[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair] — Backbench business — S4C
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
Thank you for chairing this debate, Sir Alan; it is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I extend my appreciation to the Backbench Business Committee for responding positively to my request for this debate. Its members, like all Members here, recognise the importance of S4C.
The purpose of this debate is to recognise and underline the important role that S4C has played in Wales over the past 30 years, but I also want to look forward to how the channel can develop and respond to changing needs in the new media age. This is also an opportunity to seek assurances from the Minister about his Department’s continued role in supporting and funding the channel.
It is hard to recall how broadcasting in Wales looked before S4C started transmitting in 1982. I can just about remember when Welsh language programmes used to appear on the BBC and ITV. They irritated non-Welsh speakers and could hardly meet the demand of those who wanted to watch Welsh language programmes. “Pobol y Cwm”, “Heddiw” and “Fo a Fe” are just three of the programmes I remember best. Although “Pobol y Cwm” remains with us, it has changed significantly and holds the record for being the BBC’s longest-running soap opera. It is interesting to note that the first Welsh-language broadcast was in 1923, when Mostyn Thomas sang “Dafydd y Garreg Wen” on the radio.
S4C was born of the Broadcasting Act 1980, which established Channel 4 across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and S4C in Wales. Before that time, there was some controversy. We should pay tribute to two people who played key roles in securing the Welsh channel. The first was the former Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans, who campaigned tirelessly; the other was Wyn Roberts, then MP for Conwy and now known as Lord Roberts. His influence as a Welsh Office Minister was key in encouraging Margaret Thatcher and Willie Whitelaw to agree to the channel.
Over the past 30 years, S4C has boasted a host of nominations and awards, including numerous BAFTAs. “Hedd Wyn” and “Solomon a Gaenor” were nominated for Oscars in the best foreign-language film category, along with several Emmys and New York film festival awards. S4C has an excellent reputation for animation; “Superted”, one of its first programmes, broadcast in 1982, became the first ever British animation series to be broadcast by Disney. I could go on and on.
Those awards not only demonstrate the channel’s cultural and artistic influence but underline its economic role. Films and programmes of such calibre have naturally
created demand from international broadcasters. I could highlight several examples, but one of the most notable is “Jesus: The Miracle Maker”, seen in the cinema and on television by some 40 million people, including two peak-time viewings on the ABC network in the US.
The fallout from such success and Government spend has been the creation and development of a broadcast industry. Wales has 40 independent television companies, some of which have become significant UK players and are expanding internationally. Two obvious examples are Boom Pictures, which developed from Boomerang and is in the news today because of its deal with MainStreet Pictures, and Tinopolis, which bought Mentorn Media and Sunset and Vine.
Other notable companies winning commissions from UK networks are Rondo, Green Bay, Cwmni Da and many others. Their main activities are in Wales, where they create employment and wealth for the UK economy.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman might be familiar with the Hargreaves report, which said that it is unlikely that there would be an independent television industry in Wales if not for S4C. The economic impact now adds between £80 million and £90 million to the economy. Although that is positive, it needs to develop further with a multiplier effect; I will return to that a little later. I note that every one of S4C’s chairman and chief executives have contributed significantly to that success and provided excellent leadership over the years.
Digitisation created new opportunities, but also caused the channel some difficulties. S4C established its digital channel in 1998, changing the landscape significantly. Rather than broadcasting a limited number of hours of Welsh programming and taking the remaining feed from Channel 4, S4C Digital started broadcasting Welsh-language programmes all day long. Although there was a change in the funding formula, budgets naturally became tighter with increased demand for output. Increased viewer choice also had a fallout on viewer numbers. Depending on how we measure the channel’s success, audience numbers would naturally have been squeezed. Recent changes in viewing patterns to online, on-demand, satellite, mobile and other innovative formats have made Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board data less reliable.
Some politicians and leading individuals have sought to exploit the need for changes in the running of S4C for their own ends. Just over two years ago, my hon. Friend Guto Bebb held a debate on the channel here in Westminster Hall, after the Minister first proposed to change the predominant funding source from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the BBC. That debate was exploited to the full, despite assurances and guarantees offered by the Minister and the Secretary of State at the time. Questions were asked about operational independence and commissioning guarantees to independent companies. Despite the commitments offered by Ministers to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy and me, the critics continued to be negative and to use the channel as a political stick, creating uncertainty and undermining confidence.
Hywel Williams (Arfon, Plaid Cymru)
The hon. Gentleman uses the interesting word “exploit”. Some might characterise what we said at the time as proper concern for the national channel and the only channel broadcasting in Welsh. He and I differ in our views. Clearly he has his own beliefs.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
I remind the hon. Gentleman how packed Westminster Hall was on that occasion. People who had never shown any interest in the channel came merely to use it as a political stick, rather than listening to the reassurances given by the Secretary of State and the Minister, which have now been realised in the agreement signed earlier this week. Until then, the channel had avoided being used for political purposes. I hope that it can return to that state of consensus on how it is supported. That is the best way to secure its long-term future. This week, those guarantees from the Government have become reality. I was pleased that the BBC Trust and the chairman of S4C approved their operating agreement. It is excellent news and exactly meets the Minister’s commitments. It satisfies the demands of the Welsh public, the industry, S4C and the BBC.
Some points in the agreement are still open to interpretation. They relate to powers to intervene, which lie with the trust rather than the corporation, and extreme circumstances in which the BBC could withdraw funding. It is important to emphasise that interpretation of “the BBC” in that document should refer to the BBC Trust, and that there is an expectation that the BBC Trust would consult Ministers and others well before getting into a position to withhold funding.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Plaid Cymru)
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. The agreement is testament to the hard work of the chair of the S4C authority and the commissioner for Wales of the BBC. They seem to have managed to square a circle. Does he share my concern, however, that the agreement might be problematic if we had a commissioner for Wales on the BBC Trust who was hostile to Welsh language broadcasting?
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
I refer to the point I have already made. I pay tribute to the people the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but the agreement follows the commitment and guarantees that were given by the Secretary of State and the Minister at the time of the previous debate. It brings those commitments into reality, and I absolutely take confidence in the document and in the comments made by the chairman of S4C, its chief executive and the chairman of the BBC Trust. I absolutely accept those comments. That is why I wanted to clarify today the small points that are down to interpretation. It comes down to the matter of the BBC Trust, and there is a long process before the BBC would ever get to a position of withholding funding.
With those doubts resolved, we are left with the challenges and opportunities for the future. We are already seeing the benefits of closer working with the BBC. There is on-demand provision through iPlayer and Clic, where common platforms provide opportunities for savings, and some central services can be reorganised to save more money. Such joint working, however, should not be at the cost of commissioning from the independent sector. In fact, money saved through joint working should be able to increase resources available for commissioning.
Commissioning programmes to be made in both English and Welsh makes good sense, and it opens the door to international markets.
