HL Deb 23 July 1968 vol 295 cc879-86

4.21 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I should like to repeat a Statement on broadcasting which my right honourable friend the Postmaster General has made in another place. This is the Statement:

"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 themselves even more exacting financial objectives and the B.B.C. had undertaken to make special economies. As a result of these economies and of Government measures, no increase in the licence fee was foreseen before 1968.

"Earlier this year the Corporation decided to retain the services of McKinsey and Company 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 January 1, 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 three and half hours a week, and an extra 50 hours a year for outside broadcasts. For BBC-2 I have authorised an extra two hours a week, and 25 hours a year for outside broadcasts."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, for repeating his right honourable friend's Statement. I will not say very much about it now, as we had a long debate last week dealing with the financing of B.B.C. television, and I made my views and the views of my noble friends very clear then. I am very glad to hear that the B.B.C. are themselves making economies as their contribution to the solution of this problem— provided, of course, they are economies which can well be made without reducing the service the B.B.C. give. Can the noble Lord say anything about these economies, such as where they will be made? Will they, for instance, affect the local sound radio experiment at all?

My Lords, I am also very glad to see that the cost of the sound radio licence is remaining unchanged, because this is a tremendous help for old and very badly off people. But the increase on the television licence is a very big one. It is a rise of 20 per cent. on the combined licence; but as the cost of a sound radio licence has not gone up, if you deduct the cost of a radio licence from the cost of a combined licence, one sees that the television part of the licence has risen from £3 15s. to £4 15s., which is an increase of 26⅔ per cent.

If this were a private enterprise organisation, or even one of the nationalised boards, the Prices and Incomes Board would have looked into it very closely indeed. Have the Prices and Incomes Board been consulted about this? I welcome the "sugaring" of this particular pill at the end by the extra hours of broadcasting. So far as Independent Television is concerned, I am not quite clear whether the increase in permitted hours also automatically gives a slight increase in the permitted time of advertising.


My Lords, the noble Lord has given a great deal of information and asked a few questions. May I start by replying to his questions? As to the hole made in the Government's prices policy, there are circumstances in which price increases are unavoidable, as is recognised by the criteria published in the recent White Paper on policy. It is, however, of vital importance that before an increase is made all possible ways of avoiding it should have been fully examined. As I have explained, we have been successful by various means in avoiding an increase until the beginning of this year.

The answer to the noble Lord's question about what kind of steps the B.B.C. are taking to increase efficiency is that they are examining the financial control, and that is one of the reasons why they appointed McKinsey and Company to go into the matter. Regarding the question of reference to the N.B.P.I., I may say that the licence fee is neither a price nor a charge for the performance of services and, in common with other Revenue proposals, it does not come within the scope of matters which may be referred—the noble Lord seems to be laughing, but he has really disclosed a good deal of ignorance about what the Prices and Incomes Board can look into. Unlike the Post Office charges, the licence fee goes into the Consolidated Fund.

The noble Lord talked about the tremendous increase, but it is ¾d. a day, so let us have no exaggeration about that. He said that there had been an increase of 20 per cent. and he is quite right, but some newspaper prices have gone up by 25 per cent. The price of the Evening Standard went up from 3d. to 4d. and then from 4d. to 5d. and that is a 66⅔ per cent. increase. I have not heard them howl about that increase in price, but they make a "song and dance" when it comes to publishing a price increase of this kind. Those were all the questions put by the noble Lord that I can remember.


My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, for repeating the Statement and to welcome the news that the licence fee for sound only is not to be raised. There are a great many people with small incomes who appreciate this service. As regards the Statement as a whole, may I take it that this represents a clear decision on the part of the Government not to introduce advertising into the B.B.C. programmes? If so, I think it is a wise decision. Regarding the television licence fee, I would ask whether the Government have considered the possibility of a remission of part of the fee for the benefit of those viewers who can get B.B.C.1 programmes but cannot get B.B.C.2 programmes?


With regard to the decision of the B.B.C. not to advertise, I think that the feeling here was made clear by everything that was said in the House last week. The noble Lord, Lord Wade, may remember (I have forgotten whether he was present) that the initiative comes from the B.B.C. They have to make approaches to the Postmaster General if they desire to make a change in their general outlook. As to the question about the poorer people, it is difficult to distribute help in the form of kind; it is much better to do so by money. A licence concession would not help the poorest people because they would probably not have television at all and therefore they are not the people most likely to benefit. The Assistant Postmaster General explained on March 22 why it would be impossible to make a licence concession to people who had poor reception or did not get decent television programmes. There are 18 million licence holders and that is a great number. If the noble Lord would think about it he would realise what a great organisation would be necessary to find out whether television reception was slightly below what was regarded as normal. There would be a tremendous argument on every occasion. In one case within the knowledge of the B.B.C. an inspector went to see a lady who complained that she was not getting proper reception of programmes and he found that the battery operating her set was completely dead. The noble Lord will see that that kind of investigation is quite outside the bounds of reasonable possibility.


