§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Beaverbrook rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th March be approved. [15th Report from the Joint Committee]
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the order be approved. I shall not detain your Lordships long on this matter, the essence of which has already been the subject of earlier discussion in your Lordships' House.
§ This order, which was considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on 24th March, extends the life of the Independent Broadcasting Authority from its present expiry date of 31st December 1996 to 31st December 2005. The need for this extension results directly from the Broadcasting Bill to which this House gave a Third Reading on 2nd February. Your Lordships will recall that one purpose of that Bill was to extend the contract period for a direct broadcasting by satellite service from 12 to 15 years in order that adequate returns could be made by investors in this expensive and risky venture. During the Second Reading debate on the Bill I told your Lordships that if the Bill were approved I would return in due course to seek your Lordships' agreement to an order which provided a parallel extension to the life of the IBA.323
§ We expect that the latest date on which a DBS service will start to be the autumn of 1990. In these circumstances the contract for providing the service will run until the autumn of the year 2005. At present the IBA will cease to exist on 3Ist December 1996 and the purpose of the present order is to extend its life until 31st December 2005 so that it has the power to enter into the necessary legal arrangements with the company that is to provide the satellite and the programmes for the DBS service. It is hoped that the IBA will be in a position to enter into these arangements next month so that an early start can be made on acquiring the satellite and beginning the necessary commercial transactions. This is why the order comes before the House today. I hope that your Lordships will give it your approval. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th March be approved. [15th Report from the Joint Committee]—(Lord Beaverbrook.)
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order. I confess right away that, having examined it vertically, horizontally, upside down, backwards and forwards, I do not find it much of a vehicle for hanging a great many of the things that I should like to say about broadcasting and about the various pieces of information we have been given from time to time. As the Minister pointed out, the order extends by four years the IBA's statutory life. I should like to pose a question which I do not expect him to be able to answer today. With the problems attached to finding sufficient funds to get DBS off the ground, have they given themselves enough time? It is not that I am asking for an extension but I wonder whether DBS will become viable in the early 1990s as the Government seem optimistically to think.
We have had, and are in the process of having, a series of piecemeal proposals all to do with broadcasting, whether concerning the BBC or the IBA. We have had the report of the Peacock Committee. We have also had the Broadcasting Bill, which I understand will receive its Third Reading today in another place. We have had a Green Paper on radio, though so far there has been no further parliamentary discussion on it. I also wonder what will be the relationship between the present ITV system and DBS when it comes along. All these important problems will have to be grasped at some time or other. The extension to the ITV franchises to which we agreed when the Broadcasting Bill was before us (and no doubt it will go through the Commons as well) extends the franchises but still leaves a great many questions open. It is impossible to treat the proposals on DBS quite separately from ITV.
I gave notice to the Minister that I would ask him about my next point. During the discussions in Committee on the Broadcasting Bill I raised the question of a Green Paper on television. We have now had the Green Paper on radio but we have not had a formal declaration about a Green Paper on television. I pointed out—and I received considerable support and encouragement from the Minister—that one could not use the report of the Peacock Committee as a discussion document because it was too big and too rambling in the sense that it went beyond the BBC and 324 into ITV, though the Committee was set up to report on the financial proposals for dealing with the BBC. I pointed out that a Green Paper was badly needed so that people could discuss different proposals and options put forward by the Government.
At the Committee stage the Minister said that this was a matter which merited deep consideration and that the Government would bear that approach in mind. At Third Reading I rather hoped that the Minister would come up with the answer that his right honourable friend had agreed that this very sensible suggestion should be taken up and put in hand. There are no party political shadows over it at all. I hope that when he comes to reply he will be able to say that quite firmly. It has been mentioned in the newspapers and I have been told by various people in broadcasting, in both the BBC and the independent companies, that there is to be a Green Paper. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that that is the case.
Otherwise there is not very much one can say. It will probably affect radio as well, though we have the Green Paper, which as I said has not yet been discussed. For the present my noble friends and I do not oppose the order. In the circumstances it is a necessity and so has our support.
§ Lord Aylestone
My Lords, I must admit that when I first read the order I was at a loss to understand why it had been introduced. However, having heard the explanation from the noble Lord, I think I now understand. Unless the order is approved we shall find that we have direct broadcasting by satellite in the early years of the next century without a parent body, an authority controlling DBS. Therefore the four years is essential. If that is the reason, it is an important one which I am sure the whole House will support.
