HC Deb 09 June 1976 vol 912 cc1567-632

10.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

I beg to move. That the Supplemental Licence and Agreement, dated 7th April 1976, between Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department and the British Broadcasting Corporation, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th April, he approved.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

I thank the Minister for giving way so soon. I am sure that after last night's disagreeable affairs, when the Government had to admit that they had made virtually no progress on the Education Bill, they would not wish to risk the same experience on the Industry (Amendment) Bill. However, it would be unfortunate if the Government were to seek to push through, at such short notice, this important broadcasting measure at this hour of the night.

A little personal prejudice enters into this discussion. Some of the BBC's reporting of last night's incidents was so unrelated to what happened that not everybody in the House is particularly friendly to the BBC at the present moment. Nor, I am bound to say, are we very satisfied by the responses from the BBC to the complaints that have been made. I ask the hon. Gentleman— [Interritption.]—to tell—

Mr. Speaker

Order. My attention was distracted when the right hon. Gentleman got up. I understood that the Minister had given way.

Mr. Peyton

What I was asking the hon. Gentleman was whether it is the intention of the Government to bring this business to a conclusion tonight, at whatever hour, or whether they intend that we should have a first taste of it tonight and perhaps carry on with it on another occasion.

Mr. John

I wondered what frivolous purpose had brought the right hon. Member into the Chamber. I can tell that he is down to his usual standard. This is a debate serious in purpose and necessary for the corporation. If our personal quirks and irritations with any part of the media were to be carried over into a lasting vendetta, I am afraid that the future of the media would be extremely bleak.

The purpose of this Supplemental Licence and Agreement is to extend the life of the BBC's current Licence and Agreement, which is due to expire on 31st July 1976, for a further three years to 31st July 1979. Hon. Members who have followed the matter will know that the Agreement, as its name implies, is in part a licence which is granted by my right hon. Friend in exercise of his powers under the Wireless Telegraphy Act and in part an agreement between himself and the corporation which contains clauses about the use of broadcasting.

There are clauses which lay certain well-defined duties upon the BBC and clauses which reserve certain powers to my right hon. Friend. The Agreement also contains provisions relating to overseas broadcasts and creating a public charge over a period of a further three years. It is because of that, and because of the application of Standing Orders Nos. 96 and 97, that this motion comes before the House.

We are proposing to make no changes of substance to the Licence and Agreement except to extend its duration. As the House will know, the whole area of broadcasting is being reviewed by Lord Annan's committee on the future of broadcasting. That committee is expected to report early next year. When announcing, on 10th April 1974, that Lord Annan had accepted the invitation to serve as chairman of the committee, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary indicated that he proposed, subject to the agreement of the House, to extend the duration of the instruments of both the BBC and the IBA until July 1979.

The House may recollect that the life of the Independent Broadcasting Authority was extended from 31st July 1976 to 31st July 1979 by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (No. 2) Act 1974. The motion before the House is intended to make similar provision for the BBC. At the same time, the BBC's current Charter is also due to expire on 31st July 1976 and the draft of the Suplemental Royal Charter for the continuance until 31st July 1979 for which my right hon. Friend proposes to apply has been laid as a matter of courtesy before the House. The draft Supplemental Charter does not need the approval of the House.

The reason for extending these governing instruments for a further period of three years is to allow sufficient time for the Annan Committee to undertake what all hon. Members will agree is a formidable task. It is expected to report early next year. The Government will then consider the committee's findings, bring their proposals before Parliament and undertake then to amend, as appropriate, the instruments governing the future arrangements for broadcasting. The motion before the House is, therefore, a holding operation.

I recognise that there are many hon. Members—of whom the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) is the most recent—who have strongly-held views about various aspects of broadcasting policy. The House may consider it more appropriate to reserve those points for the substantive debate which will take place on a future occasion when the Annan Committee has reported.

The purpose of tonight's motion is purely to seek the approval of the House to the continuance of the Licence and Agreement for a further three-year period. There will be no change of substance except a change in the annual renewal fee payable by the BBC on or before 30th July this year and in the two succeeding years. This provides for an increase in fee which reflects the Government's policy that the cost of regulatory services should be borne directly by those who benefit as a result of the regulatory processes and not indirectly by the taxpayer. The licence renewal fee will, in effect, be a charge against the BBC's income from television, and it will, as I have said, affect directly those who benefit from the service and be charged accordingly.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Does it not seem rather odd that we should be taking money away from the BBC when it is clearly apparent that the BBC needs to increase its licence fee to increase its revenue? Therefore, will the Minister bear this in mind and pass it on to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer before a decision is made on licensing fees, because the BBC needs more money at present?

Mr. John

Clearly, when the negotiations for the new licence fee take place a number of matters will be borne in mind. One of the most important of these is the amount of revenue to the BBC and the effect that revenue has upon the quality and quantity of the services it is able to provide.

I invite the approval of the House for this holding measure, which is a three-year extension. I hope that it will commend itself to the House while we are waiting for the Annan Committee to report on broadcasting services generally.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I have no intention of making an unfriendly speech this evening, but I must express the regret of my right hon. and hon. Friends about the fact that the Government have seen fit to enter into this business at this late hour. If one studies the Order Paper as it was originally, one can appreciate that the Government were quite prepared to try to get this measure agreed at a very late hour indeed. Perhaps they even thought that they would get it "on the nod" in the small hours. They have now brought it forward a little. However, it is exempted business. We could have expected to have a whole day on this subject to do it proper justice.

The Minister has set this request to the House in its proper context. I shall say something about that shortly. He said that the big debate on the future of broadcasting, including the BBC, will take place when we debate the findings of the Annan Committee. He might reflect on the fact that a couple of days may be required for that. I know what his reply would be if he even got as far as the Dispatch Box. It would be that it was not his affair and that the matter would be for the Leader of the House. If we are to be denied a proper opportunity today, certainly the findings of the Annan Committee will require a good deal of examination.

I also put it to the Minister—he did not make this clear—that following Annan we would expect to get legislation of two kinds. If it affected the IBA, we should have to have a Bill and wide opportunity for discussion at the various stages of the Bill and the possibility of amending it. However, in the case of the BBC, if the BBC were to continue following the findings of Annan we should be faced with another procedure such as that before us tonight. We should have the choice of saying "Yea" or "Nay"—and, one would hope, not at such a late hour. I hope that that puts that matter fully in perspective.

It is logical that we should be asked to do what we are doing tonight because of what we have already done for ITV and because we believe that Annan will report late in 1976. Incidentally, the Government may be able to tell us a little more about that. When do they expect to receive the Annan Report? If it went over-far into 1977, we could find ourselves in difficulties.

We do not oppose the motion. It is quite right and proper to let the BBC continue. We do not seek to obstruct the renewal that is now asked for. Some of my hon. Friends may have something more to say about that. Perhaps on balance they would be prepared to let the BBC continue for this brief period. Perhaps, as a result of what is said here tonight, some of the criticisms of the BBC, if not actually melting away, will be taken up by the BBC.

Before I came into the Chamber one of my hon. Friends said that there had not been much complaint about the BBC recently, but another hon. Friend said that the Charter comes up for renewal tonight. The BBC is only human. It is a great national institution too. We shall see how we get on.

We have to look at the BBC in its proper context—that is, in the context of the whole of broadcasting. It is, as I have said, a great national institution. Once, in the days of Lord Reith, it was the pillar and prop of the Establishment. Now it seeks to fulfil a somewhat changed role, following Sir Hugh Greene and all that.

Absolutely no democrat would seek to achieve political control of this great institution, but it is financed through the licence by many millions of taxpayers' hard-earned money. Indeed, this is double taxation in a sense, because the licence has to be paid for out of taxed income. When the rare opportunity offers, Parliament should give more than a cursory glance at how this money is being spent.

The Government and the BBC have to negotiate from time to time over the licence fee. BBC revenue is limited by the Government and the service could be curtailed by Government decision. Indeed, the BBC has certainly claimed that what it is now able to achieve is curtailed by the need to provide for inflation—that in fact inflation has resulted in its being able to maintain only a reduced range of facilities following the economies it had to make after the recent licence increase, which was not as much as it wanted. What provision has the BBC been allowed to make for inflation? There must have been some calculations, and the Government must have been privy to them.

Do the Government think that the BBC's estimate of the effects of inflation on its activity is reasonable? Has the BBC made its own estimate of the possible effects of inflation, and does this coincide with the Government's estimate?

Possibly this evening would be the time to take a cool look at BBC finance. I would not seek to cover the whole field, and no doubt a number of my hon. Friends who sit—I hope not too impatiently—behind me will be able to take up these points. Are we getting value for money?

It has been suggested that local radio should be extended under the wing of the BBC. I put it to the Government—no doubt the BBC is listening—that the independent stations have now proved their worth and that there is little case for further public expenditure on local radio.

My hon. Friends would wish to take up the wider field, but one might ask whether the BBC, to use the immortal phrase of one of its chief performers, is "doing a grand job". Judging from the persistent demand for a broadcasting council, not everyone thinks so.

We in Parliament obviously should not attempt to interfere on individual programme content, although we are often urged to do so by our constituents and others. We have had hard things to say about broadcasting coverage of things widely thought not to be in the national interest. Northern Ireland is a case in point. Obviously this is delicate ground, but nevertheless some very serious problems have arisen for broadcasting in that area. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) will echo my sentiment that it has been a difficult matter to give proper coverage—and I use the word "proper" carefully.

In such cases many people believe that a super-watchdog organisation would be helpful, but a broadcasting council would be able to help only ex-post facto—after the events complained of had occurred. The duty to deal with such problems in the BBC lies with the Board of Governors. If that board was more effective, a broadcasting council would be superfluous.

The rôle of the IBA board is different from that of the BBC Board of Governors because the IBA is active in sending for the programme schedules of companies. If it does not like them, it can have them amended. The IBA has an immense power of life and death over programme contractors. People often complain of the BBC's vast bureaucracy which no one can control—not even the stout hearts we hear so much about at the top of this vast pyramid.

I have to say some harsh words about the BBC's so-called complaints commission which I do not think it will mind. I can count on the fingers of my two hands the number of cases with which that commission has dealt. It is a futile piece of window-dressing and the BBC knows that in its heart. I do not suggest that my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) should take the complaint he made earlier to the BBC complaints commission. We are robust, we say things strongly in the House and they are heard without complaints being made to a commission. But I do not believe that my right hon. Friend would get far if he took that complaint formally to the BBC's complaints commission. We believe that it might be necessary to have an independent complaints body for the whole of broadcasting, but we reserve our position.

It is fair to say that not all is entirely satisfactory with the BBC. Lack of edi- torial control is sometimes the subject of complaint. I referred earlier to the vast bureaucracy—and that is no mere cliche when used to describe the BBC.

Who is to take a cool look at the subject? Is it to be Annan? One hopes that that committee will examine this matter. It is a valuable study which should have been completed by now. If Annan is not to look at this, why not? If Annan is not examining the matter, tonight's debate will be one of the few opportunities that we are likely to have publicly to ventilate and discuss the structure of the BBC.

There have been a number of proposals to make radical structural changes, A few years ago I playfully introduced a Private Member's Bill suggesting that the corporation should be split into two competing organisations. I do not go as far as that tonight, but if some radical restructuring resulted in a greater variety and clash of views there could be merit in it.

We in Parliament reflect our constituents' views. All too often we can predict the BBC's view on a particular matter. The BBC is not meant to editorialise, but if it cannot escape editorialising it might seek to have a number of editorial policies, quite separate, and so achieve a more balanced view.

Perhaps I may put in a word for my hon. Friends. Parliament might take a better view if the BBC considered using some of the—here I use a parliamentary catch-phrase—wealth of unused talent on the Back Benches. Perhaps the predictable performers on the television screen would for a while or on occasion give way to others with fresh views.

I conclude with a passage, which follows neatly from what I have just said, dealing with the question of the fourth television channel. Great creative opportunities have been missed here. We do not favour the use of further taxpayers' money for this. We believe that it could be self-supporting, playing a role complementary to the independent channel, just as BBC2 does to BBC1.

