Skip to main content

Applications For Channel 3 Licences

Volume 178: debated on Friday 12 October 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords amendment: No. 35, in page 13, line 2, after ("the") insert ("programming and other").

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following Lords amendments: No. 46 and the Government motion to disagree; No. 47 and amendments (a) and (b) and the Government motion to disagree; and amendment No. 48 and the Government motion to disagree.

I am considerably reluctant to seek to disagree with the Lords amendments. The amendments are significant because they refer to the only defeat that the Government suffered in either House during the passage of the Bill. The fact that we did not suffer any other defeat was not because the Government were able, automatically, to rely on a majority to steamroller the Bill through, but because——

Please do not put me off, or I shall just take longer. The hon. Lady will be proud to testify that during our discussions on important issues in Committee it was often possible to reach understandings that mitigated, in some cases removed, some of the concerns felt.

I do not want to take up a great deal of time, nor to prevent the miniature meeting of the shadow Cabinet which appears to be taking place on the Opposition Front Bench. There is a collection of excited bearded people having a conversation——

Well, the time may come—it will be the shadow Cabinet, not the real thing.

I invite the House to take the serious step of rejecting the Lords amendment, not because I take issue with the intention behind it, but because I do not believe that the amendment represents the right way ahead. I pray in aid the debates in the House before the Bill went to another place. Those debates led us to put the Bill into better shape than it was when it started and certainly into better shape than it is now with the addition of the three elements that I invite the House to reject.

The key element of our deliberations is to ensure that we preserve on Channel 3 a diverse service catering for a wide range of tastes and interests. That is the statutory requirement.

We acepted the case for including in the Bill specific references to religion and to children's programmes. I accept that there was quite a strong lobby for another item, education, but——

Only huge in terms of the girth of some of those advocating it. Let us say that substantial arguments were put forward by weighty figures on the subject of education.

But, generally speaking, it was accepted that the laundry list, as it came to be known, held no great attraction for most hon. Members and that it was better to place our faith in the diversity requirements, substantially buttressed, as it was, by the ITC being given a statutory power, which we gave it during the passage of the Bill, to send out, in effect, a prospectus to applicants making it clear how it thought applicants should begin. With the range of programmes currently available, applicants should not assume that they could cross the quality threshold, which we made more substantial during the passage of the Bill, without accepting that diversity meant using the existing range of programmes as a starting point.

8 pm

I lay great stress on that because I do not believe that, if any half dozen of us gathered tonight and constituted ourselves as applicants for a franchise and talked about what we should put in, any of us could confidently say, "We can leave out documentaries", or, "We can leave out educational programmes," or, "We can leave out social action programmes." It is clear from everything that has been said, from what people will have heard from the ITC and from what we now know to be the balance in the Bill between quality and price that nobody could be sure that if they left out such programme types, they would be able to surmount the quality hurdle.

I say with sincerity that I do not doubt the good intentions of those who inflicted this one painful defeat on the Government in the other place. Plainly, they wished to ensure that independent television continues to cover certain categories of programmes. We approach these issues as experienced legislators, now that we have got down to the hard core of what might be called activists. Most of the people in the House now sat through the various stages of the Bill and know what we are talking about, and the more populist figures have gone for their supper. Most of those present now would not want to call themselves populist figures—[interruption.]—or would not have the capability to do so, having columns in the daily newspapers and so on.

We are left with something of a difficulty because, added to children and religion, we have documentaries, social action and education programmes. We must consider what is left out. We do not have drama, sport or—I must say this in my present role—arts programmes.

Let us not forget entertainment programmes. We are, after all, talking about a popular channel which must contain entertainment and all the programmes that some people do not like to acknowledge—[Interruption.] Some people do not want to acknowledge that millions of our citizens watch television for entertainment purposes. They do not always want to look at educational programmes.

Nobody is ever anxious, particularly at this stage of a parliamentary Session, to have, in effect, another parliamentary stage of a Bill, asking the Lords to accept our reversal of what they have done. Had it been possible honourably to accept the amendment, there would have been a compelling case, at least on business management grounds, for doing so.

I urge hon. Members who might be minded to object to what we are doing tonight to consider whether we could prefer another three subjects. Although I appreciate that there is no Rubicon of principle—we crossed that when we inserted children's programmes and religion—it is a bit perverse to say that we should have documentaries but not drama, social action but not sport, education but not arts programmes. It reflects value judgments that are understandable but are not objectively valid. Because of that, the only alternative would be to add even more items to the now quite long list contained in the Bill as it has returned from the other place. The danger then would be that one would be purporting to define what a diverse service should be.

I recall, with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), the time when we were jointly dismissing the idea of a laundry list in relation to changes in the obscenity legislation.

The hon. Gentleman is on good form tonight and I look forward to his speech.

A list of programme types runs the risk of narrowing the range of options that would be available on Channel 3. I do not want to speak at greater length, but that is the only reason why I am inviting the House to disagree with the amendment. We are entitled to take some pride in what we achieved in our debates. If there had been a glaring omission of the type that we are discussing, we might ourselves have spotted it—[Interruption.] I appreciate that some hon. Members were unhappy about some of what we did, but I doubt whether many would have chosen the list that is before us or whether they did not, by the end of our debates, feel that the quality threshold had been thickened up and that the pressure on applicants was such that we could start with the range of programmes.

