HC Deb 23 July 1968 vol 769 cc276-84
The Postmaster-General (Mr. John Stonehouse)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about broadcasting.

As the House knows, the December, 1966 White Paper on Broadcasting recorded the Government's decision that for the present the B.B.C. should continue to be financed through licence fees. It added that the Government had looked to the Corporation to set itself even more exacting financial objectives and that the B.B.C. had undertaken to make special economies. As a result of these economies and of the Government's measures, no increase in the licence fee was foreseen before 1968.

Earlier this year, the Corporation decided to retain the services of McKinsey and Co. to review the Corporation's present organisation and management methods with a view to improving their efficiency. Any improvements flowing from the McKinsey study will be long term in their effect.

Because of the efforts made by the Government in reducing licence evasion, and economies by the Corporation itself, we have been able to avoid an increase in the licence fee so far. But now the B.B.C. must have more revenue if it is to maintain and develop its broadcasting services. Accordingly, from 1st January, 1969, the combined sound and monochrome television licence fee will be increased from £5 to £6; and the combined sound and colour television licence fee from £10 to £11. The sound-only licence fee will remain unchanged at 25s.

I have also decided to increase the number of permitted hours of television broadcasting. For BBC 1 and independent television I have authorised an extra 3½ hours a. week, and an extra 50 hours a year for outside broadcasts. For BBC 2 1 have authorised an extra 2 hours a week, and 25 hours a year for outside broadcasts.

Mr. Bryan

The Postmaster-General has given virtually no explanation of the reasons for this very steep rise. May I ask him two questions? First, why he has not referred this increase of 20 per cent., the third in five years, to the Prices and Incomes Board, affecting as it does the whole population and, in particular, the old and the sick? Secondly, is he aware that this extra sum could have been raised by accepting advertising on Radio 1—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]— which was actually designed by the Government as a direct replacement of commercial pirate stations?

Mr. Stonehouse

The increase in the licence fee was unavoidable because of the additional costs the B.B.C. has to undertake in increasing the broadcasting hours which I have just permitted and also in continuing to improve the quality of the programmes. The increase was envisaged some years ago. It is because of the action taken by the Government and by the B.B.C. itself, which has improved its own efficiency, that the fee has been kept down for so long. This is entirely in accord with the White Paper on this subject. Reference to the Prices and Incomes Board would be inappropriate for a fee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]— which comes into the Consolidated Fund and cannot be considered as a straightforward charge in the orthodox sense.

Advertising on Radio 1 is something which, I know, many hon. Members are in favour of, but personally I would favour considering this subject after the B.B.C. has had some experience of its local broadcasting, rather than rush into a decision now. There are strong arguments against commercial advertising on B.B.C. which have to be weighed very seriously before we come to any decision.

Mr. Heffer

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that there will be no question of commercial advertising on the B.B.C? Would he also not agree with me that the £1 increase is a high figure for certain sections of our population, an increase which they cannot afford? I hope my right hon. Friend will have a further look at this point. Thirdly, will he approach the B.B.C. with a view to reducing some of the ridiculously high fees which are paid to some of the people who appear on television—there could be economies in this direction—including some top level politicians who get them?

Mr. Stonehouse

I have already made it clear that commercial advertising on the B.B.C. is ruled out for the time being, although, of course, one cannot anticipate what eventual decision may be made about B.B.C. financing in the long run. But for the time being I am not prepared to allow the B.B.C. to have commercial advertising, nor has the B.B.C. requested it.

My hon. Friend referred to this affecting certain classes within the community. I am well aware that certain sections of the community may be affected by this increase, but I think that it would be unwise to make exemptions for particular groups in order to give a benefit in kind.

I think we should allow the B.B.C. to reorganise the way it runs its business in the light of the McKinsey Report.

Mr. Maudling

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his answer about a reference to the Prices and Incomes Board is totally unsatisfactory? Is there any reason at all why this increased charge should not be the subject of the same inquiry as in the case of an increased charge by a nationalised industry?

Mr. Stonehouse

The right hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the point. This is not a charge. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is a revenue fee for a licence—

Hon. Members: Oh.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are having too many atmospherics.

