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1.6 pm

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): I share the view of many hon. Members that the debate is timely. I am grateful that the Government have found time to raise the issue on the Floor of the House in an Adjournment debate. It is a pity that it is during what might be described as an off-peak period. I hope that we can have a repeat in the near future.

I enjoyed greatly the gusto with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) launched his broadside against the BBC, but he was more than a little unfair on the Gavyn Davies review, bearing in mind that its terms of reference--to examine future BBC funding--were limited by the Government. In that context, the allegation that the review panel was obsessed with the BBC seems to be entirely unfounded and unfair on the BBC itself.

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We should not be over-sentimental about the BBC's role, or dwell too much on the past. The BBC should not rest on its not inconsiderable laurels. Surely the basic principle that is at stake and that underlies much of the debate is: can an entirely free and unregulated market enable public service broadcasting to flourish, not as a marginal activity, such as we find in the United States and other parts of the world, but as a mainstream broadcaster with big audiences and--this is the crucial point--a major influence on the whole of the broadcasting market; what is referred to in media jargon as the broadcasting ecology? There can be no doubt that the BBC's public service broadcasting ethos has influenced the whole of the broadcasting market in the UK.

The BBC faces a major challenge. I quote what the BBC itself has underlined as the challenge in its recent publication "2000 and Beyond." I endorse these words:

Experience tells us that the public service broadcasting ethos will not survive unless there is a secure base of funding for the BBC. The conclusions of the Davies report are balanced and cannot be dismissed lightly. The members of the committee obviously took great care and time to balance the arguments. I am surprised that some hon. Members have attacked the report in intemperate terms.

There is such a thing as market failure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said. An unregulated multi-channel market with predatory multi-media conglomerates appealing to the lowest common denominator through an endless diet of game shows and quizzes creates problems. Can it deliver the public service broadcasting that we apparently all want to preserve? There is at least a risk that it cannot. In those circumstances, the Government must be prepared to accept that the BBC has a case for extra funding to help it during this formative stage, while the multi-channel market is developing and we enter the fourth broadcasting revolution.

The important point about the BBC, which has not come out during the debate, is that it is a free-to-air service which provides universal access. There will always be a need for a service that informs and educates impartially, takes risks and stretches horizons.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) on using the ingenious analogy of the dinosaurs and their need to adapt to change to survive. That is an apposite analogy for the media.

The committee's conclusion was that the BBC would be frozen out of the digital market unless it got extra funding. I share the scepticism of other hon. Members about the appropriateness of the digital fee supplement, which has been described as a poll tax or a fine on households that take out a subscription with a digital provider. Even if one does not accept this particular recommendation, there is a case for extra funding. I welcome the fact that the Government are minded to test rigorously the BBC's figures, which appear to have a broad-brush approach. That evidence does suggest that there is a real demand for extra funding. It would be better

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to adopt the alternative course mapped out by the report by providing a £5 increase for each of the next two years--a substantial increase above the rate of inflation.

The vexed issue of concessionary licences has exercised many on both sides of the House for many years. The present system is complex, arbitrary and unfair. I would like to see it changed. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that pensioners should get a better deal. Having read the report, however, I am persuaded that it would be wrong to extend the scheme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton made what I presume were light-hearted remarks about electoral bribes, but putting a charge on the BBC's finances by making it pay for free licences for pensioner households would amount to just that. However, something needs to be done to address the problem as many pensioners are dependent on television. I would like a voucher system similar to the winter payments system to be introduced to help pensioners with the cost of their television licences.

In the post-devolutionary era, the BBC has an important role in cementing the countries of the United Kingdom. It is a very British organisation and it has a strong influence in Wales and Scotland. I pay tribute to the work of the BBC in Wales, which attracts 48 per cent. of the viewing and listening public. Its share of the audience is far higher than in England and Scotland. The BBC provides services in Welsh and English in what many people regard as a very professional and efficient way.

It is superficially attractive to engage in the sport of BBC baiting and there is a great deal of that in the printed media, but one has to ask why. Many of the media conglomerates that have been referred to already have vested interests in attacking the BBC and tarnishing its image. Perhaps some hon. Members have fallen into that trap too.

We must ensure a secure future for the BBC and I hope that the Government will accept the main recommendations of the report even if they do not accept the proposed digital licence supplement. I share the grave reservations that have been expressed about the recommendation to sell off BBC Resources and I endorse what several hon. Members have said about that. However, I see no reason why the BBC should not be subject to more rigorous accounting control. The BBC is jealous of its independence and rather nervous about too much Government control or regulation, but I see no objection in principle to the National Audit Office having a role in ensuring that BBC resources are accounted for properly. It is essential that the organisation is seen to be fair and transparent.

