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Mr. Swayne: Given the number of viewers of BBC News 24, an increase in viewing numbers in the hon. Lady's constituency might have a significant impact on the number of people who watch it.

Barbara Follett: It might indeed.

Accessibility, whether regional, geographic or platform-based, must be taken into account by both the Government and the television companies. I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State well in that endeavour. Price is the other factor in accessibility. My right hon. Friend's commitment to affordability is commendable but I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), feel that pensioners deserve special treatment.

The case is made stronger by the fact that pensioners in sheltered housing and nursing homes already receive concessions. The unequal treatment is felt sharply by pensioners in my constituency who are also extremely concerned by the tendency of some commercial channels to screen major sporting fixtures only on digital. Given the limited reach of digital television, that is truly bad for some people.

An elderly gentleman recently came up to me on a visit to sheltered housing and told me that, for the past 10 years, he had forgone cigarettes in order to subscribe to both of Sky's sports channels, and was outraged that some of the most important football matches were being shown only on digital, which no amount of abstinence would allow him to afford. The divide between information rich and information poor could widen if the licence fee is raised without concessionary fees being introduced for those on low incomes, especially pensioners.

We are on the brink of another communications revolution. If it is to benefit the consumer as well as the provider of broadcast services it must be carefully monitored and managed; if it is, the future of broadcasting in Britain is bright; if not, it is bleak. No one wants a two-tier broadcasting service. We must take care to prevent that.

12.16 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), whose speech was lucid and faultlessly delivered. I confess to one disappointment, however. In the Register of Members' Interests, she lists her position as a "communications consultant", and I was rather hoping, given the references that many hon. Members have made to the amount that the BBC spends on consultancy fees, that she would enlighten us as to what that money might be spent on; but I am afraid that I am none the wiser as to what a communications consultant might do than I was when she began.

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The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) gave us the benefit of his technical expertise in engineering in describing the technology platforms available. He raised the question whether the television or the personal computer would win the battle for the hearts, minds and, indeed, activities of the future. I offer him a third possibility: that it will be neither, that people will go on living their lives much as they do now and that the whole digital revolution has been as over-hyped as the other revolutions of the past 10 to 15 years.

I remember being told how cable television would change my life. It did, but only in the sense of being a minor inconvenience while the road was dug up.

Mr. Browne: Would the hon. Gentleman include in his over-hyped revolutions the commonsense revolution?

Mr. Swayne: No. I am talking about common sense rather than over-hyping.

I had much sympathy with what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, but I found his vision of the future profoundly shocking. The thought of having a film e-mailed to me so that I can watch it at home instead of being able to avail myself of the services of a babysitter and go with my wife to the bright lights of Bournemouth to watch it at the cinema strikes me as an unacceptable reduction in the quality of life. I could not possibly countenance that.

Mr. Chris Smith: The hon. Gentleman has a good point about the changes over the past 10 to 15 years. When video first appeared, everyone predicted that it would mean the death of the cinema, but precisely the opposite has been the case. Cinema attendance--at the bright lights in Bournemouth--has risen by 150 per cent. over 10 years, which proves that there can be a synergy between new technology available in the home and traditional forms of entertainment outside it.

Mr. Swayne: I thank the Secretary of State for that lucid exposition, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

I agree with almost everything that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said, and the way in which he said it, but I differ with him on one or two minor points. He began by telling us that television represented one of the greatest educational opportunities, so I ask him to repeat an experiment that I conduct from time to time with my children. I ask them to read a story book for half an hour--to master a chapter, say--and then to tell me, coherently and in chronological order, about what they have read. I then ask them to watch a television programme for half an hour and do the same with that. The difference in the results is instructive, and serves as a powerful corrective for those who over-hype the educational possibilities of television.

Some examination has taken place, especially by the right hon. Member for Gorton, of the BBC charter. Undoubtedly when it was granted, it required the BBC to provide a broadcasting service, and that was appropriate, because there was no service then. That is no longer so. Therefore, it is proper to ask whether we still require the BBC to provide a full broadcasting service.

Should we not be more concerned that the BBC provides what other broadcasters cannot, in terms of the quality of programming? In that respect, I was encouraged by what

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the Secretary of State said about stretching audiences and raising their horizons. The right hon. Gentleman said that the BBC should do that "a little", but I think that it should do it a lot. It is nonsense for the BBC to pursue ratings. Its financial structure emancipates it from having to do so. That is precisely why it can afford to be innovative, to experiment and to concentrate on raising the sights and stretching the imagination of its audiences.

The way in which the BBC competes with commercial broadcasters is undesirable. I draw particular attention to local radio in that respect. Why, in the south-east of England--or, indeed, elsewhere--does the BBC provide a service that competes with other local radio stations? When I tune in to the local stations as I motor along, it is extraordinary how often I hear repeated the jingles telling me which station I am listening to. They are necessary; without the jingles one would have no idea which station one was listening to, because they are all the same.

Why is the BBC spending money, which should be used elsewhere, to provide a service identical to those provided by the market?

Mr. Peter Atkinson: I must dispute that, because, in the north-east of England, the local BBC station has a substantial audience, is well appreciated and deals with local matters. If one travels across to Cumbria or to Scotland one finds entirely different BBC local radio stations, with an entirely different agenda. Our local BBC station competes extremely well with Metro FM, which is one of the most successful commercial local radio stations in the country.

Mr. Swayne: I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out, but I suggest that other commercial stations would probably provide a similar service. I remind him that my constituency stretches from Lymington, on the coast, to eight miles south of Salisbury, and, within an area of that size, there are different local radio services competing with one another and covering different local issues. None the less, between each zone, the output of the competitors is remarkable similar--so much so that they have to rely on jingles to remind the listener that there are several different stations.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) raised an effective point about the declining standards of decency and morality on the broadcast media. We all receive letters complaining about the decline in standards, and surveys have shown that, over the past two years, public disquiet about standards on television has increased considerably. In particular, I have received a number of letters consequent upon some salacious, late-night programmes that have been more concerned with chasing ratings than anything else.

The Almighty, in his wisdom, did create man with a recreational interest in sex. An inevitable consequence is that that appetite will be addressed, and it will tend to be addressed on television late at night. My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey pointed out that there is an off switch, and many people would do well to use it more often. He also, in an intervention in the speech made by the Secretary of State, referred to the possibility of teenagers' television screens going blank as a consequence of the change from analogue to digital. It

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might be appropriate if teenagers' television screens--and, indeed, those of younger children--went blank a little more often.

It is entirely appropriate that we should discuss the problems caused when adults do not take an effective interest and make informed decisions about what vulnerable young people and children watch. We must consider whether it is appropriate for the state to take on a greater role in protecting them. It is no good shying away from the word censorship, because that is what I mean. Censorship exists, and the only question is whether we have got right the balance of what we censor. I suggest, in the case of some late-night television programmes, that we have got the balance wrong and should re-examine it. We cannot rely on the off switch alone.

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