Alan Meale (Mansfield, Labour)
For the information of the Minister and those who might not have heard what I said during the Divisions, I will push on so that we can get everyone in, in particular those who have to leave early. If Members who are called to speak could keep their contributions down to five or six minutes, in the early stages at least, that would be really helpful.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
Before the interruption, I was talking about the joint working with the BBC and how that should release funding to enable more money to be spent on commissioning from independent companies, although, as one of my hon. Friends commented during the interval, the Divisions make it seem as though S4C is being subject to some interference. Commissioning programmes to be made in both English and Welsh makes good business sense and opens international markets. “Mathias”, or “Hinterland”, is one such example —the programme has already been sold to a Danish broadcaster.
Viewing figures alone are not necessarily the best measure of the success of a channel. The limited number of BARB boxes in Wales leads to significant fluctuations in the audience numbers recorded, and a recent saving of £250,000 was made by removing the additional BARB boxes commissioned by the channel. That was sensible, and the right thing to do, but we need to bear those fluctuations in mind. If measuring audience numbers alone is too simplistic, we need to recognise the limited audience and compare S4C with other channels that operate in specialised areas, such as BBC 4. I do not have a solution to the problem of how we measure success, but it needs to be considered.
New media technology also provides new opportunities to reach new audiences, and means that language need not be a limitation. Two-language commentary on sport is an excellent innovation that should be developed further. Although the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been supportive of S4C’s expansion into new media, legislative changes are needed, because of the limitations of the existing Communications Act 2003. Such changes would enable the channel to become more effective and to operate in further areas of new media. That has a direct link with the economic impact of the channel, but the multiplier has to improve further. The digital development and co-production funds offer opportunities to attract additional finance, support creativity across platforms and develop new companies and innovations. It would be good to see S4C expand yet further in that way.
It is important for S4C to be at the centre of the media industry developing in Cardiff. I hope that comments about setting up offices elsewhere do not detract from the cluster effect that can give critical mass, allow the transfer of skills and creativity and, ultimately, generate wealth for the UK economy.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
I absolutely agree, and it is important for the channel to reflect the culture of the whole of Wales, so commissioning from companies outside Cardiff is important. S4C, however, has to be at the centre of the dynamic media innovations in Cardiff, to create that cluster effect, generate wealth and provide opportunities for greater export of programmes. I do not detract from the channel’s activities elsewhere, but I hope that those activities elsewhere do not detract from its focus at the centre of that media development.
Finally, I want to talk about the importance of the funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
I hope that that was our last Division this afternoon, and that this important debate can continue. I was about to make my final point, which is about the importance of funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Not only is the £7 million important financially, but it prevents the BBC from holding a near-monopoly on the funding and commissioning of programmes in Wales, although ITV plays a part, and that is important to the plurality of media in Wales. I appreciate that the Minister’s hands are tied and that he cannot provide a copper-bottomed guarantee because of Treasury rules, but I would like some words that show his and his Department’s commitment to the channel, and a reassurance within the constraints and limitations on him.
Having spoken to the Minister and the Secretary of State previously, I have been encouraged by their response and commitment to S4C. They have lived up to every commitment they made when, two years ago, the channel had difficulties with its longer term future. I am confident that the coalition Government and, I hope, a future Conservative Government will retain that commitment to the channel in the longer term.
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South, Labour)
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on a very important subject. This is a great moment in our history, celebrating, as we do, the 30th anniversary of the world’s only publicly broadcasted Welsh language channel. Of course, we now take the channel’s existence very much for granted. We are not only used to S4C, but used to seeing and hearing the Welsh language, though I certainly do not accept the view of some commentators that the historic struggle for securing the future of the Welsh language is over. None the less, it is fair to say that Welsh is still a living language. It stares at us from road signs, beams down from the large letters beloved of supermarkets, and plays on our television sets, radios and on the internet. It is the language of much, though not all, official documentation.
One thing I am sure of is that none of that happened by magic or by chance. The existence of S4C is a reminder of a diverse history of people—some of them famous, but most of them not—who fought for the Welsh language in times when it was not fashionable to do so. The fact that we are here at all today is testimony to them, and they, above all, deserve our publicly expressed thanks and admiration.
In case we need reminding of the scale of the challenge that they faced, I would like to share with hon. Members the words of Mr E.R. Appleton, who was the senior BBC official and man in charge of broadcasting in Wales in the late 1920s. When questioned about whether the people of Wales might have a modicum of Welsh language in broadcasting, he said that
“the official language is English. When His Majesty’s Government decided to form a corporation for the important function of broadcasting, it was natural that the official language be used throughout. To use the ancient languages regularly—Welsh, Irish, Gaelic and Manx—would be either to serve propaganda purposes or to disregard the needs of the greatest number in the interest of those who use the language for aesthetic and sentimental reasons rather than for practical purposes...If the extremists who desire to force the language upon listeners in the area were to have their way, the official language would lose its grip.”
There we have it—no Welsh language broadcasting, or it might affect the grip of the English language. That is not quite a reflection of what happened.
In the 1950s, our great Welsh youth movement, the Urdd Gobaith Cymru, implored the youth of Wales, “Cymraeg yw iaith yr aelwyd, siaradwch hi”—“Welsh is the language of home and hearth, speak it.” It spoke of an era when Welsh was commonly spoken by all members of a family. The greatest challenge then was seen as ensuring that the young carried on speaking and using the Welsh language. However, that is no longer true for most families today, including my own, and those of us who come from homes where Welsh was not spoken by all members of the family owe S4C a particular debt of gratitude.
It is a great privilege to have been brought up in a country with a television station such as S4C. It is a privilege to have been a viewer of S4C as a teenager in Wales, and as an adult in both Wales and London. Last September, on my first holiday to that great European city of Barcelona, a Freesat box meant I was able to watch S4C there too. I have no complaints about people in Barcelona, or indeed, England, needing a Freesat to watch S4C. However, I object to the fact that according to a recent admission by Ofcom, 2% of Welsh viewers need to do the same. I have brought that matter up in the House before, and I will do so again. If the technology of transmitters is beyond the collective abilities of Digital UK and Ofcom to sort out, I believe that they, and not Welsh television viewers, who pay their licence fees every year, should foot the bill for the Freesat boxes.
I grew up in Rhosllannerchrugog, which is Wales’s largest village, though I know there are some in south Wales that have a different version of events on that one. I think it could be described fairly as a village with two community languages. My father came from a village five miles away, where Welsh was not a community language. He does not speak Welsh. My mother speaks Welsh as a second language. English was the language of our household, but my community and school were bilingual.
In the household that I grew up in, the regular presence of S4C, sometimes with subtitles on, did much to normalise the use of the Welsh language for me. It brought bilingualism to life in my family and in many other families in my local community. Through it, Welsh became not only the language of chapels and older people, but a contemporary medium with a diverse range of interesting programmes. One of only five television channels on offer at the time in our area, it provided something new and different. It made Welsh relevant, and for people from backgrounds such as mine, it gave us new impetus to use the Welsh language.
Today, S4C faces a different media age. In the internet age, the development of the channel’s online presence is vital, as is its work in commissioning broadcasts produced by media companies across Wales. There is a real challenge in what must be the development of new media companies in our Welsh-speaking heartland communities, offering diverse programming and a genuine cultural renaissance and regeneration in those communities.