Mr. Stonehouse

It would be quite inappropriate to refer a revenue fee to the Prices and Incomes Board for investigation. Furthermore, right hon. and hon. Members opposite should remember that not only does this country have one of the best broadcasting systems in the world, but that the licence fee is one of the lowest in the world, and is certainly the lowest, as far as I understand, in the whole of Western Europe.

Mr. W. Baxter

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this announcement will be met with a great deal of concern throughout the country, and that it seems to me to be a disgraceful increase in the licence fee? Will he take whatever steps are necessary to safeguard the old-age pensioners under the scheme? Would he, further, see whether or not some economies can be made in the running of this very vast and ill-run organisation? Furthermore—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions must be reasonably brief.

Mr. Baxter

How has my right hon. Friend, a Minister new to his present post, come to such a very important conclusion without giving the matter the full consideration which it deserves?

Mr. Stonehouse

I gave very careful consideration to this matter before coming to the House to make this statement. I am satisfied that the B.B.C. requires the extra £15 million a year to service the extra broadcasting hours that it is now being allowed and also to keep up the quality of its broadcasting, and that there was no alternative but to agree to the increase in fees, which, as I said earlier in my replies, was envisaged some years ago. It is not as though this has come as a sudden shock to the House or opinion outside.

The House really must consider, does it want this country to continue to have the high quality of the B.B.C. or does it wish that the B.B.C. should be forced to take advertising to a very large extent to finance its activities, which would change the character of broadcasting to a very fundamental extent? Hon. Mem- bers should consider these points before they attack the increase.

I am aware, as I said earlier, that there are some classes who will be affected by this increase, and I am considering a plan which would allow old-age pensioners, and, perhaps, additional groups, to pay their T.V. Licence fee partly in advance and partly in arrears at the rate of 10s. per month.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions and answers must be reasonably brief.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on Saturday the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity said that the Government were winning the battle against rising prices? How can Ministers possibly say this when they themselves are putting up so many prices? Why cannot we do something to protect the people who may be deprived of television reception— old-age pensioners, for instance—by this absurd rise?

Mr. Stonehouse

This increase has been kept off for about two years. I am wholly satisfied that at this stage it must be allowed.

Dr. David Kerr

Would my right hon. Friend accept that there may be too many radio doctors and that many of us are very surprised that no more of the current licence fee is being spent on a more imaginative use of radio time to help education? When he conveys to the B.B.C. the admiration of so many of us at its maintaining high standards of service without raising the price for so long, will he also draw attention to the possibility of using more time for this purpose?

Mr. Stonehouse

I am sure that the B.B.C. will read with great interest the exchanges in the House today.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Are we to understand from the right hon. Gentleman's answers about the Prices and Incomes Board that it is the policy of the Government that, when an industry can say that it has been thinking about increases for some time, and considers them unavoidable, there will be no reference to the Board, even if there is a direct and injurious impact on the old, the sick and the poor—or is this doctrine restricted to State corporations?

Mr. Stonehouse

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite wrong in assuming any such thing. As I said, the main reason why this is not being referred to the Prices and Incomes Board is because it is a revenue licence fee.

Mr. Mendelson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a widespread acceptance that the B.B.C., just because of its high quality and great influence, must be maintained as an independent organisation and must, therefore, be able to raise the money to pay for its work? But would he also accept that a plan to pay before or after one receives one's licence is no good, and that, if he wants to help old-age pensioners and similar groups, he should have a special new rate for them? Finally, would he strongly resist any attempt to commercialise the B.B.C.?

Mr. Stonehouse

I will certainly take those points into account. My personal view is that benefits in kind to any section of the community are inadvisable.

Mrs. Ewing

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that there is some injustice in charging the full fee to areas which receive only a partial service? Some parts of Scotland get no B.B.C.2 and very irregular B.B.C.1, and this applies to other parts of the country. Would he reconsider the increase for these areas, because that would greatly add to the injustice?

Mr. Stonehouse

I have carefully considered this point, but I have been advised, and I must accept the advice, that it would be impossible, and also very bureaucratic, to try to draw a line between different viewers, whether or not they receive a particular programme. Therefore, I have had to turn down that proposal.

Mr. Spriggs

In view of the importance of this subject, and the fact that it affects most homes in the country, should we not debate this matter before the licence fee is increased?

Mr. Stonehouse

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is here and has, I am sure, taken note of that request.

