HL Deb 02 April 1953 vol 181 cc661-70

3.22 p.m.

LORD FAIRFAX OF CAMERON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, having regard to the fact that ten months have elapsed since the publication of the White Paper on broadcasting (Cmd. 8550), what is the cause of the delay in setting up the controlling body envisaged in paragraph 9 thereof. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask the Question which stands in my name, and to say just a few words upon it, I should like at the outset to explain that I do not intend to discuss the merits of commercial television, because commercial television has already been agreed to by Parliament and is a closed matter. I shall address myself solely to the question of the setting up of a controlling body as envisaged in paragraph 9 of the White Paper on Broadcasting, published, I think, in May of last year.

This controlling body was to be set up for the purpose of controlling and supervising the various private stations, but up to date there is no sign of its being set up, and nothing more has been heard about it. The purposes of the body are first, to regulate and conduct the new stations and to carry out a general oversight of the programmes; to advise on various matters and on the issuing of licences; and to safeguard against abuse. So it will be seen that it has a very wide field to cover, and is of a particularly vital nature in the scheme of this new experiment, for such it is at the moment. This body is vital to this new product. It is also vital that it should be in existence some time before the actual commercial stations are set up, in order to make the rules and regulations under which they may be set up and under which people may know how they are to proceed.

I think in June last year, the Home Secretary said in another place that there was much to be done by this controlling body before the development of commercial television could start—I have the reference here in the OFFICIAL REPORT, but I will not weary your Lordships with it. But he was quite definite upon that. He said that there was much to be done by this body generally before these stations could start. I would point out to your Lordships that there can be no responsible applications for licences until the terms under which the licensees may operate are known, and it is to be presumed that these rule; and regulations and terms of operation are to be drawn up by the controlling body. I think it is rather unfair or perhaps wrong to keep the public, and interested parties, such as advertisers, in the dark any longer than is necessary about the terms under which they will be able to operate.

I do not think that we should confuse the immediate issue of setting up a controlling body with that of actually producing the money for capital investment in these private television stations. In actual fact, to set up the controlling body now would cost next to nothing. That is quite a different matter from going ahead with the programme itself. Therefore, at this point, the setting up of the body in itself could be no burden upon the resources of the country. It is vital, however, that this body should be set up very soon, in order to prepare for the time when it will be possible to go ahead with the main scheme. In connection with going ahead with the development of commercial television, it was pointed out last year that this would have to wait until other and more important national items of expenditure had been satisfied, and also that the B.B.C. development programme should have priority over the private television programme. But I remember, in connection with this, that in the debate last year on this subject the noble Earl, the Postmaster-General, said that the start of the private programme would not have to wait until the B.B.C. programme had been completed. That is Very important, because it means that this private programme can start at a reasonably early date; and unless I hear to the contrary from the noble Earl I shall take it that that is still part of the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Whilst referring to this matter of expenditure on private stations, I should like to point out that, although the expenditure might sometimes be thought to be very large, I understand that it is likely not to be. I have heard it suggested that £1 million would cover the erection of six private stations, a figure which compares favourably with the annual capital expenditure of the B.B.C., which in the last four years has averaged something like £1,750,000. Without actually going into the merits of commercial television, which I do not want to do, I would point out that proper progress with this private programme is certainly desirable, because it will help to keep technicians in training for any possible crisis, and will also keep up to the mark discoveries and developments in the technique of television. I do not believe that work on this television equipment will conflict with the armament or export drives. It also provides a means of employment in areas where employment is slightly thin; and of course, most of all, it will give the public an alternative choice of programme. In conclusion I would remind the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, that the immediate issue is the setting up of the controlling body to make plans for the future, and not that of spending large sums of money.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend. I very much hope that there is not going to be any weakening in the Government's policy in regard to the settling up of this controlling body. I think that as soon as we possibly can we ought to get on with carrying out the intentions contained in the White Paper. I should also like to see the television station building programme of the B.B.C. finished at the earliest possible date, because it has been strongly represented to me that large parts of East Anglia, where I live, cannot receive the present stations. And it is in those areas, thinly populated as they are, where the people are doing a wonderful job of farming and so on, that television would be most advantageous. In many cases they cannot get easily to cinemas in their local towns, and it is not possible for them to get an alternative programme. We know that there must be some further delay until finance and materials are available, but I hope there is no weakening with regard to the setting up of this controlling body. There is a great deal of planning to be done; a great deal of work making regulations and so on, so that the alternative stations may know under what conditions they will have to operate. With those few words, I desire to support what has been said by my noble friend Lord Fairfax of Cameron.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, for putting this Question. I think that behind it there is a genuine fear that there has been or maybe some delay in dealing with the matter of establishing, or allowing to be established, commercial television stations. It gives me an opportunity that I appreciate of dispelling, I hope, some of that uneasiness by saying, straight away, that the Government announced their policy last summer, of allowing competitive television, and intend to carry out that policy at the earliest possible moment.