There were attractive prospects early in 1974 for such a self-supporting channel. I do not have to remind the House, because it is the subject of nearly every debate we have here, that the present state of the economy does not bode particularly well for an ITV2 at present, but I wonder what work the Government are doing on the question. They would be out of some of their present difficulties concerning finance and an outlet for the arts, upon which we still, in these difficult times, spend a great deal of public money.

Although we wholly approve of such quite considerable arts expenditure. it is difficult to defend it against all the other competing interests. The results of such expenditure can reach the widest possible audience only through the television screen. In one evening, opera at Covent Garden can reach more people through television than can get into the Royal Opera House between now and the end of the century. This is a particular hobby-horse of mine, but it is none the worse for that.

I pay tribute to the BBC for the work it does and the burden it carries in music. It says that in this respect it is in considerable financial difficulties, and there is an element of truth in that. Perhaps if we had not missed certain opportunities a while ago some of the money needed could have come not from taxation but from the fruits of private enterprise.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans (Carmarthen)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government decided in November 1974 that the fourth channel was to be used in Wales as a national channel, which would provide at least 25 hours a week of programmes in the Welsh language, something which is badly needed to support our language and culture? Most regrettably, the Government have not yet seen fit to implement that decision.

Mr. Cooke

That merely illustrates that the Government's policy is in something of a confusion. I must, however, say something helpful to the hon. Gentleman. Although Wales is not the land of my fathers, it is the land of my birth. I have first-hand experience of the frustrations of those who want the Welsh language and those in the West of England who do not. If the Government had taken a grip on this matter, we should not have the situation that constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) can receive programmes in Welsh only and the constituents of hon. Members in South Wales cannot receive Welsh programmes at all, and possibly never will, despite the valuable air space allocated to them.

Although we have criticised the Government for their inactivity, I applaud one piece of masterly inactivity. They have so far ignored some of the wilder proposals in the document "People and the Media". The document is not unknown to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) but I gather he did not write it. I associate the wilder proposals with the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). They do not bear thinking about. They are totally unacceptable.

Enormous political interference could have been brought about by those proposals. The British people and this House are not in the mood for proposals like subsidising unwanted productions—which I might regard as those of minority Leftwing interest, but I leave hon. Members to judge what they might be—with funds taken from more popular programmes.

Some of my hon. Friends may speak about bias in broadcasting. The rôle of the journalist throughout history has been to be questioning and perhaps anti the established order of things. There is nothing wrong with that.

Some recent broadcasts, however—I do not single out any channel—have done a good deal to destroy the image of this country. Everyone knows what I mean. Some of the so-called historical series have not done Britain much good abroad and their factual content could be strongly challenged. The answer is to have a wider choice. People complain that there is no answer to bias in broadcasting.

There is great variety and a clash of views in our national Press. Some Labour Members claim that the Conservative Party has the Daily This and the Daily That, but no newspaper always supports what Conservatives want to do. The British Press is free, and we get the variety and clash of views which makes for democratic discussion.

In broadcasting we started with a monopoly, and we still have a semi-monopolistic situation. The Government have done much to withhold the wider choice which we could and should have had. We shall have waited five years before we get greater variety. We could have had it much earlier. The dud button on television sets is there because the Government have ordained that it shall be there.

One of the BBC's complaints is that it is forced to transmit—not unwillingly, but grudgingly—progammes like "Open University" when it would rather transmit other programmes. Some items could find their way on to a fourth channel. By the time we reach the day of decision, in 1979 or thereabouts, we shall have six channels, not four, to offer. Broadcasting will then come much nearer to what it should be—a well-balanced series of channels of communication like the national Press. Half the criticism and half the strains and stresses attached to monopolistic or semi-monopolistic broadcasting will then fade away. The balance that we all seek can result from the interplay of a wide variety of views freely expressed. Meanwhile, I have no doubt that the BBC will continue to strive for the highest possible standards and the widest possible choice.

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

There are too few opportunities to debate the enormously important subject of the British Broadcasting Corporation. This is, therefore, an extremely important debate. I should like to join my right hon. Friend the Shadow Leader of the House in deploring the fact that the debate comes on at this late hour, towards the end of a long and difficult week.

Whatever comments and criticisms are made, we should remind ourselves that the BBC is the best broadcasting system in the world. We too often take it for granted. It sets standards for broadcasting throughout the world, and the rest of the world envies it and strives to emulate it, especially in programme quality. Unfortunately, it is a British characteristic to sell ourselves short, particularly when we are doing something well, and in the BBC and independent broadcasting we are doing something superbly. That should not, of course, tempt us into complacency. It is in the avoidance of that temptation that the edge of this debate must be found.

Quality control of television programmes is an important matter. The BBC has an extremely high standard of production but occasionally it lapses in its standard of content. In this respect it is worth considering the standards employed by the IBA in its pre-vetting procedures, because they suggest an alternative approach by the BBC. The BBC almost always employs post-facto vetting, and even that is cumbersome and, therefore, ineffective. From directors to managing directors, to director-general, to the governors and back again complaints go, pushed from one to another in a continual buck-passing exercise.

It is a pity that there is not in the BBC someone identified exclusively as the editor responsible for all BBC programmes, in the same way as an editor is identified as responsible on our great national newspapers.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

It would be unfortunate if factual error were to creep into this debate. The director-general is the editor-in-chief of the BBC. As such, he carries that editorial responsibility.

Mr. Rathbone

The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I am about to say. There is no parallel between the BBC, where there is a combined responsibility, and the newspapers, where there is not. The editor of a newspaper is responsible for the content of the newspaper and the manager is responsible for the running of it. Because of the divorce of the two functions in the running of newspapers, there is greater clarity of identification of the sphere of responsibility.

I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) about the three wise men, the Privy Councillors who make up the Programme Complaints Commission, which is an ancillary vetting body. The commission vetted only four complaints during 1974–75, the year covered by the most recent BBC report. That vetting is seriously open to question because of the absence of a requirement for the BBC to broadcast a corrective message, a power which the commission has but has never used.

This lackadaisical approach to vetting has led to sloppiness. It is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Cheese-man episode, when the fraud appeared as a spectacular element of the 9 o'clock news. That was a major boob by the "Beeb". Investigation is necessary—I hope it will be part of the Annan Committee's consideration—into whether there should be a broadcasting council along the lines of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States.

I pass to finance, which is the crux of the debate. The licence increases granted last year—after all the unfortunate brouhaha when the Home Secretary behaved in a most uncharacteristic way—were given on the basis that they would last for at least two years and in the hope that they would last for three years. It is yet another worrying indictment of the Government that the BBC already has to think in terms of asking for an increased licence fee solely to meet inflation since the last licence increase was given.

I realise that the BBC has been administering swingeing cuts, to the tune of £9 million, in its administrative and programme production procedures. However painful that may be to the BBC and the people who work within it, it can be considered to be a healthy belttightening exercise. It is part of the process of losing weight which will, we hope, be reflected in a leaner and more cost-aware organisation.

We must always be wary of a organisation which does not apply the discipline of the profit motive. Over the last year many exorbitant programme payments have been made. We remember the incredible salary increases awarded in April 1974 in an effort to catch up with civil servants. As was suggested when this matter was raised at the beginning of last year in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, I wonder whether there is a risk of Fleet Street-type staffing creeping into the BBC. However, it would be unfortunate if programme quality plummeted, and the licence fee will probably soon have to go up.

When the licence fee is increased, I hope that the Government will give special attention to making the necessary arrangements so that pensioners can con- tinue to pay on a weekly or monthly basis for the increased fee and so this important part of their lives is not put in jeopardy.

I shall comment on some aspects of finance, but we should remind ourselves that the BBC will be helped by the increased sterling earnings which can be brought in by the sale of its programmes abroad when they are paid for in sterling in this country and sold abroad for foreign currency. If the programmes are not sold at bargain basement prices, the BBC will be able to raise prices considerably to the level of prices that might be found in America.

I now raise four specific points on finance. I wonder whether the Annan Committee will be giving an consideration to the BBC's taking on advertising as another source of revenue. I must declare an interest in that I am the director of an advertising agency. That might give rise to some laughter from Labour Members, but that could well be a reason for arguing that the BBC should not take on advertising. If the BBC, especially BBC1, took on advertising, it would increase competition for the existing ITV stations. I believe that that would be for the benefit of advertisers, for the long-term benefit of the independent television stations and certainly for the benefit of the commercial world.

There is one argument to be set against that approach—namely, that the purity of the BBC must be maintained. That, however, is complete fiction. Everyone who has anything to do with programming within the BBC is on the same search for public audience ratings as one finds within the independent television companies. That search would not be affected one jot by the fact that advertising was being carried by the BBC in much the same way as it is now being carried by the ITV companies. I agree that we should have no truck with the nonsense of the people in the media about finance for the BBC or taxation on advertising.

My second point on finance is that I believe the BBC should eschew the temptation to be sucked unnecessarily further into a greater commitment to expanding BBC local radio. It has been led to expect that it should take on the commitment because the Government are unfortunately cutting back from the previous commitment of 27 independent commercial radio stations to the present 19. Of course, we are far removed from the original aim of 60 independent radio stations which was part of the policy and the aim of the Conservative Government.

That is not to say that local BBC stations do not do a good job. I can vouch for the fact that they do a good job as Radio Brighton covers part of my constituency. It has provided an important ancillary or supplementary method of communication between the Member of Parliament and his or her constituents. That was clearly brought out when the broadcasting of the procedures of the House was taking place a year ago. I sincerely hope that we shall be seeing that again.

However, for two reasons, local BBC radio is not as effective as local independent radio. First, it tends to pick up more of a national feed and is, therefore, less local. Secondly, it adopts some of the national outlook by being controlled from London. The most successful of the local independent radio stations—I refer to those in the Clyde and Swansea areas—have absorbed and reflected the local character to a far greater degree than the BBC has shown itself able to do so far. I believe that in radio the BBC should concentrate on its national job and should always look for opportunities for further amalgamations even there.

My next point concerns access. I raise this matter because it is a potentially expensive element in which the BBC has in the past shown considerable interest. I believe that giving access to television is a misuse of the television medium. It is a broadcasting medium in the most essential sense, whereas access is a narrow casting activity. I have doubts about the principle and, particularly at this time of economic stringency, about the practice. If anything, access should be granted in terms of the use of radio. I hope that that will be done through the independent radio stations rather than through the BBC.

The last point on this question concerns external broadcasts. This is the most marvellous service in the world today in terms of worldwide broadcasting, particularly the broadcasting of Western democratic ideas to countries which know too little of them in practice. The service was well reviewed in a recent issue of the BBC lunch-time lecture series. But we must ask ourselves whether, in our sad nationally overdrawn state we can still afford it. This activity needs not only the facilities of the BBC, which are financed from the licence, but a supplemental grant. Therefore, it needs double investigation from the cost standpoint.

I suggest that, if it is considered that the BBC should continue this service, it must be part of weighing the balance between that kind of activity and the activity which is presently indulged in, for instance, in the network of embassies, consular offices and other governmental activities in our dealings with foreign States. If the BBC external service is considered more important than those activities, let it continue. If not, we must put a question mark over its future.

In the long term, let us hope that the Government will at last come to grips with the economic situation, particularly in containing inflation, so that the BBC and everyone else may benefit accordingly and we can re-establish the high quality of broadcasting that we have come to expect.

In the short term, there must be a belttightening priod. That should be made clear to the BBC when extending its contract and existence. The Government should make that clear when passing on what I hope will be the recommendation of this House—that the contract should be extended for the next three years.

11.7 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

I welcome the opportunity of following the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) in this important debate. I do not think it is disadvantage that the debate should take place in the evening after another important debate. We cannot always pick and choose the timetable. I do not think that Opposition Members, unless they wish to be hyprocrites, have anything to complain about regarding how the timetable has been arranged. After all, they have spent hours on other matters. They have put down 90 new clauses on certain Bills which have been debated at great length.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)


Mr. Mendelson

I have just started my speech. I shall give way in due course when I think fit. Hon. Gentlemen who have put down 90 new clauses on certain Bills ought not to complain unreasonably when those who arrange the business of the House provide time, at a fairly reasonable hour, for this important debate. They should be satisfied that time is being provided.

I welcome this important debate. I also welcome the opportunity of following the hon. Member for Lewes, because, in accordance with form, being an honourable Member, he has declared his interest. That gives the House an opportunity of knowing that all his arguments were guided by the purely commercial instincts and principles that he represents. Therefore, I know that there is no value of principle or value of ideals in what he has advanced, because all his arguments are concerned with the motive of making more money for the interests he represents.