Those challenges will not be easy. There were those of us who wanted to take S4C out of the Public Bodies Act 2011. At the time, on that Bill Committee, three parties, dare I say it, were acting “in the national interest”—myself, along with the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). That was voted for by all Opposition parties and a few Liberals who had a bit of the best Welsh Liberal tradition at heart. That was contrary to the UK Government’s policy, and, I believe, to the policies of all parties in the National Assembly for Wales. We did that, not because we wanted to be awkward, controversial or any of the suggestions that people far less pleasant than those in this room might make, but because we knew the scale of the challenge that S4C would face, even without the disproportionate level of cuts that the channel saw levelled against it.
According to S4C’s calculations, those cuts amount to 24% over a period of four years—a real-terms cut of 36%. In 2010, S4C’s grant was £101 million, and it was reduced to £90 million in 2011 and £83 million in 2012. Last summer, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced further reductions—1% in 2013-14 and 2% in 2014-15. From April this year, most of S4C’s funding will come from the licence fee through the BBC Trust for the duration of the existing BBC Charter, due to be renewed in 2017. We do not know what will happen after that. As noted from this week’s statement from the BBC, the funding from the BBC will go down every year between now and 2016-17. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the £7 million received by S4C from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will be received after 2015. According to S4C’s figures, if that £7 million was not there, there would, in fact, be a 42% cut. It is no wonder that the 1,200 people in that mass e-mail and letter lobby—organised so well by the Welsh Language Society—of Members of Parliament serving on the Public Bodies Bill Committee were so concerned. They were absolutely right to be.
For those learning Welsh, and for those longing to be able to speak Welsh by the time of the next census, I believe that we need to consider the situation—to celebrate S4C’s 30th birthday, certainly, but also to look forward to its future and the future of Welsh, as a living, sustainable language throughout Wales.
Alan Meale (Mansfield, Labour)
Before I call the next speaker, may I go through a number of points? You will all realise that we are running over time. The debates in this Chamber today can now run until at least 5.14 pm. I expect the first debate—this debate—to finish at about 3.45 pm. I plan to start to call the Front Benchers at about 3.15 pm. I did ask earlier for hon. Members to be kind to one another and to restrict their speeches to five or six minutes. I remind you all that whether we get everyone in depends on how quick the Back-Bench speeches are. We also want to get those people in who have already indicated that they need to get away at a certain time because of previous engagements. I therefore call Glyn Davies.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire, Conservative)
Thank you for calling me, Sir Alan. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the shadow Minister, Nia Griffith, because I shall have to leave at approximately 2.50 pm. Indeed, if you had not been sufficiently generous to call me now, I probably would not have been able to be called at all, so I am most grateful to you.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Alun Cairns on the work that he has done, with the Backbench Business Committee, to bring about this very important debate. I look it as a parliamentary extension of the birthday party that S4C will have enjoyed on its 30th anniversary. It is an opportunity for us to pay tribute to S4C. As everyone in this room will agree, it is a hugely important organisation for Wales, in terms of Welsh employment, the profile of Wales and the diversity of the economy of Wales. It is particularly important for the Welsh language. I agree with the comments made by Susan Elan Jones in that respect: I do not think that there is any guarantee at all that the future of the language is secure. We have seen recent census figures that show threatening trends. That is an issue that we must concentrate on completely.
S4C has played a very major part in enabling me to learn to speak Welsh. When I was elected to the National Assembly in 1999, I was not able to speak Welsh at all. I would not have been able to appear on “Dau o’r Bae” tomorrow or “Pawb a’i Farn” next week.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire, Conservative)
It would have been, indeed. Nor would I have been able to do a half-hour programme tomorrow with Dewi Llwyd, “Rhaglen Dewi Llwyd”, based really on my birthday. That is coinciding with the debate about the birthday of S4C.
S4C is hugely popular. We can tell that because the political parties in Wales compete with one another to claim credit for creating it. It was created, of course, at a time when Mrs Thatcher was the Prime Minister of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan has paid tribute to the work of Lord Wyn Roberts and to Willie Whitelaw. We should also refer to the work of Lord Crickhowell at the time, because he played a very significant part in what happened. I, too, want to pay tribute to Mr Gwynfor Evans. He made a massive commitment, over a long time. All we remember
is his threat to fast to death if this channel was not created. I do not know whether that threat was a help or a hindrance to what happened, but it certainly demonstrated a massive commitment to the Welsh language.
I still remember what happened very clearly. The most important thing that the Thatcher Government did was not only to create S4C, but to commit to a funding level tied to a mechanism to continue that, linked to inflation. That happened right the way through until two years ago, and this is where I enter what is perhaps more controversial territory. The love of the language, the feeling for the language, caused many people to pressurise me, as a member of the Public Bodies Bill Committee, which was considering the breaking of the link. I know just how much the people of Wales care about it. At the time, I thought that it was inevitable. I thought that it would be unrealistic to retain the position that we had, but without the link, we will occasionally refer again to the funding levels for S4C. It will crop up in the parliamentary timetable. Certainly I and, I hope, the successors to all of us will fight S4C’s corner to maintain a realistic budget, in the economy of the time, and to make certain that we have a strong S4C.
We have had a period when S4C has seemed to be in a bit of a bad place. I felt that there was almost a self-destruct button being pressed three or four years ago, but what do we have now? We have two bodies, two broadcasters in Wales, that are committed to the Welsh language—the BBC and S4C. They are working very closely together. We have seen the operating agreement. We have seen two chief executives who are working very well together. We have seen the two channels produce the “Mathias” or “Hinterland” programme. That is the sort of thing that I hope we will see happening again and again in the future. We are in a position from which we can celebrate S4C. It is in a wonderful place at the moment. Wales is a small country and is very lucky to have a channel that does such a wonderful job.
Hywel Francis (Aberavon, Labour)
I congratulate Alun Cairns on securing this debate on a topic that is so important to the people of Wales. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on how the Welsh language television channel, S4C, came into being, how it has progressed over the past three decades, its current challenges and its future prospects.
The hon. Gentleman has his roots in the western edges of the south Wales valleys, where he had the good fortune to be educated in Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera—the bilingual comprehensive in the Swansea valley, where all three of my children were educated. No doubt the debates at the school in the early 1980s mirrored those throughout Wales. It was a time of great economic, cultural, political and linguistic uncertainty. The late historian, Gwyn Alf Williams, even asserted in his memorable BBC Wales lecture, “When was Wales?”, that the Welsh had virtually voted themselves out of history with the decisive 1979 Welsh devolution referendum defeat. It was a time of steel and mining strikes and of heavy industry redundancies. I know that the hon. Gentleman was part of the vigorous discussions at the school—I had regular reports at home about them. There would have been many supporters of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, Nelson Mandela and the Greenham
Common peace protests. Socialists of various kinds were there—and there was at least one Conservative in the school.
If we look back at that time, it seems somewhat surprising that Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C—did emerge. The moment, of course—we have heard this several times, and rightly so—was Gwynfor Evans’s decision to “fast unto death” to achieve the channel. We should leave it to the historians—as a lapsed historian, I welcome their taking on that challenge—to debate how S4C was actually created.
