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Mr. Peter Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is making a compelling point well. However, does he agree that public attitudes to the issue can be more complicated than they at first appear? Somebody came up to me not long ago and said, "I want to know what you are going to do about all this filth on television." I asked him what he meant, and he said, "All the disgusting filth and sex, and all those films they have on night after night." I told him that he did not have to watch it, and he thought for a minute and said, "Yeah, that's what my wife says."

Mr. Swayne: His wife is right, and I am certain that I would get fewer letters complaining about the subject if my constituents used their off switches a little more. However, it is right for us to take account of the fact that many children have televisions in their rooms and are not protected properly by parental influence. Many parents are feckless, but to what extent should the state step into that gap? I shrink from interference, because I believe in freedom of speech and I do not like regulations that tell people what they should or should not do. However, we should exercise more care, because the current balance is wrong.

The hon. Member for Lewes drew the House's attention to programmes that rely almost exclusively on violence and the exposition of violence for their dramatic effect. I agree with that, but a more insidious and troubling problem is caused less by drama and more by soap opera. The problem arises when scenes of physical violence--and of violence of language and of sexual behaviour--are insinuated into ordinary scenes of daily life. That practice gives the impression that such violence is normal and acceptable. The programmes involved are not protected by the watershed. They go out early in the day, and can be seen by children when they come home from school--indeed, in many respects, they are designed for that audience.

It is in such soap operas that the pervasive corrosion and corruption is evident. They often appear innocuous, but that only makes it more difficult to exercise the discipline and authority of using the off switch.

When our constituents write to us with their concerns, it is not acceptable to tell them that Ministers cannot take decisions on those matters because that power has been handed over to the independent organisations whose duty is to maintain standards, and that complaints and representations should be made to those bodies. Our constituents' letters tell us that people consider that those

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watchdogs have failed, and that they want politicians to do something about the problem. They tell us that the system is not working, and that they require their representatives to act on their behalf.

Members of Parliament have a proper concern about low turnouts at elections, and all sorts of extraordinary procedures are being put in place to reverse that trend. We like to exercise our minds on the enormously important political questions of the day, such as whether Britain is to be ruled by Parliament or by a bureaucracy in Brussels, but our constituents are more worried about what is on the television. If they get no response when they write to us with their complaints, they will get the impression that there is no point in voting, as nothing will change no matter how they vote. We must address the legitimate concerns of the growing number of people worried about standards of morality and decency on television--otherwise, we can expect only their contempt and derision.

About two and a quarter hours of religious programmes are put out every week by ITV stations, but they have been shifted to later slots, away from peak time. In addition, the output of religious programmes on BBC1 and BBC2 has decreased by one third over the past 10 years--a period in which the BBC's total programme output has increased by more than 50 per cent. There has therefore been a huge reduction in the total output of religious programmes output and in the amount of prime time devoted to such programmes. That trend is accelerating, as religious output has fallen by 15 per cent. in the last year alone.

The BBC strategy document entitled "2000 and Beyond" makes virtually no mention of religious broadcasting at all, and neither does the corporation's most recent annual report. It is therefore entirely inappropriate for the BBC to have any role in the regulation of religious broadcasting. We should remove BBC control over appointments to the secretariat of the Central Religious Advisory Committee, which should be entirely independent. Will the Minister address that point?

Religious broadcasters do not need the BBC and commercial radio stations to do their job. They should be able to get on with it themselves, but the law prevents that. As the Secretary of State said, the Broadcasting Act 1990 prevents religious broadcasters from having anything but a local radio analogue licence. It is difficult for anyone to get hold of one of those, and it is therefore unsurprising that there is only one religious broadcaster using analogue radio--Premiere, in London. There are also the two national and excellent United Christian Broadcasters' channels on satellite. However, outside London, one cannot hear Christian radio unless one possesses satellite equipment or a cable licence. That is the practical consequence of the law.

The Secretary of State said that the digital revolution would bring a huge opportunity for increased choice, and I welcome that. Religious broadcasters should be emancipated from the law and allowed to take advantage of that. However, the Broadcasting Act 1996 makes the situation even worse. Religious broadcasters are excluded from holding any territorial digital licence. Religious broadcasting is flourishing in Europe, but the practical effect of our policy is to ban all religious output, Christian and other. That is a clear breach of the liberty of freedom of speech. David Pannick QC has given the opinion that our law breaches the European convention on human rights. The Minister should address that point.

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Religious broadcasting is being increasingly excluded from mainstream television channels, and the Education Act 1944 is being ignored. I recently received a circular from my local authority which, though full of low-grade sociological gobbledegook, effectively said that it could no longer enforce the 1944 Act's provisions. I strongly suspect that my generation was the last to be taught the faith at school. There is therefore all the more reason to fill the vacuum with religious broadcasting, but we have banned it.