Whatever hon. Members may feel about protecting certain types of programmes, I hope that they would not wish to commend the other limb of the amendment, which is about the time they should be shown. We had to be realistic during the passage of the Bill. We had to recognise that in the more competitive situation of the 1990s, it was right, with other channels coming on stream, that broadcasters should have the flexibility to schedule. If we have confidence in some of our fellow men, then many of the programmes in the lists that are before us are popular enough to be shown at peak times. But we must allow the schedulers the opportunity to schedule in what will be a competitive market and in a situation where they must be commercial.

Although it is not my main reason for wishing to delete the amendment, its policy intention was that programmes that might attract smaller audiences should have the opportunity to secure a place in peak viewing time. But the amendment, because of the way it is drafted, suggests that programmes should be shown at appropriate times having regard to the potential viewers of programmes of that type, and that might mean that a high audience programme would be scheduled at peak time and a lower audience programme scheduled at off-peak hours. That is probably the opposite to what those who proposed the amendment intended.

I do not give that as a central reason for objecting to the amendment. If it had not been otherwise flawed, we could have further amended it. But it is another good reason why I can suggest that we are not in any sense diminishing what I believe to be the clear remit for Channel 3—for the new companies to pick up where the others left off and to have a wide range of programmings.

The effect of keeping the amendment would be, for no good or proper grounds, to appear to be preferring certain programme types to others. I have given six examples, three in and three out, and I defy anyone to say that there is any logical distinction in preferring the three that have been preferred to the other three—when the danger of even adding the other three would be a list that purports to define diversity in a way that narrows, rather than broadens, the programme types that are likely to be found. On that limited but persuasive ground, I invite the House to disagree to the amendment.

We were saddened to read inThe Times this morning that the Minister for the Arts, so lately in office, is anxious to demonstrate that there is life outside politics. I hope that he will stay with us at least until the Bill has completed this stage of its passage.

If I should ever write about my time in this place—or, in the context of this debate, should I ever fund a very low-budget video—I shall call it, "It's a funny way to earn a living." I say that because not many minutes ago the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and others said that, on occasions, members of another place knew more than we did about public opinion and matters concerning the populace. Coincidentally, it suited the hon. Gentleman's argument to say that.

I shall be surprised to get it, but I am expecting some consistency on the amendments because it can be said that the House of Lords, in respect of the further must-carry obligations, reflects a central matter of concern that lies at the heart of the Bill—the quality threshold. The Government set enormous store by the quality threshold when we had the trailer for the Bill as long ago as November 1988 and have done so ever since. I remember the Minister telling us on several occasions that it was precisely that quality threshold that would ensure that what had happened to Australian television would not and could not happen here.

In Australia, as we discuss the amendments, two out of three of the national channels are in the hands of receivers. Channel 10 will tomorrow sack 500 staff at all levels and switch to greater use of imported American material, precisely because those to whom that licence was sold funded their bids with funny money and junk bonds, and got into enormous debt. As a consequence, that channel and Channel 9 are both wrecks. Down the road a little in New Zealand, the only commercial channel is in the hands of receivers.

Ministers have said that the new ITV network regime on Channel 3 will be a notch below what we now have. That nice George Russell, the chairman designate of the ITC, asserts that it will be 80 per cent. of what we have now. There is no argument between us that some types of programming that viewers have become used to seeing, especially those at peak times, will no longer be there to choose from. What matters and lies behind the all-party concerns reflected in the Lords amendments is which type of programmes are likely to be more at risk.

The fact that the Government want to remove the additions to the so-called quality threshold gives the game away. It is precisely programmes in the sectors specified by the amendments—documentaries, programmes with an educational purpose and social action programmes—that the accountants and advertisers who will control the Channel 3 licences will put most at risk.

Documentaries will be put more at risk because they are often more expensive to make in terms of research, travel and production costs, and because things do not always work out as planned in the course of making them. Shows that are tightly scripted and shot in studios are much more controllable in terms of costs and their outcome is certainly more predictable.

Education and social action programmes are at risk for another reason. Shown in peak time slots, the better to attract large audiences, they may well not produce the type of audience that advertisers want at those times. Those are the hard-nosed commercial judgments that will be made by the schedulers.

As I think the House understands, programme timing is critical to audience size, as is the channel on which a programme is shown. For example, programmes of an educational nature on the environment and third-world issues, screened at peak hours on BBC 1 or networked on ITV, command audiences of between 2 million and 5 million. Exactly the same programme shown on BBC 2 or Channel 4 at similar times attracts a much lower audience of about I million. Therefore, unless it is specified that such programmes must be shown and at appropriate times of the day and week, they will be unprotected in an increasingly competitive television world and much more at risk than now.

The Minister repeated tonight that he does not want any sort of laundry list. I must remind him that it was he who started to write it.