Mr. Rathbone

I find that a perfectly deplorable suggestion. The fact that I happen to be in the advertising business gives me an insight into the affairs of broadcasting which may not be available to other hon. Members, particularly hon. Members opposite. It is even more deplorable that the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) should insinuate that interests of any sort affect arguments of principle. I resent that.

Mr. Mendelson

I welcome the hon. Member's resentment. If I had not expected his resentment, I would not have put my point quite so bluntly. I repeat that there is no value in principle in what he has said because his argument is inspired by the greedy, selfish profit motive of the interests he represents. That is my opinion. But that does not interfere with the legitimate opinion which the hon. Member holds by virtue of belonging to an honourable profession. However, the conclusions he has put forward are inspired not by principle but by the same greedy commercial profit motive which inspires his whole position.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

On a point of order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

I think I know what the hon. Gentleman is going to say. I am sure that the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) is not imputing any false or unavowed motives to the hon. Member to whom he was addressing his point.

Mr. Mendelson

I will not in any way withdraw because I made no accusations against anybody. The hon. Member for Lewes has obeyed the rules of the House by declaring his interests, and this proves conclusively to me that his motives are inspired by the interests he represents. The whole history of the House of Commons is the representation of interests. There is nothing dishonourable about it. Dishonour did not occur to me when I made the point and it does not occur to me now.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) is entitled to his opinion, but he must obey the laws of the House. Those laws say that to attribute an improper motive to another hon. Member is out of order. Is not the hon. Gentleman out of order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member specifically said that he did not impute any dishonourable motives to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone).

Mr. Rathbone

I would tend to interpret it as a certain impugning of my honour if I am told that everything I have said is prompted by greed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Penistone should clarify this matter to the House. It is important, and it could be misconstrued.

Mr. Mendelson

The last thing I should want is to be misconstrued. I would rather not continue with my speech, however, than give up this essential part of my analysis. Every argument that the hon. Gentleman advanced was determined by his material interest in the industry which, according to his own statement, he represents in the House.

Mr. Michael Morris

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) does not seek to represent any industry in this House. He has declared that he works, as I do, in the advertising industry. But we are not paid to come here to represent that industry.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In his speech the hon. Member for Lewes made the point clear in his declaration that he works in the advertising industry.

Mr. Mendelson

The hon. Member for Lewes is particularly concerned with the value of the service being provided by the BBC. He said, without providing any evidence for his contention, that he did not think it would be of any value to the country to have an extension of local radio stations under the BBC. He would prefer it to be handled by private commercial companies. He said that they would provide a much better service. That is poppycock.

Mr. Rathbone


Mr. Mendelson

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. The evidence is quite to the contrary.

Mr. Rathbone

Not at all.

Mr. Mendelson

The hon. Gentleman's prejudices are causing him to interrupt.

Mr. Rathbone

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mendelson

No. The hon. Gentleman does not like what I am saying. It is getting under his skin, but he will have to listen.

There was an interesting discussion on London Weekend Television on this very point. After investigating local radio, the participants in the discussion were equally divided over whether the BBC stations or those of the private companies were better. A number of specialists said that some of the commercially-owned stations had gone the wrong way. One in the London area broadcast pop music 84 per cent. of the time and another was devoted almost exclusively to news. It produced snippets of news every 14 minutes and in between there were phone-in programmes which occupied three hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon and three hours again in the evening. It put on no other programmes of any value. Most of the schemes approved and most of the licences date back many years indeed. In the case of the local London station run by the BBC, the picture is rather different. It has a smaller circle of listeners but a much more varied cultural programme.

The founder of the BBC always insisted that the purpose of public broadcasting—the same goes for radio and television—should never be confined to provide only pop music or news. I would regard it as a circumvention of the licences if anyone used such channels merely to broadcast commercial advertising in order to make money and offered 80 per cent. of pop music or 75 per cent. of snippets of news repeated ad nauseam every 14 minutes during the day without any real intellectual analysis in depth. That is the argument, and it is highly controversial. It is not a one-sided case, and it was only the bias of the hon. Member for Lewes which led him to that assertion without providing evidence of any value. I now give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Rathbone

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again, and I apologise to the House for having to correct him yet again. The facts are incontrovertible. In every single area where an independent radio station runs parallel to and in competition with BBC local radio, the independent radio station attracts a larger audience.

Mr. Mendelson

That is not contradicted by what I am saying. That is quite possible, and that is what the founder of the BBC always insisted. We could run a radio station on the basis of the News of the World or on the publishing principles of the Sun, and we could prove in double-quick time that we could get 10 million listeners whereas we could get only 1½ million for a quality station. That would not prove anything.

I turn to another point made by the hon. Member for Lewes, who said that if we did not provide public money we would have to get the money in some other way. His argument was that we should get the BBC to use advertising. That proposal stands condemned because one of the great advantagesvariety—is provided by having one organisation in which there is advertising and having also the BBC, in which there is no advertising. It would be disastrous to make the two equal and alike. The hon. Member for Lewes should freely admit that the interests he represents are in favour of the principle of advertising. It is an approach which I condemn, but it is not a dishonourable approach. It is simply one that I do not agree with. The hon. Gentleman should not be so sensitive when I say that he represents a point of view which happens to be that of the profession to which he belongs.

There are many aspects of the hon. Gentleman's proposal which would be highly dangerous to the high quality of the BBC as it exists today. It would be a great national loss if that quality were to be interfered with and destroyed. That is why I am so serious in opposing the hon. Gentleman's proposal. It is not a light-hearted or unimportant argument, and that is why it must be freely and openly debated. Far too many people today do not appreciate the great quality of many of our industries, and the cultural activities of the BBC is a good example.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) made an interesting and, on the whole, convincing speech, but I did not understand or follow the references he made to a number of historical series which did a lot of harm to this country. My impression, going about the world in various countries, is the exact opposite. I find that many of the series which the BBC has produced have done a great deal for the reputation of this country. One can go wherever one likes, in the former Commonwealth, the present Commonwealth or countries which have never had any particularly close connection with Britain, and find people singing the praises of some of the series presented by the BBC.

If one wishes to consider the matter in financial terms, one realises that some of the series bring in a fair amount of money by being successfully sold. One finds in many cases that, just as some series achieve a captive audience here and nobody can put on anything else at a certain time on a particular evening when a special programme is shown, the same happens in Australia and certain parts of Canada and other countries where the same series is shown.

There is bound to be controversy—there must be—and, of course, there are differences of opinion as to whether a programme is good or bad. That, however, does not demand central editorial control. It would be a great misfortune if we decided on strict editorial control within the BBC. One can argue that it comes close to editorialisation. I am as often dissatisfied—this should please other hon. Member many of whom disagree with my views, generally speaking—with the editorial views of the BBC as is any other right hon. Member or hon. Member of the House.

In recent and less recent political history that has been my experience, but one charge I would never make. There is no consistent editorial bias in the BBC. It holds to the terms of the Charter that it should not have an editorial policy expressed by its journalists. It honourably holds to that position. I want to put that on record, whatever else we criticise and want to change. That is the BBC's position and it holds to it.

Sometimes, particularly as we get on in years, we find that many of the people concerned are very young men disposing of very powerful cultural instruments, and we find that irritating. That is my experience sometimes. It is a young industry. We find that we are somewhat at their mercy. They speak after we have finished and might make a final comment, but that is different from having a consistent editorial policy of their own, which would be intolerable.

I agree with the hon. Member for Bristol, West when he says that we need careful examination of how and why the money is needed, and I add my appeal to the Minister that we need proper examination of any request by the BBC for an increase in the licence fee. If, however, a case is made on grounds of increased cost and an increase is necessary, I would rather publicly defend the increase in my constituency than agree to the commercialisation of the BBC by any introduction of advertising.

I would make one proviso, for which many of us have been agitating for a long time. This is perhaps the main reason why I am on my feet at all. I am concerned about the position of old-age pensioners in all our constituencies. The time is long overdue for the Government most seriously to consider, in spite of the present financial stringency, the introduction of special reduced licence fees for retirement pensioners living on their own. That would get broad support in all parts of the House. I do not ask for a one-shilling nominal fee for every retirement pensioner. I know that that possibility has been examined and that it would be costly to extend the facility to everybody. There is a good deal of support in my constituency for a special reduced fee of, say, 50 per cent. of the normal fee for a retired pensioner who is left alone.

I urge the Government to consider that proposal and I urge the appropriate committee to give its approval. If there is to be a further increase in the fees, this matter will become all the more urgent. I believe that something will have to be done in this direction before we approve any further increase.

I wish, finally, to refer to external services. This has some relationship to the speech of the hon. Member for Lewes, who mentioned the value of these services. He said that they should be weighed in the balance against other expenditure. My own remarks on this point are based on having listened to the BBC external services when I have been abroad at the Council of Europe, at the Western European Union Assembly, or in some other capacity. I find the BBC external services the most reliable guide if one wishes to keep up with news and opinion factually and objectively. They are unequalled in their objectivity, quality and standing. They are a great asset to us all.

I must emphasise that this is not a party matter. When the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was Prime Minister and was abroad for 10 days attending a Commonwealth conference, he was not fully in touch with the world's news for that period of time and had to rely almost exclusively on the BBC's external services. I understand that in that way he was kept excellently informed and thought that the programmes reached a very high standard.

I believe that that view is widely held. Therefore, it would be a tragic blunder if we were to cut expenditure in that sector, leading to any cut in the services. I do not believe that we should compare it with expenditure on the British Council, but I believe that if such a comparison were made we should come down in favour of the external services.

The cultural element contained in the external services is first class. At a time when the French Government are spending large sums of money in spreading the French language and literature, it would be ridiculous to destroy the excellent position of our external services by trying to cut down on the comparatively limited expenditure with which we are concerned.

This is an interim occasion and we are conducting, as it were, an interim debate. It would be wrong to let the occasion pass without making some comment on the current problems of the BBC. After publication of the Annan Report there should be time for a two-day debate when we can go into more detail about future structure and organisation. Meanwhile, whilst there is room for improvement and reorganisation, let it not be forgotten that the BBC is one of our great assets and something of which we have good reason to be proud.

11.36 p.m.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

I suppose that all of us here have a kind of love-hate relationship with the BBC. We love it when it says the things we like to hear. We hate it when it says the opposite. When I watch and listen to its programmes here at home over a period, I begin to get a little frustrated or annoyed. However, when I go abroad to any other country and see any other country's programmes, I yearn for the BBC and long to come back to its programmes and the standard that it has set, which, as the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) has said, is widely recognised throughout the world.

However, like any first-class institution which has become firmly established in this country, the BBC seems to resent criticism. I find the BBC generally, to a quite unnecessary degree, rather prickly about comments which it regards as hostile or unfair. This attitude shows in particular where the criticism is of lack of balance. The question of balance must be one of the most difficult of all for broadcasters to try to meet squarely. It is not only a case of trying to preserve balance between political parties. It is also, as hon. Members on both sides of the House fully recognise, a case of trying to preserve balance between both sides of industry or between both sides of a controversial argument that is attracting national attention.

I welcome the independence of producers and I believe that that must be retained to a very considerable extent, but one must recognise that with that independence there must inevitably be the risk of the intrusion of prejudice and bias. That prejudice and bias is not always obvious. It is certainly not always obvious to those who may have the occasion to read through the transcript of a particular broadcast after it has taken place, which may very well then fully justify the view of the director-general that no offence had been committed.

However, political or other prejudice and bias can be reflected in other ways. It can be reflected in the selection of material to be broadcast, in the selection of the personalities invited to take part or even in the manner of the interviewer or principal broadcaster in a particular programme.

I therefore welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) that closer attention should be given to some improved means of representation for those members of the BBC's audience who feel themselves aggrieved by a particular programme. I agree with my hon. Friend that eminent though the individual members of the complaints commission are, and first-class fellows though they may be, the complaints commission is regarded, even by the BBC—and even by the members of the commission themselves—as being a bit of a nonsense. It would be kinder to all if the complaints commission were put on one side.

