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11.48 am

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I do not entirely share in the unanimity. I have known four Members of Parliament for Rotherham, every one of whom has made a contribution to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made an elegant and important contribution, and we are in his debt.

I do not always agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on every subject, but I strongly agree with what he said about public service obligations.

The discordant note that I introduce is this. We shall have to cast a particular mote out of our own eye. The problem is that it is all very well for the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) to say that, in the past quarter of a century, serious coverage has been reduced, but something else has been reduced: ministerial interest, in both parties, in the proceedings of the House of Commons. I am concerned about the gradual bypassing of Parliament, which I think started with Mrs. Thatcher. More and more, statements are being made in Millbank or in Conservative central office, long before they are made on the Floor of the House. It is a question not only of etiquette but of the amount of attention, particularly of Ministers, that is paid to the House of Commons.

Yesterday morning, there was a major event in the history of the Labour Government. I am not concerned here about the merits or demerits of the minimum wage legislation, but it is something that was very close to the heartstrings of my party. I shall put it gently. If such a measure had been passed after an all-night sitting, and if their colleagues had been up all night getting it through, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan would have made it their absolute business to be on the Treasury Bench at least for the final speeches, and probably--certainly in Wilson's and Callaghan's case--for all the speeches on Third Reading.

For much of the legislation that has been passed in the past few months--it was the same during the Conservative Government--the Secretaries of State whose legislation it was were very seldom to be seen on the Treasury Bench. They left it to junior Ministers. What more important thing do Secretaries of State who are conducting legislation through the House have to do than to listen--on their own legislation, which they are promoting--to their parliamentary colleagues of all parties?

If the Government cease to listen to the House of Commons--as Governments in general are ceasing to do--what do we say to BBC senior executives, one of whom, who must be nameless, has asked, "If you do not take yourselves that seriously, and if Ministers do not take

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the House of Commons that seriously, why should the BBC take you so seriously?"? The debate is part of a wider argument on the bypassing of Parliament.

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and entirely agree with the important point that he is making so strongly. However, I think that he will agree that two wrongs do not make a right, and that it is not entirely clear which is cause and which is effect. I think that one of the reasons why successive senior Ministers, and Governments generally, have treated the House with less courtesy and respect for its role is that they do not think that they will attract the media's attention if they do so. We witness today an empty Press Gallery for this debate. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree also that the media are not excused in paying increasingly less attention to the proceedings of the House simply because Ministers have followed them in making that mistake.

Mr. Dalyell: The hon. Gentleman has made the point more eloquently than I would have done. Others wish to speak. I shall only endorse what he has so pointedly said.

11.53 am

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham(Mr. MacShane) on making his case, and also on the restraint, in several senses, that he showed in developing that case. Specifically, he made no reference--he might have some acquaintance with or memory of them--to the complexities and, in a literary sense, corruptions of the career structure inside that enormous and--as he eloquently described it--rubbery corporation. He did not mention the pressures that those pressures generate, or the contribution that they make to an anonymity of responsibility, which makes it difficult to fix on a particular target or individual and to say, "If we can bring our case to them, perhaps we can correct this."

Meanwhile, as hon. Members have already said, we are witnessing the standard corporation technique, whereby, if one wants to get rid of a product, one makes very little of it. As supply is so limited that people cannot get the product, one says that there is no demand for it. It is a cyclical process. The BBC is engaged in that process, transferring programmes that it admits have higher ratings to "listening ghettos"--where no one can get at the programmes, or where one can hear them only with great difficulty, because they are broadcast at the wrong time of day. The process is self-fulfilling, and enables the BBC to say, "There is no demand for those programmes, so we may as well get rid of them."

The process is part of a larger one that I see developing within the BBC. It is a type of dumbing down. The BBC is giving much more air time and exposure to special interest lobbies and mini-focus groups that argue their case, although almost in political isolation, because they are not really politicians. They do not understand--as we do, as we are sent to the House by our constituents--political pressures in the round, although they have good soundbites, mini-rows and disturbances, and give trouble. However, those groups should be only on the fringe of politics, not at the centre, as the House certainly should be.