I know that he accepts that. He started to write it when he was persuaded, against a background of all-party pressure, to retain the must-carry obligations in respect of children's programmes and later religious programmes. I remember the night when we debated that because there was a bad storm and thunderbolts were bouncing off the roof above the room in which we were meeting. We are talking not about laundry lists, but simply about their length.

The Minister said again tonight that there is no need to put such matters in the Bill because the ITC will issue illustrative guidelines on the programme range and type that it expects bidders to provide.

With respect, illustrative guidelines do not have the same force as quality threshold requirements, as he and the House well know. In this context, the important point is that if it is not in the Bill, accountants will be able to say, "Yes, we understand, Mr. or Mrs. Programme Maker, what you are saying, but we simply cannot afford them," or, "We want that slot for a different type of programme because it will deliver a different kind of audience at that time, and one that the advertiser wants."

8.15 pm

The hon. Gentleman twitted me a moment ago about consistency. In the previous debate the Opposition said that nothing was needed in the Bill because guidelines would be sufficient. Now they are apparently standing that on its head and saying that the guidelines are not sufficient, we cannot trust the broadcasters, so the matter must be specified in the Bill.

We are all sharp tonight. I generously acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point, but we cannot treat all fish in the sea as being of exactly the same kind, weight and importance.

The Minister said earlier, although he did not use these exact words tonight, that if there is public demand for such programmes, they will have to be provided. There is no evidence for that assertion. On the basis of experience elsewhere, all the evidence points exactly the other way. There is evidence from France, what was lately West Germany, and Italy, which all started on this three or four years before we did, that in a deregulated climate exactly the opposite happens. The effect of deregulation in those countries has been a dramatic fall in the number of factually based programmes and a rise in those that are primarily entertainment led to meet commercial needs and advertisers' demands.

I shall quickly tell the House that in terms of viewer demand—what viewers want—the IBA attitudes to television survey in 1989 showed that an astonishing 66 people out of every 100 wanted more nature and wildlife programmes, 55 out of every 100 wanted more educational programmes for adults and 55 per cent. wanted more plays and dramas. Some 42 out of every 100 viewers wanted fewer quiz shows and panel games, 43 per cent. wanted fewer chat shows and an astounding one viewer in two wanted fewer soap operas. That is exactly the opposite of what we suspect is likely to happen. I am trying not to make judgments because such programmes have a place on the menu, but I am trying to make the point to the Minister that so do other programmes, especially those specified in the Lords amendments.

One of the saddest aspects of Australian television—I probably watch more of it there than I do here—is that it is the only publicly funded, multi-cultural, special broadcasting service channel that provides anything like a decent, nightly, international and national news programme, and very well done it is too, and documentaries. That is the reality of what can happen in such a climate.

The Minister may recall that he described the quality threshold—I think that there was some dispute as to whether it was the Minister or that nice George Russell who used the phrase initially—as a "Becher's Brook". That Grand National jump got its name because Captain Becher dashed into the lead at the start on his horse Conrad, charged at the first brook, was dumped on the ground and hence gave his name to that jump. That is what we fear about the quality threshold. We want it to be high, wide and firm, with every intending rider forced to jump well clear.

The Government—and we agree with them—say that we want an active democracy and an informed electorate. If they are serious about wanting more citizens to be active citizens, they must realise that that will not happen unless television plays its part in helping it to happen. That is what makes this type of programme so important.

Our former colleague, Mr. Alf Dubs, the distinguished director of the Refugee Council, puts it this way:
"television has a vital role to play in raising people's awareness of the particular problems facing developing countries. It can also make people think more about situations nearer home, and can highlight social issues."
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education tells us:
"The Government recognises that Britain needs a much greater commitment to re-skilling its workforce, and ITV has shown an ability to persuade people who have had no contact with education and training since school to follow up programmes with active study. This is a resource too precious to jeopardise."
I hope that no hon. Member would disagree.

Age Concern tells us:
"Television and radio play an important part in enabling organisations such as Age Concern England to maintain and develop communication with older people."
That is profoundly important.
"In our ageing society, communication through the media is likely to become even more important, especially for those older people who are isolated and housebound."
I hope that no hon. Member would condemn housebound and often lonely people to a diet of wall-to-wall game shows and chat shows such as the Bill threatens.

I do not want to prolong this debate but, by reading out those submissions, the hon. Gentleman is proceeding as if we were dealing here with the only television channel. My primary point is that I believe that no one will cross the quality threshold who does not have a full range of programmes. In public service television we have BBC 1 and BBC 2, and Channel 4 with its specific remit, so I wonder whether some of those points are not seriously overstated.

I understand that, but the Minister seems to overlook the fact that the must-carry obligations were imposed first on the BBC and then on the new independent television stations, and that is what enables us to stand up and assert that our television system is, if not the best in the world, certainly among the best in the world. That did not happen by accident. It happened because we required those responsible for running the commercial television network to carry out some of those basic functions.

I think that the Minister is trying to say that he does not want competition on quality. He wants a channel that might be regarded by, say, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) as a trash channel.

My hon. Friend makes the point well.