What is not in doubt is that the Welsh language was —unnecessarily, I believe—a matter of conflict and division, which partly influenced the 1979 referendum result, but ultimately the achievement of a Welsh language television channel became a politically unifying force, with all political parties and movements rightly claiming their part, to varying degrees, in its creation and its subsequent achievements, which we are rightly celebrating today.
We should of course acknowledge the decades-long campaigns in the defence of the Welsh language—we have heard something about that today—involving a very diverse range of movements, parties and organisations, encompassing the Urdd, eisteddfodau of all kinds, including the one that my late father and I were associated with—the bilingual miners’ eisteddfod at Porthcawl—Sunday schools, the Welsh medium schools movement, which was absolutely critical, particularly in the south, and of course the Welsh Language Society itself.
The point that I am making is that at a time of fracture, fear and, indeed, retreat, the very creation of S4C, in the midst of all that—unexpectedly for many—served, over time, as a focus of political and cultural unity. The Welsh language then ceased to be a party political football, and I certainly do not believe that it has become so again, even today—the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan made passing reference to the matter. I do not believe that S4C is seen as a matter for party political debate. Everyone in the room today and beyond celebrates S4C’s achievements.
Over time, S4C has made its contribution in creating what the great Welsh writer, Raymond Williams, called “the idea of a common culture”. For me, that means a common democratic culture that embraces our two Welsh languages—English and Welsh—and a growing belief that both languages belong to us all in Wales.
In reflecting on the programmes of S4C, from “Pobol y Cwm” and “Dinas”—I should declare an interest in that my son had a part in “Dinas” over many weeks—to “Superted” and “Y Byd ar Bedwar”, I am struck by one particular iconic cultural creation, which represents for me one of the very best creations of British television. It was created by S4C and is a signifier of the common culture I mention: the 1999, award-winning, Oscar-nominated, trilingual film “Solomon a Gaenor”, which has already been mentioned. It portrays poignantly, painfully and beautifully the class and racial tensions of early 20th century Wales. It is a story for today and for all time—We recently, sadly, commemorated Holocaust memorial day.
Thirty years on, a more democratic and, I believe, tolerant Wales is also more at ease with itself. For all our problems and challenges—there are many—S4C has played its part in sustaining one of our languages. It has done so by ensuring that it is more of a force for political and cultural unity than for division.
For all the progress, there are great uncertainties regarding funding, quality, standards, working conditions, sustainability and indeed democratic accountability. I am not at all convinced that the agreements and arrangements with the BBC are sustainable in the long run, nor am I convinced that the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport is necessarily the appropriate line of democratic accountability. I am not clear that the funding following the comprehensive spending review—the cuts have already been mentioned—is viable, notwithstanding DCMS obligations under the Public Bodies Act 2011.
As Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I am keenly aware of the need to protect all our cultural rights in this country, including the Welsh language, and ensure that financial considerations do not overwhelm linguistic and cultural priorities. The linked questions of quality, standards, working conditions and so on largely stem from the funding cuts outlined. Vital issues relate to screen quality suffering, health and safety, morale and the loss of skills and expertise in Wales’s creative industries, but all that is for another debate and another day. We celebrate today S4C’s achievements and trust that it will have, in Raymond Williams’s words, the “resources of hope” to sustain itself for another three decades and I hope more.
Mark Williams (Ceredigion, Liberal Democrat)
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Alan. I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend Alun Cairns on spear- heading the effort to secure the debate this afternoon. It is timely not only in the sense that it is the 30th anniversary of S4C, but because we are celebrating and promoting the new historic partnership agreement between the BBC and S4C, which will safeguard S4C’s editorial, managerial and operational independence.
I would not have said those words during the passage of the Public Bodies Bill. As Susan Elan Jones alluded to, some of us, for good reason, attempted to instil other safeguards and to address the funding formula between S4C and the BBC. I remember my hon. Friend Stephen Crabb, now the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, and my hon. Friend Glyn Davies were there as well. There was a spirited campaign. I do not deviate from the thinking behind that campaign in any way. I would not say that I resent, but I do take exception to, the argument that that campaign was political posturing. The amendments we tabled and the campaign we raised were a genuine response to the many hundreds of concerns that had been raised with us.
Members of the Bill Committee will recall that many of the e-mails we received were remarkably similar and came from one source. Members who do not represent Welsh constituencies were bemused and confused at the scale and substance of many of those e-mails. I was more interested in the concerns of the many individual constituents of mine and the many organisations across Wales. I come here today at least in part reassured by what has happened and the emergence of the agreement, and in part because our job is to show a healthy scepticism—even, on occasion, of the things that come from a Government of our own side of the House.
S4C’s chairman, Huw Jones, has said that the agreement provides security for the channel until 2017. The new operating code will allow BBC intervention in editorial matters in extreme cases, only where there has been a material breach of its remit. We have heard about the funding. S4C will receive £76.3 million directly from the BBC Trust, falling to £74.5 million in 2016-17—an issue of some concern, of course. I welcome that agreement. As I said, it reassures me, but we should not lose sight of how different the funding settlement is from that previously guaranteed in statute. S4C came into being because of a people’s campaign. It was set up to provide a vital service to the Welsh people, and my impression was always that the strength of feeling was the justification for enshrining the arrangements in statute.
I remember as a student in Aberystwyth 28 years ago going to a hostelry called The Coops, which will be known to some of my colleagues, to listen to Mr Gwynfor Evans. I was struck by how that very quietly spoken—he was advancing in years—mild-mannered man had spearheaded that great campaign with such persistence and determination. It was Conservative Ministers in this place, Lord Wyn Roberts and others, who pushed the cause through Parliament.
I am pleased to see the arrangement. It will bring stability and I welcome the concept of partnership, but I am conscious of what our Select Committee on Welsh Affairs said in the last report we undertook on the subject —that
“we believe that it is essential that there is a long term funding formula enacted in primary legislation…Any reduction in S4C’s funding should be comparable to other public service broadcasters.”
There are many positives in the agreement. The statutory minimum 520 hours of programming supplied to S4C from BBC Cymru Wales is important, as is the emphasis the new agreement places on the creative industries. Highly popular programmes, including “Pobol y Cwm”, coverage of the Eisteddfod and “Y Clwb Rygbi”, as well as “Newyddion”, remain at the heart of S4C’s schedule. Significantly, the BBC will also contribute programming to the value of £19.4 million.
S4C is unique. It is the only Welsh-language TV channel in the world. It is far more than a public service broadcaster. The hon. Member for Clwyd South talked about the influence of S4C on English-speaking families. English speakers in my family are now outnumbered four to two by Welsh speakers. I have four young children who speak the language. The language is not now isolated in Welsh-medium education in the classroom in the village school that my children attend. They can hear it in the media as well, which is critical to extending the impact of the language.
We have talked about digital options and the role of S4C in pursing digital platforms, which is also critical. The contribution of the growth of the independent production centre—with 2,000 jobs and £90 million—is also hugely significant not only right across Wales, but in notable pockets.