What I think needs looking at is the weapon that the BBC already has in its own hands in the form of its General Advisory Council, chaired most effectively and eminently by Lord Aldington. This is potentially a much more powerful body than it has so far been allowed to become. I should like the BBC to look carefully at what can be done here to improve the means by which the complaints of ordinary citizens, who are the viewers of and listeners to its programmes, may be objectively considered and the means by which the voice of the consumers of its product—the viewers—may be heeded.

I should like to see the General Advisory Council become an effective viewers' voice, independent of the BBC, with offices separated from the BBC, with the requirement placed on it regularly to report not to the BBC but to the Minister, and to provide through those reports a regular opportunity for debate in this House.

I think that would be a considerable advance on what already takes place, and I would hope that, in whatever steps may be taken in the future in the shape of developing the totality of broadcasting, careful thought will be given to the need to strengthen the viewer's voice, so that he and his views can be heard and heeded.

Hon. Members have referred to the quality of programmes, and undoubtedly there are programmes of quite exceptional quality which have attracted world-wide attention and which have succeeded in securing a very substantial sale overseas. But there are also programmes which could by no means be claimed to be of the same merit. There is a generality of programme which in my view tends to highlight excessively scenes of violence and excess. The effect of violence portrayed over television is undoubtedly damaging. It is a very difficult thing to pinpoint or to prove. Generally speaking, broadcasters shelter behind the fact that there is no conclusive evidence advanced that violence has over a period of time actually done harm.

Many commissions, not only in this country but in the United States of America, have closely examined the question. The one that came closest, I believe, to a general condemnation of the cumulative showing of programmes of violence was the commission established under President Eisenhower. I think there is enough circumstantial evidence to give one cause for considerable anxiety about the cumulative impact of programmes of this nature.

At the very least, if they do not themselves actively encourage violence in those who see them, such programmes increase the acceptability of violence itself across the country as a whole. This is something which is potentially very damaging in this country and for all Western civilisation and against which we must be on our guard. These programmes—I shall not even attempt to enumerate them —need not necessarily be the horror-comic type of programme. They can also occur even in the regular portrayal as items of news of some of the more bestial aspects of actual violence perpetrated by man against man, whether in this country or, more likely, in countries overseas.

We have to balance very carefully indeed the portrayal of violence as a matter of fact, understanding as I do that this regrettably takes place and that anybody who pretended that it did not would be deluding the public. We must balance that against the anxiety I expressed earlier of making those scenes, by their constant repetition, lead people to accept a higher threshold of violence in our society. That could be gravely damaging to Western civilisation and to the standards that we wish to observe.

I do not know what the Annan Committee will report. I regret that the study is taking so long. It was unnecessary to establish the committee and I regret that no progress in developments in broadcasting over the years has been the outcome of the Government's decision to refer these matters to a committee. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) shakes his head, but he is a member of that committee and I would expect him to think that it was a wise and necessary exercise. He is a little biased. Whatever Annan produces, I hope that the Government will not come forward with an announcement of their decisions before the House and the country have had the fullest possible opportunity to debate the report. It should be seen in a different light from some of the other commissions and committees, because the subject goes deeply and literally into every home in the land. Everybody should be able to express a view.

When we consider the proposals that are put forward, I hope none of us will conclude that the BBC as an institution has to be perpetuated. We may have institutionalised the BBC, but we should not immortalise it. We should not bestow upon it the gift of everlasting life.

We must be concerned about how to achieve the best quality and range of programmes out of the resources that we are prepared to give, whether they come out of our pockets as taxpayers or as licence-payers.

Whatever Annan produces, I hope that we do not accept—and here I openly declare my bias—the establishment of a single national broadcasting corporation in place of the BBC and the IBA. It would be gravely damaging to nationalise broadcasting. I feel as strongly about that in relation to broadcasting as I do in relation to education. The guiding principle in the dissemination of news, particularly by such a national medium as broadcasting, must be the widest possible choice for viewers and listeners.

We should therefore seek to encourage the stimulation and development of local programmes in all their variety, of local broadcasting in all its range and of cable television. I commend particularly the experience of the Swindon station which has been one of the most successful of the local cable television stations and which certainly deserves study. It should be emulated in other parts of the country where people are prepared to finance and support it as soon as resources permit. Let choice be our guiding principle and let us give the viewers an effective voice.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir. J. Eden), who has had ministerial responsibility in this area. I agree with a great deal of what he said. His remarks, particularly about the content of programmes and the need for plurality of expression, will be noted not merely here by my hon. Friend the Minister and the committee of which I am a member but no doubt by the broadcasting organisations and the wider public, which will before long have an opportunity to discuss for itself the report of the Annan Committee.

I also echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about the need for an extensive public debate on the report of our committee when it is ultimately published. It would be wrong for the Government, of whatever persuasion they might be at the time, to pre-empt an extensive and exhaustive public discussion of the alternatives open to us through the 1980s and 1990s which the committee has within its remit. It was a difficult remit, which is perhaps why the committee has taken so long. We must look at the future of broadcasting, full stop. We must look at the technological and social developments within this country and internationally in broadcasting into the 1990s.

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the committee has taken so long, I remind him that it could have done its work already if the previous Government and his predecessor as Minister, Mr. Chataway, had not wound up Lord Annan's first attempt at a committee set up in 1970. But I do not want to make piddling points about that. The committee is now, after two and a half years, coming not to some conclusions but at least to a grasp of what the essential questions are.

I do not speak for the committee, which is still counting voices and looking at the evidence. I am looking at the matter personally, in my capacity as a professional broadcaster for many years, though not now actively involved. I want to consider some of the things that have been said about the BBC. We are discussing the future of the corporation over the next three years in a way that unfortunately rarely happens. In theory, we have a debate each year on the broadcasting Vote. In practice, that debate does not take place. There is rarely an opportunity for hon. Members to make the kind of constructive remarks that all who have spoken so far in the debate have made.

If the debate does nothing else, it proves to me that a debate on the BBC or the IBA, upon the general functions of broadcasting, would not be the kind of occasion for illiterate BBC-knocking, broadcaster-knocking or the general letting-off of steam that is sometimes feared. As this has been a mature occasion on which thoughtful contributions have been made. I hope that the lesson is taken and that in future we can discuss the broadcasting Vote annually and discuss the kinds of points about finance and organisation of broadcasting that my hon. Friends want to make.

In opening a singularly unfortunate censure debate earlier today, the Leader of the Opposition told us that the present Government had set us on the road to a totalitarian society—I think she said "to the Iron Curtain State". I have enough friends in prison in Iron Curtain countries, and I know enough broadcasters who cannot follow their profession in those States, to regard that as an insult to them, ourselves, broadcasting in this country and our free society.

This debate is about one of the props of a free society. I hope that we shall continue the Licence and Agreement for another three years. Otherwise the BBC will go off the air on 1st August, and none of us wants that. Whatever criticisms we may make of the BBC as an institution, we should all agree in the context of the wider problems that public service broadcasting in this country is essentially right.

Wherever in the world our programmes are broadcast, the approach to the truth which broadcasting can provide here and the fact that we are not in the grip of political parties or under the control of an apparatchik or a Minister of the Interior are applauded. Both BBC and ITV programmes receive a wide showing all over the world and are regarded as yardsticks of quality.

I welcome this debate as an opportunity to say not merely that, within the free society whose values we cherish, broadcasting plays a significant role but that it will he an expanding role in the society of the future—not as the electronic market place for which some people hope so that it replaces or acts as a substitute for the democratic proceedings here and in other representative institutions but as the buttress to those institutions which it can be.

The Licence and Agreement has existed in substantially the same form for many years, and some of the assumptions on which it is based perhaps no longer hold water. Those familiar with the Licence and Agreement will know that the key sections of what we are renewing in blanket form are Sections 11, 12 and 13, which deal with how the BBC is financed, how we pay for public service broadcasting in this country and what kind of broadcasting should result. This involves the question whether there can be the freedom from bias which hon. Members wish to see.

Section 11 says that the BBC shall be financed by the licence fee and that it shall not pay for any consideration or have any advertising or sponsorship. The tragedy is that the licence fee is no longer adequate to do what it should do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) said that he would defend in his constituency an increase in the licence fee. We know that compared with other European countries, particularly the Republic of Ireland and Norway, the fee here is a relatively low element in the domestic budget, but it is not easy to explain that to constituents.

The fee is a poll tax and it is regressive. It bears very hard on the worse-off. When the Licence and Agreement was framed, everybody who had a television had only one receiver. We did not have the kind of anomalies which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has mentioned in the past where the Savoy Hotel has 500 or 1,000 receivers and pays only one licence fee.

There were not then the wide disparities in income which now exist among licence holders. When both television and radio started, they were middle-class media. That is not the case now. The assumptions on which the resilience of the licence fee were based have been vitiated by recent events, first rapid inflation and secondly the fact that the elasticity of demand for colour television is no longer as great as it was three or four years ago. The same thing happened after black-and-white television was first introduced.

We must look ahead to a time—perhaps before the period up to 31st July 1981 covered by this debate—when the licence fee will not be adequate for all that is necessary. The Minister must answer this point. Do the Government think that they might meet the point put by the BBC for a staggering increase in the licence fee, particularly in present circumstances? As I have said, it is not easy for us to defend this increase in our constituencies any more than we can say that Norwegian Members of Parliament are paid £12,000 a year and we should be paid the same. One cannot pray in aid experience in Norway or other European countries in these respects.

The BBC has been forced by financial stringency not only to make the sort of cuts which the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) has mentioned but also to go into other areas of financing which seem to me rather dubious. Here I speak only as an individual. The Annan Committee has received a good deal of evidence about this both ways. But some of the covert sponsorship of programmes which now goes on—covering sporting events which are a big plug for cigarette companies which under the existing regulations are not allowed to advertise on ITV—although it may not lead, any more than co-productions lead, according to the BBC, to loss of editorial control, nevertheless seems to move significantly away from the intention of Section 11 of the Licence and Agreement.

Before we renew the agreement, we should be clear that it may not be possible for the BBC to go on financing an ever-expanding area of broadcasting by this method. I do not draw from that fact the lesson drawn by the hon. Member for Lewes. He said, being an advertising man, that the BBC could take some advertising. But the key point about public service advertising in this country—ITV as well as BBC—is that the two alternatives that we have in the duopoly draw their resources from separate sources. There is not, therefore, the competition, which would inevitably lead to a kind of Gresham's law, for the same sources of finance.

Of course, the IPA and the ISBA, in their proposals some years ago for the fourth channel and a general reorganising of broadcasting, looked forward to the day when two channels would be competing for advertising, because that would lower the advertisers' costs. But one of the strengths of ITV is as a monopoly seller of advertising time. The advertisers cannot say, as they have said in many other countries, notably the United States, "Reduce the quality of your programmes and increase the viewing numbers, because once you play that game there will be more advertising time that you will be able to sell to us." We should not do that.

Public service broadcasting, whether the BBC continues or not after 1981, should have a differentiated source of revenue. It is open to us and to the Government in their thinking later on to say that there may be alternative sources of revenue for various parts of the broadcasting spectrum which should be considered independent of and ancillary to the licence fee.

One of the problems of the BBC is that it has the defects of its virtues. One of them is the sheer problem of size. It is now a very large organisation. The director-general says that it is not as large as the Army or the Department of the Environment, but that is not the question at issue. This is a great organisation essentially caught up in the creative act. To say that it is not as big as the Army or the Royal Air Force begs the question of whether or not within the duopoly one organisation can go on being as responsive as this one should be with such a large area of broadcasting within its remit.

Critics of the BBC would say—they may be right or wrong—that the BBC now is rather like the Church in the Middle Ages, in an uneasy relationship with the temporal powers. It is concerned not so much with man's holy estate in Heaven as with man's real estate on earth, and with the real estate of broadcasting. Many areas of broadcasting which go on now go far beyond what the BBC was given when the Licence and Agreement was drawn up. That is one of the problems in considering how to resolve the question of how public service broadcasting should expand in future.

It is not for me to say what the Annan Committee will propose and how the Government of the day will dispose when we come to look at the plurality of outlets. But my personal preference is towards that notion of plurality, of having, where possible, alternative forms of expression in broadcasting as in the print media. Public demand for access into broadcasting, which must include television and not only radio, whatever the hon. Member for Lewes says, means that in future we shall have to accept, both in access and in accountability new forms—not going as far, perhaps, as some kind of overall broadcasting council on the lines of the Canadian CRTC, but new forms nevertheless—of meeting that public demand to be involved.