I shall finish by explaining what puzzles me about the Government's attitude. We have laws and speed limits to try to reduce accidents on our roads. We insist that every child goes to school for 11 years from the age of five. We say who can and who cannot drink alcohol and what can and what cannot be done with our processed food. Yet when it comes to television it seems that the Government say that there is no need for any guidance to those responsible for our television on what viewers should be able to see, for our national well-being and advancement. I find it unacceptable to claim that providing a lead in television is less important than it is in other areas in which the law touches on the lives of every citizen.

I support the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) in favour of the Lords amendment, and wish to speak to my two modest amendments to it. The Minister will not be surprised by them; they are consistent with everything that I said in Committe and are designed to remind everyone that when we speak of regional television on Channel 3, in the Principality and in Scotland we are also talking about nationhood and the national culture. I wish to remind everyone that the term "regional" is not a wholly accurate description of the role of Channel 3 in the Principality. It will have a responsibility to reflect a national culture as well as regional interests.

My amendments will be irrelevant if we lose the Lords amendment. In the past the Minister has been the flexible friend of the House during the passage of this Bill, so I do not understand why he is being so stiff-necked about these propositions. After all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington reminded him, we have added to the list. I supported the inclusion of children's and religious programmes, but I had little doubt that the Channel 3 producers would broadcast children's programmes—they are popular and would therefore be a normal part of any programme diet. But we still felt the need to reinforce their inclusion. I think it even more important to give statutory buttressing to the inclusion of education.

The Minister intervened earlier to say that we have BBC 1, BBC 2 and Channel 4; and, in the Principality, S4C. But for many groups of people in the communities that I represent the commercial Channel 3 is the major television station; indeed, it is watched by the overwhelming majority. So the claim that because we have those other channels we do not need to impose an educational responsibility on Channel 3 is an invalid argument. A mainstream commercial channel should have a statutory responsibility to provide education.

When speaking about how strong the diversity test will be and how the ITC will apply it, the Minister fallaciously argued that if we include education we should also have to include sport and drama. No one believes that sport will not be included in Channel 3 programming. We all know that there will be a lot of sport—too much in the view of many people. No one is worried that a commercial television station will not carry sport. However, under the pressures of costs and savings there may be genuine doubts whether, unless there is a clear obligation on commercial television to continue to run educational programmes, it will do so.

Wherever we stand in the great education and training debate there is a consensus among all parties that education and training arrangements in this country are appallingly poor. We should not turn our backs on one significant means of communicating important educational and training messages to large groups of people, particularly younger people.

There is another reason why we must impose statutory obligations in respect of education. There are already tell-tale signs that, in view of projected declining advertising revenues in the 1990s, accountants, not programme makers, will start to rule our commercial television programmes. Any doubts that I had about that being a strong possibility have been dispelled because even since the Bill was last debated there is manifest evidence of it occurring on the Welsh television scene.

I hope that the Minister will be alarmed to hear about what has happened in the last week or two. All of us, including the Minister, paid tribute to Welsh television and worked together to try to make sure that S4C'c role and remit in the Bill was assured and buttressed. Its revenues depend entirely on advertising and, as it foresees a future decline in those, it has dropped a bombshell on the Welsh television scene. Last week it announced that in the first six months of 1991 it will commission only £13 million worth of programmes. It commissions programmes from HTV and the Welsh independent sector, and the cut means that they will get just £6·5 million each.

8.30 pm

The independent sector has flourished as a result of the development of S4C, and HTV has had a significant and important programme-making capacity to meet its demands and needs. Last year S4C commissioned about £40-million worth of programmes. The reduction in demand from S4C will have a dramatic effect. In February or March, S4C may feel capable of commissioning more programmes, but the shape of things to come can be seen in the effect that that announcement has had on the development of programme making in the Principality.

It is not alarmist or fanciful to express concern about the growing pressures of the 1990s. Financial pressures may develop in commercial television and we are worried about the amount of advertising revenue that will be available to Channel 3. There will also be takeover pressure in line with the new competitive spirit. As a consequence, accountants will tell the programme makers to cut everything except that for which they are statutorily responsible. The way in which S4C is revealing its problems to HTV and the independent sector about the commissioning of programmes next year because of worries about falling advertising revenue shows the shape of things to come in commercial television.

There is a powerful case for including in the Bill a statutory obligation requiring commercial television to provide education programmes. The Minister's arguments in that respect are not valid. We added children's programmes and we rightly added religious programmes and, given the climate in which commercial television will operate, it is important to send from the House the loud and clear message that Channel 3 has an educational role. The best and simplest way to do that is to support the amendments.

I sense that our deliberations are rather like old times, but one element is missing. It is sad that Norman Buchan is not with us, because he would certainly have taken part in the debate, as he took part in many of our debates in Committee.

As always, I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who developed compelling arguments about the situation in France and Australia. I entirely agree that that should give us great cause for concern about the future of our commercial television channels. However, I am not sure that he drew the right conclusions. Arguments about what is happening in France and Australia go to the heart of why it was right to put in the Bill a proper bidding process which not only strengthens quality but discourages overbidding. It also ensures that business plans must be realistic if they are to have any chance of passing the ITC quality test and the business plan test, because within the Bill the two tests are quite separate. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister knows that in Committee I argued vigorously for a strengthening of the quality threshold.