In relation to my constituency, there has been mention of “Mathias”, or “Hinterland”, a programme commissioned by S4C and the BBC that is filmed in Aberystwyth, Borth and Ynyslas in heart of Ceredigion. We look to that programme to do for the promotion of Ceredigion what “Inspector Morse” did for Oxford. It has already
done a huge amount to promote Wales internationally and, as we have heard, it has been sold to the Danish broadcaster DR. That is a very good story to tell, and we look forward to the development of S4C in years to come.
I want to make one more quick comment. In talking about my constituency, broadcasting and the independent sector, I want to pay tribute to the late and much missed film-maker John Hefin, a constituent of mine who died last November. He was an award-winning director and producer, who had been at the heart of broadcasting in Wales since the 1970s. He played a key part in ground-breaking productions in both languages, such as “Pobol y Cwm”, “Grand Slam” and “The Life and Times of David Lloyd George”. Over 30 years, it was his kind of inspiration and innovation that helped to establish S4C’s reputation for high-quality production and to make the creative industries in Wales thrive. Long may that continue.
Finally, today is a celebration. We can reflect on issues that have not been so cheerful over the past 30 years, but we are celebrating, because S4C is still at the heart of the nation. From those of us with more anglicised backgrounds through to the indigenous Welsh community, we must do all we can to protect and enhance this valuable service.
Alan Meale (Mansfield, Labour)
Order. I remind Members about the speaking times. We have had a torturous afternoon so far and Members have tried to be helpful, but we are running out of time. Two Members who wrote in asking to speak have yet to be called and, quite rightly, one of the Welsh nationalists should also be called. That is before the speeches of the two Front Benchers and the winding-up from the Member who secured the debate. Please, please try to keep your speeches to five minutes. If you do so, everyone can be called to speak, but otherwise there will simply not be time.
Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)
In 1973, the concept of a fourth channel seemed an impossible, impractical dream. That year’s report, “Television in Wales”, which became Labour party policy in Wales at the 1974 election, called for such a fourth channel. The writing of that report was fascinating, because it went into areas that were unknown—certainly, to me—at the time, including that so much was going on in minority languages throughout the world. As my hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones has said, there was an inability to understand how it could be made to work.
One thing that I discovered in compiling the report was that the Inuit word for television is “the shaking tent”. Before Eskimos saw television for the first time, they had an ancient practice of going into a tent and starting an oil lamp burning so that, when the tent was shaken outside, they could interpret the shadows on the screen. Given the quality of television at the time—fog with knobs on—they thought it was another version of the shaking tent. It also came out that, for example in Canada, Ottawa had a station broadcasting in 30 languages, none of which were Canadian or Eskimo ones.
The point I want to make—we have to nail down the history that we can remember—is that, although Willie Whitelaw has been praised, he was not one of the
heroes of the process. He was the one who turned the channel idea down. I had a minute, protozoan moment in that history, in that I was the acting chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales at that time. I served in that post for a record time that I am certain will never be equalled—15 minutes. I went into the first meeting and resigned after the minutes had been read, as a protest against the cancellation of a fourth channel, although that did not have a great effect on the history of the matter.
What did have an effect, and it was an almighty one, was, as we have heard, Dafydd Iwan and the young people who sacrificed so much and went to jail. I can remember a young man on “Disc a Dawn” called Huw Jones—I cannot think what has happened to him—but many people worked to build up the feeling that there was a great injustice.
The event that changed the situation, after the idea had been emphatically rejected by the Conservative party, was the lucky one that Margaret Thatcher had been reading about Irish history—she was deeply ignorant of it at the time—and was struck to find out that, following the Easter riots and the shooting of Irish nationalists, the interest in Irish nationalism had multiplied enormously. When Ireland had its martyrs, what was a tiny fringe group suddenly became the majority of the nation. She saw a film on television of Gwynfor Evans in the Sophia gardens in Cardiff with a crowd chanting, “Gwynfor, Gwynfor.” She calculated that if he carried out his fast and died, Wales would have a martyr around which a movement would develop. She rightly saw that that would happen—I am certain he was a man who would have stuck to his fast, if the channel had not arrived—but the Government had to find a pretext, because they could not possibly give into pressure or blackmail. There was therefore this little pantomime in which three of the great and the good in Wales visited Mrs Thatcher to persuade her that it was a good idea and that she was wrong to reject it. That was the naissance of the fourth channel, S4C.
That is a matter for great celebration. Looking back on those 40 years, we remember that on the Labour party’s approach—there were many others—there was unanimity in Wales. It meant a great deal to non-Welsh speakers, too, although for other reasons, to get a fourth channel. Great meetings were held, including one in the city hall in Cardiff, at which everyone agreed that the channel would be a great thing.
At the time, we did not envisage that it would be possible for the channel to create many of its own programmes. It was thought that, to fit with the amount of money that was likely to be available, the only way would be to dub or subtitle programmes and so on. With all the pessimism about people watching subtitled programmes, it is interesting to see the current fascination with “Borgen”. Subtitles do not matter. An audience can be got for a programme if the quality is there.
This is a moment of great celebration. The work of S4C was beyond anyone’s expectation then, and from decade to decade its glorious success has continued. If the Catholic Church saved the Breton language and the chapel saved the Welsh language in the past, it is S4C that has maintained and enriched the life of the Welsh-language world. Congratulations to all concerned. I think that the parties in this House will be united in ensuring that these 30 years will be followed by a glittering future for yr hen iaith.
Hywel Williams (Arfon, Plaid Cymru)
To inject a perhaps political, but not sour political, note, I must say to the House that this is the only Parliament in which we can properly discuss S4C, because this Parliament is responsible for it. However, our debate has so far been interrupted four times by Divisions in the House on amendments—I hope that they were not frivolous amendments—tabled by a few Tory MPs, as I understand it, to Lords amendments to the Canterbury City Council Bill, which has now reached clause 6. If that is the importance afforded a debate such as this in this place, it is high time that broadcasting was devolved to Wales. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan may say that I am making political capital, but that is what I wanted to say.
The hon. Gentleman started by saying that S4C was born out of the Broadcasting Act. I have a long speech in front of me saying that it was not, but despite the Tolstoyan labours I expended on my speech, I will take your strictures to heart, Sir Alan, and confine myself to a few notes.
I had a small role in the actual genesis of S4C, which began more in the early 1970s, with the campaign by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society. I had slightly more than a walk-on role, but slightly less than a starring role—somewhere between Hamlet and third noble on the left. The same is true of a large number of people in Wales who now hold responsible positions. We subsequently came to a consensus on the language and on the value of S4C, and I welcome that.
On a quick historical note for Dr Francis, I was at the meeting in Porthmadog on the night it was decided to establish the channel. The meeting was held to welcome Gwynfor Evans, who was on a tour making speeches about his decision to fast. I was sitting in the body of the hall as it filled up. Then, the aisles filled up, the sides of the hall filled up and the stage filled up. When Gwynfor Evans eventually came in, he could scarcely find room to stand. That was because his campaign was popular, and he had captured something in the national mood, so I pay tribute to him. I am also glad to pay tribute to Wyn Roberts, whose role in this matter is sometimes not recognised.
