In recent months I have received many representations in various forms about the future of broadcasting. I announced our radio proposals on Tuesday and will within the next few months be publishing further proposals for broadcasting legislation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with regard to television, the British public get a pretty raw deal from the current BBC-ITV duopoly? Is he aware that on many occasions second-rate sports programmes are broadcast simultaneously on three of the four channels, often with two channels covering the same event? Is there not an overwhelming argument for the setting up of a fifth television channel and for giving the go-ahead for short-range local television stations?
We are looking at a whole range of matters relating to television. Unfortunately, they must be considered together because they relate to each other, and that is why this matter is taking some time. They include the point referred to by my hon. Friend and the possibility of a Channel 5, the future organisation of Channel 4, how ITV contracts should be let in future, the possibility of the multipoint video distribution system and the use of night hours. There is a big agenda.
In his written answer on 19 January the Home Secretary said that community radio should be subject to light restriction. Is it still the Government's intention to prevent those providing community radio services from expressing views on matters of political or industrial controversy? If, for example, there was a proposal in a particular community for the dumping of nuclear waste, would that not be precisely the kind of issue on which a community radio station should be entitled to pronounce?
The hon. and learned Gentleman should consider paragraph 7.7 of the Green Paper. Nothing in the statement that I made on Tuesday alters that. We believe that stations, including local stations, should ensure that any news, given in whatever form, is presented with accuracy and impartiality. There are a number of provisions to avoid allowing the views and opinions of particular persons to predominate. If the hon. and learned Gentleman considers paragraph 7.7 of the Green Paper, he will find the answer that he is seeking.
Yes, indeed, if the proposals for such a station meet the criteria—and I see no reason why they should not. Some of the people who first interested me in the idea of community radio wanted to do exactly that.
Would it not be wise, before the Government legislate, following their statement of a couple of days ago in a written answer, to give the House a chance to comment on the proposals?
What representations has my right hon. Friend received about the 9 o'clock rule for television? Many of us are concerned about programmes that appear on television well before 9 o'clock, the content of which is unsuitable for children.
Occasionally, so am I, and I have twice—most recently just before Christmas — called in the chairmen of the BBC and the IBA to express my continuing anxiety about violence on television. I would much rather that they dealt with the matter in accordance with the guidelines. However, as my hon. Friend knows, we shall soon be setting up the new broadcasting standards council. That is the sort of issue with which I expect it will concern itself.
Was it not a grave discourtesy to the House to announce these major changes in broadcasting by way of a parliamentary question and an answer so long that it amounted to a statement? Why did the Home Secretary not come here and allow the House to examine the matter in further detail? When will we have that opportunity? Will the auctioning off of these three national independent channels allow people from abroad to bid for them?
There was a discourtesy to the House in that when the answer was available it was about an hour late, and I apologise for that. There was a mishap with regard to the copy sent to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), and he and I have been in correspondence about that. I do not think that it was out of place to carry the discussion forward in a written statement, as what I said followed closely the Green Paper that was published some time ago and as the House will have substantial opportunities to go over the matter in detail when legislation is introduced.
How many of the 500 representations that the Home Secretary received about the Green Paper recommended that he should auction off the licences to the highest bidder? Does he understand that to sell off something as powerful and culturally important as a radio licence is completely irresponsible and careless, and that it did not command even the support of many of the companies and individuals who were likely to make applications for licences?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has thought the matter through. We are talking about how one allocates three national commercial channels. One can either have a body that sits down and arbitrates —maybe in an unsatisfactory or concealed way—or have what we propose, which is a standard of variety. Any applicant will have to pass a test of variety before a tender is accepted. Once that hurdle is surmounted—the need to provide variety on each national channel—it can be done by tender so that the Exchequer and the taxpayer can benefit to a certain extent from the use of this limited national resource.
Negotiation is going on in the Council of Europe at Strasbourg with the aim of producing, if possible, a convention treaty that will bind the 21 members and provide for some enforcement machinery. Apart from that, we are considering whether other additional methods might be necessary. It is one of the most difficult aspects of this problem. I hope that if the Council of Europe can reach agreement the necessary legislation will be put before the House before too long.
First, may I give the Home Secretary another opportunity to apologise to the House for his discourtesy in making a statement about a major change in broadcasting policy by way of a written answer on Tuesday, instead of coming here so that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members could ask him questions?
Secondly, how does he intend to ensure quality and balance in the stations whose licences are to be flogged off to the highest bidder, and when does he expect to make an announcement about the frequencies that the BBC will lose under his proposals, because the BBC needs time to adjust?
I think that I have already covered the first point and do not want to repeat myself. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the reference in the Green Paper to content and to what I would call the "consumer protection" part of the proposals and the standards to be required by the new radio authority, he will see that they are set out at some length. The House will want to debate that in detail when the legislation is considered in Committee.
We are discussing with the BBC which two frequencies we propose to take from it to facilitate the three new national commercial channels. On the whole, the BBC is content with the position because it knows where it is within the limits of the money and frequencies that it has and which are assured to it, so it can get on and organise itself as it thinks fit, not as I think fit.