My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, followed me. So far as the 25s. fee is concerned I welcome the fact that it is not to be increased. I asked only whether there was any possibility of a remission for people in those areas where the B.B.C.2 programme cannot be obtained.


No, my Lords, there is not. The B.B.C. are making rapid progress with the provision of television programmes all over the country. The increase in the licence fee which is being asked for is necessary because of the extra effort which, at the request of the Postmaster General, the B.B.C. have put into developing the broadcasting and television services.


My Lords, may I put this point to the Minister? I understand from his Statement that some foreign firm has investigated the efficiency or inefficiency of the B.B.C. Why should not the B.B.C., like other nationalised undertakings, be subject to the Public Accounts Committee? Would the Minister agree that the Public Accounts Committee should have not only the right, but the duty to inquire into the competency, efficiency, cost and accounts of the B.B.C?


I am grateful to the noble Viscount for that question. It is true that a foreign firm, McKinsey and Company, although they have not yet actually looked into this matter, have started to do so. They are, I believe, the same people who looked into the I.C.I. on the question of efficiency and improvements. I am not certain whether the noble Viscount is right in saying that the Public Accounts Committee have power to look into the accounts of the B.B.C. However, I will find out and let the noble Viscount know.


My Lords, the Public Accounts Committee have whatever power is delegated to them by Parliament, and without any question they would have the right to do this.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl for referring to him as a Viscount. I can see no reason why anybody should stop the Public Accounts Committee from looking into this matter. I do not know that anybody has. I do not know why they have not taken the initiative, if they have the power. But I will let the noble Earl know as soon as I find out the information.


My Lords, could the noble Lord say what type of programmes will be included in these additional three and a half hours? Will there be more educational and scientific programmes? Have the Government, or the governing bodies of the two Authorities, laid down any conditions regarding the type of programme? And is this linked, to some extent, with the Government's plans for a so-called University of the Air?


My Lords, first of all, the noble Earl no doubt knows that the Government have not really any say in the programmes of the I.T.V. or the B.B.C. This is left to the Chairmen of both those bodies.


I said, "the Government or the governing bodies".


I beg the noble Earl's pardon. The B.B.C. may have decided on some more educational programmes; I do not know. This was announced only about an hour ago. I have no idea whether the B.B.C. are already preparing for this. I think they have some plans in view for increasing the hours of television, and in fact in future, instead of 30 hours a week for B.B.C. 2, it will be 32 hours a week. For outside broadcasts B.B.C. 2 will have 200 hours a year, of which up to 50 hours may be recorded not more than 96 hours before. Without going into all the details, I can let the noble Earl see these figures. There is a general increase in the amount of television broadcasting and more live, and outside broadcasts. I think the noble Earl will feel that this is all right. The question of the University of the Air was referred to in our debate last week, and I referred to the fact that Channel 4 was being kept for the possibility of this being put on the air.


My Lords, can the noble Lord clarify the answer that he gave my noble friend Lord Denham to the extent of saying whether the approved increase in total broadcasting hours for the I.T.A. covers also an increase of the total advertising time that they are allowed to broadcast?


My Lords, I think they will be allowed to do what they like. It has been asked from time to time why the I.T.V., with its increased time, should get more advertising, and in that way not need help, when the B.B.C. is not paying in the same way. I think the E.T.V. will be entitled to more advertising time, although I have not the exact information at my disposal. That is a question that is often asked: Why can the I.T.V. make more profit with longer hours?


My Lords, the noble Lord talked about licence evasion. We know that a short time ago this was estimated to involve a very large sum. Can he say now, after the efforts made to reduce that sum, what the estimated loss of revenue by evasion still is, and how it compares with the total which is now to be raised, which I think from the noble Lord's Statement amounts to £18 million, unless that figure includes sound licences as well as the joint licences?


My Lords, the last figure the noble Lord mentioned should be £15 million, and not £18 million. That is what we expect to get. That is exactly the loss the B.B.C. were incurring. About 18 months ago evasion was costing about £10 million a year, and that has now been reduced to £6½ million. That is quite a large reduction in 18 months.