The channel’s cultural achievements are astonishing. Wales, with a population the same size as those of Bedfordshire, which has a little over 600,000 people, Wiltshire and Worcestershire, has produced a TV channel responsible for creating films that have been up for Oscars and BAFTAs and for filling a great number of hours during the week. That cultural achievement is astonishing, and we have to pay tribute to S4C and the people who contribute.
I want S4C to develop and to be fully funded, and I am sure the Minister will give us assurances on that. I want it to be managed co-operatively by the S4C board and the BBC. I also want there to be accountability to the Welsh people, possibly through devolution.
The channel operates throughout Wales. In my area, there is a large independent sector, which I would like
the channel to develop much more effectively. Great developments are afoot, but more needs to be done. With those few words, I will sit down.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy, Conservative)
I will be brief. I associate myself with the comments of most Members this afternoon, especially about S4C’s success over the years. It is a matter of great pride that we have had Oscar-nominated films such as “Hedd Wyn” and that we have fantastic programmes that are enjoyed by many.
Susan Elan Jones, whom I often disagree with, touched on an important point regarding the challenge facing S4C as it moves forward. We have been concentrating on the challenge it faces as a result of the funding cuts, and there has obviously been a political discussion about them. However, I grew up in an area where people spoke, and still speak, Welsh as a natural community language. People could go to a public house on a Saturday night, and the whole place would stop to watch “C’mon Midffild”. There was a sense of community about a programme that really touched on the community S4C served. That reflects the challenge the channel now faces.
When S4C was established, Welsh was the community language in large swathes of Wales, and more than 70% of people spoke it in various wards. Recently, however, that has been challenged by a decline in the Welsh language, although not in terms of actual numbers—we have seen an increase in numbers, despite the disappointing fall in the recent census in the number of places where more than half the population speaks Welsh. Overall, however, the number of people who speak Welsh or claim to speak it has increased since the channel was established. None the less, the number of communities where it is the predominant language has fallen. That has happened not least in Carmarthen, where the figures are quite worrying. The number of people speaking Welsh in the historical county of Carmarthen, which was always a Welsh language bastion, is down to 43%.
The challenge was highlighted by the hon. Lady. In the past, the channel would have enjoyed the support of families in which every member spoke Welsh, but it now faces a very different situation. Often, we will have a mother and a father, and one will speak Welsh, while the other does not. Equally, the children might speak Welsh, while the parents do not. We heard about that from Mr Williams, who said he was outnumbered in his own house by Welsh speakers, and I suspect they will be the children. In the same way, I know that Henri, the son of Alun Cairns, can speak Welsh but that his mother does not.
Such things are a huge challenge for the channel. We have one television channel that can produce programmes in Welsh, and it has to deal with the challenges posed by a changing Welsh-speaking community. It also has to make sure that it appeals to young children, adults, pensioners, people who think they are trendy and those who think they are not. The challenges facing S4C, therefore, are great. However, although the funding agreement might not be perfect and might not be what people wanted, we can build on it and we can move forward with it.
I want to give a quick warning about the situation we face in the run-up to the changes. There is no doubt that S4C has made a huge contribution, but it took its eye off the ball. There was a feeling that viewing figures did not matter, that establishing the channel in west and north Wales was not crucial and that everything could be done from Cardiff. However, there has been a wake-up call, which is not something we welcome, but it does not do any harm.
Moving forward, we face challenges, but there are significant opportunities as well. Good programmes are being produced under the new regime. My son, who is 15 and a half—not the age to be watching programmes with his parents—loves watching “Alice”. He watches a recording of it on Monday night, because he watches something else on a Sunday. My children still subscribe to S4C’s children’s programmes, which are often ignored as attracting no viewers, but that is because the papers do not understand the issue.
I shall be brief, Sir Alan, because you need to call the Front-Bench speakers, but we should put this debate in context. We have had funding cuts, but we have great opportunities, although they exist in a complicated and changed scenario. I have only one question for the Minister. I accept that the settlement is good and positive and that it gives stability. I am not one of those who believes that the BBC is necessarily bad for Wales. In many ways, it has done a lot of good for Wales. The key issue is that we have argued for a settlement for S4C that is on par with what the BBC is facing. We have not quite managed that, but we have a degree of stability. However, the one thing the BBC has is the ability to plan while knowing where it stands.
I ask the Minister to consider again whether it is appropriate, given the cuts at S4C, for the DCMS contribution to be cut further. After all, that contribution has fallen dramatically. As a Member who has supported the changes, I ask him to reconsider the further cut that has been announced, as a goodwill gesture towards a channel that is crucial to the future of the Welsh language.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli, Labour)
Thank you, Sir Alan, for the way in which you have managed to fit us all into the debate, despite the difficulties.
First, I congratulate Alun Cairns on his part in securing the debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for according us this opportunity to celebrate 30 years of S4C. The debate comes at an important time for S4C, given that we had the announcement only yesterday that the BBC Trust and the S4C Authority have agreed the operating agreement that will govern the future funding and accountability arrangements between S4C
and the BBC from April 2013. From then on, the majority of S4C’s public income will be provided by the BBC from the licence fee.
We have heard slightly different versions from both sides of the Chamber of the history of S4C and how the channel came about. The important thing, however, is that it now has support on both sides of the House. I pay tribute to Gwynfor Evans for his work and his determined stance. He is best known for his threat to go on hunger strike, but he did a lot of work before that. I should particularly mention the intervention of the so-called three wise men: Syr Goronwy Daniel, the former principal of the university of Wales in Aberystwyth; the former Archbishop of Wales, Gwilym Williams; and Cledwyn Hughes, the former leader of the Labour peers in the House of Lords. They intervened to try to prevail on the then Prime Minister to change her mind. So it was that Sir Goronwy Daniel became the first chairman of the new channel, and Owen Edwards was appointed chief executive. It may interest hon. Members to know that S4C first broadcast on
It is not always fully understood that S4C is a commissioning body. In other words it has a finance, contracts and legal department, and a commissioning arm. It has been responsible for commissioning programmes from independent companies across Wales. There was an agreement from the beginning with the BBC to provide 10 hours of programmes per week, but apart from that the output is commissioned by S4C from independent companies. The growth in output from the original 22 hours a week to the current daily coverage, from early in the morning to late at night, has led to a flourishing Welsh language media sector in Wales, with independent companies across Wales employing some 2,000 people. That has been important not only in providing much needed quality jobs in Wales and a range of Welsh media work experience and apprenticeship opportunities for young people; it has given people in Wales pride in the language and an opportunity to show what we can do. Companies such as Tinopolis in my constituency compete internationally.
Of course, there is a knock-on effect into the local economy. More than 100 regular employees come into the centre of Llanelli to work in Tinopolis, not to mention the many guests who come to stay there to work with the company, who increase footfall in the local shops and businesses. That is a real boost to the local economy and I believe that such decentralisation, and the way independent companies have been able to work across Wales, has been important for many communities. It has given them pride that their company takes part in something as big and important as S4C, and has provided job opportunities, and skills opportunities for young people.
