Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3 Dec 2002 : Column 810—continued

Mr. Bryant: Is Xruddy" a parliamentary word?

Michael Fabricant: I will not drawn by the hon. Gentleman towards the Maastricht treaty, or I might be very much out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill, which is an important measure that has been, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) said, a long time coming. It reflects the change in technology. There is convergence not only in technology but in the law.

I do not agree with all the hon. Members who spoke about religion. I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant). I am personally uncomfortable about the idea that broadcasters who represent specific religions might have access nationally to analogue radio. However, I believe that there will be national coverage on digital radio; the Secretary of State did not make that clear.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and, apparently, like the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), the former Secretary of State, who has taken the road not to Damascus but to Islington, South and Finsbury, I believe that there is a huge anomaly in the treatment of the BBC. That is

3 Dec 2002 : Column 811

different from what the Secretary of State said earlier and from what the right hon. Gentleman said when he was Secretary of State.

In an intervention, I said that when the BBC does not uphold a complaint against it about programme content, even if the corporation is right, justice must be seen to be done. It is not right for the BBC, or anyone, to act as their own judge and jury, yet the BBC is acting in precisely that way. However, I welcome the fact that the BBC will be covered by tiers 1 and 2. Tier 3 is the control on public service broadcasters, which include not only the BBC but channel 3, Channel Five and Channel 4. It translates into greater transparency, but ultimately the governors of the BBC will act as judge and jury on their performance. That must be wrong.

Mr. Simon Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I suspect that it will be debated at length in Committee. Nevertheless, does he accept that the BBC has a backstop: the House of Commons, to which the BBC is accountable? Is he genuinely suggesting that a regulator is necessarily better for democratic accountability than hon. Members and Ministers?

Michael Fabricant: Yes, on a day-to-day basis. As the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said, an intervention by the Secretary of State to sack the board of governors would be the nuclear option. The BBC is ultimately responsible to Parliament because it has a royal charter whose contents are determined by Parliament. However, I emphasise that intervention by Parliament is the nuclear option. Ofcom, not the board of governors, should have day-to-day control.

Mr. Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Fabricant: One last time.

Mr. Bryant: Is it not important that, in law, the Secretary of State cannot sack the governors? Secretaries of State in every other country in Europe can sack the governors of public service broadcasters. Here, they are appointed by the Queen in Council, and it is important to maintain the BBC's independence by ensuring that its governors cannot be removed by politicians.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I simply echoed the point of the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury.

Mr. Chris Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Fabricant: I shall break my own rule and give way.

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) should be that the Queen acts on the advice of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.

Michael Fabricant: I am eternally grateful, but now I shall move on or I shall run out of time. I emphasise that

3 Dec 2002 : Column 812

the BBC is its own judge and jury, and that is wrong. I suspect that, more often than not, the BBC makes the right decisions about complaints against it.

Again on the BBC, a frequency imperialism pertains. That point was made time and again in the 1980s, when I worked in the broadcasting industry. Nowadays, the Radio Authority makes it clear that access radio, which the Bill and the Secretary of State encourage, is impeded by the BBC, which continues to sit on frequencies that prevent access radio from using the FM band. I hope that Ministers will deal with that problem when we consider the Bill in more detail in Committee. If I am chosen to serve on the Committee, I shall table amendments to ensure that there is an option to move the BBC from time to time when it squats on frequencies and prevents access to independent broadcasters. The independent production sector is acknowledged as being important to the United Kingdom, and generates not only pounds through payments from sales to television broadcasters in the United Kingdom, but dollars and perhaps even euros from the sale of programmes overseas.

There should be quotas for radio as well as television. The BBC, especially Jenny Abramsky, has resisted that, but I do not understand the reason. The BBC has an internal quota of 10 per cent. and currently runs about 13 per cent. of analogue radio channels. I therefore believe that 10 per cent. is a reasonable quota. If the Government claim that a quota is too rigid, why does that argument not apply to television? There should be comparability. If television will have a quota, there should be a quota for radio too. It should be achievable, and I acknowledge that there is more live broadcasting on radio than on television. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) that I am capable of keeping order and I do not need his assistance.

Michael Fabricant: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Radio needs a quota that is different from the one for television because of radio's higher live broadcasting content.

Let us consider the technical aspects of the Bill and the telecommunications perspective. Several hon. Members rightly said that that should not be ignored. When I served on the Committee that considered the Office of Communications Act 2002, several hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White), often the made the point that we concentrate too much on television and radio and not often enough on broadband.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Rhondda, whom I like to plug because he serves on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, said that not only rural but also urban areas suffer from lack of access to broadband. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford also made the same point. I put in a plea for Burntwood in my constituency. It has a larger population than Lichfield but no access to asymmetric digital subscriber line—ADSL.

