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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given notice of this point of order to you and to the hon. Gentleman concerned.

May I ask you to investigate the conduct of the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who has, perhaps inadvertently, misled the House? During last Tuesday's debate I raised with him allegations that the local Plaid Cymru party in my constituency had been receiving donations in exchange for local bus contracts. The hon. Gentleman dismissed the suggestion by saying, at column 157, that all those allegations had been immediately withdrawn. That is not in fact the case, as the hon. Gentleman must have known at the time. Both Councillor Bevan, who originally made the allegations, and the district auditor are now pursuing the matter with some seriousness.

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are daily seeing on our television screens the horrible massacres that are occurring in the middle east. Civilians in the occupied territories are being attacked by tanks and helicopter gunships and bombed by planes. It is not an equal struggle, yet there has been an almost deafening silence from our Government, apart from responses to one or two questions that they had to answer this afternoon.

Yesterday the Prime Minister met Vice-President Cheney, who could and should be doing something to resolve the horrendous massacre that is occurring in the middle east. Nobody condemns suicide bombers more than me, but this is not an equal struggle. These are people with home-made weapons; civilians who are living under occupation and fighting a first-world army. Have the Government said whether we will get a statement on what is happening in the middle east?

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair, but the hon. Lady has put her concerns on the record.

12 Mar 2002 : Column 758

Broadcasting Act 1990 (Amendment)

3.33 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move,

The importance and urgency of the need to relax the very restrictive rules that govern media ownership is widely recognised. Throughout the industry, across Parliament and among consumers there is a growing understanding that the changes driven by new technology, which are rapidly eroding old distinctions between television, computers and telephones, and increasing the array of information, services and entertainment available to people at home, at work and on the move, must be reflected in a new and much less onerous regulatory structure.

Historically, the media industry has been subject to more ownership controls than other industries. In the past, those restrictions were justified, by Governments of both parties, in the name of consumer protection because of the very limited choice available to viewers, listeners and readers, but today technology has removed those limits on choice. Millions of households have access to hundreds of television channels, compared with just three 20 years ago.

The Government recognised the need for change in their White Paper "A New Future for Communications", and again in last year's consultation on media ownership rules. In particular, they said that they are ready to remove the statutory obstacle that prevents channel 3—ITV—from being owned by a single company. Ministers have said that but they have not done it, and it does not seem likely that they will do so until the communications Bill goes through Parliament. Given that the publication date of the draft communications Bill keeps being put back, there must now be serious doubt about when all that will happen.

The earliest credible date for the completion of that legislation is the summer of 2003. Events in the industry mean that it is unlikely to wait that long. Even though the recent merger talks between Granada and Carlton broke down, pressures in the industry remain intense and few people believe that the present ownership structures can be sustained. We believe that unnecessary obstacles to change should now be swept aside, so that the industry can decide in what form it wishes to sustain itself. A heathy ITV alternative is needed to compete alongside BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky and so on.

I am attracted by the concept of a single ITV company, but I recognise that there are other options. Although my Bill would open the way for ITV to be owned by a single company, I must stress that it would not alter the requirements for regional or independent production. Those issues are separate from ownership. Of course, I stress that, although the Bill would remove the legislative obstacle to a single ITV company, any proposal would still have to pass the competition authorities in the usual way, and they, no doubt, would wish to examine the share of television advertising revenue that a merged company could command.

I must also stress that the measures in the Bill are only the first of a series of changes to media and cross-media ownership rules that I shall be recommending. We start

12 Mar 2002 : Column 759

from the assumption that, as far as possible, media ownership should be regulated by the same competition laws that apply to other industries. I do not believe that, in general, a special regime is needed any longer.

The competition authorities can have regard to market share issues when considering whether to allow mergers and takeovers. For the most part, that should be quite sufficient, especially as they can consider any market, whether regional or local, as well as national. Of course, I recognise that definitions of market share in the media world are much more complex than those that involve dishwasher powder or hair spray. Following this Bill, I shall introduce further Bills.

Let me to turn to the crucial distinction between regulation of ownership and that of content. Although ownership rules can broadly be left to competition authorities, content is another matter altogether. Although I firmly believe that a lighter touch is needed to deal with the distinction between harm, which needs to be regulated, and offence, which can be regulated by using the off button, I accept entirely that the media industry is unique and that the content of television and radio programmes must continue to be scrutinised. The right way to do that is not through ownership controls, but through licensing procedures, and the authorities must continue to monitor content through their codes and their duty to preserve diversity and choice for consumers. The powers exercised by the Independent Television Commission—for example, in relation to taste and decency or to the time at which channel 3 carries news bulletins—will remain unaltered. In the event of extreme and repeated breaches of any licensing conditions or of the programme code, the ITC would still be able to revoke licences in those extreme circumstances.

The Bill is timely. It removes a barrier that few people believe is still justified, having been rendered unnecessary and out of date by technological progress. It implements a policy to which Ministers say they are committed. Britain has many natural advantages in the media industry—a tradition of high-quality public service broadcasting, a good record of innovation and a large pool of creative and entrepreneurial talent.

I want the emerging global players in an industry that will be important in the 21st century to include businesses in which Britain's influence is prominent. I want to make it easy for British companies to take advantage of the enormous opportunities that exist. Helping them to do so will promote diversity, choice and quality. More freedom for broadcasting companies leads to a better product for consumers. Reaching all those desirable goals should not be obstructed by either ministerial sloth or bureaucratic regulation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Yeo, Mr. Whittingdale, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Mr. Greenway, Mr. Hammond, Miss McIntosh and Mr. Laurence Robertson.

Broadcasting Act 1990 (Amendment)

Mr. Yeo accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Broadcasting Act 1990 in respect of restrictions on the holding of licences: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 April, and to be printed [Bill 110].

12 Mar 2002 : Column 760

Opposition Day

[11th Allotted Day]

London and the South-East

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.42 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I beg to move,

Anyone expecting a yah-boo debate in which Conservative Members try to blame the ills of London on the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats will be disappointed.

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