We should remind ourselves of three areas in which the Minister agreed to make some important changes to the tendering process. First, we should not forget the strengthening of regionality and of regional programming, which I know the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) also holds dear. Secondly, we must not forget about the strengthening of quality news and current affairs requirements in the bidding process. Thirdly, we added children's and religious programmes, which we felt had an overriding argument in their favour. We knew that by doing that we would encourage other special interest groups. Equally, we agreed that it was entirely unsatisfactory to provide a statutory requirement to broadcast a long and exhaustive list of programme types. To do so would completely undermine the objectives of deregulation, which in turn are based on a recognition of the commercial realities of the increased competition that Channel 3 and ITV will face over the next decade and into the next century.

Already in the past six months we have seen a reduction in advertising revenue, giving rise to the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. I have heard no new arguments in this debate or read about any in reports of the deliberations in the other place about why we should change our position on this. The Bill already requires diverse programmes. Equally, the programme types included in the amendments draw attention to the importance of such programmes. The Minister has drawn attention to that and, like him, I can think of other programmes that I should like to see on Channel 3. I should like to see not just sport, which is commercial, but arts programmes, which are often riot commercial. I should like to believe that, from time to time in the years ahead, I shall still be able to see opera on Channel 3. However, it is not right to insist upon a statutory requirement that Channel 3 should broadcast opera.

I am enjoying my hon. Friend's speech. People will be set into a framework of existing provisions. Therefore, I am not relying purely on market forces for Channel 3. It is not without significance that BSB has already pinned much of its faith on opera for key viewing times, such as Saturday evenings. It is significant and rather encouraging that, since we last discussed these matters, Sky Television has announced quite serious plans for a dedicated arts channel. That suggests that the idea that the lowest common denominator of programming will rule is not necessarily correct.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I was about to make a different point—that, although companies must make a commercial judgment about what they show, it does not necessarily follow that their support for, for example, the arts or opera need be through televising those events. They may well prefer to support them through sponsorship. Yorkshire Television has sponsored two productions by Opera North. I am only sorry that my right hon. and learned Friend could not come to see the recent revival of La Traviata. Yorkshire Television provides sponsorship for the commercial reason that it promotes the company in the region. However, it also does it to support the region. The regional structure, especially with Channel 3, should not be overlooked. If we place too many obligations on Channel 3 franchisees, we may put in their path requirements that, over time, they cannot match. Sponsorship could be one way to ensure that the sort of social action programmes to which the hon. Member for Erdington referred, and about which we all have strong views, continue.

The House should recognise that programming obligations must be matched by commercial reality. If we cannot—and we cannot—guarantee Channel 3's income or its financial future, we must be careful not to saddle ITV with statutory obligations that it cannot realistically underwrite over the next 10 to 20 years—which is the timescale legislated for in the Bill. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, it does not mean the end of programmes. The market place can provide quality and diversity. ITV needs flexibility, and the Bill, as drafted when it left this place, provided that. We would be wrong to over-egg the pudding. We have provided for the essential ingredients; we should trust independent television to add the relish. I know that it can.

I think that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), in the last moments of his speech, underlined our concerns that lead us to think that their Lordships made a wise move. He spoke of the difficulty for companies, in years to come, in meeting the requirement of diversity in the way that the Minister assured us he was confident they could. I suspect that none of us could predict with great accuracy what will be the financial position of those companies in three years, let alone 10 to 20 years.

I take issue with the Minister who, in an intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), said that we should not overlook other matters, such as the special remit of Channel 4, the BBC's role and so on. We must be wary of that argument, because it is clear that that cornerstone of broadcasting, the BBC, is increasingly under attack, as it was attacked in our earlier debate.

One of the sticks that will be used to beat the BBC is ratings. If it broadcasts programmes to satisfy the diversity requirement—for example, educational, social action, and expensive documentary programmes—which may be of high quality but directed at a specialist audience, and therefore not attracting substantial ratings, that will be taken as a sign of weakness, and the BBC may feel that it must respond to the ratings criticism. I fear that the whole atmosphere in which programme making, even by the BBC, is developing may be changed if the ITV channels move down market.

We spent a great deal of time discussing these issues at earlier stages of the Bill. I think that the hon. Member for Ryedale was right to say that there are few new arguments to be deployed at this stage. However, the Minister cannot complain about our taking issue with him when the other place thought it right to change the balance of the Bill and the balance of the protections. We listen to its arguments, we weigh them and then we decide whether we think that it is right. I was one of those least attracted to the original concept of specification. If we specify programme content to ensure diversity, the question will arise whether that is a requirement. If it is, other programmes that are not specified will be dropped.

8.45 pm

The Minister earlier admitted that it was he who accepted the view that religious broadcasting and children's programmes should be specified. Once that happened, I took the view that certain other matters also had to be specified because they were vulnerable to the sort of arguments that I have already made. They are also vulnerable because they are distinguishable from other programmes in that they are expensive, and quite properly directed to small audiences. The Minister talked about excluding the arts. I advocated special treatment for the arts and the creation of an arts fund. However, I recognise that, even if we specified the arts, only a small audience would be interested in a particular art form. We cannot specify all the arts, so it is difficult to argue for arts specification.

