitted by the BBC, STV or Grampian, constitute a major increase for the Gaelic-speaking community. For the moment, we are leaving it there.

Mr. Macdonald: Who are the

mentioned in subsection (4)(d)? Does that specifically rule out the Gaelic Television Committee, or does it leave open a question that might be decided at a future stage?

Mr. Sproat: The persons referred to in the subsection are any other persons that the multiplex operator decides should provide services. It could mean Channel 5, or it could be a group that the committee helped to put together. There is no reason why that should not happen, but the committee itself cannot be a broadcaster in the strict and proper sense of the term.

Potential applicants for the digital multiplex can expect the Independent Television Commission to give careful consideration to their proposals for consulting the Gaelic community in general, and the Gaelic Television Committee in particular. I hope that I have convinced the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland that he should not press new clause 39.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New clause 32

Powers of Secretary of State in relation to code about provision for deaf and visually impaired

'(1) The Secretary of State may by order--
(a) amend subsection (1B) of section 20 by substituting for any percentage specified there a percentage specified in the order, and
(b) require the Commission to include in the code maintained under that section the requirement that in each week, at least a percentage specified in the order of so much of any digital programme service or qualifying service as consists of programmes which are not

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excluded programmes for the purposes of that section in relation to presentation in, or translation into, sign language is to be so presented or translated.
(2) In subsection (1) "qualifying service" does not include the qualifying teletext service.
(3) Before making an order under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall consult the Commission.
(4) No order under subsection (1) shall be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'--[Mrs. Virginia Bottomley.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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