HC Deb 25 October 1993 vol 230 cc562-5
5. Mr. Whittingdale

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage when he expects to publish his proposals for the future of the BBC; and if he will make a statement.

6. Mrs. Gorman

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage if he will make a statement on the future of the BBC.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Peter Brooke)

I hope to publish a White Paper early in the new year which will set out the Government's proposals for the future of the BBC.

Mr. Whittingdale

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I congratulate John Birt and his team on the progress that has already been made in reducing overheads and bureaucracy in the BBC, but does the Minister agree that there is still considerable scope for making savings to increase efficiency, and that the best way to achieve those is to maintain pressure through the licence fee?

Mr. Brooke

In line with the arrangements that were announced by my predecessor, I invited Touche Ross to examine the progress that the BBC had made in relation to the recommendations that Price Waterhouse made in 1990. Touche Ross reported that the BBC is ahead of the progress that Price Waterhouse was urging. I, too, congratulate the BBC on that progress. The powerful incentive that the BBC has for making those improvements in efficiency is the ability to reinvest in programmes.

Mrs. Gorman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC, which has an enormous amount of talent and ability in its ranks, is fully able to take its place in the commercial world where the competition would bring about the economic advantages that were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale)? Does he also agree that it is wrong these days that elderly people should pay a charge of £80 —which could easily be eliminated—to watch television, and that the whole structure that leads to quasi-police vans driving round the streets hunting down people who do not have a licence is out of date and inappropriate in our type of society?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend has always been a doughty opponent of the licence fee principle. There are, however, more people than myself who think that there would not be sufficient funds in the commercial world to finance the BBC as well as everything else.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is the Minister aware that public service broadcasting is one of the few real jewels left in the cultural crown of this country and that any attempt to destroy it would have a very deleterious effect? Is he aware that there is already clear evidence that the pressure on producers within the BBC is leading to a direct loss of original material and of children's broadcasting? Is he proud of that?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the testimony and tribute that she has paid to the BBC, but she is underestimating the number of things that this country still does remarkably well. On the second half of her question, the Government made it clear in the Green Paper published last year that they foresaw a continuing need for public service broadcasting, which would probably, but not certainly, be financed by the licence fee.

Mr. Maclennan

Has the Minister noticed the warning that Mr. John Birt gave in his speech to the Royal Television Society that although the BBC is making welcome economies and expects to make considerable further economies next year-13 per cent. of central overhead expenditure and 7 per cent. of unit costs—it would be damaging for its productive output and programme making if those savings were to be reflected in any further pressure on the licence fee? He has asked explicitly that the fee be retained and linked to the retail prices index until a further settlement is considered in the charter review. Will the Minister give that undertaking today?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that the public statements made by Mr. Birt at the Royal Television Society convention have also been made privately in communication and correspondence with myself. I shall make an announcement about the licence fee shortly.

Mr. Jessel

May I remind my right hon. Friend that the Select Committee on National Heritage will shortly produce a report on the future of the BBC—a report which may well include some interesting and challenging findings? Could he await that report before his ideas crystallise too much for the White Paper?

Mr. Brooke

The whole House is in the debt of the National Heritage Select Committee for conducting that examination and inquiry. I look forward to hearing what it has to say and assure my hon. Friend that we shall not publish a White Paper until we have heard from him and the rest of the Committee.

Ms Mowlam

Regardless of the job that I do, I have an on-going interest in the need for more open government and for making greater information available to the public. I shall, therefore, be interested if the Secretary of State will tell the House why he will not publish the Touche Ross report that he mentioned in an earlier answer, keeping confidential those pieces that are commercially confiden-tial. Surely it would increase the open and frank debate on the future of broadcasting if he allowed the rest of us to have the information that he has.

Mr. Brooke

I know that the whole House would wish me to welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box in the capacity in which she comes today. We shall treat her with the courtesy that anyone who has been shadowing the citizens charter would expect. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is so relieved that she will no longer be opposing him at the Dispatch Box that he has come to the House to make sure that it is really true that she has left him.

On the Touche Ross report, any publication would be premature before I have made an announcement about the license fee.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my right hon. Friend consider suggesting to the BBC that it should cede the Greater London Radio, GLR, frequency to which very few people listen, and give it to the London Broadcasting Company, LBC, which is a much more popular station in London?

Mr. Brooke

There may be some minor complications in my hon. Friend's suggestion. Decisions about frequencies are made by the Radio Authority, rather than by channels taking the decision between them.

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