Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 8:30 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I am very pleased to speak in support of Amendment 229, to which I have added my name, which aims to secure the future and sustainability of original TV children’s programmes. I pay tribute to the campaign Save Kids’ Content for its diligence in championing this issue over a long period. I am sure it will continue to do so. I also pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who has been a great figurehead for this campaign. As the noble Baroness and others have said, it is incredibly frustrating that the quantity and quality of children’s programmes have suffered such a rapid decline over the last 15 years. It feels as though it is the result of policy neglect rather than a deliberate plan to let the provision deteriorate, but whatever the reason, the outcome is still the same. As we have heard, there has been a reduction in spending of more than 50% on children’s programmes, and a drop of 93% by commercial public service broadcasters. As the noble Baroness said, the heroic exception is the BBC, whose investment in CBBC and CBeebies has provided a crucial creative flow for children’s entertainment. But it cannot be right that the responsibility in the longer term remains on the BBC’s shoulders. Ofcom itself recognised in its 2005 review of public service broadcasting that there is an issue:

“In children’s content, there is very limited provision of non-animation programming beyond the BBC”,

and went on to say that this represented a substantial risk to Parliament’s objective of strengthening public service broadcasting to this group. I would argue that we have a responsibility as Parliament to address this shortcoming.

We should all care about what programmes are available for children to watch. They have just as much right as adults to expect high-quality entertainment and the knowledge that will enrich and inspire their lives. In a sense, what people watch as children develops the habits and interests they will have as they move on to programmes and entertainment for teenagers and adults. Our great expectation that public service broadcasters will provide very good quality programming for adults is wasted if we do not provide for the next generation as well, so that it can recognise it and create that demand for it. Children also have as much right to see UK-made content.

We all squirm when we see reality TV programmes in which children have been somehow dumped in front of an endless diet of American cartoons, but we are complicit in making that a reality. It does not need to be like this and our amendment is a practical and balanced approach to reversing the decline. It would introduce powers for Ofcom to set quotas for broadcasting original children’s programmes as a condition of a PSB licence, and it would require PSBs to report to Ofcom annually on how they are meeting those targets.

As has been said, inherent in the proposals is flexibility for Ofcom and the PSBs to agree how the targets can best be met. This would allow each PSB to take a separate approach to delivering the expanded children’s programme output, including access to the contestable fund. I agree with my noble friend Lord Gordon that the money from local TV could be put to much better use by making quality children’s programmes, so perhaps that is one of the factors that could be put in the mix.

Only an initiative on this scale will reverse the decline. We have in the UK the programme makers with the skills and the creativity to produce programmes and build an expanded children’s TV offer. Moreover, the demand is there because each new generation brings with it its own demands, so I do not agree with my noble friend that people pass through and that is the end of the story. New generations come forward and we want them to be able to recognise what quality programming really is, and we will do that only if we reach out to them when they are children.

It was never the intention of Parliament to let children’s TV fall into such disrepair, and this is our chance to do something about it. I hope the Minister will listen to the strong case that has been put forward and that he will see the proportionality of our proposals. I hope also that he will feel able to support the amendment and to work with us to make the changes we are proposing a reality.