Hon. Members from both sides of the House have mentioned funding cuts, and particularly the worrying cuts from the DCMS budget. I hope that the Minister hears that, and I will not go through the figures again. However, the impact of the cut in S4C’s programming
budget, from £85 million to £65 million, is already apparent. Jobs, and opportunities for young people, are already being lost.
As a language teacher, I am particularly aware of the huge importance of S4C in fostering the use of the Welsh language. People choose to use one language or another in different circumstances for complex reasons, but S4C has had a significant role in encouraging and facilitating the use of the Welsh language and in helping people to feel confident, and to find it natural to use it. One problem is that pupils may be attending, or have recently attended, Welsh-medium or bilingual schools, but once they are outside the school the world around them is often dominated by English. That is not just because English is the main language of 80% of the people who live in Wales, nor just because of the influence of our neighbour, England; it is also because English is a worldwide language, used for communication between people of many different tongues, and it has a dominant place in popular culture.
S4C has been vital in helping to foster use of the Welsh language in the past 30 years. One of its great challenges has been to be everything to everyone, from soap opera to highbrow. We all have certain registers of language, but S4C programmes help us to extend them, whether in current affairs and new vocabulary, documentaries, popular comedy series or soap operas. We are exposed to registers that we might not naturally use. We are exposed to different regional accents so that we become less insular and more aware of how people say things in the north or south of Wales. We are better able to communicate as a nation; S4C has done a lot to help with that. Fifty per cent. of Welsh speakers come from homes that are not solely Welsh-speaking, so even people who are not surrounded at home by speakers of the same language have opportunities to continue to hear, use, repeat and be aware of the language.
Subtitles are vital for helping people who are less confident. When I talk about learners I do not mean just people who arrived in Wales and began learning the language yesterday. Most of us in Wales are learners in one way or another. We all feel less confident about some areas of our language than others. We all have the opportunity, through different types of programme, to increase our fluency and understanding.
The range of children’s programmes is fantastic, and the introduction of the new “Ti, fi a Cyw”, to help parents who are not Welsh speakers to learn alongside their children who watch the programme, is important. There are also things such as “Stwnsh”, for older children. It is important, particularly for teenagers, that Welsh TV is not seen just as the language of mam-gu—just the hymn singing and the countryside programmes, which perhaps do not appeal to the younger, teenage audience. It is important for things to be brought up to date. Sport has been crucial to that, because if people want to watch a programme for its own value, they will want to understand it. Tribute has also been paid, of course, to high-quality productions such as “Hedd Wyn” and “Solomon a Gaenor”.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Plaid Cymru)
Funding and high-production drama is important. It can take three or four years to get from concept to production, and that is why certainty of
funding is important, and why the point made by Guto Bebb at the end of his speech is especially pertinent to the debate.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli, Labour)
Indeed; the hon. Gentleman is right about that.
People who live in parts of the United Kingdom outside Wales—some 144,000 of them a week—tune in to S4C. That is immensely important. Students and working people may live in different parts of the UK during their lives, and that helps them to keep up to date, and keep up their Welsh skills.
During the lifetime of S4C there has been unprecedented change in communication technologies. It is almost unbelievable that in 1982 we were still putting film in our cameras, and journalists used to rush to phone boxes to relay breaking news. It was in that year that my constituent Winston Thomas, the owner of Pembrey airport and founder, owner and chief executive officer of Celtic Engineering, was part of a team that developed the first commercial e-mail and numerous other products and services, including fibre-optic systems. We have come a long way from there, but what does the future hold? Gone are the days of the family huddling around one TV set in the living room, and arguing over which of the four channels to watch. People can now access numerous channels, through a wealth of different media devices, and it is a complex thing even to collect current viewing figures, never mind to predict viewers’ future behaviour. That is a challenge for S4C.
As I mentioned, S4C and the BBC have had a long relationship, and we all welcome the announcement made yesterday, setting the agreement between them on a firm footing. Of particular importance in that agreement is the affirmation that
“S4C shall retain its editorial, managerial and operational independence from the BBC at all times during the term of this agreement”.
“S4C shall retain its commercial freedom and S4C’s commercial activities shall continue to operate in accordance with the relevant statutory framework.”
Those are important aspects of the agreement. Not only funding but independence has been set out.
I have a few questions for the Minister. Members on both sides of the Chamber have mentioned the importance of funding, and £7 million per year of S4C’s funding will continue to come from the DCMS budget; but that sum is guaranteed only until 2015. Continued funding from DCMS is vital to the future of S4C. If it were not forthcoming it would equate to total real-terms funding cuts of 42%. Under section 31 of the Public Bodies Act 2011, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport must ensure sufficient funding for S4C to provide its public service. What will happen about funding post-2015? How does the Department propose to make the evaluation of the public service provided by S4C? What criteria will the Department use to work out what constitutes sufficient funding for that public service?
As the Minister will appreciate, and as mentioned by Jonathan Edwards, S4C, as a commissioning body, needs to plan well in advance, and it is keen to engage with officials as soon as possible to discuss the criteria. Will he confirm that his officials will engage with
S4C on the issue? When will the meetings begin? I can understand why the Minister will say that he cannot commit beyond the period of the comprehensive spending review. Indeed we on the Opposition Benches certainly hope for a change in Government in 2015. However, as he and I both know, there is homework to be done on this. Whoever is in Government, the officials in the DCMS will continue, and the matter cannot be left to drift. Will the Minister confirm when he will engage with S4C on what constitutes sufficient funding for its public service commitment?
Alan Meale (Mansfield, Labour)
Minister, you have 13 minutes for your speech, which is two minutes short of what we thought, but equal to that of the shadow Minister. The reason you have 13 minutes is that we need two minutes for Mr Cairns to sum up.
Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Business, Innovation and Skills; Wantage, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Although I regret that my time has been reduced, I recognise that many other hon. Members in this Chamber have also had their time constrained and have been restrained from waxing as fully as they could have done about the successes of S4C, so I take my time constraint in good part.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Alun Cairns on securing this important debate to celebrate 30 years of S4C. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on their contributions. There were contributions, too, from the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for Aberavon (Dr Francis), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Arfon (Hywel Williams), and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). It has been, for the most part, a good natured debate, because all hon. Members came here with a common purpose in mind: to celebrate the achievements of S4C over 30 years. They should have had a full hour and a half, but were interrupted by Divisions. None the less, many hon. Members were able to put on the record their association with S4C and to fill in some of the important history that led to the creation of the world’s only Welsh language channel. The other matter that united all hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon was a commitment to secure the future of S4C.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan is a staunch supporter of S4C and has many times made sure that the important issues facing the channel have been brought to my attention and to the attention of the House. As I said earlier, there is no doubt that S4C makes a tremendous contribution to the cultural and economic life of Wales. This 30-year birthday is a key milestone not just for S4C but for the broadcasting sector as a whole. The length of service has been due not in small part to the relentless dedication of its staff whom I thank on behalf of the Government and of the whole House. In fact, it is good to see what I suspect is most of the senior management of S4C in the Public Gallery today.