As the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) so eloquently said, for a variety of reasons, the House finds itself under pressure from many different sectors. In the

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eyes of many, our importance is diminishing. Therefore, rather than pay attention to what the House of Commons says, it is legitimate to listen to those various little focus groups, pressure groups and people who will make a scene on air or on television and give the programme "more of a kick".

I should like briefly to deal with the matter of that "kick"--the matter of ratings. It is no business of the BBC to determine its output by ratings--which are not and never have been part of its charter. I went to a lunch hosted by Sir Christopher Bland--I hope that I am not abusing his hospitality. He invited some prominent parliamentarians, and gave us a resume of his future programmes and of what the corporation was doing. On all the items that he showed us, he declaimed their ratings and the acclaim from critics. He told us that the ratings for this or that programme were as good as those for ITV's programmes. That is not his business. Lord Reith never concerned himself with a programme's ratings. His duty, as he saw it, was to inform and to educate. That is how the BBC was conceived.

We can complain about the process, and we have right to do so, because it is deplorable. I know from my own mailbag that many individual constituents complain about it. The process can be corrected only by a strong and forceful personality who is not concerned with ingratiating himself with the establishment. The BBC requires an individual who will promote his various officials, editors and producers not on the basis of their impact on ratings or the acclaim that they garner, but on the basis of how they fulfil the BBC's fundamental duty, which is quite different from that of independent television companies--which have no duty except to their shareholders, and only minimal constraints imposed on them by censorship and the dictates of so-called good taste.

We shall have to initiate a fundamental change in the BBC--in attitude, conscience, responsibility and the sense of duty of those at the top. Until we do that, we shall have debates such as this one. The Press Gallery will remain empty, and no one will pay the slightest attention.

11.58 am

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for giving me a chance to raise the issue of regional television broadcasting of parliamentary affairs.

Many of us will have built up a quite close relationship with our regional BBC outlets and participate frequently in their programmes. It seems to me that there are two essential components in that regional broadcasting: first, that there are correspondents who go out of their way to build links with all the region's Members of Parliament, irrespective of party and position; and, secondly, that they are given adequate air time and are able not only to provide pieces for regional magazine programmes that follow the news, but to have their own slots throughout the week to broadcast genuine regional coverage.

That is especially important in areas such as Yorkshire--an area of interest both to myself and to the hon. Member for Rotherham. That we have a Leeds-based team is very significant: it is important that our coverage of Westminster comes from "John Turnbull, our man in Westminster", not from a national feed, and gives a genuinely regional perspective. People in Yorkshire and

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other peripheral regions respect that. The breadth of coverage is significant, as those in the team are able to move into the wider arena: for example, we have recently discussed issues such as the Child Support Agency and alternatives to prison sentences--broader issues, discussion of which involves residents of the region and their parliamentarians. I ask myself where else we could get that sort of coverage.

Hon. Members have recently waxed lyrical about the importance of the constituency link as we discuss alternatives to the present electoral system. If we are not to have regional coverage, all we shall be left with is the Government's pronouncements and national spokespeople talking; people will never hear what their region's Members of Parliament think from a regional perspective.

The other key issue is the following of political careers. In Yorkshire, we report the Leader of the Opposition as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). We have followed the career of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who is reported as such, all the way from local councillor to his current position as the esteemed Secretary of State for Education and Employment. It is that ability to engage with local politicians as local characters that is important, in that it cuts behind some of the hype and spin that are often seen here.

I hope that, as well as debating the topical issue of "Yesterday in Parliament", we shall seriously look at the future of regional broadcasting. We should treasure it and continue to provide to people in the regions a genuinely regional voice, instead of their having to rely solelyon Government pronouncements and national spokespersons' responses.


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