The three matters highlighted for specification by another place are important and beyond argument. Social action programmes have been one of the great innovations in television broadcasting and have achieved something that could not be achieved by other means. They would be difficult to justify in commercial terms, so without some sort of obligation they might be the most vulnerable. Educational programmes are enormously important, and would probably be the last to disappear. They can attract substantial audiences, and there is a great and growing public demand for them. Documentaries are another matter because they can be exceedingly expensive to make, especially if they are shot abroad. It would be a great misfortune if they were to disappear from our screens.

I throw my weight behind the arguments deployed in another place. I have highlighted the dangers that might arise if we rejected the amendment, which I believe improves the Bill.

I want to make an intervention of nauseating piety but merciful brevity. Much of what I wanted to say has been said by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), with his Celtic fluency.

It is ironic that this country is going through a crisis in educational quality, while knowingly passing legislation that will, in all probability, lead to a decline in the educative aspect of parts of television. If we are being honest, we all agree with that. There was a flagrant contradiction in the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale said that, in all commercial realism, it could be difficult to pay for quality programmes if one did not have enough popular programmes. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister appeared to agree with him, even though he had said two minutes earlier that things were not as bad as they looked and that we would be seeing a lot of opera. It is permissible to have some intellectual doubt about the possibility of reconciling those two views.

I repeat that it seems to me perfectly possible to suspect that we are in the process of passing legislation that will not only run down the quality, such as it is, of our commercial television but—as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) pointed out—will probably, in time, affect the quality, such as it is, of the BBC. I am not being a Jeremiah; those effects may take time and they may be difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, it is possible to take that view, and a lot of extremely intelligent and thoughtful people outside the House do, indeed, take that view.

In terms of education, there is an increasingly close relationship between what is broadcast and what is taught in the classroom. Let me give my right hon. and learned Friend an example. I should be interested to know whether he has been in touch with the Department of Education and Science about the amendment. If he, like me, had had the misfortune to read some of the new GCSE examinations in English literature, he would know that, to a certain extent, they are based on piddling and banal television film scripts. That is the nature of the new world in which we live, and it is the subject of another debate. But given that those film scripts are used in our examinations, and used in our schools, as texts to be "studied", it will be a sad day for education if we do anything in the Bill to make them more piddling and banal than they are already.

Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend can assure me that he has been in touch with the Department of Education and Science and that these matters have been given the thought that they deserve. But I beg leave to express some doubts about whether that is so, and to be not pessimistic but absolutely realistic about the risks that we shall be running in the Bill if we do not do whatever we can to use the sticking plaster—that is all it is—that the amendments represent. We shall not save the day, after all, by naming three subjects. The only case for naming them is that we may thus do something to head off what I regard as an inevitable decline in quality, which will have repercussions for the BBC and, indirectly, for our education system.

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) knows that I am enormously fond of him and that I agree with his views on almost everything. I even partially agree with some of the views that he has expressed from time to time on this issue, as I hope has been evidenced by what has happened during our proceedings on the Bill. Nevertheless, I think that he is over-pessimistic.

I know that, in the end, it comes down to a matter of judgment. Honourable people of insight will come down on one side or the other of the argument. There are no absolutes in the matter, and I do not think that there is much room for further persuasion. But the new television channels that are completely free of any statutory intervention in terms of what they show have not proved the pessimists right. It is true that one of Sky's channels shows quite a lot of repeats, but that is also true of the BBC. Sky News is a quality product, however, and it is interesting to note that Sky is also contemplating a dedicated arts channel.

I profoundly hope that BSB will be a success. So much of its programming is based on quality. It shows many arts programmes. It has recognised that a large proportion of the public have told the pollsters that there is nothing on telly when they want to watch it, and on Saturday nights—a bit of a desert for quite a lot of us—it will be showing opera. I hope that that is a bold venture. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, BSB wants to show children's programmes—proper programmes that it has commissioned itself. In other words, the truly commercial sector is not looking merely for re-runs of aged American soaps to pull in the viewers. It recognises that the viewers are a bit more discriminating than that.

With ITV, I believe that there is something worth preserving, although one must not join the broadcasters in total self-congratulatory complacency about the quality of British television. One hears enough of that when one goes to the awards ceremonies. I shall miss them, of course, even if I noticed that there was a bit of self-congratulation around. Nevertheless, ITV gives us some television that is well worth preserving, and I believe that the Bill will preserve it. It is a matter of argument whether it would be better preserved if we added the list in the amendment. I hope that the House will accept that I have no ulterior motive for rejecting the list beyond believing that the diversity test, the quality threshold and the pretty clear steer that the ITV will get from the ITC will be sufficient. I hope that they will be enough to see the ITV network through the next 10 years and beyond.

I must accept the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), that the commercial element of commercial television is not an optional extra. We said that time without number during the Committee stage. Commercial television is a commercial venture or it is nothing. The programming arrangements will only be threatened if the bottom drops out of the commercial market for commercial television. If that happens, no power on earth will save the programmes—whether or not they are enshrined in statute. Perhaps if we accepted all the Lords amendments—including the programming amendment—we should make it more difficult for Channel 3 to flourish because we might tie it down to a scheduling remit that it could not fulfil.