There is increasing disquiet about moral standards on television, and that could clearly be addressed by religious broadcasting, but the practical implication of our policy is that it has been banned. Elderly people find it increasingly difficult to go to church, and they could be satisfied by religious broadcasting. It need not be denominational or sectarian. Take the example of the United Christian Broadcasters; the output is not inflammatory, and it provides healing and reconciliation. A survey of listeners in the island of Ireland, which crosses the sectarian divide, has made that clear. There are no grounds for disquiet on denominational grounds.

Mr. Baker: How would the hon. Gentleman give extra access to religions of all denominations while not allowing airspace to pseudo-religious organisations that might be unwelcome? Is it his view on freedom of speech that everyone should have access to the airwaves?

Mr. Swayne: My view is most definitely in favour of freedom of speech. As I am a member of a mainstream Christian denomination, I should prefer a particular type of output, but that would be improper. We must accept that it is incorrect simply to make it illegal for any licence--national or digital--to be held. The secondary issues arise as a result of that legal ban. We may impose certain licensing conditions on breadth of output or whatever, but we must first consider the law that prohibits religious broadcasters from holding a licence at all.

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting will be assisted in this matter by the views of the House. Earlier in this Session, when my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) introduced a ten-minute Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and I ensured that the House had an opportunity to divide on the matter. The vote was 138 to 9 in favour of allowing our hon. Friend to introduce his Bill. That is a powerful demonstration of the views of the House.

The Minister is not responsible for the current state of the law, but she does have the power to alter it. I hope that she has the will to do so, because there is a strong and vocal constituency which deserves to be heard. That group realises that it is appropriate to deal with that matter at a time when we have a Prime Minister who openly professes his religious faith, a Home Secretary who professes his religious faith and a Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who also professes a religious faith. It would be difficult to say that the matter will not be addressed; if it cannot be dealt with now, when can we deal with it?

I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak in a wide-ranging debate, but the House will be aware that Second Reading debates can also be wide ranging. I suggest to the Minister that we should hold more such debates, so that we can remedy the problems that we are discussing.

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12.42 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): The Americans take about two months to do it; the papacy takes about one month to do it; the British Government do it brutally during an evening; but the BBC proposes to do it over the course of a year. The exercise to which I refer is the changing of the chief executive of the organisation. That length of time is likely to prove irritating and too long for those of us who are great friends of the BBC--I chair the all-party group on the BBC--and who agree with the polls undertaken for the Davies panel. Those polls reveal that 50 per cent. of people think that the BBC represents good value and more than 50 per cent. think that it is good for Britain's image abroad.

Taking such a long time will not help managerial efficiency and coherence during the vital few months that lie ahead for the BBC. If Greg Dyke wants to introduce changes, the sooner he gains total control, the better. I point out to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) that John Birt does a good job in many ways. Without producer choice, the BBC would probably not have survived; £600 million has been saved while John Birt was in charge. However, it must be a case of, "The king is dead; long live the king." The millennium would be a good time to go, because the BBC and its programmes will, once again, be at the centre of the nation's attention--perhaps even the centre of international attention.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) accused the Davies panel of being obsessed with the BBC. That is not an accusation that anyone would make against him. He talked about ideas popping into the heads of BBC executives. He reaffirmed his view that the BBC should be privatised, and said that it was appropriate that "Walking with Dinosaurs" was being shown at present. Let us consider a typical Monday night on the BBC of a few weeks ago. Would anything on BBC television or radio have tempted him away from the internet?

As well as "Walking with Dinosaurs", there was Jeremy Isaacs's "Millennium" and "EastEnders", which is a good example of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refers to as "making the popular good". "The Major Years" might have tempted my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton later that night--if any programme is a good candidate for continual repeats on all BBC channels, that is it. He could have tuned into BBC Radio 5 and heard classic commentary on Premier League football, or into Radio 4 and heard a classic play, the like of which is not broadcast on any other public sector radio channel in Europe. He could even have tuned into BBC local radio, which indeed has a distinctive voice. In some parts of the country, it is the only speech-based radio broadcasting available locally.

I found annexe 8 of the Davies report fascinating: it sets out in economic terms the case for public sector broadcasting and for the BBC. Its four points are based on the concepts of public good and market failure. The report states that public broadcasting services should:


    "widen choice both now and in the future by complementing the market through the pursuit of public service purposes."

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    It seems to me that that role will be as relevant in the digital world as it was in the analogue world.

I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has called in consultants to examine carefully the BBC's figures. When that exercise is complete, the case for an increase in BBC resources will remain. Whereas the commercial sector increased its resources by 10 per cent. a year during the 1990s, largely though subscription television, the BBC managed only a 1 per cent. increase. In the early 1990s, the BBC had 40 per cent. of broadcasting revenue, whereas it will have only 20 per cent. in 2008, according to the Davies panel.

There is a case for the BBC to invest in new digital services and to be given the money and the freedom to experiment. BBC Online is an extremely successful experiment, which receives more hits than any other website in Europe. BBC Knowledge has tremendous potential and there is a clear case for a BBC children's channel to counter the cartoons shown continuously on many of the satellite children's channels.

