Tory MPs risk sack over Bill changes

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The Independent Online
Two Tory MPs yesterday risked their careers as ministerial aides by forcing a change by the Government to the Broadcasting Bill to open broadcasting to more free-market competition.

Peter Atkinson and John Whittingdale forced the concessions from Iain Sproat, a minister for National Heritage.

Mr Whittingdale is the parliamentary private secretary to Eric Forth, an Education minister, and Mr Atkinson is the PPS to Jeremy Hanley, a foreign minister.

They will be pressing for more far-reaching amendments next Tuesday, to remove the limit on cross-media ownership which is at the heart of the Bill, and the Government clearly fears it could lose on the committee. They would face the sack if they voted against the Government.

Labour's support for the move by the two Tory MPs underlined the extent to which Labour is following a free-market approach to broadcasting, which will be reinforced next week.

Mr Sproat agreed during the committee stage to drop from the Bill a measure which would have prevented broadcasting companies with headquarters overseas from owning digital channels in Britain. He announced he would come back with an amendment to the report stage of the legislation.

Defending the move, Mr Whittingdale, a former aide to Baroness Thatcher said: "This was silly. If digital television is working, we should welcome anyone who is prepared to make it work. To rule out potential programmers, not just BSkyB but also Walt Disney and Turner who are broadcasting on satellite, is a nonsense."

Roger Gale, another Tory backbencher, forced a vote, opposing the offer of a compromise by Mr Sproat.

Lewis Moonie, a Labour Shadow minister, urged Labour MPs on the committee to vote with the two Conservative MPs, but they abstained.

Mr Whittingdale said: "It was like seeing a First World War general tell his troops to go over the top. None of them were prepared to follow."

However, the Labour MPs appear determined to back up the amendments being proposed by the two Conservative MPs next week.

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