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8.15 pm

The chairman of the BBC has appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee since Second Reading. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton refers to himself as an amateur; perhaps he is, but he is also a class act who draws in the crowds. I could hardly get into the room that day—it

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was heaving. I just managed to squeeze into the corner. The chairman of the BBC began by saying that he agreed with much that my right hon. Friend had said on Second Reading. He said of the BBC:

than other broadcasters,

He added that on

that is, between my right hon. Friend and the BBC. Nevertheless, the BBC accepts that it will be subject to more regulation under Ofcom than at any time before.

It is worth running through the three tiers. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) mentioned economic regulation. The chairman of the BBC was unambiguous, telling the Select Committee:

For the first time, the BBC will be subject to regional programme quotas and to ensuring that news is in prime time. In terms of its economic responsibilities, it will be very much under Ofcom's wing. The hon. Member for North Devon put his finger on the issue when he referred to Ofcom's backstop powers and any role it may have in the creation of new channels. I, too, feel suspicious. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton mentioned advertising: it is not only commercial broadcasters who do not like the idea of the BBC advertising—parents dislike the idea as well. They welcome new BBC children's channels because of the absence of excessive advertising during programmes that are specifically for children. That is one of the great attractions of the BBC. Many listeners to Radio 1 and Radio 2 hope that the Opposition do not decide to adopt a policy of privatisation of those stations. People like to listen to radio programmes and watch sport on television without interruptions from advertising.

Ofcom will primarily be an economic regulator and a light-touch regulator of public service broadcasters other than the BBC. Can it combine the skills needed for light-touch regulation of ITV and Channel 4, which will be far more unregulated than ever before, with the very different skills needed to ensure that our main public service broadcaster continues year on year to produce the public service programmes on which its reputation depends and on which its support in the House and the country depends? Can Ofcom really combine those two roles?

As I said, the House will spend many happy hours discussing those issues. There is no need at this stage, during the establishment of the shadow Ofcom, to tear up the broadcasting ecology that has served our nation for many years. Changes will have to be made, and the White Paper mentions measures that will fundamentally change the way in which the BBC operates, and its relationship with the regulators affecting it, but we should preserve all that is good in the BBC. I am glad to see that many hon. Members acknowledge that there is much that is good and that must be preserved.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I will not detain the House long. I oppose the amendments,

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essentially for the reasons put forward by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). It seems to be putting the cart before the horse to attempt to introduce that kind of regulation under such a small paving Bill.

I leapt to my feet essentially to take issue with the idea that the BBC is a unique organisation on any level other than the way it is funded. It is no longer unique as a public service broadcaster. Previous speakers have referred to the BBC's capacity to introduce new channels. The BBC is not introducing new channels; it is introducing additional programmes. I regret that I feel impelled to repeat what my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton has said. I find it outrageous that the BBC has seen fit to introduce its new, fourth channel which has been funded by everyone who has to buy a television licence in this country and yet is accessible only to that minority who have digital television. I do not exclude the commercial operators of the service when I say that the quality of the programmes is execrable in the main. They tend to be based on repeats—certainly that is true of the programmes that the BBC is broadcasting—and remarkably banal.

Regrettably, in this country, culture, art, intellectual practices and expertise are still in many instances regarded as minority interests. I believe that the BBC's new channel will mean an even greater reduction in such programmes and a reduction of interest in its existing channels. For the BBC to be able to avoid what I understood was one of the central planks of its existing, supposedly unique, nature—that of serving minority interests—seems to highlight how over the past decade, if not longer, it has believed that it meets its unique situation exclusively by virtue of the way it is funded, and increasingly forgets its public service broadcasting responsibility.

The BBC used to be an international byword for quality programmes. It gives me no pleasure to say that I think that reputation has been lost in leaps and bounds, not least in respect of its news broadcasts. As someone said to me, "If you want to know what has happened, you turn to Sky." It is almost impossible to get any kind of up-to-date news on the BBC. It spent an absolute fortune on introducing the 24-hour news broadcasting programme which, on its own analysis, is watched internationally and nationally by such a small audience that it does not even come up on the percentage scale. I strongly agree about the backstop for how the BBC adapts to the future, when we will see ever greater convergence between broadcasting and communications.

I was particularly grateful that the Government introduced free licences for 75-year-olds because of the litany that I inevitably heard from my pensioners. They objected to paying the licence fee because they were categoric that they never watched any BBC programme on any of the BBC channels. I would hate to see the day dawn when that feeling was more general across the country.

For the past decade, the BBC seems to have lost belief in its own identity. It believes that it has to compete with commercial stations so that it is not unique but similar in its competitive activities and programming to the commercial sector.

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We have in television—one aspect of broadcasting and communications—a unique medium that has never been exploited to the full. It has never brought the greatest possible benefits to the millions of people who watch it world wide. The BBC could, perhaps, begin to forge a new path. I may be maligning the director general and the board of governors, but I think they would love to be able to have advertising in their programmes. However, if they are increasingly forced into a corner so that the process takes longer, more people are involved and the product is produced by someone else more speedily and economically, it will lose its position as the great pinnacle of broadcasting excellence. The BBC is no longer in that position, and I would hate to see it slide even further down that slippery slope. I sincerely hope it will rise again, and the amendment will do nothing to encourage the BBC to aim higher.

Dr. Howells: We have had a wide-ranging debate about how a relationship between Ofcom and the BBC might look after the scrutiny and debate by Parliament and the Joint Committee of both Houses of a substantive communications Bill. We devoted a number of hours to this subject in Committee, and I have no doubt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) put it, that we will spend many more happy hours discussing this in the communications Bill. I am not one to throw a wet blanket over such enjoyable occasions, but the Bill is not about that—it is about setting up Ofcom.

Taken together, amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8 would make the BBC an "existing regulator" for certain purposes in the Bill, alongside the other regulators. The amendments are the same as those put forward in Committee, so they have been discussed at great length. I made it clear then that the purpose of the Bill is only to set up Ofcom and its initial functions. At that time, I circulated a detailed briefing note to hon. Members so that they were clear on the Government's policy on the BBC and Ofcom, as set out in the White Paper. I appreciate that the BBC's place in the new regulatory structure and its relationship with Ofcom is the subject of much debate, and so it should be. However, the appropriate time for a detailed discussion on the issue will be when the draft communications Bill is published in the spring.

I resist the amendments because clause 2 gives Ofcom the power that it needs to facilitate or secure the modification of any proposals concerning the BBC. Under subsection (1), Ofcom has the power to do whatever is appropriate in preparing for its task. The BBC's charter will allow it to prepare for implementing our legislative proposals. The phrase

has been included in subsection (3). That means that Ofcom's power is not limited to transfers from existing regulators, as defined in the Bill, but can also include transfers from the BBC. I am satisfied that the powers in the Bill are sufficient to cover the points that have been debated. They will allow Ofcom and the BBC to make preparations for implementing the new regulatory regime. They do not prevent proper debate of the exact relationship between Ofcom and the BBC when the time comes, nor do they pre-empt the outcome of that debate. I therefore oppose the amendments.

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