We now have a literate public who understand how films are made. Whereas in the past a tiny elite of professionals put on programmes and wielded enormous influence, the grammar of making television and radio programmes is now widely understood. People can tell when a programme is biased or when a tricky bit of film editing has been slipped in, and they want recourse from that. Hon. Members say that they do not get it from the Programme Complaints Commission.

There is a case for an institution to be established to consider the whole of broadcasting, not merely a body which is in some measure staffed by the BBC and has a restricted remit. People who complain have to sign a waiver to the effect that in no circumstances will they take legal proceedings. There are many procedures to be gone through which inevitably deter the complainant, and that may be why so few complaints are made to the commission.

We have a duopoly which is essentially only one step advanced from a monopoly. The duopoly has been entrenched by Governments of both parties. The previous Labour Government did that when they gave local radio to the BBC. They could have made local radio a new and daring experiment tapping local riches rather than depending on central BBC influence. The Conservative Government of 1970–74 put local radio under the IBA. That duopoly has been entrenched over the years.

However the BBC develops after 1981—it is not for us to say today—it is clear that when we renew the Licence and Agreement for the three years we are not simply giving a blanket endorsement to all the assumptions about the BBC. We are giving ourselves time to prepare for a major public debate in which scrutiny will be extended to the whole sector of public service broadcasting practice and the notion of the BBC as a corporation as it has existed thus far.

12.8 p.m.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

With the exception of part of the speech made by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), who did not allow me to intervene, this has been a most constructive debate. The hon. Gentleman implied that our debate yesterday on education was too long. No one from the Government side said that yesterday, nor have I heard it said today. In my view, it was one of the best debates we have had for many months.

I have always been a great admirer of the BBC from the days of Lord Reith when I was for many years abroad during the war. If I make some criticisms of the BBC and the renewal of the arrangements for a further three years, It must not be thought that they are more than individual criticisms against an institution which on the whole I greatly admire, which serves Britain well and which in its overseas services performs an incalculable service for the nation and the free world.

We are flooded with new bulletins. We can hardly turn on the radio on any station without hearing news. It makes us restless. We are like a nation constantly taking its temperature. The news does not change every hour. If I were director-general of the BBC or in charge of the affairs of the country, I would drastically reduce the number of news bulletins. Furthermore—I am thinking new, perhaps, more of independent broadcasting than of the BBC—there is a danger of the whole news industry, which is now so large, merging into show business. In other words, it works sensationalism, excitement and titillation rather than news which is of vital concern to everyone.

Even the BBC, which perhaps had overmuch dignity in the days of Lord Reith, when I believe that the announcers, who were unseen, wore dinner jackets every night—it is an admirable custom—has interviewers and commentators who are lacking in respect for those they interview. I think it extremely unwise that Press men rush upon statesmen such as the Foreign Secretary the moment they get out of the aeroplane on their return from important negotiations to ask them to explain in a few words some complex aspect of foreign affairs. That is not a wise way of conducting our affairs.

We all know that in the days of Lord Reith, who was a pronounced Christian, Christian values dominated the BBC. I pay tribute to the broadcasting of religious services and religious programmes by the BBC, especially the evening services from the great cathedrals of England which remind us of other things when perhaps we are doing something else. No one could say today that the whole tone of the BBC is a religious one. It is very much a secular tone. Some programmes cause one to wonder about moral standards, especially some of the so-called light entertainement programmes.

There is the grave danger of violence which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) has mentioned. I entirely agree with all he said. There is undoubtedly an overemphasis on sex, as there is in the cinema, which many people, particularly Christians, believe is becoming extremely offensive. It is shown during normal viewing hours as well as at hours when children are not able to see it Without being in the least a Puritan, I believe one could certainly, to use a crude phrase, clean up a good deal of the comics and the banter of light entertainment.

As regards political bias, the difficulty is that television producers, gifted as they are, are not as other men. They are cerebral creatures. They are restless people who have not done ordinary jobs. They have not worked as others. They have probably never done manual jobs of work. They have probably never had any managerial responsibility. They have probably not had to find the wages to pay on a Friday. Therefore, in essence they tend to be highly critical of the present system. They cannot help it, but they tend to be somewhat rebellious.

If that is pointed out to them, they are genuinely astonished. They live in a semi-revolutionary world. What they forget is that the vast audience which listens to them is composed of ordinary people such as those we represent in our constituencies, people, generally speaking, of common sense and of a conservative nature. They do not wish to have their world overturned by irresponsible television producers.

When we come to more serious matters such as wars, revolutions and terrorism, I begin to get extremely worried. Those of us who have been in Northern Ireland —I was there recently with our troops— are becoming very worried at the scenes we see almost every day which, because of their frequency, we are bound to take to some extent for granted and as representing the normal, natural condition of affairs. But it is not Vietnam. It is not some far-away country. It is, in fact, on our doorstep in part of the United Kingdom. I fear that violent men in Great Britain who see those scenes of war, violence, arson and shooting in, say, Belfast, Londonderry or on the border may think "If that is happening there, surely it is only a short way across the sea for the same thing to happen in London, Birmingham or Glasgow." I think we should perhaps try to reduce the showing of those scenes of violence.

We have one terrifying thing coming up now which I almost hesitate to mention, but I think I should do so, to show the utter seriousness of what I am speaking about. We have the question of the life and death of the so-called mercenaries in Angola, their trial and their possible punishment. How much of that dreadful scene will be allowed to be shown on British television? I believe that television already takes up too large a part of our life. I do not believe in the inevitability of things. I believe that man can control his destiny. I am certainly opposed to television covering the proceedings of this House.

I believe that some people are so weak or drugged by television every night that it has entirely altered the habits of families and of the whole nation. People simply lack the strength or will-power to switch off. I know that they can switch off, but they do not. Those people and their children cease to read books, to converse and, often, to think. Those of us who go out at night canvassing, calling or doing social work find that in almost every household—rich, middling or poor—the families are glued in front of the "box". That is deplorable. Far from extending television and its hours, I think that there is a strong case for reducing it.

I should like to make some less important points, but points which nevertheless matter, about the way in which the speaking and presentation are done by some people in the BBC. For instance, I find it particularly tiresome to have all the chit-chat about the weather forecast. Why cannot we be told what the forecast is? Why must we have five minutes' chat about it? As the forecast is often wrong, and in this country usually bad, there is even less excuse for so much chit-chat.

I referred to this next matter in the debate on the Education Bill yesterday, on which the hon. Member for Penistone commented. I find that many people who speak on television cannot speak the Queen's English. Occasionally when I turn to Radio 1 or Radio 2 and hear people who, I think, are called disc jockeys, they appear to me to speak in a quite different language. It is certainly not the language of the Queen's English or language that any of us here would wish our children to speak.

Because of competition from ITV and the need to have larger audiences, the general tone and standard of the BBC has unfortunately been lowered. There is no question about that. I do not look at television a great deal, but each time I turn the set on and see a show, a play or a performance of some kind it is usually coarser, ruder, and rougher than it was a few weeks before when I last switched on my set.

I do not think that people want to be played down to. They want to look up to something. The BBC should set the highest standards, just as it did in the days of Lord Reith. It should set the same standards for the home services as it does for the overseas service.

In spite of these strictures, one has only to watch American television and much of the television in Europe to realise just how superior ours is. I think, however, that the corporation needs an exceptionally strong chairman, Board of Governors and director-general if standards are not to deteriorate.

12.22 a.m.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

I shall not attempt to follow the speech of the hon. Gentleman for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes). I imagine that his speech represents the viewpoint of the average reader of the Daily Telegraph, while I represent the viewpoint of the average Daily Mirror reader.

I am particularly concerned about the question of financing and the way in which the BBC raises its money. I represent a rural area. I have been a Member of this House for seven years, and three times a year for seven years I have received a massive petition from pensioners complaining about the anomalies in rural areas. Some pensioners living in council bungalows in rural areas can get a television licence for 50p a year, while on the other side of the street those living in tumbledown terraced houses with no modern facilities have to pay the full licence fee. I have tried in vain to rectify this situation for many years. I understand that it came about 20 years ago when pensioners living in old people's homes had transistor radios which were all covered by the one licence obtained by the warden. This was extended to cover television sets, and then it was extended further to cover pensioners' bungalows. Finally the BBC said "No more".

In 1971 the Conservative Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) introduced a Private Member's Bill which would have given pensioners concessionary television licences for the payment of 5p a year each. That Bill even got through its Committee stage upstairs. The Minister at the time was Mr. Christopher Chataway. The Government of the day refused to find time for the Bill to come back to the Floor of the House for Report stage. Had the time been found, I am sure that the Bill would have been carried by an overwhelming majority.

It is a great hardship for hon. Members to have to tell desperately poor pensioners that they have to pay the full price for a licence. It is not good enough for the BBC to get out of it by saying that it would be very difficult to collect cheap television licence fees, unless it could be done through a warden. There is the hint that a pensioner's cheap licence will be used by sons and daughters living in the same house, and that this would extend the army of licence dodgers and "fiddlers". But the present situation cannot go on. There are far too many anomalies already.

We have a situation in which every big hotel in London with a colour television set in every room—the Savoy, the Portman, the Dorchester—needs only one licence to cover 400 colour sets. That means that those big hotels are paying exactly the same amount each year as a poor old pensioner living on the minimum pension in a terraced house in Bassetlaw. We cannot defend that situation, and neither can the BBC.

The corporation talks about difficulties of collection, but the most difficult tax to collect is the one that is paid annually or in a lump sum. There is always a bigger row about the rates that are paid annually by owner-occupiers than about those paid weekly by council tenants. There is always resentment about car tax when the motorist has to pay out £40 annually, when he would rather pay it through his petrol. More resentment is felt about the quarterly electricity bill than about putting two "bob" in the slot. It is the same with the BBC television licence.

Public opinion will ultimately force the BBC into raising revenue in some other way simply because the average man in the street will not put his hand in his pocket and pay out half a week's wages for the licence. The sooner the BBC realises that, the better. It will not do what the legislators want and what the public want, because the public also see alternative avenues which are open to the BBC to raise cash but which very often it neglects.

I do not go as far as the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), who spoke of handing the whole thing over to the commercial side and having advertising. There is, however, an argument for selective advertising on the BBC at particular times, particularly during sporting programmes. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) mentioned the extent to which sponsorship has entered into televised programmes as being a scandal. We can ban television advertising for cigarettes, but Rothmans can mount some sponsorship and have its name mentioned several times on a Saturday afternoon.

The stage has been reached where the BBC accepts this discreet advertising and has even begun to lay down its own standards. It says that motor cars in a grand prix championship cannot carry the name "Durex", but they can carry the words "Shell Oil" and it is happy to have that type of advertising even though advertising is supposed to be prohibited on the BBC.

Then there is the football match which has advertising for all sorts of products around the ground but where there is a 10-yard strip where a sheet of canvas is draped over a cigarette advertisement. Spectators at a match do not have to look for the cameras to know whether it is being televised. They simply look for the covers on the cigarette advertisements.

The ludicrous state of affairs has been reached that Ladbroke's, for instance, sponsors about 30 races every year, not because it needs to keep the racing industry going in order to keep taking the bets but because the company's name is plugged on the BBC in the Ladbroke Handicap or the Ladbroke Stakes. One bookmaker gets his name plugged hour after hour and the BBC does nothing to stop it. It is far cheaper to do that than to advertise on ITV. It is time the BBC started telling these people that they must pay. The corporation is entitled to collect a fee for this sort of surreptitious advertising.

There are other outlets. For example, the BBC has produced some excellent programmes and films which would go very well in cinemas. I know that whenever it puts on a repeat of a programme members of the public who are glued to the "box" for four or five hours a day object because they have seen the item before. There was a magnificent series called "Days of Hope" which cost over £1 million and had a cast of literally thousands, The programme dealt with the political history of this country between 1916 and 1932. A film of the series dealing with the 1926 General Strike was shown to hon. Members. It was a superb film by Ken Loach and Tony Garnett. If that film were to be put on in cinemas, it would make money. It would make money if it were shown at trade union conferences or the Labour Party conference at Blackpool. It would even do well if it were shown at the Conservative Party conference because it would show the Tories what the other side was doing during the 1926 strike.

