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25 Apr 2008 : Column 1602

Nigel Griffiths: What is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion on a 9 pm watershed for gambling advertising?

Mr. Whittingdale: Again, gambling is a different issue, but I wish to address the issue of the 9 pm watershed. The Bill picks out the 9 pm watershed as the appropriate time to draw the line—everything banned before 9 pm and complete freedom afterwards. However, the 9 pm watershed is becoming meaningless. It was created in the days when viewers had a choice of two or three channels and, yes, most children probably were in bed by 9 pm.

Several things have changed since then. I wish that my children were in bed by 9 pm, but time and again they are not. I have a 14-year-old son— [ Interruption. ] I have previously revealed some of his tastes in films and music, probably not endearing myself to him in the process, but I can say that one of his favourite programmes—and this is a confession—is “Skins”. It is an extremely good programme that resonates with teenagers. It is made for them—perhaps for teenagers slightly older than my son—and appeals greatly to 13 and 14-year-olds, yet it is broadcast at 11 o’clock at night. I can tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South that I am not quite such a negligent parent as to allow my son to watch television at midnight, but, like a growing number of households in this country, mine has a personal video recorder, so my son watches the programme on the PVR. He sets it and can then watch it any time. The ability to do that is increasingly destroying the meaning of the 9 o’clock watershed.

We are now in the age of PVRs, which make time shifting so simple that we no longer have to pore over the Radio Times and punch in numbers; we can time shift with one button. We are now getting video on demand, which means that we can call down programmes at a time of our own choosing. Focusing on the 9 o’clock watershed as somehow protecting children from exposure to late-night programmes is increasingly becoming irrelevant and ineffectual. For that reason, I believe that the Bill will not achieve the objectives that its promoter seeks.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend, wearing his Select Committee hat, knows a lot about the advertising industry and the gambling industry. Does he have any evidence that the incidence of childhood gambling has reduced as a result of the 9 o’clock watershed?

Mr. Whittingdale: The question is a little premature. Gambling advertising has only just been permitted on television, so there is not much evidence as yet. Children are not allowed in gambling establishments anyway and they are prevented from online gambling because they have no access to credit cards—and those are much more effective measures. I entirely accept that it is important to protect children from gambling, but we can already take effective measures to achieve that without preventing advertising, which is intended to inform adults and allow them to take rational decisions based on the information they receive.

It is important to stress that advertising is not brainwashing. There is a great tendency for people to demonise advertisements by claiming that they force people to buy things that they really do not want to buy, but that is not the case. A functioning free market
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depends completely on advertising, because only through advertising are consumers given the knowledge they need to reach judgments about which products they want to buy. Advertising has a very important part to play in a market, which is why we need to be extremely careful before adopting measures to restrict it.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend talks about advertising and markets. Does he accept that for a product such as cannabis, which cannot be advertised because it is illegal, the lack of available information about the different types is actually very damaging?

Mr. Whittingdale: I am not sure that I would agree that it is necessarily very damaging. I would have to confess my almost complete ignorance—obviously unlike my hon. Friend!—of the different types of cannabis; but strong advocate of advertising as I am, I am not sure that we should be making that information widely available.

Let me conclude by returning to the main theme. The Select Committee conducted an inquiry at the end of last year into the future of public service broadcasting—a very serious issue. I believe that it is extremely important for the healthy functioning of democracy that there should be plurality, so public service programming should not be monopoly of the BBC. Public service programmes—the news, current affairs, documentaries, children’s programming, regional programming—should also be available on the commercial channels, but we have to recognise that those channels are under pressure to an extent that they have never been before.

A revolution is taking place in this country’s broadcasting, which I welcome, as it will result in a huge increase in viewer choice. The Government are the catalyst as a result of their courageous decision to proceed with the switch-off of analogue broadcasting, but digital switchover will result in the fragmentation of audiences and an inevitable decline in the market share of every single broadcaster. That will have huge financial consequences for those broadcasters, some of which we are already seeing, with Channel 4 telling the Government that it might not be able to sustain its business model without future financial help. ITV has asked the Government about withdrawing from some of its regional programming commitment and ceasing to commission UK-produced children’s programming. The Select Committee thus believed that there was a case for Government intervention to sustain public service programming.

Philip Davies: Is it not striking that, although we know the consequences on commercial broadcasters of such a ban on advertising, no supporter of the Bill has been able to give any indication of how much childhood obesity will be reduced as a result of it? Perhaps that is because, as they may concede themselves, the Bill may make no difference to childhood obesity levels, even though we know that its impact on commercial broadcasters will be devastating.