Dr. Winstanley

While we accept that it is necessary for the B.B.C. to have the money to fulfil its increasing obligations, would the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that there are other ways of financing both independent and public service broadcasting and that this revenue fee will bear very heavily on those most dependent on broadcasting—the elderly and those living alone? How will he divide the 3½ hours additional broadcasting between the weekend programme contractors and those doing programmes midweek?

Mr. Stonehouse

The maximum hours per day will be increased from 8 to 8½, so that the extra hours will have to be spread through the week. The wider questions of financing which the hon. Gentleman raised, mut be considered in a much wider context. I shall certainly bear in mind those points.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has gone the wrong way about raising the additional revenue which the B.B.C. undoubtedly needs? Is he aware that what he has just announced is that fees for the wealthy section of the community who use colour television will be increased by exactly half as much as those paid by the less well-off section which receives only black and white? An increase from £10 to £11 is exactly half an increase from £5 to £6. This is half as much for the rich as for the poor. Will he look at that again?

Mr. Stonehouse

Considering that the colour fee is £11 and the black and white fee is £6, the relationship is, I think, quite fair.

Mr. Stratton Mills

What specific machinery did the right hon. Gentleman use to inquire into the B.B.C.'s application for an increase? Second, is he aware that an average increase of half an hour a day in broadcasting hours is disappointingly small? Would he say, also, how long both the B.B.C. and the Independent Television Authority applied for?

Mr. Stonehouse

I am satisfied that the increase was justified. Inquiries into the position in the B.B.C. have fully convinced me that it is anxious to achieve the highest efficiency. This is why McKinsey was appointed to conduct this survey.

It is socially desirable not to have unlimited hours. I am satisfied that the extra 3½ hours a week will aid both the B.B.C. and the I.T.V. to improve their programmes.

Mr. Maclennan

May I press my right hon. Friend on the point that the remoter regions are more dependent on broadcasting than the areas which are well served by the B.B.C. at present? There is a considerable inequity in increasing the fee in those very areas which do not enjoy B.B.C. 2 and whose reception of B.B.C. 1 is poor. Would he consider this again? We have experienced regional variations in taxation under the Government already, and it should not be beyond the wit of the Government, and certainly not beyond his wit, to devise an equitable system.

Mr. Stonehouse

I appreciate the seriousness of that point, but I am satisfied that it is very difficult to have a system which would ensure that whatever differential fee is charged is fair to the viewers.

Sir G. Wills

In view of the considerable increase in fee, would the right hon. Gentleman see that the many thousands of people in the South and South West receive uninterrupted transmissions of B.B.C. programmes instead of the very tweedy effects which they get at present?

Mr. Stonehouse

If there are any problems over reception, I will certainly examine them.

Mr. Shinwell

Before my right hon. Friend finally decides to impose this increase—I understand that the matter of a debate in the House will be considered, and that there will be an opportunity for us to come to a decision—would he discover from the B.B.C. its estimate of additional revenue which could be obtained if everybody who has a television set paid the licence fee?

Mr. Stonehouse

There has already been a considerable increase in income as a result of stamping out a certain amount of evasion. I doubt whether, if every viewer in the country paid the fee—and that is not yet the case—it would raise the additional £15 million a year which is required.

Mr. Bryan

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members are not clear about his personal views about advertising? Are we to understand that, when the B.B.C. local radio experiment runs out of money, he may then advise the B.B.C. to apply to him for permission to have advertising?

Mr. Stonehouse

This is another question. I answered points on it last week. I do not want to be drawn into a long discussion about it, because it is inappropriate, but I must make it clear that I am not proposing to allow—nor has the B.B.C. asked for it—any advertising on sound radio before the end of the local stations experiment, which is due to be examined in the middle of next year.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.

Mr. Marten

On a point of order. May I briefly seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker?

A new Member has been waiting at the Bar for 20 minutes to take his seat. One of my hon. Friends and I, the other day, had to wait until the end of three statements before the Member concerned took his seat. The day when a new Member takes his seat is a very important day in his life. Could this not happen immediately after Question Time and before statements, since he would then have the advantage of having the Prime Minister of the day to "see him in"? Could you tell me, Mr. Speaker, which Committee this should be referred to?

Mr. Speaker

It is an interesting point, which I think next Session's Select Committee on Procedure might well look into. In the meantime, by pursuing this point of order, we are further preventing the Member from taking his seat.