What does the BBC do with these films? I understand that two years from now the series might be shown again, but that is not good enough. There is an outlet where people will pay cash to see that sort of programme, but the BBC is neglecting that outlet. I always get an impression of massive bureaucracy when I go to make a broadcast at the BBC. At the commercial tele- vision studios there never seems to be anything like the same number of men and women or cameras, and so on. It is the same with the Lobby correspondents in the House. I am not criticising them, because they do a magnificent job, but independent television always seems to produce the same sort of service with far fewer people. I am not advocating that the BBC should sack people, but ITV has to pay the same union rates and employ the same sort of technicians and it produces an equally good service with far fewer people. It is time that the BBC attempted to examine and prove why it needs the extra cash instead of merely holding out its hands. A lot more ought to be done at the BBC to make itself popular with the public.

Increasingly senseless clashing is taking place. Whenever the House does not sit late on a Monday night, I have to decide whether to watch "Panorama" or "World in Action" or a documentary on one channel and "News at Ten" on the other. Sports programmes clash. Even the religious programmes on Sunday night clash. God knows why! This annoys the public. It leads them to think that there is a senseless waste of cash when we see both channels showing the same big fight, the same film or the same sporting event. It is no good the BBC simply continually holding out its hand for more cash.

I agree that there is no deliberate bias in BBC programmes, and I ignore any complaints from the Left or the Right about bias. There is, however, a tendency in BBC and IBA programmes to tie labels on pople. Everyone ultimately has a label tied on him. It is always the Left-wing Tribune Group of Marxist MPs. I do not often hear stories about the Right-wing group of stockbroker, tax-evasion MPs that there might be on the other side of the House. However, we on this side suffer from labels and from television cliches.

There always has to be a picture. If there is a row at British Leyland, the shop steward is always interviewed in the street with 8 the kids behind pulling faces and trying to grab the microphone, or he is standing on a soapbox on a lorry appealing to his brothers to put up their hands or else the shop stewards' wives are demonstrating outside the gates about why their men should go back to work. On the other side, however, the interview takes place in the quiet of the boardroom with the managing director explaining why he thinks the strikers are wrong. I get fed up with labels being continually tied around people's necks and with the undue prominence which is sometimes given to trade union announcements.

Sometimes I hear on the news headlines that a shop steward at some minor conference has said that the pay policy will not succeed and that this will mean that the pound will sink another two cents. What a load of nonsense that is. No trade unionist in the business believes that. I am not arguing about interviewing Jack Jones, Len Murray or such people because they are leaders in the movement and attention should be given to what they say. But far too much attention is given to ordinary people whose views can often distort the picture. We suffer too much from the image that Labour is slagheaps and the Tories semi-detached middle-class. There has to be instant recognition in pictures.

I hope we can get away from political cliches and pictures of that sort. I honestly do not think it is wrong to have talking heads on television. Far too many producers want pictures. They are not satisfied with four people talking round a table. I remember talking about VAT on football in "The Week at Westminster". They wanted me to do it from the penalty spot at Queens Park Rangers' football ground in front of the goalmouth. Another colleague was taken to an art gallery to talk about VAT on the arts. When we were to have a Select Committee investigation on the Tote, they wanted to interview us at the races. There is an obsession with pictures, and the viewer begins to concentrate on the picture and forgets to listen to what is said. That is not always a good thing.

These are not superficial criticisms but they are not severe. If a little attention were paid to these points, the public would be happier.

12.35 a.m.

Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

I was once on a television programme with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), but I did not realise how many worries were going through his head. He has produced them for the Annan Committee to consider. Before I continue I should declare my interest as a director of Granada Television and of Greater Manchester Independent Radio.

Under the shadow of the Annan Committee, we do not expect to hear from the Government any decisions or, indeed, many views. I do not think my hon. Friends will get any replies about the BBC council, advertising in the BBC and so on. Although this is not a time for views or decisions from the Government, it has been a time when people interested in broadcasting have had to get their brains together to decide what they want, because many have had to submit evidence to the Annan Committee. I doubt whether any other committee, including the Pilkington Committee, has had so much evidence. The evidence of organisations like the BBC and independent television has been well presented, and the committee has a long task ahead in sorting it out.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) concentrated on the fact that when it finally reports the Annan Committee will do so against a background of financial crisis at the BBC. I should like to know, and perhaps the Minister can tell us, what exactly is the financial position of the BBC. In the BBC Handbook for 1976 it was announced that it was hoped to keep the deficit to £10 million. Sir Charles Curran said not long ago that the BBC hoped to keep it down to £30 million in 1977. It is important, in a factual and not a critical sense, to know the prospects for the BBC financially over the coming years at the present licence rate.

Having said that, I would add that I think the Government will have to give some guidance to the Annan Committee on what sort of income the BBC can expect over the coming years. On that information must depend the advice that Annan puts forward. It is absolutely crucial. Will the licence be on much the same scale as it has been so far, taking into account inflation and so on? Can the BBC expect more or less?

The hon. Member for Derby, North also raised the question of different sources of income. This problem is as old as the financing of local government. We always says what terrible things rates are, but nobody can think of anything better and we come back to rates. The licence is a clumsy and unpopular way of collecting money. It is also inefficient.

I remember that when I used to lead for the Opposition on broadcasting I visited four or five post offices to discover exactly how they collected the licence fees. I happened also then to be a director of a television rental company. I thought that if we had been as bad at collecting the rents for our television sets as the Government was in collecting the licence fees, we should have been out of business. It is a difficult thing to do. I expect that the procedure has been brushed up a little now, but perhaps the Minister can tell us what he reckons is now lost on television licences.

On the other side—I do not wish to make a party political point—whereas the situation in the BBC reflects serious financial trouble, on the independent television side it is now going well. Advertising is good, and by and large over the years independent television and broadcasting have been viable, so much so that it has been necessary to introduce a levy to make them not so prosperous. There are two contrasting situations. If a Labour Government had been in office when the second channel was first given out and it had gone to the BBC, one would wish to ask "What would the licence fee amount to now?" No doubt it would be about £50 for the three channels.

I wish now to turn to the subject of local radio. Independent local radio was an experiment. It was unique in that no other country had tried to establish an independent radio system against competition of the size of that provided by the BBC, a well-established and excellent service. Although we in Opposition, and I in particular, pushed the whole idea of local radio, it was bound to be experimental until we found how it would turn out. Now, after a reasonable experience, we can say that it is definitely viable.

Independent local radio got off to a shaky start with the two London stations, Capital and LBC, and to start with they lost money. But the position now, after three years after those stations went on the air, is that the main companies are making money and are viable and that the smaller companies soon will be. The interesting point is that, provided one has the right size of establishment, a very small town can have a viable radio station. I see no difficulty in raising the number of independent radio stations to 60 or 70 before we reach as many as we can manage. The smaller the station, the more truly local it is and the greater the number of listeners. That is a very healthy sign.

The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) said that programmes were not good. I wonder whether he is competent to say whether they are good or bad. Many people enjoy the programmes, so let us allow them to go on enjoying them. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) that the great consideration is that of choice. There is now a choice between BBC local services and our own, and that is an excellent situation.

Mr. Mendelson

If the hon. Gentleman wants to quote me, let him do so accurately. I did not use the word "good" at any time in my speech. I said that one station comprised 84 per cent. pop music and in the other case the programmes were 74 per cent. news. That was all I said about the two commercial stations. I did not say anything about their being good or bad.

Sir P. Bryan

The hon. Gentleman did not make those comments in the most complimentary fashion. One volume of the published evidence to the Annan Committee is devoted to local radio, and the BBC's evidence was that local radio should be one of the BBC's main areas of expansion. That seems to be a great error. Commercially, it does not make any difference. In Manchester we have a commercial station and a BBC local radio station, and I do not believe that any harm is done. In the best of worlds, I should like to see that same situation in all large towns. If one is looking for areas of contraction and savings, local radio must be a target. If it can be supplied free of charge by independent radio, and if no BBC station has been established in the area it will not be an area of expansion by the BBC.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West that our British system compares well with that of most other countries—in my view, not only well but brilliantly. The Annan Committee will obviously do its best to try to make it better, and I hope very much that that will happen. However, our basic structure, as much by chance as by good management, happens to be right now. One of the great factors is that there are so many sources. The fact that there are 15 television companies and the BBC as well provides us with a lot of places from which programmes can come. This gives enormous diversity and choice and the great strength that goes with it.

Lastly, we must remember that Annan will not decide but will recommend. Pilkington recommended, but the recommendations were never put into force because the Government of the day did not agree with them. Annan has a duty to put the facts and recommendations before us. I support those who have said tonight that this is the beginning of the discussion. It should then be in our hands for more thorough discussion, after which the Government of the day can make decisions.

12.47 a.m.

Mr. J. M. Craigen (Glasgow, Mary-hill)

Tonight's debate has been a little like the kettle calling the pot black. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) was correct in thinking that Parliament should discuss television and broadcasting more frequently, but the fact remains that what goes on in Parliament is discussed a very great deal outside on television and radio. Indeed, on this point one hon. Member was quite correct in talking about the extent to which forecasting has become a major preoccupation of the media. Events are more or less being steered in one direction or another before they actually occur. Probably the events of this afternoon's debate have been one of the biggest anticlimaxes of all.

However, tonight's debate about extending the BBC's licence seems more by way of a bridging arrangement, because, as the hon. Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) pointed out, we are really waiting for Annan, and when the report arrives we may not like what it proposes.

I should like to raise a point concerning decentralisation within the BBC. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North referred to the size of the corporation. In this respect more has been done in recent times to try to develop centres within the United Kingdom—for example, the Scottish dimension of the BBC. It seems to me very important that more of the programme production work should be done in centres outwith the London area. This could have a stimulating effect on the production of programmes. Indeed, several of the regional networks in independent television broadcasting, for example, feed some interesting programmes into their national network. It is important that the BBC should be no less forward-looking in this respect.

Reference has been made to the importance of local broadcasting. There is no doubt that some of the commercial stations are doing better than was originally expected. Radio Clyde has a very sizeable audience within its catchment area. Moreover, it recently promoted Clyde Fair '76, which was an excellent example of the way in which a commercial radio station could identify itself with the community and promote what amounted to a people's festival within the Clydeside area. I think, however, that it would be most undesirable if the BBC were to be commercialised at either national or local level. One of the dangers at the moment in broadcasting and television is the degree to which there is an interlocking with the newspaper industry.

As to external services, reference was made to their quality and cost. Obviously these are stringent times, but I am fairly impressed with the quality of some of the output of BBC external broadcasting.

Concern has also been expressed about our national values and the tone set by broadcasting and television in this country. I take the view that television does have an important formative effect on national thinking. I agree with some of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) in respect of violence on the television screens. This is not a case where people are sitting in a cinema and are aware that they are watching the screen. Television is in the corner of their own home and is seen by all the family.

I have no doubt that quite a few Ph.Ds will be earned by people studying the significance of violence on television and whether it generates even more violence. My own view—I think that members of the police will accept this—is that a good many crimes today are imitative, and some of our criminals are learning quite a few new tricks from the script writers of certain television programmes

In industrial reporting we have seen the degree to which television and radio reporters can alter the development and outcome of industrial disputes. More recently we have seen the impact they can have on the nation's financial situation, either by generating more uncertainty than there is already or by persuading people that there is a bigger crisis facing the country than in fact is the case.

I think it was the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) who referred to open access programmes. They are of varying quality, but on balance I believe that there should be open access programmes. It is important that more people become involved in the operations of television and radio. It is too important and serious a business to be left entirely to the professionals.

In this respect I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will encourage the BBC to have another look at its existing methods of audience research. From what I know of it, it seems to be something of a mysterious science that it is operating.

12.55 a.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

It is extraordinary that a debate about the extension of the BBC's Charter should be so thinly attended by hon. Members. I accept that the hour is relatively late but it is amazing, when we all have such a substantial interest in the projection of communication—in our case political views—that greater attention is not paid to a discussion on the future of our major medium. We have had many debates on the problems of the Press and an emergency debate on the future of the Scottish Daily News, but only a few hon. Members are here to contribute to a discussion on the extension for a further three years of the BBC's Charter.