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is right, and I am sure that he will want to expand on that point in his own speech. In countries where restrictions have been imposed, there is no certainly evidence that they have
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led to a sudden reduction in obesity. In fact, the levels have normally tended to increase. Such evidence and research as there is actually goes to show that advertising restrictions have extremely little, if any, impact on obesity.

Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend agree that what probably has a much greater impact on obesity is how much television children watch? Would it not have been better to bring in controls over the amount of TV that children can watch rather than control advertising?

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is showing alarming interventionist tendencies for a Tory! I have to say that that is unlike him; he is usually a great believer in freedom and libertarianism. I agree with him, however, that one of the key solutions in this area is the exercise of parental responsibility; it is parents who should be determining what their children eat and, equally, how much television they watch. I do not believe that that role is appropriate for the Government, but if my hon. Friend is suggesting that parents should restrict the amount of TV that their children can watch, I certainly agree with him.

Mr. Chope: I gave that example to produce a reductio ad absurdum in respect of the Bill’s arguments. As my hon. Friend knows, I greatly believe in parental and individual responsibility. Does he also accept that we should point out to parents the connection between sitting on the sofa and obesity?

Mr. Whittingdale: Yes, we should do that. As I suggested earlier, we should also make available more facilities in the community so that children, rather than sitting on the sofa, participate in sporting activities. As I pointed out, many food manufacturers are contributing to that effort.

Let me finish on the point I was making before we got slightly side-tracked. This is a very difficult, as well as exciting, time for television in this country, and it will result in huge pressures on the commercial sector. As Ofcom has determined, the measures in the Bill are likely to cost commercial television broadcasters £224 million. That would be a catastrophic loss of revenue at any time; at this particular time, it would be hugely damaging. As I said to the hon. Member for Cheltenham, if I thought that the Bill would result in a dramatic improvement in the health of our children or in a huge reduction in the level of obesity, I might accept that there was a case for it, but nothing in the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South persuaded me that there is any evidence to suggest that the Bill will achieve that.

11.9 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) on being successful in the private Member’s Bill draw, but that is where my congratulations end—so that is the generous part of my speech over with. It is a great shame that he has wasted this opportunity. I am sure his Bill is well intentioned—a little more generosity from me—but, like other Members, I do not believe that it will address the important topic of obesity.

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Obesity must be addressed. Too many youngsters are overweight. There are all sorts of reasons for that, such as lack of sport, or just too much eating, or too much eating of the wrong foods. We would have to be blind not to see that there are too many overweight youngsters, and we must address that. However, the Bill will not kill off obesity, but it will kill off a lot of advertising, and as advertising leads to programmes appearing on our televisions, that would have an enormous impact.

The hon. Gentleman talked about colour coding on products. That goes some way towards giving the information that parents need about whether products are healthy, but it is simplistic. I far prefer the information that is contained on some packaging, particularly on some Tesco products, which states how many calories, sugars, fats, saturates and salts products contain. Sometimes we might think a product is healthy, but when we read that information we are amazed to discover how many calories it actually contains. When people are given that information, they can be far more intelligent about not only about what they eat, but how much of it they eat, and how often they eat it.

Kerry McCarthy: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman does the weekly shop for his family, but nowadays a lot of information is displayed on products. Children in some families might be lactose intolerant or glucose intolerant. I am vegan so I have to scrutinise everything right down to the last detail to see whether it contains, for example, lactic acid. Would it not make it a lot easier if people could see a very clear red, amber or green traffic light, rather than have to analyse all that GDA—guideline daily amount—information?

Mr. Evans: No, that is too simplistic. Some people are allergic to nuts, for instance, and if a product contains even traces of nuts it can have a huge impact on them. Yet eating nuts can be quite healthy for those without a nut allergy, if eaten in the right quantities. I do my own shopping, but now may be the appropriate time to declare that I have an interest as I own a retail convenience store in Swansea. It is called “Evans the News” and it is open early in the morning and stays open until late at night, selling good quality products—advertising on the parliamentary channel cannot be beaten, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I think that that has been quite sufficient. Will the hon. Gentleman please confine his comments to the Bill?

Mr. Evans: I shall do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I take every opportunity to plug the shop. I guess I could, therefore, be accused of being a pusher of sweets, and even Frosties, to youngsters, so I should make that declaration as well.