One is entitled to ask, "Why have a public service broadcaster if that public service broadcaster is not there to produce programmes of a very different kind from those which are available elsewhere?" I think that we can go further and that we can have a viable Channel 4—indeed, we have one now—and a Channel 3 that is properly diverse. There is every chance of keeping all those balls in the air, but I do not think that the Lords amendment would help us to achieve that aim. For that reason—I am sorry that it will also have the unintended consequence of destroying the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands)—I hope that the House will agree that it is perfectly proper, and probably in the long-term best interests of quality television, that we should reject the amendments.

Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 252, Noes 92.

Division No. 343]

[8. 57 pm


Aitken, JonathanAmess, David
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelArbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques(Gravesham)Gorst, John
Ashby, DavidGrant, Sir Anthony(CambsSW)
Atkinson, DavidGreenway, John(Ryedale)
Baker, Nicholas(Dorset N)Gregory, Conal
Banks, Robert(Harrogate)Griffiths, Peter(Portsmouth N)
Bendall, VivianGrist, Ian
Bennett, Nicholas(Pembroke)Hague, William
Benyon, W.Hamilton, Hon Archie(Epsom)
Bevan, David GilroyHamilton, Neil(Tatton)
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnHannam, John
Blackburn, Dr John G.Hargreaves, A.(B'ham H'll Gr')
Body, Sir RichardHargreaves, Ken(Hyndburn)
Bonsor, Sir NicholasHarris, David
Boswell, TimHaselhurst, Alan
Bottomley, PeterHawkins, Christopher
Bowden, A(Brighton K'pto'n)Hayes, Jerry
Bowden, Gerald(Dulwich)Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Bowis, JohnHayward, Robert
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir RhodesHeathcoat-Amory, David
Brazier, JulianHicks, Mrs Maureen(Wolv' NE)
Bright, GrahamHicks, Robert(Cornwall SE)
Brown, Michael(Brigg & Cl't's)Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Browne, John(Winchester)Hill, James
Bruce, Ian(Dorset South)Hind, Kenneth
Buck, Sir AntonyHoward, Rt Hon Michael
Budgen, NicholasHowarth, Alan(Strat'd-on-A)
Burns, SimonHowarth, G.(Cannock & B'wd)
Burt, AlistairHowe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Butcher, JohnHowell, Ralph(North Norfolk)
Butler, ChrisHunt, David(Wirral W)
Butterfill, JohnHunt, Sir John(Ravensbourne)
Carlisle, John,(Luton N)Hunter, Andrew
Carlisle, Kenneth(Lincoln)Irvine, Michael
Carr, MichaelIrving, Sir Charles
Carrington, MatthewJack, Michael
Carttiss, MichaelJackson, Robert
Cash, WilliamJanman, Tim
Chapman, SydneyJessel, Toby
Clark, Dr Michael(Rochford)Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Clark, Sir W.(Croydon S)Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Clarke, Rt Hon K.(Rushcliffe)Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Colvin, MichaelKey, Robert
Conway, DerekKilfedder, James
Coombs, Anthony(Wyre F'rest)King, Roger(B'ham N'thfield)
Coombs, Simon(Swindon)Kirkhope, Timothy
Critchley, JulianKnapman, Roger
Currie, Mrs EdwinaKnight, Greg(Derby North)
Curry, DavidKnight, Dame Jill(Edgbaston)
Davies, Q.(Stamf'd & Spald'g)Knowles, Michael
Davis, David(Boothferry)Lawrence, Ivan
Day, StephenLee, John(Pendle)
Devlin, TimLeigh, Edward(Gainsbor'gh)
Dicks, TerryLennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesLester, Jim(Broxtowe)
Dover, DenLightbown, David
Dunn, BobLloyd, Sir Ian(Havant)
Durant, TonyLloyd, Peter(Fareham)
Eggar, TimLord, Michael
Evans, David(Welwyn Hatf'd)Luce, Rt Hon Richard
Evennett, DavidMacfarlane, Sir Neil
Fairbairn, Sir NicholasMaclean, David
Fallon, MichaelMcLoughlin, Patrick
Favell, TonyMadel, David
Fenner, Dame PeggyMajor, Rt Hon John
Field, Barry(Isle of Wight)Malins, Humfrey
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyMans, Keith
Fishburn, John DudleyMaples, John
Fookes, Dame JanetMarland, Paul
Forman, NigelMarlow, Tony
Forsyth, Michael(Stirling)Marshall, John(Hendon S)
Forsythe, Clifford(Antrim S)Martin, David(Portsmouth S)
Forth, EricMates, Michael
Freeman, RogerMawhinney, Dr Brian
French, DouglasMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Fry, PeterMayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Gale, RogerMellor, David
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir IanMills, Iain
Goodlad, AlastairMiscampbell, Norman
Goodson-Wickes, Dr CharlesMitchell, Andrew(Gedling)
Gorman, Mrs TeresaMoate, Roger