On BBC News 24, there is a case for the BBC to use its news-gathering resources to produce a news channel, not least because Back Benchers such as myself are more likely to get on that than on mainstream channels. Where BBC News 24 competes with Sky News, with viewers having access to both, the viewing ratio is about 50:50. In addition, it is extremely important that BBC World News continues as a counterweight to CNN in world broadcasting markets.

I do not go along with the Davies report recommendation on the digital licence fee. There is little in the report about likely evasion rates or the additional costs of collecting such a fee. It hardly seems worth levying the new licence for only a limited number of years, as the report suggests. It would have a marginal deterrent effect on viewers taking up digital television by giving them an incentive to wait until the digital fee was merged back into the main licence fee. However, unless the BBC develops digital services of quality, the take-up of digital will never reach the 95 per cent. target, because only a limited number of people will get digital for sports, movies and other specialist services.

There is a strong case for additional resources and, if that case is proved by the Secretary of State's consultants, the licence fee should be raised. The licence fee is not regarded in the same way as the poll tax was: rates of evasion of the television licence fee are decreasing, suggesting that it is generally accepted, albeit grudgingly. An opportunity to increase the fee may shortly become available: the previous Government's licence fee settlement ensured that the fee would decrease by 3.5 per cent. in real terms over the next two years, but the new Labour Government need not remain committed to that settlement. The Davies report spoke of a £5 increase in the licence fee for two years as an alternative to the digital fee, and that proposal should be considered.

I want pensioners to be exempted from any licence fee increase. That would cost about £25 million to £30 million, which I would call a judicious use of public expenditure, rather than a pre-election bribe, as a similar proposal was described earlier. If the Government are to make good Labour's commitment to enabling pensioners to enjoy a share in the nation's rising earnings, we have to look for ways to do that. It would be very much in the

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spirit of the winter bonus if pensioners were to receive a £10 or £15 voucher to compensate for any increase in the licence fee.

I disagree fundamentally with the privatisation of BBC Resources and BBC Worldwide. BBC Resources is the craft base of the entire television industry. Many technicians who are trained through BBC Resources go on to do good work in the independent sector. BBC Resources does not make a profit at present--although it is moving more into profit--so it could be privatised effectively only if business from the BBC were guaranteed for many years to come. The costs to the BBC are likely to rise in a seller's market.

BBC Worldwide is a good example of public enterprise efficiency within the BBC. Some £80 million now comes from BBC Worldwide, which is an increase from £50 million a few years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton must spell it out: is he in favour of the BBC undertaking commercial activities? It is a question of selling off the family silver.

Many hon. Members mentioned sport during the debate. I was surprised that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton seemed to show no interest in a decision that will affect the football teams in his city, which must be the greatest footballing city in the country at the moment. According to today's Financial Times, Premier League rights--both live and recorded--may be sold exclusively to BSkyB for the first time. Several BSkyB executives are apparently having a cosy chat with two of the rich clubs in an attempt to stitch up the deal.

Such an arrangement would be absolutely catastrophic for many football supporters up and down the country who would be denied any access to Premier League matches. The Secretary of State said that he will review the A and B lists of protected events. Programmes on the A list must be shown live on terrestrial television and there must be access to recorded highlights of programmes on the B list. If the Premier League decides to go down the route of selling all its football rights to the highest bidder, there is a case for putting Premier League football on the B list. That would separate live and recorded rights, and "Match of the Day" or its equivalent programmes would continue to be broadcast.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on extending protection for sporting events--the so-called "crown jewels"--to a majority of the population. The next football World cup will be shown in its entirety on terrestrial television. That protection came in the nick of time because World cup rights were sold for the first time not to the European Broadcasting Union but to a German media entrepreneur, Mr. Kirch. He will have to sell those rights to terrestrial television, which is a good thing. I urge the Secretary of State to consider the case of Premier League football.

I think that some sports rights holders are realising for the first time that they will get a better deal overall if they allow at least some terrestrial coverage. For example, the Walker cup--which is an amateur event--was watched on BBC "Grandstand" by more people than the Ryder cup, which gained only 600,000 viewers live on Sky Sports. That has given the golfing authorities something to reflect upon.

Sky Sports has extended the range of choice for the sports fan, and done a wonderful job with its technical presentation. ITV Sport has done well to bounce back in

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recent years to broadcast popular sports such as football, rugby, boxing and motor racing, which command high advertising rates. The BBC should continue to put both minority and crown jewel sports together in magazine programmes such as "Grandstand". The BBC has done a good job this year promoting athletics, and I am glad that Greg Dyke has listed sport as one of his priorities.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) about the importance of universal access to channels across platforms. As a Yorkshireman, I was sorry to hear my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) say that north-west Norfolk is receiving Yorkshire regional news. My hon. Friend claimed that his constituents receive crime reports from Burnley. If that is true, the problem is very bad because Burnley is in Lancashire. The signal must be getting mixed up somewhere.

I shall conclude by quoting Michael Grade on the subject of the BBC. A few weeks ago, he said:

That idea is public service broadcasting and we would do very well to preserve that in the digital world that lies ahead.

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