Philip Davies: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) touched on the point of the quantity that people eat rather than what they eat. Does he agree that if there were a restriction on advertising, as the Bill proposes, many food manufacturers might decide to spend the
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money that they had spent on television advertising on other forms of promotion, such as buy one, get one free? Therefore, rather than reducing the amount of unhealthy products being consumed, such a restriction could easily lead to much more unhealthy products being consumed because the marketing spend would change in that way.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend, with his expertise in the supermarket field, knows exactly what might happen. That is another unintended consequence of this proposed legislation; it is intended to promote health, but it would have the opposite effect. Of course manufacturers will look at different ways to promote their products. The Bill does not even address whether these so-called unhealthy foods should not be allowed to be promoted in any way, even by price discounting or buy one, get one free offers. The Bill opens up a can of worms in that respect.

We need an element of common sense about these matters. Members have mentioned parental involvement, and ultimately this issue is all about guidance from parents. However, too often some parents are themselves obese, and are the wrong role models for their youngsters.

On the quantities that people eat, I remember reading in a newspaper once about a woman who went to see her doctor because the pigmentation of her skin had changed; she had turned orange. She was rather worried about that, as we can imagine.

Philip Davies: It was Peter Hain.

Mr. Evans: I shall not name and shame anybody. When the doctor discussed with the patient’s eating habits with her, he found out she was eating tomato soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nobody would say that tomato soup is dangerous or unhealthy, but it clearly has such an effect if that is the only thing someone eats. That is not a balanced diet. We ought to be promoting a balanced diet, not picking on so-called unhealthy foods and clobbering them with an advertising ban.

I was going to ask the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South for guidance on a technical point. The Bill covers a lot of issues, as the hon. Gentleman has tried to cover every base on the promotion of products, including the internet, but he will know about social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo, where a lot of youngsters put up their own sites supporting products they like. For instance, there may be a “We love Smarties” site. I suspect that under the Bill the promotion of Smarties on the internet before the watershed would not be allowed. However, if youngsters put up a fan page for a product that they like, would that be covered by the Bill? I am unsure whether it would be, but that raises the prospect of the food police knocking on a youngster’s door and telling the youngster that they were promoting an illegal produce. That would be perverse, and I am sure that it would be an unintended consequence.

The Olympics has been mentioned. We cannot ignore it and its sponsors, whether international or otherwise. The Bill contains restrictions on sponsorship. McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, as international sponsors, would fall foul of it. Does that mean that there could be no perimeter advertising of such products around the Olympics stadiums, or might there be a ban on advertising products within
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a certain distance, as there is with, for instance, point of sale material in the school tuck shop? Cigarette packets would have to be under the counter so that people could not see them until they went into the shop and asked for them. The extension of that logic would be that sweets or unhealthy products should not be on show, in case that entices people to put them in their trolleys. That raises the image of shoppers going up to the shopkeeper and whispering to them, because they should not be asking in a loud voice in case someone else hears them, “Could I have a packet of Frosties, please?” and the shopkeeper wrapping the pack in brown paper so that nobody can see the product when the customer puts it in their bag. That is ludicrous. Such products, particularly breakfast cereals, tend to be fairly colourful. A lot of the packets contain gifts—I understand that there is a voluntary code on that—and even items such as CDs and DVDs, which may be educational or promote sports, are given away with these products. Even they could be said to be enticing youngsters to buy such products, so all that might become illegal, as well.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend says that they “might” become illegal; under clause 1, they would. It would be illegal for the international sponsors of the 2012 Olympics—Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, for example—to refer to that sponsorship on any of the products on sale in this country. That is absolutely ludicrous.

Mr. Evans: Yes, and I therefore wonder whether products such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s would even be allowed to use the Olympic rings, because in a way, that would be reverse advertising: trying to associate themselves with something healthy. However, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said, a lot of these firms actually do support sport, and they do so because they want their consumers to be healthy and to live longer, in order to carry on buying the products that they rather like. So the situation I described would be an unintended consequence, as well.

I spoke earlier about another unintended consequence: the programming that would disappear. We have heard estimates of the cost to the commercial television industry of this ban coming in. Friday mornings here have almost become a case of, “What are we going to ban this week?”, and this is the latest in that sequence. A lot of current family programming—including after the watershed—would also disappear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford intimated, the watershed is becoming increasingly ridiculous. Sky Plus and other such products enable people to record television programmes, and there is also the internet. I understand that most of Channel 4’s programming is now available to watch on demand, at any time people like. Would there therefore be restrictions on such advertising of these products? There are doubtless a lot of youngsters who watch not just “Skins” but “Shameless”—another programme that one might deem unsuitable for those under the age of 16, but one that I suspect has a fair following among such people, who will watch it on the internet or via Sky Plus.

Philip Davies: May I bring my hon. Friend back to the point raised earlier about the promotion of particular brands? I should be interested to know what he thinks
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about this issue, because the Bill does not make it entirely clear to me where we stand on it. The Bill covers

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