Welsh Day Debate 2009

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I apologise to the House, as I will have to leave almost straight after I sit down; I have to go to Cardiff to join battle with the shadow Welsh Secretary on “Question Time” tonight. I am sorry that I will not be here for the winding-up speeches.

I was grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded positively to my request that he look into the South Wales police funding crisis. I suggest, however, that the problem lies more at the Welsh than the Westminster end in respect of the meeting that he might be attending. I hope that those who made the decision will reverse it in Wales.

Another policy area for which decision making remains at Westminster is broadcasting. The House should give proper attention to the impact on audiences in Wales of the decisions on the future of public service broadcasting that Ministers must take in the coming months. There is room for considerable concern, and I am grateful that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) reported, the Welsh Affairs Committee will look into the matter.

ITV said publicly that the cost of its public service obligations will exceed the benefits of being a public service broadcaster earlier in Wales than in Scotland or Northern Ireland—in other words, the situation is more serious in Wales. In January this year, ITV Wales reduced its news output to four hours a week, and its general programming for Wales to a mere 90 minutes a week. Only a few years ago, its general programming amounted to nearly seven hours a week. There is no certainty that even that 90 minutes—that hour and a half—will last more than a year or two; we could go from seven hours a week to nothing in a few years.

I also understand that BBC Wales is having to find savings of £3 million a year for the next five years. That is bound to restrict the ambition and range of what it makes for Welsh viewers and includes, of course, the ending of BBC2W. Taken together, this represents a shocking reduction in service for Welsh viewers. The Assembly’s broadcasting advisory group calculates that between 2006 and 2013 the annual value of English language programmes made for Wales will have reduced by more than £20 million. There is a great danger that this will become permanent. That prospect raises economic and cultural issues for us in Wales, as well as questions about the role of television in our democracy.

There are some welcome conclusions in Ofcom’s final report on its public service broadcasting review, as there are in Lord Carter’s interim report, “Digital Britain”. I particularly welcome the support for the continuation of S4C, the recognition that we must retain a strong and viable competitor for the BBC in Welsh news, and Lord Carter’s suggestion that we should plan for a digital universal service commitment by 2012. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who also has a brief for digital inclusion, is considering that issue. However, neither Ofcom nor Lord Carter seems to have given sufficient weight to the issue of general programming made for audiences in the nations. Indeed, Lord Carter’s report does not address the issue at all, concentrating solely on the provision of news and production quotas for the UK networks. Ofcom recounts the proposals made by various bodies in the nations, including the Welsh Assembly Government and its broadcasting advisory group, but makes no firm recommendation.

Since 1982, an honourable provision has been made for the Welsh-speaking audience through S4C, which has provided a wide range of programmes, and successive Governments have given this greater care and attention. We must now show equal care and attention for programme services for the majority non-Welsh-speaking audience in Wales. Most Welsh viewers—indeed, 80 per cent.—speak English rather than Welsh.

Unless something is done, the BBC could soon be the only provider of general programmes in English for Wales; and even that is on a downward curve. Assuming the survival of Welsh news on ITV, in future English language programmes made specifically for the audience in Wales will be totally dominated by news and sport, leaving only 10 per cent. of the output for drama, music, arts, factual, and light entertainment programmes. By comparison, S4C’s service devotes about 40 per cent. of its output to news, current affairs and sport, and 60 per cent.—10 times the amount of English language provision on the BBC and elsewhere—to other programmes. It is important that we share the view conveyed to Ofcom by the Welsh Assembly Government that “this is not a defensible proposition for a developed national community that brings to the table the sort of cultural legacy that Wales commands”.

One of the successes of devolution is that it has given a greater focus to cultural policy. The fact that our actors and singers, poets and artists are getting unprecedented attention is of huge value to Wales as a whole. We have all cheered at the success of “Dr. Who” and “Torchwood”, Michael Sheen and, of course, Duffy, who received those marvellous Brit awards last week. In television, we must not allow the soil in which many of these creative talents are grown to be carted away and dumped. “Coronation Street” is important to us all, but especially to the people of the north of England; the same can be said of “EastEnders” for the people of London. They are both a permanent presence in people’s lives. Yet I gather that last year there were only four hours of television drama in English made specifically for the audience in Wales by BBC Wales—including, of course, the excellent “Coal House”. Drama has long disappeared entirely from ITV Wales’s service. The same sad picture could be painted in comedy and light entertainment.

As regards funding, there are options—I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will look into this—that might solve the problem without further impinging on the public purse: for example, use of the proceeds from the sale of spectrum following the switch-off of analogue transmission, or use of the part of the licence fee that is dedicated to the digital switchover campaign, which will end in Wales at the end of this year.

The audience in Wales deserves better than this very sharp decline in general English-language programming provision, and I hope that whatever decisions are made in the current months, the restoration and development of a fully adequate English language programme service for Wales will get a high priority. I fully support the move towards the development of high-speed broadband services, but the fact is that traditional television will be a major factor in people’s lives for some years to come, and probably for ever in many respects. People in Wales deserve a full reflection of their lives on television in English as well as in Welsh.