We are at a crossroads. The public service ethos that the BBC symbolises is essential. We have to preserve it, but that can only be done at a price. I earnestly ask the Government to take on board the major recommendations in the Davies report.

1.19 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak in what has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate that has addressed a number of the important issues affecting the future of broadcasting. I am encouraged that the Secretary of State acknowledged the impact of digital broadcasting and that he is setting two tests for availability and affordability.

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The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), rightly pointed out how important broadcasting is to the whole country. He also rightly highlighted the position of radio--an issue not addressed properly by the Davies panel in its report.

I am grateful for the kind words of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who is not in his place. He made a comprehensive speech. Like him, I am a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, but I do not speak on behalf of the Committee in this debate. The right hon. Gentleman made many observations. He is always robust, and is often judged outside this place by the column inches that he gets. I can only assume that he is arranging that at the moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), as ever, made a sensible and astute speech, and rightly spoke up for his constituents. Issues of choice and availability are extremely important.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner)--who is not in his place--has often told this House of his regional difficulties. I shall not refer to the fact that most of Norfolk is Conservative. I assume that he has returned to his constituency to sort out some of those difficulties.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, highlighted some of the problems of minority groups, and the points that he made have echoed around the Chamber. The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) gave an account of the BBC and of access to BBC News 24 in her constituency, and referred to the reach of digital television.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), as ever, articulated common sense about the broadcasting revolution. I am pleased that the entertainments of Bournemouth featured well in his speech, and I, for one, would encourage that. He rightly points to standards in broadcasting, which are relevant to today's debate.

The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) spoke about the position and role of the chief executive of the BBC, and referred to choice. I thought at one point that his speech was a script suited best for the Radio Times. I am pleased to say that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) supported much of what my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, and that is encouraging. Like the hon. Gentleman, I enormously enjoyed the series "Walking with Dinosaurs" with my children and family. Finally, the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) spoke about the BBC's position in the broadcasting revolution.

There is no argument among us that the advent of digitisation has changed the nature of broadcasting. The digital age will end broadcasting as we have known it. Comparatively new services such as satellite and cable will no longer necessarily be free to air. Terrestrial television will not necessarily always be free of charge. If it were not difficult enough to decide between four or five channels, in future we could be faced with more than 200.

Hon. Members face a daunting challenge if we are to keep pace with the speed of change, both technical and commercial--not only within broadcasting, but across the communications sector which, as has been pointed out, includes the internet. That change has turned broadcasting into one of the biggest growth sectors of the late 1990s, with perhaps even greater potential extending into the new

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millennium. A great many jobs and commercial opportunities have been created, not least as a result of the Broadcasting Act 1996, brought in by the previous Government.

That legislation established the right environment in the UK for the digital revolution to take place. We are at the forefront of development of digital terrestrial television. There is no argument about the fact that the principle broadcast medium is television, and that it has an enormous and potentially beneficial influence on our lives. It is not only an entertainment medium, but a source of information, knowledge, news and current affairs, both international, and national and local. It offers visual access to sport, arts and even, I am pleased to say, politics. It is especially important to the elderly and the housebound.

The digital revolution will have a profound effect on society in many ways. In these early days of the new technological era, we must reflect on the fact that, as diversity grows, it will bring not only a wider choice for viewers but greater competition among broadcasters. We must ask whether we can be confident that we will not lose the best of what we have now in the pursuit of innovation, sacrificing quality for quantity.

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting will recall that, in the debate on broadcasting of 28 April, I raised concerns about social exclusion. She agreed that television can contribute to an information-rich and socially inclusive society. I hope that she will develop her argument and tell us what progress the Government have made in their consideration of the way forward.

Perhaps the most obvious anomaly affecting broadcasting is that of regional reception. I welcome the Secretary of State's comments on coverage. I, too, am concerned that we take on board the point--made by our constituents and by other hon. Members--that the digital television era should offer at least the level of coverage that analogue systems have attained: estimated, as we have already heard, at 99.4 per cent. of UK households.

I remain equally concerned that social anomalies still exist. Is it not right that the new technology--digitally broadcast television and radio--should be equally available to all members of society? The Secretary of State referred to his statement in September to the Royal Television Society, in which he announced his proposals for analogue switch-off. We welcome the opportunity to hear his comments at first hand in the House and we broadly support his approach, but I urge him to consider carefully the problems and unintended consequences associated with switch-off. What will the consequences be if take-off is slow? We must ensure that no one is left out in the cold. What will happen if switch-off occurs before digital television is both universally available and readily affordable?

I share the Secretary of State's vision of basic internet access for everyone with a television and a telephone. Certainly, the housebound and those who rely on television for information and communication could greatly benefit from such a core package of services, but how will it benefit those who already struggle to pay their telephone bill and for whom the additional cost of internet use would be prohibitive? Will the Minister clarify how the Government envisage the internet benefiting the poorest and most vulnerable in society?