With regard to the specific question which the noble Lord addressed to me, about how soon after the starting of the television stations, commercial stations would be allowed to begin operating, I think it is best for me to refer him back to those debates in which, I think, the position was made quite clear. It is true that the noble Lord referred in his Question only to the appointment of the controlling body, which is to regulate the conduct of the new stations, to exercise general oversight of the programmes and generally to act as a safeguard against any possible abuses.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if, before answering the noble Lord on that very limited point, I touch on the general background of the subject. In the first place, let me make it clear that major capital developments for television, whether by the B.B.C. or other potential broadcasters, are not being held up for lack of a controlling body. They have been held up simply and solely because, in this and many other spheres, it has hitherto seemed necessary to the Government to concentrate our national resources rather on defence and exports. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, himself said. Your Lordships will recall the Government's policy as laid down in the White Paper and in debate. It is to permit, in television broadcasting, some element of competition when the calls on capital resources at present needed for purposes of greater national importance make this feasible. To this statement of policy the Government adhere, but the words of the White Paper which I have quoted would, in fact, have had no meaning and no justification at all if, at the time, immediate action in introducing competitive television had been considered possible. Whether or not, therefore, the point has now been reached when further capital expenditure on television development can be permitted—and the Government realise that many people feel strongly that dais is so—I must make it clear beyond any shadow of doubt that there can be no question of the Government's having in any way fallen behind in their programme as announced and approved by Parliament only ten months ago. On the other hand, I can assure noble Lords that this matter is, and has been, under constant review by the Government, with a view to allowing the earliest possible relaxation.

I gather, however, that there is another point that is worrying the noble Lord at the moment. He fears that even when the go-ahead is possible, so far as material resources are concerned, the Government will not be ready with their plans and conditions for the issue of licences for sponsored television. I think I am right in interpreting his fear. Let me at once reassure him not only on this but or another point that is of more immediate significance. He has not, in his Question, mentioned the Television Advisory Committee and the very essential information that is needed from it with regard to the availability of frequencies, without which the radio industry can make no progress in preparing sets and equipment for competitive television.

I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that very satisfactory progress has been made in this field. The reconstituted Television Advisory Committee, under the chairmanship of Admiral Sir Charles Daniel, have done a really remarkable job in examining the technical problems involved. I hope to receive their first Report in the very near future, by which I mean, if not actually during this month—and that is not yet out of the question—at least early in May. My present intention is that the Report should be published. I have not yet seen it, but unless some strange circumstances arise, it is my intention that it should be published. In any event, the information contained in it will be made available to the radio industry without delay. That means that the information should be in their hands at any rate some time during next month.

I can now come to the direct Question of the noble Lord about the controlling body, its powers and functions and terms of reference. Early last autumn I appointed a Working Party for the very special purpose of studying this whole subject. As the noble Lord has said, there is an immense amount of material to be collected about it, and I thought there should be no delay upon that matter. The Working Party have just completed a thorough survey on the problems that are involved and, at the same time, have examined very carefully the corresponding machinery in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where commercial broadcasting is allowed in one form or another. I feel that that information will be of value.

Perhaps, in passing, I may be allowed to mention, as an illustration of the complexities of the problem, just a few of the fundamental questions which the Government have to consider in preparing their proposals about the terms and conditions upon which competitive television will operate and the nature of the controlling body, which they have undertaken to bring before Parliament before the first station is licensed. This, of course, is a matter which the Government have to consider. I believe that a great number of these questions are of such fundamental importance that we should not hand them over to the controlling body without some important Ministerial decisions and guidance upon which that body should work. What are some of the questions? I will endeavour to outline them.

What action should be taken to control monopolistic tendencies? How shall we limit the number of stations to serve any one area or the country as a whole? Should foreign capital be allowed to participate? Should the hours of transmission be limited and controlled? How long should the licences run? Should we provide, as in the case of the broadcast licensing system, for the Government to take over the service at the end of the licensing period, and, if so, on what terms? What is to be the degree of Ministerial responsibility to Parliament in regard to its actions? To what extent should it be given statutory powers and in what respect should it be only advisory? How is it to be financed? These are the examples of the questions that must be considered before the Government can decide finally not only the terms and conditions of the licences but precisely the nature and functions of the controlling body.