The Bill is also gold-plating some European Union directives. A rather depressing example is its provision for a directive to control apparatus that BT and other telephone operators use. The reason for that is often

3 Dec 2002 : Column 813

given as the position in Kingston-upon-Hull, where telephones are hard-wired in. However, that represents a small proportion of telephone systems in the United Kingdom. We all know that the majority of telephones in this country are plug-in. They can be bought from Dixons, Comet or the John Lewis Partnership, which I am always keen to promote. There is therefore no problem with competition. There is no reason at all to have provisions in the Bill to protect the consumer against BT or anyone else who controls this sort of equipment.

I want to draw to the House's attention the concerns expressed by Channel 4, which has raised an important point. Although it welcomes the fact that ownership of television may change—we are almost certain to see consolidation in independent television, because of the huge losses of advertising revenue; they are down by 13 per cent. on last year—Channel 4 and other broadcasters are concerned that such consolidation would give a particularly powerful position to channel 3, if TV sales came under the control of one organisation, in terms of controlling the advertising market. That would be to the detriment of Channel 4, Channel Five and other broadcasters. Channel 4 has made it clear that it does not oppose the ownership changes, but it believes that Ofcom should have the necessary powers and expertise to maintain an open and competitive advertising sales market. That is absolutely right.

With those caveats, I welcome the Bill. It represents a move towards the future, and its architecture is sufficiently open for the Bill to be flexible enough to encompass further technological changes when they occur. It is important, however, that the Bill should be scrutinised properly in Committee.

7.11 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): I should like to add my voice to the chorus of approval for both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry with regard to the way in which they have conducted themselves in bringing the Bill to the Floor of the House.

I commend to the House a speech that I heard at the Edinburgh television festival in 1994—in fact, it was the McTaggart lecture—by a young man called Gregory Dyke. In it, he said that the BBC should be free of all political interference. That is probably why I am one of those on the Government side of the House who support the idea that the BBC should be completely regulated by Ofcom. We persuaded the Secretary of State for Health that we should be allowed a free vote on aspects of the Adoption and Children Bill last Session, and I wonder whether it would be possible to have a free vote on whether the BBC should be so regulated. It would then be the House's decision. There is a feeling abroad that the BBC will ultimately come into Ofcom, but it will do so only when it has its charter renewal and an improved licence fee. Those two elements really should be inside Ofcom's remit, not outside it.

One or two hon. Members have mentioned ITN. The hon. Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for North Devon (Nick Harvey)

3 Dec 2002 : Column 814

made the very good point that ITN is quite fragile. I believe that it needs some care and attention, and it needs it now, not tomorrow. Will the Secretary of State convene a meeting—similar to the meetings relating to the merger of Granada and Carlton—with the ITN board to see whether there is a better way of dealing with ITN, rather than having to wait?

I am a big fan of community radio and television, and I am nervous that it is not clear who is to fund the proposals for the extension of those services. I would like to see powers in the Bill to provide for perhaps 1 per cent. of the licence fee being allocated to community television and radio. After all, if they are not a public service, I do not know what is. If that proposal is unacceptable, perhaps 1 to 5 per cent. of the licence fee could be given over five years, so that we could build up a reservoir of money for community radio and television people to bid for.

This is quite a complicated issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said that he was worried about commercial radio losing out to those services in terms of advertising, but we could keep them in trust so that they did not have to advertise. That would be a way of funding something at the edge of radio and television—and, indeed, broadband. I commend that proposal to the Minister and look forward to his response.

I disagree with my noble Friend Lord Puttnam about overseas investment. I welcome such investment, but two provisions ought to come with it. First, Ofcom should regulate for a higher percentage of local programming. If, for example, Disney were to buy Channel Five, or Murdoch wanted to make inroads into Granada, we could then insist, under the Ofcom regulations, that 80 per cent. of all production took place in this country. I like the way in which the French look after their media, and we must do the same.

I would also like to see a much higher independent production figure. The figure of 25 per cent. was set in 1981. It was supposed to be a floor, but we treated it as a ceiling. That figure of 25 per cent. is the only reason why the independent production market cannot develop and grow bigger. I would like to see a floor of 40 per cent. built in over five years, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) suggested for radio—an idea that I also support. It should not involve 10 per cent. now and 10 per cent. tomorrow, however, but 25 per cent. over five years. I would like to see a burgeoning of radio production.

In the creative businesses that I know so well, creativity always lies in smallness, not in largeness. That is where our people's brilliance is.

Next Section

IndexHome Page