In an increasingly competitive environment, how will the Government encourage broadcasters to provide what the Secretary of State called new and sophisticated

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services for the disabled? The Royal National Institute for the Deaf is conducting a continuing campaign on behalf of those with sensory disabilities. In the debate on 28 April, the Minister told the House that she had written to the broadcasters to ask what they are doing to encourage the development of digital services for the hard of hearing. Perhaps she can take this opportunity to tell us what responses she has received and how she will answer the RNID's call for Parliament to champion its members' desire for equal access to digital television through subtitling?

That is surely not a matter for regulation, although many other areas may well be. Standards of broadcasting by commercial channels are regulated by the Independent Television Commission and the BBC regulates itself. Both are subject to judgments, without the power of sanction, by the Broadcasting Standards Council. I believe that we in the House are agreed that the new technology and diversity in broadcasting, including not only digital television but the internet, means that there must be a fundamental review of the regulatory environment. I look forward to hearing the Government's proposals--in the House first.

It is essential to have a regulatory environment that provides safeguards to protect the innocent and the vulnerable. As the number of channels increases, we must accept that it would be impossible to regulate globally, or to have the invasive regulation that the present system allows. However, that need not mean that we cannot aspire to high standards, or that broadcasters should not strive voluntarily to set codes of acceptable practice. As many of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, have said, we must not give our constituents the impression that such matters are of no importance to Members of Parliament.

That takes us back to what has been said about Christian broadcasting. It is a pity that the current law restricts the opportunities available to such religious groups. Will the Minister expand on that subject?

Inevitably, our debate has been drawn to the subject of how that world-renowned public institution, the BBC, can survive the upheaval taking place around it. There is no doubt that the BBC must be part of the digital revolution, but no one wants to see a decline in the quality that it provides, for which it is respected throughout the world.

On the other hand, as has been said by at least two contributors to the debate, the BBC must not become a dinosaur. As I wrote in my notes for the debate, I can tell the House that it was an enormous relief to find that the programme "Walking with Dinosaurs" was not about the launch of the BBC's annual report.

As hon. Members are aware, the task of recommending how the BBC should be funded was given to a review panel under the chairmanship of Gavyn Davies. Among the panel's proposals were the introduction of a digital licence fee, the injection of private capital into the BBC, and a review of aspects of the concessionary licence scheme.

The Opposition believe that, in recommending a digital licence fee, the panel has recommended a tax on innovation. What is to be gained by discouraging digital take-up in that way? I would value the Minister's comments on that subject, because the inevitable result will be further delay in the date of switch-off, if the decision is based on the parameters set out today by the Secretary of State.

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As the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey said, another issue raised by the Davies panel is the idea that the BBC should seek to sell some of BBC Worldwide via an injection of private capital, and also to sell the bulk of its resources. Does the Minister agree with those recommendations? Does she think that they would allow the BBC to be more competitive? If they would allow it to concentrate its efforts on producing the high quality programmes that people expect of a public service broadcaster, would that not be broadly welcomed?

The Conservatives share the view that the present concessions on television licences for pensioners and the disabled are unfair, unduly complex, and arbitrary. The cost of a licence increased on 1 April, and a colour licence now costs more than one and a half times the single person's weekly state pension; a 73p increase in the pension will do little to make good the deficit.

Any promises of concessions for the disadvantaged or elderly, some of whom rely on television as their only medium of contact with the outside world, should not be used as party political gimmicks. They are certainly not the preserve of one political party.

We welcome the recommendation by the right hon. Member for Gorton about BBC-funded concessions for the elderly. Does the Minister support the view that the existing derisory concession for the blind should be increased to reflect more accurately the sort of access that visually impaired people have to television programmes, as has already been requested for the deaf? Should the BBC not look closely into such matters and offer some solutions?

With the digital revolution, there is the future ever directly in front of us. I have spoken at some length, as have other contributors, about the BBC. Any debate over the funding of broadcasting will inevitably focus on the corporation's future as a public sector broadcaster. It is clear that the BBC provides an invaluable service to people in this country and those who listen to, and watch it, throughout the world. Its contribution to broadcasting history is undoubted, but now it must define its role in the new era without jeopardising that reputation.

Let us not forget the continued good work of the commercial sector in providing excellent and popular programmes. The advent of digital television has provided a wealth of new opportunities that have been taken up with enthusiasm by established and new programme makers alike.

Broadcasting faces an exciting and diverse future. It is right to do what we can to encourage the most competitive marketplace to drive standards up and prices down. Today's debate has been a constructive step in that direction and I am sure that, given some of the contributions from right hon. and hon. Members, the broadcasters cannot avoid listening to us.

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