I did not originally intend to contribute to the debate, but I have found almost every speech interesting and of a high standard. That is right, because the subject is of vital interest to our national standard of life.

The BBC will never regain its original pedestal of peudo-divinity because of the erosion of time and changing circumstances. The competitive element introduced into broadcasting by the establishment of independent television has fundamentally altered the stature of the corporation. It clings to incredibly high standards of production and reporting, of programme content and of cultural quality which now reach almost every household in the country. The impact of radio is also immense, particularly since the introduction of transisterised small sets. Radio and television reach a vast audience which the corporation in its early days never anticipated.

It stands to reason that when we renew the BBC's Charter we should ask whether it uses its stature wisely and correctly. I believe that it does. I have only praise for the way in which it seeks to come to grips with modern life, but it seems to cling to certain standards and the way in which it looks at events. The BBC seems to believe that the way in which it puts out a statement of news or comment, or a programme designed for long-term production, must have a certain rectitude and level of distinction which cannot be criticised. That gives rise to an extremely prickly attitude by the corporation. We and the corporation should recognise that it is a totally fallible institution, but it clings to the view that it is the distiller of the truth. It produces the best editorial and professional comment that can be put together in the time allocated to a programme, but we should not say that the BBC is totally without fault or flaw.

I am also anxious about the BBC's attitude to the licence fee and finance and whether it should be a commercial organisation—whether, for example, it should pursue a competition policy. Does the Minister see the corporation operating completely competitively?

It has been said of local radio that where an independent station and a BBC station operate in the same city they live together in reasonable marketing harmony. Where the corporation has an alternative channel facing it, does it view that as a totally market-place competition development or does it say "Our job is to provide an alternative service based on entirely different criteria, avoiding the intrusion of advertising but designed not to compete by offering a better version of the same thing"? There are far too many occasions when, certainly on television, the BBC appears to believe that its proper course is to be completely competitive in programme content and thus to chase audience ratings in the way that commercial stations must because of their need to attract advertising revenue. The BBC does not have to chase audience ratings, and it should use its position under the licence it now holds and the Charter we propose to extent tonight to offer a genuine alternative programme.

This brings we to the question of advertising. The corporation enjoys advertising revenue through the Radio Times, one of the most successful magazines attracting advertising revenue in the country. As far as I know, it takes a purely commercial view with its printed word, but it eschews this with its broadcast word or televised programme. It is somewhat hypocritical in this. There is no suggestion that the commercial element of advertising in the Radio Times, and in that excellent magazine The Listener, has sullied the corporation's image and altered the character of the printed word published under its seal.

When we discuss licence fees, we must recognise that there are few other sources of revenue apart from advertising available to the corporation. We do not wish to pre-empt the Annan discussion, but the communities that we serve are increasingly anxious, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) vividly put it, about the increases in licence fees which will become annual events—or, even worse, biannual events—unless the rate of inflation is quickly reduced. Instead of defending its non-commercial position, the BBC must look at the problem with a more open mind.

If Annan starts to allocate channels, the BBC might very well wish to use advertising on one channel to sustain its channel where there is no commercial element. I am a little anxious that, because of its historic attitude to advertising, the BBC will not regard the commercial element as something with which it can come to terms, even though it has done so in the case of the printed word.

There are two other aspects with which I wish to deal, beginning with consumer programmes. As one who is interested in consumer affairs, I welcome the extent to which the broadcasting media are becoming involved in such programmes. The BBC has some excellent programmes to its credit, but we must recognise that entering this new and rather exciting area inevitably involves complaints and difficulty. The BBC does its best to ensure that any claim made or any comment on a product or service has been carefully vetted and is totally free from problems. It will come up against the question of complaints from the public to a far greater degree the further it goes into the area of consumer programmes. Complaints could come from consumers, manufacturers, people overseas and other interests and services. This is an area which is infinite.

I add my voice to those who urge that the corporation's complaints procedure should be reviewed in order to come to terms with its intrusion into the broadcasting of consumer programmes. It should not take 18 months for a manufacturer whose product has been falsely accused of being of poor quality to get an apology from the BBC in an anteroom of a court without redress on the medium which may have sullied his name for months or years ahead.

The BBC must come to terms with complaints and handle them briskly and in a businesslike fashion. I do not necessarily call for a national broadcasting council, but I do call for a greater sensitivity over consumer complaints.

We are extending the Licence and Agreement for a further three years. I hope that the BBC will use this period to change its attitudes and take as much interest as possible in the wider economic world which is developing in this country and not cling too much to standards and attitudes towards commercial progress which are not in line with the corporation's desire for more money or the consumer's ability to pay.

1.7 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

It is a great pity that we have had to debate this important subject at this hour of the night. It is ironic that none of the very good speeches we have heard will get even a sentence on "Yesterday in Parliament".

The hon. Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) have referred to the problem which I have experienced in my own constituency of some old-age pensioners having to pay the full fee while those in old people's homes pay a lower fee. There is also the crazy situation that hotels can have as many sets as they like for only one fee.

The BBC could be a little more commercial. It does not have to take advertising, but there are many ways in which it could obtain extra money, including, for example, sponsored sports items.

I remember an extraordinary position over the Grand National at Aintree one year. The gentleman who had just bought the course had come to an arrangement with the BBC which was suddenly called off because there were advertisements round the track which could not appear on BBC. I go to the Grand National every year. I represent a neighbouring constituency, and all my constituents go to Aintree every year. The result of the events I have just described was that I had to pay twice as much to get in that year as I had the previous year. The only people who suffered were the public—

Mr. Alexander Wilson (Hamilton)

And the horses.

Mr. Page

That is another subject, on which I shall not be drawn tonight. The BBC could have taken a fee and gone on with the broadcast on that occasion.

When the Charter was first debated in the House 10 years ago, it was a full day's debate. I am sure that the public expect us to debate the BBC. No single subject crops up more often in small talk than broadcasting. If one is stuck for conversation one talks about the programmes, because everyone has seen them. It is also a subject which deeply concerns our constituents.

The subjects which are raised with me most often in conversation and correspondence are those of indecency and violence in so many programmes. About four or five years ago two constituents of mine, Mr. and Mrs. Batten, started a small petition in their street against indecency on television. In no time the petition had 20,000 signatures, and I had the honour of presenting it to the House. That showed that there was great concern among the ordinary members of the public about indecency, vulgarity, blasphemy and swearing on radio and television.

I have recently received from a school in a neighbouring constituency the results of a thorough monitoring of television programmes from the point of view both of violence and of indecency and vulgarity. This enterprising school, the Scarisbrick Hall School in Ormskirk, monitored programmes from 27th April to 3rd May. That is to say, 23 boys of the senior school, from different racial, religious and home backgrounds, conducted a careful check.

This report, which has gone to the BBC and ITV, brought out some of the things which I had not realised were so prevalent on television. They surveyed each subject in the first week's monitoring. Of the national news it said: The greater part of the national news was taken up with Vietnam, Cambodia and the South East Asian refugee problem. Home news high-lighted political and industrial violent demonstrations, strikes, disputes and court cases. Even more frightening was the comment on the regional news: Regional news consisted almost entirely of crime, disaster and trouble: viz. Monday: schoolmaster embezzles money, incurs gambling debts; Tuesday: murder of small girl; 800 dockers strike for more pay; Wednesday: seven year old boy found tied up, buried under rubbish and left in burning house; man electrocuted on railway; elderly man working in his garden attacked by three youths who got away in his car; Thursday: report on vandalism in the north claims that costs of damage rise by £25,000 each year; Friday: four men broke into house in Stockport, held owner at knife-point and got away with £400. One of the monitors asked "What has happened to all the good news?"

Comments were made on several popular drama programmes, for example "The Brothers". It was asked whether people in that position would really use phrases such as "your bloody chairman", "go and get stuffed", "a bloody cuckoo", "I'll strip the bloody fittings out" and "my God, you're a Jeremiah". Those are quotations from one episode of "The Brothers".

It is pointed out that in the play "The Saturday Party" the word "Christ" was used six times, "bloody" was used six times and "bastard" and "bitch" occurred several times. This blatant blasphemy, drunkenness and lewdness was the background of a Christmas party.

The findings of the team were as follows: When the reports of the individual programmes were put together the monitoring team was shocked at the amount and at the pungency of the vulgarity, the swearing and the blasphemy. Having sent the report for the week in April 1975 to the BBC, the team carried out further monitoring in the week 27th October to 2nd November, when it noted the use of blasphemy and vulgarity. Here is one comment: In how many families would you expect to hear 207 instances of swearing, 84 blasphemies and 115 vulgarities in a normal week?". There is an excess of blasphemy and vulgarity on television which does not represent ordinary home life and is unnecessary in the presentation of drama and comedy. Producers rely too much on that kind of language.

The only good result of those two weeks of monitoring was that in the second week the team noted a reduction in the number of blasphemies. Blasphemy is defined as follows: the use of the name of God or Jesus Christ in anger, contempt or frustration". There was a slight reduction in the amount of swearing and an increase in the number of vulgarities. Those reports show that there is a serious disregard of the decencies in the production of programmes on television.

I am no Mary Whitehouse, nor are my constituents, but there is no doubt that the BBC—like the IBA, although we are not discussing that tonight—causes grave offence from time to time by the indecencies which appear in television programmes. I hope that the Annan Committee will report on these matters and that in some way the BBC will hear what I have said and look into the points I have raised.

1.20 a.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

The House will be relieved to hear that I shall make only a brief contribution. I wish to refer to the impact that the BBC's overseas broadcasting has in areas where there is no freedom of information. The BBC has a valuable rôle to play wherever there is a closed State. I want to see this service maintained and extended even at the cost of further financial provision for the BBC.

Those who live in Britain do not realise what it is to be always deprived of detached, impartial news. For example, in the Soviet Union, a Mr. Vladimir Bukovsky is ill and a telegram is being sent in protest against his continued detention. How will the Soviet people hear of this unless they hear of it through the BBC? Mr. Valentin Moroz, a Ukrainian historian who has served six years in prison and who has still longer to serve, is being brought before the Serbsky Institute in Moscow within the next two or three days to be certified insane so that, instead of his going to a camp to serve the next part of his sentence, the authorities will be able to send him to a prison for the allegedly mentally ill. That is a misuse of psychiatry. How will the Soviet people know what is being done in their name unless they hear about it from the BBC?

Such matters do not apply only to the Soviet Union. What about Czechoslovakia? What about Portugal and its recent upheaval? Wherever there is that sort of situation or any form of civil disturbance, the BBC has an invaluable role to play.

We pride ourselves on being a country where liberty is highly valued and where we say we are prepared to make sacrifices for liberty. Liberty includes freedom, and freedom involves freedom of communication. It is important that we use the freedom of communication which can be legitimately engaged in from this country. In that way Britain becomes a centre of communication.

I hope that the economies of the BBC will not involve any cut-back in the overseas service. It is essential that this impartial voice continues to sound loud and clear to those living in closed societies everywhere, be they Communist, Fascist or military. That is my belief and that is the reason for my short contribution.

1.24 a.m.

Mr. Hector Munro (Dumfries)

I shall make a brief intervention to take up a subject which does not seem to have been discussed in any depth during this interesting debate. Like many hon. Members I should like to comment on various aspects of programmes, but that subject has been well covered. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have made criticisms of broadcasting standards.

I ask the Minister to pass on to the BBC the comments I shall make about the coverage of BBC1 and BBC2 in Scotland, although I have already raised the matter with the controllers and the chairman in Scotland. I know that we are talking at a time of economic stringency, but certain areas of Scotland cannot receive BBC1 or BBC2. It seems that there is not the money available to provide the transmitters in the right places. Considering the immense sums that are spent on programmes and the fees which are paid to performers for one reason or another, we feel that some of the expenditure priorities within the BBC are wrong.

I should emphasise that Dumfries, in South-West Scotland, is an area in which it should not be too difficult to provide BBC1 Scotland. So far, however, it has not been done. My constituents receive their BBC1 colour programmes from Newcastle. Those programmes carry no Scottish information of any kind. It should not be too difficult to arrange for BBC1 Scotland to be transmitted to stations in Cumbria for direct projection to South-West Scotland.