I want to assure the noble Lord, and I want him to take this as a strong assurance, that these matters are being considered very urgently and he need have no fears whatsoever that the controlling body will not be set up in time to fulfil its appointed task. I want to go further than that and assure him that it is my firm intention that it shall be set up sufficiently ahead of that time—that is the point the noble Lord himself stressed and I agree with him strongly upon it—to be able to survey its problems and responsibilities well before it is asked to function. I think he places great importance on that. I certainly do. I think it is most important. Its task is going to be a difficult and complicated one and it must be set up in time to have a good look at its job before it is asked to function.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, before we depart from the subject, I should like to ask the noble Earl whether he is satisfied that there are not elements of cumulative delay in this. No doubt the controlling body, as he says, will be set up in ample time to perform their functions, but it seems to me that there is abundant opportunity for great delays before there are functions to perform. I see that the Television Advisory Committee have drawn up a Report, in which they are going to recommend wavelengths and all sorts of things. Is the noble Earl going to publish at the same time the decisions he is going to take on those recommendations, or is the Report to be in the nature of a Blue Book, open to public debate, and at some later stage the Government will bring forward their proposals? If it is the latter, there are possibilities of considerable delay. I thought the other important decisions which the noble Earl detailed might have been decisions taken by now if a body competent to take them had been in existence. I am not sure whether it is a matter for this body or whether it is a matter for the Department or the Minister. But, at the worst, I suggest that there can be considerable delays before this eventual body has any functions to perform, though, of course, the noble Earl will produce the body well in time to perform its functions.


My Lords, by leave of the House, I will try to answer the questions raised by the noble Lord. In suggesting that there had been cumulative delay, I think it would have been helpful if the noble Lord could have given us examples of that delay.


May I correct the noble Earl? I said there would be opportunities of delay.


But there is generally something behind the suggestion that opportunities are available. I made it clear, if the noble Lord had been good enough to listen to my remarks, that the Television Advisory Committee were appointed as soon as I could get a body I thought good enough to consider the subject, and they have done a remarkable job. To anyone not familiar with the complications of the frequencies, band waves, channels, and all the technical problems with which they have had to deal, it is hard to realise how remarkable a job the Committee have done in producing their Report so quickly. I would tell the noble Lord that the Report might well have been published already were it not that those I appointed, particularly those representing the radio industry itself, represented to me that, so important were these complicated problems to them, involving the expenditure of many hundreds of thousands of pounds, possibly millions of pounds, if the wrong technical advice were given, I should not press the Committee for their Report so hard as I was doing.

With regard to the controlling body, we have a slight disagreement on the machinery that should be used. I feel that both the major questions I outlined to your Lordships are of such immense importance that the Minister must take responsibility for them. We have no right to appoint a committee without giving them strong Ministerial guidance and terms of reference. Therefore, it seemed to me that the first step to take—a step which I took in the early autumn—was to appoint a working party in my own Department to consider these questions. They have produced a very full report for me, together with certain alternative recommendations with regard to the policy to be pursued. Obviously a committee of officials cannot decide policy.


I presume that report is not for publication?


No, it is a purely departmental report. I have to consider it. Many of its main points are of such importance that they may have to be discussed with other Departments, and then I shall have to decide what steps I shall take. But as I received this report only a matter of days ago, I hope noble Lords will not press me further but will accept my assurance—which I thought I gave in a way it was impossible not to accept—that I am determined not only that this Committee shall be ready in time to fulfil their functions but appointed well ahead of time in order that the immensely complicated problems they have to face shall be faced with statutory powers behind them, where they are required.


Will the noble Earl clarify one point of his answer? I may not have heard it correctly. Is the technical report of this Committee which has done a great job of work to be published? Will the noble Earl publish it with the decisions of the Department and all he has accepted, or will it be published and subject to public debate before he makes up his mind? In other words, will the document be a technical one on which he will be able to decide immediately, or will it be a policy document on which he will have to take Parliamentary opinion?


My Lords, I can reply only by leave of the House. I apologise to the noble Lord for not picking up the point. Until I see the report, it is difficult to say. I assume that 70 or 80 per cent. of it will be of a technical character, presenting me with the facts. It may or may not have to be confirmed by Ministerial decision, but there can be no question about such things as the availability of certain numbers of bands and channels and the manner in which these channels can be best apportioned. I suppose, inevitably, technical facts and technical reports entail certain Ministerial decisions, and they naturally will be made available at the earliest possible moment. What I have to keep in mind is that it is vital for the radio industry to have its information as soon as possible, because it is going to take a year or two for them to make use of such information.


I realise that this is quite out of order, but I want the noble Earl to appreciate that any question of delay which I suggested was not with malice aforethought. It is merely the possibility of breeding delays through these various reports.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, most warmly for his full statement.