I have always been a little apprehensive—and I do not think that the expression "getting off the ground" is the right one to use—whether the finances and the return will be available to those people who invest their money in the franchises to make DBS worth while. To some extent this applies also to cable. However, we are committed to cable and DBS and it is my hope that both will be successful. Therefore the order is necessary.
It is difficult to talk about the year 2005 in a new century, though perhaps it is not so difficult for me because I shall then be celebrating my 100th birthday. My interest in television at that stage may be rather more celestial than terrestrial. Nevertheless, I hope that I am still here to maintain my interest. While we have a captive Minister with us I should like to join the noble Baroness in impressing upon him the importance of having an early debate on the Green Paper on radio.
Both the BBC and the IBA are aware that many changes are coming, although they are not quite clear what they are likely to be. The Government may have had other thoughts since the Green Paper was presented to the House. I am asking the noble Lord to urge upon his department the importance of a debate in both Houses on the Green Paper so that the Government can be aware of the general views before stating their own on the subject of radio. It is a little unfair to raise the matter on this order. Nevertheless, I support the order.
§ Lord Beaverbrook
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord for their support on the order. I shall speak briefly to answer the points that they have put to me.
The noble Baroness asked me whether the DBS service is likely to start within the timescale that we have envisaged. She asked me whether there is enough time. We believe that it is sufficient but, if necessary, we would seek a further order. However, let us all hope that it will not be necessary. We shall have to jump that fence if ever we reach it.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord mentioned the question of the viability of a DBS service. During the debates on broadcasting in December it was explained that DBS is a risky and expensive venture—risky because the technology is largely untested and because of the inherent difficulties of successfully launching a satellite into geostationary orbit. There are also commercial risks involved. Consumers will have to be persuaded to invest in additional aerials and reception equipment. They will have to be weaned from the four television channels which they know well and encouraged to watch the three additional channels that DBS will provide. These are considerable matters to which the operator of the DBS system will have to pay very great attention if its investment is to be a successful one. We are all fully aware of that, and the Government wish the contractor, whoever it may be, well in the enterprise.
The noble Baroness mentioned a possible Green Paper on the future of television in this country. The Government have listened to the views of the public and of Parliament and announced conclusions on some of the recommendations of Professor Peacock's report affecting the BBC. Many of the recommendations need further consideration and, in some cases, including subscription, they require technical studies. No decisions have yet been reached on them. What further consultation will be needed on these matters depends on the nature and scope of the conclusions that are finally reached. A Green Paper may well be the appropriate vehicle for consultation.
As the noble Baroness will know, I have drawn the attention of my right honourable friend to the suggestion that she made in this House. There is much to be said for it. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has indeed mentioned the possibility himself. We have, of course, recently published a Green Paper on radio—
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive my interrupting? Before he leaves the question of the Green Paper on television, I thank him for what he has said. I accept what he has put forward. One point puzzles me; I think that I heard it correctly. The noble Lord talked about there having been consultation. I do not quite know what he means. There has not been consultation. There has been a large report by the Peacock Committee. And so far, that is it!
The Secretary of State, it is true, has said that he wants to keep his options open but nothing has been gathered together or put before people for consultation. I do not know who these people are who have been consulted apart from the Peacock 326 Committee, the inner circles and Members of both Houses of Parliament. Beyond that, there has not been a chance for people in the country generally, or in the professions, to get to grips with the subject or to have it put in a succinct way in order to understand what is in the Government's mind.
While I am sure that the noble Lord is doing his best, I am a little puzzled at the reluctance to do something which seems so obvious and sensible.
§ Lord Beaverbrook
My Lords, the consultation that is taking place is of a technical nature. It includes the possibility of technical matters, including subscription, as I have already said. If there are going to be considerable changes to the nature of our television broadcasting, there will have to be further consultation. As I have said, whether or not we have a Green Paper on television will depend upon the kind of changes that we decide may be appropriate. I may not have gone as far as the noble Baroness would like on this matter, but I can assure her that we are actively considering the position. I hope that in due course the method of consultation will be announced.
I have answered the points made by the noble Baroness and by the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone apart from the point about a Green Paper on radio. I shall bring that point immediately to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I hope that we shall be able to go forward from there. I commend the order to your Lordships.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.