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3 Dec 2002 : Column 846—continued

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill still leaves officers of religious bodies and convicted criminals the only people unable to operate a licence? Will not the Bill mean that the UK remains the only country in Europe to suffer that discrimination in respect of religious broadcasters?

Rev. Martin Smyth: I do agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is fascinating that we permit doubtful programmes to be broadcast and thus corrupt the nation, yet are more worried about programmes that might help the nation. Interestingly, the Government have approached faith bodies to help them deal with communities, yet are not prepared to allow those bodies to broadcast.

Earlier, the Secretary of State said that clause 309, relating to advertising, was not compatible with section 19(1)(b) of the Human Rights Act 1998. However, I wonder whether she had overlooked outstanding application 11072/02 before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg when she said that she was unaware of any impediment other than a political one. When the Minister winds up, will he state clearly whether, in the light of that outstanding application, clause 335 is compatible with the European convention?

The Puttnam committee noted that a case had been lodged at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. My information is that the court has given the application the case number to which I have referred already, in the name of the Centre for Justice and Liberty v. the United Kingdom. The Government should be aware of that from consultations and documents.

Jesus Christ taught that we should love our neighbour, pray for those in authority and forgive those who have offended us. I believe that the heritage of freedom and tolerance for other people's beliefs that has been won at great cost for this nation over the years still has a place in this now liberal society, alongside other views. I ask that the House consider removing the religious disqualification measures in clause 335. To highlight that, and the need to take consideration of Northern Ireland, we will support the relevant amendment.

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9.23 pm

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): In view of the time, I shall shorten my remarks, but I hope that Government and Opposition Front-Bench Members will bear with me, as they took well over an hour to present their opening statements.

I also had the pleasure to serve on the Joint Committee with the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). It is always a pleasure to listen to him. Given the spirit of the debate, I do not think that it will harm his promotion prospects if I say that on some of the more controversial issues he was closer to the Government line than some Labour Members.

The Government should be congratulated on opening the draft Bill up to pre-legislative scrutiny. To their credit, they have accepted some major changes of policy as well as some drafting points. On content, for instance, they have accepted that Ofcom should be able to intervene to specify levels of original TV production at peak viewing times.

Clearly, in view of the Bill's deregulatory intent, safeguards for UK content and production are vital. I hope that the Government will go further in future amendments. We have, for instance, a thriving independent sector, producing and exporting everything from such hits as XBob the Builder" to serious drama. These are creative national champions, writ small individually, but collectively the potential is huge. In the face of a powerful BBC and ever-increasing concentration of ownership in ITV, the sector needs all the help at home it can get.

In its recent report, the ITC reinforced the Committees concerns about the operation of the independent supply market. It suggested a code of practice; we suggested an urgent review by Ofcom. Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, I hope that the Government will look favourably at the thrust of those recommendations. Indeed, I hope that they will go further still. Independents have clearly benefited from quotas, but the evidence shows, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) pointed out, that they act as ceilings, not floors, and are adhered to grudgingly. We know that 25 per cent. by hours is a world away from 25 per cent. by programme value.

The ITC's expert panel recently recommended that value should be part of the quota. The main ITC report said that Ofcom should have the power to look at this, and so did we on the Joint Committee. I hope that the Government will accept that. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has set a precedent in this respect with BBC3.

A second area in which the Government have changed their policy is on religious broadcasting. Indeed, I suspect that there is no other area on which we have been lobbied more religiously during this process. With the number of digital licences on offer, I think that the Government have got the balance right.

There are major areas of policy disagreement between the Joint Committee and the Government. I should like to say a few words on two in particular—major newspaper groups owning Channel Five and non-EEC

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ownership of ITV. When we called for evidence to back up the Government's bold assertions, we found that evidence to be sadly wanting. More than that, we found grave and widespread reservations, which is why we recommended keeping the restrictions until Ofcom had had the chance to review the issue within three years. What is the hurry? Why set up a powerful new regulator, a fount of all knowledge, only to plough up the playing field before it is even up and running?

As far as cross-media ownership and Channel Five is concerned, that has become known as the Murdoch clause, but it is wrong to personalise the issue. It is not about one media mogul of shifting nationality but the desirability of anyone—right, left or the North Korean Politburo—owning 36 per cent. of the national newspaper market, plus the dominant satellite provider, concentrating ownership even further in their hands by owning a significant terrestrial broadcaster. The Government have recognised the force of that important principle by retaining the ban on ownership of ITV after all.

The Government have also made much of the fact that under current rules Silvio Berlusconi, of all people, could buy Channel Five. That is a red herring, because unlike News International or the Daily Mail and General Trust, Silvio Berlusconi does not own a substantial UK newspaper group. What is at issue is the desirability of one person or group's world view or prejudices holding an ever greater sway over a UK audience. The same could be said for relaxing cross-media ownership with respect to radio and local newspapers. I agree with the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that Members of Parliament, above all, should want to get the definition of three distinct local media voices right. Local should mean local, certainly not regional or national.

On non-EEC ownership of UK television, the major concerns lie with the potential effects of the takeover of ITV or Channel Five by major US media concerns. We heard no evidence that that would lead to a huge inward boost to our television industry, apart from snapping up shares on the stock market. Rather, we heard the opposite—the concern was that it would lead to reduced investment as US groups substituted local production for their own. If the Government are determined to go down that route, strengthening the safeguards of the content is vital.

Because of the merger of ITV companies, regional production outside London has already been decimated. What are the prospects if ITV is controlled from Miami or Hollywood?

The recent ITC report made further recommendations regarding clear and enforceable commitments for investment and production outside London. I hope that as we go through the Bill, the Government will act on these concerns as well. What is the rush on deregulation? Let us be calm; let us be considered. Let us set up Ofcom and let it examine all these important issues carefully.

9.29 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): The Bill has much support in the House, although reservations have been expressed by Members who represent constituencies on the margins of the country

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and in the countryside itself, in areas where communications have not yet developed to their full potential. Some Members are concerned that we are making changes at a time when our constituents are excluded from benefits enjoyed by people living in more urban areas.

In my constituency, for example, we do not even have full coverage for mobile telephones. As a result, the first responder initiative, whereby volunteers give help when people suffer a heart attack, cannot be spread across the whole area because there are not enough masts.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we are concerned that the representation that we enjoyed by right under the old system will be taken away from us. We have no certainty that we shall have representation on the main board of Ofcom. Many problems could be resolved if the Bill included a provision that the Secretary of State had a statutory responsibility to consult the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly on appointments to the board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) suggested that Ofcom should have a duty to set up consultative bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That would give people in those countries confidence that their special problems would be addressed and resolved.

Concerns have been expressed about the Welsh language in Wales and the role of S4C, our television channel, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. S4C has a hugely successful output of programmes, but its financial situation remains tenuous. The company welcomes some of the Bill's provisions, although there are also some reservations. I hope that they can be dealt with in Committee and resolved by Ministers.

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