The BBC has a duty to see that the maximum coverage is available throughout the more remote areas of Scotland, particularly the Highlands and the North-West, before any great expenditure is made in other areas. People in remote areas require some form of entertainment in their homes. There is no alternative. Coverage must have a higher priority within the BBC than it has at present.

I make this plea and ask the Minister to tell the BBC "Before indulging in any major expenditure in any area, but particularly in engineering, make certain that 99 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom has the opportunity to see one or other of the BBC's television programmes". This is an important matter. I hope that the Minister will bring it home to the Board of Governors of the BBC.

1.27 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke

With the leave of the House, I should like to make a brief concluding speech on behalf of the Opposition.

This has been a most useful debate. Indeed, the Opposition claim some credit for providing the forum, because, were it not for some of our other activities in the House these past few days, this debate might have come on at 5 a.m. or later, and that would have been something of a disaster. I am sure that more Members would have taken part in this useful debate were it not that it has taken place on the third late night running.

We have had a healthy and wide-ranging discussion over the whole area of broadcasting. We eagerly await a full reply from the Minister, who I know has been listening with great attention and has not left the Chamber once throughout the debate.

I believe that the BBC will have benefited from an airing of its problems and possibilities. It will have learned that there is unanimity in the House on one matter. No one has disagreed with the proposition that the corporation's complaints commission is an absolute farce, My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) rightly complained about the lack of opportunity or the difficulty that consumers experience of getting their complaints dealt with. I believe that the Minister should address himself to that point. Indeed, I am sure he will mention it when he has informal discussions with the BBC following the debate.

We had some useful observations on the vital question of BBC finance. That is a great source of worry to the Government and of some apprehension to us. It is tragic that so much of the BBC's forward budgeting has had to take account of the possible—indeed, certain—effects of inflation and that it has so little room to manoeuvre within its present resources.

I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) managed to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because he made some helpful comments on the financial facts of life about which he knows a good deal. I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), in an outrageous speech which fell far below the high standard set by everyone else in the debate, sought to make what we all thought was something of a personal onslaught on my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) was right in exploring the possibilities of extra revenue flowing to the BBC through sponsorship of one kind or another. There is also the proposition that the cost of whole programmes through sponsorship might be a quite respectable way of financing, now that we have had experience of this kind of thing. I hope that this idea will be fully explored. I think I can claim to have won a personal victory with Sir Michael Swann and the hierarchy of the BBC in persuading them to give credit of sponsorship in programmes. At least the BBC now gives credit of sponsorship in many art and sports programmes. If the National Westminster Bank and Imperial Tobacco club got together and put on an opera at Covent Garden, they deserve credit for being public-spirited. Obviously, while they are promoting their respective companies they are nevertheless doing a public service.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) made some valuable comments on the subject of violence and related matters and how this affected families through the television screen. My right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby gave us the results of interesting studies by the boys of Scarisbrick School. I have visited that very fine school, which closely resembles the Houses of Parliament in architectural style, perhaps because it was partly designed by the great Pugin, who designed the palace in which we are working. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West said he hoped that there were no plans to nationalise broadcasting. I can tell him that the Opposition have absolutely no plans for constructing a nationalised conglomerate for the whole of broadcasting.

Of course, reference was made in the debate to Mrs. Whitehouse. Any debate on this subject would be incomplete without such a reference. She is not just the prude she is often pictured to be. She has made a considerable contribution to thought in this field.

My hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) suggested that there must be an effective way of collecting the money which ought to reach the BBC, and certainly further thought is required in that direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes), in a quite delightful speech which drew a certain amount of laughter from the opposite side of the House, made a number of very valid points. I cannot quite picture him in a dinner jacket making certain that not too much news leaked out. But he had a point when he said that we see news dressed up as part of show business. It is quite valid to criticise that.

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) cast some gloom on the debate. He said that the Annan Committee's progress was proceeding pretty slowly. However, he displayed a completely open mind on these matters and we are delighted about that. While his mind is open, it is certainly not vacant.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said he was convinced that there was considerable extravagance at the BBC and a fine effort at economy on the commercial side of the industry. Coming from him that is welcome news, and perhaps the BBC will take all the more notice of the point.

The common theme through all the speeches from the Opposition and from a large number of Labour Members was that we should aim at the widest possible choice. That is certainly our philosophy. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw said that he was a Daily Mirror person and that he thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge was a Daily Telegraph person. I am a Times and Guardian person, but I read the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror as well.

We would not have half the problems which exist in broadcasting if we had a wider choice and a proper clash of views on a wider variety of channels. I hope that the Minister will endorse our philosophy and tell us that this is what the Government are striving for. We may seek to do it in different ways. We have had enough hesitancy. Now is the time for the Government to lift the veil a little and reveal their thinking. We definitely want to give the public the widest possible choice.

1.37 a.m.

Mr. John

I agree with all those who have said that we have had an excellent debate. Whatever time this debate had come on, I do not think we would have got many more speakers to have taken part.

Ministers are necessarily somewhat circumscribed on these occasions. As happens with many national institutions, not least with Parliament, most people outside them think that they can do the job very much better than the people within. Consequently we have heard the fascinating predilections or prejudices, whatever one calls them, about individual programmes. In another existence I would not be immune from that activity, but as a Minister I must eschew it. I cannot join in the general comments about individual programmes except to say that all Governments have placed upon the corporation the ability to broadcast and that the editorial responsibility for programme content belongs, of course, to the corporation. No doubt it will read with great care the comments which have been made this evening.

The BBC has come through the debate, in spite of a certain amount of criticism, with a high reputation. It is right that we should all pay tribute to it. Inevitably a short debate such as this will tend to cause hon. Members to concentrate on criticism. But we have come to expect as a matter of course the high standards which have resulted from the pioneering efforts of the corporation over the years. In light entertainment, sports coverage, current affairs and documentaries we have a great deal to be proud of with the BBC. It has set high standards in these areas which have been followed in this country and throughout the world.

The hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) referred to the showing of violence. It is important to get a balance, and no one is more conscious of the need for that than the BBC. But the BBC does not make the world. It shows the world as it is, and if it shows violence in its newsreels that is because the world is still, unfortunately, violent. It is not uncommon or wrong for people to see exactly how horrible war can be. There are a great many armchair theorists, whether for defence or against it, who speak in sublime ignorance of personal experience of war.

The hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge seemed to suggest that because broadcasters had not done work in other fields they were somehow unaware of other sides of life and were unable to give a fair mirror of the country in which we live. Broadcasting and the creation of entertainment and information is a worthwhile job in itself. It is a vital and valuable part of our national life, and I hope that in the BBC we continue to attract the same quality of directors, producers and staff as we have been able to do over the years.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) raised two points arising out of the Annan Committee. The first was that a couple of days were needed for debate, and this was generally taken up by other hon. Gentlemen. While it is not for me to arrange the business of the House, clearly my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will pay particular attention to this. It is an important matter and, accordingly, it will get the sort of time it deserves.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the subject of a broadcasting council. The terms of reference of the Annan Committee covered things like the future structure of local radio, arrangements for a complaints commission and the need for a broadcasting council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill, (Mr. Craigen) said, not everyone will agree with Annan—of course not. It would be a remarkable report in any circumstances which commended itself universally. However, it will point our discusions and focus the debate, and from that point of view we would be unwise to be too dogmatic or certain in advance of publication. We hope that publication will be early next year.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) raised a point which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). My hon. Friend made the valid point that an annual lump payment always seemed more painful than weekly sums which, in total, amounted to the same at the end of the year. From 2nd August there will be on sale at all post offices a television stamp of 25p denomination which can be purchased and placed on a special card so that it can go cumulatively towards the payment of the licence. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw will recognise that this will overcome one of the points he made, although I shall return to another of his points later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) injected a great deal of life into the debate, and where there is life there is certainly enlightenment. His remarks were in many ways pertinent, particularly his reference to the external services of the BBC. This was echoed by two of my hon. Friends the last of whom was my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons). We are in danger of being under a slight misapprehension, because both my hon. Friends referred to the present stringency of licence revenue affecting the external services. The external services are not financed that way but are financed by Government grant-in-aid. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has a responsibility in this. Hon. Members do not need to fear that the outstanding quality of the external services will go unrecognised or that they will necessarily suffer by reason of the stringency of licence income.

Mr. Robert Cooke

The Minister will know that an all-party deputation went to see the then Foreign Secretary, the present Prime Minister, not long ago to draw his attention to the fact that there had been some unfortunate cuts in the overseas services and that others might have to follow. There is, therefore, real concern across the House on this matter. We appreciate that the services are separately financed.

Mr. John

I mentioned it because I thought it had been suggested that curtailment of revenue for the BBC might be the cause of cutting these services. I accept that there is concern. It will obviously be studied by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary when he reads that part of this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) seemed to suggest, because he invited my comments, that the BBC had already approached the Government about the forthcoming licence fee. That is not the case, but it is anticipated that the Government will study it with the corporation later in the year. I cannot, therefore, state a view on something which has not happened. Discussions will take place and they will take account of the anxieties expressed by hon. Members about the BBC's revenue and the relevant factors which go to the financing of the BBC.

The hon. Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) mentioned the financial position of the BBC and the Government's attitude to it. In fact the Annan Committee as part of its report will possibly have suggestions to make on the financing of the BBC.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw raised the question of whether the BBC does enough to exploit the excellent ventures and productions that it undertakes. He will know that many of the series are sold abroad as well as being transmitted in this country. There is in the foyer at Broadcasting House, as my hon. Friend will know, since he mentioned going there, a rack of records produced by BBC Enterprises with ingredients from past productions like those with Tony Hancock. This shows that there is a willingness on the part of the BBC, where appropriate, to use the excellent quality of its material to add to its sources of revenue.

I cannot give the hon. Member for Howden fully up-to-date figures, but of course the BBC has it well in mind that it cannot exceed its revenue or the borrowing requirement. The BBC has made no approach to the Government to increase its borrowing requirement at this time.

The hon. Member also mentioned licence evasion. It is impossible, because of its very nature, to give precise figures for this, but we think it to be of the order of 650,000 licences, which means a loss of revenue to the BBC of £5 million. There is a working party of the Post Office, the Home Office and the BBC which pursues this question. We hope that the position will improve as time goes on.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) mentioned television coverage in Scotland and in many of the rural fringe areas of Britain. It is a matter of UHF coverage. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware that by the end of 1974 Scotland had 10 main stations and eight relay stations, that another main station and 11 more relay stations entered service in 1975 and that one more main station and 21 relay stations will be in service by the end of 1976. In 1975–76, progress in UHF coverage has been particularly rapid. I think that this goes a long way to meet some of the hon. Gentleman's points. Obviously, it is impossible for me to answer every point raised in the debate.

Mr. Ashton

Will my hon. Friend comment on the popular view that the BBC should be financed out of taxation—in other words, that a couple of pence on income tax could meet the fees and that we could abolish the licence fee for everybody? Has my hon. Friend completely ruled out that possibility? Could he give any advice on that score to the Annan Committee?

Mr. John

The Annan Committee needs no advice. It was a body specifically set up to inquire into the subject. Obviously, it is better to look to its report rather than to tell the committee what it must think and believe. I shall be interested to see what the committee concludes on that point.

Mr. Mendelson

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is not in the correct Department for me to ask him to deal specifically with the question of a reduced licence fee for old-age pensioners, but will he undertake to convey that suggestion to his governmental colleagues?

Mr. John

By all means, but I should make two points to my hon. Friend. First, it has been thought that the way in which to enable people to afford this facility is through the normal processes, such as income benefits. Secondly, the more concessions we give, the lower the revenue from the existing licence holders and hence the larger must be the licence fee for those who pay the full amount. I do not say that these are insuperable difficulties, but they are matters which we should bear in mind when discussing this issue.

In this debate we have dealt with a corporation of which we can be proud. Of course, it is not without its weaknesses. No institution of human beings is ever without faults. The corporation deserves to have its agreement renewed for another three years, well knowing that within that time there will be a major consideration of television when the Annan Committee reports. I ask the House to endorse that view and to renew the licence accordingly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Supplemental Licence and Agreement, dated 7th April 1976, between Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department and the British Broadcasting Corporation, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th April, be approved.

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