Let me reiterate some of the achievements of S4C. It undoubtedly provides an invaluable service to the people of Wales, being the only Welsh language public service
broadcaster. It is also part of the United Kingdom’s public service broadcasting system and we as the Government continue to recognise the utmost importance of its statutory duty to provide a high-quality television programme service.
The total hours of programmes transmitted by S4C during 2011 amounted to 6,410. The Government are fully committed to the Welsh language and to providing Government services in the Welsh language where there is demand for them. It is particularly important for its Welsh-language mission that S4C offers comprehensive services for children, including for young children and teenagers. The innovative children’s programming that S4C has developed, such as the highly successful nursery programme, Cyw, is helping the next generation of language speakers. It was certainly heartening to hear hon. Members talk about the role that S4C has played not only in their own Welsh language education but in that of their children.
It is also important to highlight the wider contribution S4C has made to the creative industries in Wales, which is well known for having a forward-looking digital media agenda and for producing high-quality programmes.
S4C’s commissions have received many national and international plaudits, including winning last year a very impressive 13 BAFTA Cymru awards and a silver prize in the best sports promotion category of the Eurovision TV summit in Copenhagen.
As well as sustaining and promoting the Welsh language and supporting high-quality public service programming, the channel provides a focal point for the celebration of Welsh national events. For example, 1.3 million people tuned into S4C’s events coverage, including the National Eisteddfod, the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, and the Royal Welsh agricultural show.
The hon. Member for Arfon asked whether we should consider devolving broadcasting. Unfortunately for him, this Government are committed to maintaining broadcasting as a non-devolved matter. There are good reasons why broadcasting was not devolved in the devolution settlements, and there is no evidence to suggest that devolution of broadcasting policy would benefit licence-fee payers. Essentially, the UK as a whole benefits from pooling the licence fee, advertising revenue and subscription fees that go to fund the excellent broadcasting output across the UK. It allows major investment to be made in a range of programmes that we can all enjoy.
Everyone is well aware of the significant changes that S4C has seen to its funding and management arrangements in the last few years. It has been through a process of reform since the October 2010 spending review, when this Government resolved to reform the whole portfolio of public bodies. I was the Minister when we made those changes. We had a vigorous, but sensible and good natured debate on the matter. Just as this debate has been characterised by a common purpose, I strongly felt then that although our changes were challenging to some people, it was clear that the Welsh broadcasting community and the Welsh community at large were prepared to unite behind a solution. As is well known, that solution is that from April 2013, under the Public Bodies Act 2011, the BBC will become S4C’s majority funder, using licence fee revenue and working in partnership to provide the best possible service to the Welsh people,
both in terms of quality and value for money. That decision was taken to secure S4C’s future while delivering a better service through a partnership with the BBC.
It is of course inevitable that the new arrangement between the BBC and S4C will bring a number of challenges as it involves major changes for both organisations. However, the arrangements will bring a wide range of benefits, including protecting the editorial and managerial independence of S4C, while safeguarding appropriate accountability to the BBC Trust for licence fee funding spent by the service.
To facilitate the new funding arrangements, the BBC and S4C are entering into a governance partnership, and, as the hon. Member for Llanelli said, that was published yesterday. This will ensure that S4C remains a unique entity and retains its independence.
Following the announcement in October 2011 that the BBC and S4C had reached an agreement in principle on the future funding, governance and accountability of S4C, a lot of work was done and a public consultation undertaken to formulate an operating agreement, leading to the announcement yesterday that that had been ratified.
Having thanked all staff at S4C for their hard work over the last two years, I should like also to thank those in S4C and BBC who worked hard to make the changes happen. I thank the chairman of the S4C Authority, Huw Jones, the current chief executive, Ian Jones, and his predecessor, Arwel Ellis Owen, as well as the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, and his staff.
The Government have repeatedly emphasised their commitment to a strong and independent Welsh language TV service. We are convinced that the agreement between S4C and the BBC over the future and funding of S4C until 2017 provides the stability and certainty the broadcaster needs to go from strength to strength. I say to those who are concerned about the funding arrangements for S4C that, rather like the BBC, it is in a very good position in that it has certainty of funding going forward. The package of money may not be as generous as it has been in the past, but it is certainly still a very generous sum indeed.
We will definitely engage with S4C in the future. We need to engage with S4C on its digital strategy. I know that it is looking at plans regarding how it wants to change its digital commissioning, and we will assist it with that. We will also work with it in looking at its future funding requirements. Of course, our door is always open.
To begin with, I thought that the hon. Member for Llanelli was implying that there would be a Conservative majority after the next election, but she quickly corrected herself to point out that perhaps her party might win. However, I return to the main point, that we are all united in wanting to secure the future for S4C.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan, who secured this debate, was quite right to say that he did not want to tie my hands, because I cannot tie the hands of a future Government. However, I will say—in fact, I will repeat—that we want S4C to be adequately funded, we want to secure its future, it is a fantastic channel and this debate has shown that it remains enormously popular with the people of Wales.
I am not one to make confident or sure predictions, but perhaps as I end my remarks today I might predict that my successor and the successor to my hon. Friend might be celebrating S4C’s 50th anniversary, 75th anniversary and perhaps even its 100th anniversary in this place in years to come.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan, Conservative)
Thank you, Sir Alan, for calling me to speak again. I am grateful for the opportunity to close this debate, and I am also grateful to the Members who have contributed to it: the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Aberavon (Dr Francis), and my hon. Friend Guto Bebb, who focused on the importance that S4C has attached to the Welsh language; Mr Williams, who focused on the agreement between the BBC and S4C, which was signed just yesterday; my hon. Friend Glyn Davies and Nia Griffith, who, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, highlighted the funding issues; and Paul Flynn, who talked about the history of S4C, but I think that he almost forgot to mention that it was a Conservative Government that ultimately set it up. Hywel Williams called for devolution of S4C, which is an issue I will return to in a moment, and Nia Griffith covered many of the points that I have already mentioned, and more, in this interesting and constructive debate.
The Minister responded by reassuring the House that there are no plans to devolve S4C and broadcasting. I am grateful for that reassurance, and I think that that feeling is also reflected among the Opposition Members who have spoken. Those who call for the devolution of S4C need to remember that there have certainly been squeezes in budgets in Cardiff Bay. I certainly take more comfort from the security of funding from the UK Government than I do from the funding from the Welsh Government. I just point to the Arts Council of Wales, and the questions and controversy about it in Wales over time, and some of the advocates for devolution might need to look back at recent history.
The funding challenges will always remain; I think that that is a healthy tension. Perhaps in the past, there has not been the debate and discussion about the funding challenges, when there was an automatic RPI increase. It is important that we maintain the dialogue, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Wales Office Minister—it is a great delight to see the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend Stephen Crabb here supporting the debate—will recognise the feeling among all parties represented in Westminster Hall today that the future funding of S4C is important, needs to remain in focus and will not be forgotten.
Thank you, Sir Alan, for chairing the debate.
Alan Meale (Mansfield, Labour)
Thank you very much, Mr Cairns. That concludes the debate. Congratulations to S4C on its anniversary, and to all Members who have participated in this debate, especially Mr Cairns, who secured it.