Molyneaux, Rt Hon JamesSkeet, Sir Trevor
Monro, Sir HectorSmith, Tim(Beaconsfield)
Montgomery, Sir FergusSoames, Hon Nicholas
Morris, M(N'hampton S)Speed, Keith
Morrison, Sir CharlesSpicer, Sir Jim(Dorset W)
Morrison, Rt Hon P(Chester)Stanbrook, Ivor
Moss, MalcolmSteen, Anthony
Mudd, DavidStern, Michael
Neale, GerrardStevens, Lewis
Nelson, AnthonyStewart, Allan(Eastwood)
Neubert, MichaelStewart, Andy(Sherwood)
Newton, Rt Hon TonyStokes, Sir John
Nicholls, PatrickSumberg, David
Nicholson, David(Taunton)Summerson, Hugo
Nicholson, Emma(Devon West)Tapsell, Sir Peter
Norris, SteveTaylor, Ian(Esher)
Onslow, Rt Hon CranleyTaylor, John M(Solihull)
Oppenheim, PhillipTaylor, Teddy(S'end E)
Page, RichardThompson, D.(Calder Valley)
Paice, JamesThompson, Patrick(Norwich N)
Parkinson, Rt Hon CecilThurnham, Peter
Patten, Rt Hon JohnTownsend, Cyril D.(B'heath)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyTracey, Richard
Porter, David(Waveney)Trimble, David
Powell, William(Corby)Trippier, David
Raffan, KeithTrotter, Neville
Raison, Rt Hon TimothyVaughan, Sir Gerard
Rathbone, TimViggers, Peter
Redwood, JohnWaldegrave, Rt Hon William
Renton, Rt Hon TimWaller, Gary
Rhodes James, RobertWardle, Charles(Bexhill)
Riddick, GrahamWatts, John
Roberts, Sir Wyn(Conwy)Wells, Bowen
Roe, Mrs Marion s'Wheeler, Sir John
Rost, PeterWhitney, Ray
Ryder, RichardWiddecombe, Ann
Sackville, Hon TomWilkinson, John
Sayeed, JonathanWinterton, Nicholas
Scott, Rt Hon NicholasWolfson, Mark
Shaw, David(Dover)Wood, Timothy
Shaw, Sir Giles(Pudsey)Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Shelton, Sir WilliamYeo, Tim
Shephard, Mrs G.(Norfolk SW)
Shepherd, Colin(Hereford)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Shepherd, Richard(Aldridge)

Sir George Young and Mr. Irvine Patrick.

Shersby, Michael


Abbott, Ms DianeFisher, Mark
Allen, GrahamFoster, Derek
Armstrong, HilaryFraser, John
Banks, Tony(Newham NW)Fyfe, Maria
Barnes, Harry(Derbyshire NE)Garrett, Ted(Wallsend)
Battle, JohnGeorge, Bruce
Beckett, MargaretGodman, Dr Norman A.
Bermingham, GeraldGriffiths, Nigel(Edinburgh S)
Bidwell, SydneyHardy, Peter
Boyes, RolandHattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Bradley, KeithHinchliffe, David
Bray, Dr JeremyHoey, Ms Kate(Vauxhall)
Bruce, Malcolm(Gordon)Hogg, N.(C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Caborn, RichardHome Robertson, John
Campbell, Ron(Blyth Valley)Howells, Geraint
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Hughes, John(Coventry NE)
Carlile, Alex(Mont'g)Ingram, Adam
Clark, Dr David(S Shields)Leadbitter, Ted
Clwyd, Mrs AnnLeighton, Ron
Corbett, RobinLivingstone, Ken
Corbyn, JeremyLivsey, Richard
Crowther, StanLloyd, Tony(Stretford)
Cryer, BobMcAllion, John
Cummings, JohnMcAvoy, Thomas
Cunliffe, LawrenceMcCartney, Ian
Darling, AlistairMcLeish, Henry
Davis, Terry(B'ham Hodge H'l)Maclennan, Robert
Dewar, DonaldMcNamara, Kevin
Dixon, DonMcWilliam, John
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs GwynethMadden, Max
Evans, John(St Helens N)Marshall, David(Shettleston)
Faulds, AndrewMeale, Alan

Michie, Bill(Sheffield Heeley)Smith, Andrew(Oxford E)
Michie, Mrs Ray(Arg'l & Bute)Smith, Rt Hon J.(Monk'ds E)
Moonie, Dr LewisSmith, J. P.(Vale of Glam)
Morgan, RhodriSpearing, Nigel
Morley, ElliotSteinberg, Gerry
Mullin, ChrisStrang, Gavin
Nellist, DaveThompson, Jack(Wansbeck)
Oakes, Rt Hon GordonWalden, George
Pike, Peter L.Winnick, David
Powell, Ray(Ogmore)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Radice, GilesWorthington, Tony
Richardson, JoYoung, David(Bolton SE)
Rooker, Jeff
Rowlands, Ted

Tellers for the Noes:

Short, Clare

Mrs. Llin Golding and Mr. Allen McKay.

Skinner, Dennis

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 46 to 48 disagreed to.