HL Deb 02 April 1974 vol 350 cc815-26

3.16 p.m.

LORD BESWICK rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (Dissolution) Order 1974, be made in the form of the draft laid before the House on March 20. The noble Lord said: My Lords, may I explain briefly the purpose of this Order? It is [...]o transfer the responsibilities now exercised by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications to the Secretary of State for Industry and the Home Secretary. Such a reorganisation, involving as it does the dissolution of a Government Department, must, under the Ministers of the Crown (Transfer of Functions) Act 1946, be effected by an Order in Council. The humble Address was moved in another place yesterday and was approved, and if your Lordships will approve similarly the Order in Council will come into effect as soon as possible.

As your Lordships know, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications came into being on October 1, 1969, as a consequence of the Post Office Act 1969, which also changed the status of the Post Office from a Government Department to a public authority. The Ministry deals with radio regulatory and broadcasting matters on the one hand, and Post Office "sponsorship" matters on the other: it is a small Ministry, employing no more than 460 or so people.

The Government came to the conclusion that there was no advantage in retaining a seperate Ministry to deal with these two tasks. They therefore propose to transfer responsibility for the Post Office, with its vast capital investment programme, to the Secretary of State for Industry, and to place the responsibility for radio and broadcasting matters, which is primarily a regulatory function, in the hands of the Home Secretary. As a matter of law, it is necessary only to transfer all the functions of the present Minister to the Secretary of State, but in practice they will be divided between the two Secretaries of State on the basis I have indicated.

I can assure your Lordships that this Order will do no more than transfer the functions of the present Ministry—it will not change them. In other words, the Department of Industry will become the sponsoring Department for the Post Office in the same way as the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has been hitherto, and the transfer to the Home Office of responsibility for broadcasting matters will in no way affect the licensing procedures or the traditional independence of the broadcasting authorities in this coutry. I hope therefore that, with this assurance, your Lordships will find it convenient to approve this Order today.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (Dissolution) Order 1974, be made in the form of the draft laid before the House on March 20.—(Lord Beswick.)

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for the way in which he has so concisely and clearly explained this Order to your Lordships. We on this side of the House agree that this is probably a sensible change. The only comment I would make about the way this is being done is that the Government seem to have been in rather a rush to do it so early in their Administration. But perhaps any changes that this Government wish to make while in office had better be done fairly quickly. I am not quite so confident that Her Majesty's Government have chosen the right Departments in which to house the two component parts of the old Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. I am just wondering whether the Party of noble Lords opposite had any long-term plan to do anything of this nature when they steered through Parliament in 1969 the Post Office Act, and, if so, why perhaps they did not make the change at that particular moment.

As regards the telecommunications side of the Post Office, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, will be able to reassure me that there will not be any conflict of interest owing to the control of the new Department of Industry. The Post Office will naturally want the best possible equipment. The Department of Industry might, with their very much wider interests, prefer them to buy in a particular direction. Can the noble Lord give the assurance that the Post Office will be free to buy competitively as they think best in their long-term interests?

I understand that within the Home Office broadcasting will be under the particular wing of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and, if that is so, we shall look forward very much to debating any matters of broadcasting that may arise in this House. In spite of the fact that the new home of broadcasting is to be the Home Office, whose interests are perhaps the subject of more broadcasts than any other Department, we can be confident that there will be no greater degree of programme control than in the past. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, touched on that in his opening speech. There is just one other point. I wonder whether the noble Lord could go a little further than he did in his opening remarks on what exactly will be the new responsibilities of the Home Secretary with regard to broadcasting.


My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words with regard to the Statutory Instrument which is now being presented to your Lordships' House. My six years in office included taking the Post Office Bill through Committee. It consisted of no fewer than 142 clauses and 38 Schedules, and we had a tremendous task set before us on that particular occasion and I might add, for the benefit of noble Lords, that this takes us back into the past. The idea of taking the Post Office away from Ministerial control, making it as it were a service industry to the nation, goes back to about 1931, when the idea was sponsored by the late Clem Atlee, later Earl Attlee, who sat in this House, and it took a long time before we were able to bring ourselves to believe that the Post Office ought to be taken out of the hands of Ministers and brought into the ambit of a Board.

There is a very important factor in regard to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Denham—and he was interested in Post Office affairs during the period of the last Government—that the Government have been rather hurried in bringing forward the Order for this transference to take place. May I remind Lord Denham and other Members of the House that the previous Government did not carry out the Act as it was passed by both Houses because, although provision was made in the Act for two Ministers to be in control of that Department, the previous Government gave that control to one Minister, and made him the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. The only objection raised during the course of the Committee stage in regard to the number of Ministers to be appointed to that particular Department was in regard to the Parliamentary Secretary; and it so happened that I was the first Parliamentary Secretary transferred from the old Ministry to the new Ministry when it came into being.

However, I think it is a very good move that is now taking place. I can say to Lord Denham, in answer to the question he posed to my noble friend, that this idea never entered into our thinking when we sought to bring that Bill into Committee and throughout the long period of time that it took us, working through that Committee, to place it upon the Statute Boo[...]. The only regret I had, so far as this Board was concerned, was that after the appointment of the chairman of the Board the previous Government immediately set about getting rid of our appointee, who was following on the work that we had put into operation when we were Ministers within that Department, and seeking to look after the interests of the post Office and the people of this country.

May I say, in conclusion, that each and every person working within the Post Office, as a result of the Bill as it was passed and carried through both Houses of Parliaments, [...]s in an office of trust. The sooner we remember this the better for the Post Office and what it will be able to do in the future. Let us never forget that the monopoly section within that particular Act gives the Post Office the right to undertake its own manufacture, if it feels so disposed; therefore when the Post Office is transferred to the Department of Industry that right will in no way, if that Act is to be kept in effect, be transgressed upon.


My Lords, I do not want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Slater, in what he said, although on this side of the House we recognise the long interest he has had in matters concerning the Post Office. He was, as he told the House, Assistant Postmaster General for a period of some years when he was in another place.

I should like to make use of this opportunity to pay a tribute to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, and also to raise one point of principle which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, will note and will pursue with his right honourable friend the Home Secretary. In the years when I was engaged in Independent Television—and the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, was Chairman of the then Independent Television Authority—I had many dealings with the Post Office in their broadcasting role, and later, in the last year or so, with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. I found in the Broadcasting Department of that Ministry an exceptionally conscientious group of people who made considerable efforts on behalf of the broadcasting services. It cannot have been very easy for them (the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, will remember this), when Independent Television came along, to adjust to their new responsibilities, but I think that most of us who worked in Independent Television at the time felt that we, as well as the public at large, had been well served by the group of officials in the Broadcasting Department of the Ministry.

The point of principle is this, and I hope that the noble Lord will take careful note of it. The responsibility for broadcasting is now to be transferred, we are told, to the Home Secretary. On this side of the House we do not dissent from that. But the Home Secretary, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who will be working closely with him, will now be the Minister for broadcasting, the Minister responsible for the health and standards of the broadcasting organisations of this country. They will have to keep that responsibility quite clearly separated in their minds, from something else which from time to time they will be asked by their colleagues to do; that is, to make representations to the B.B.C. and I.T.V. on matters of political balance on behalf of the Government. They will at times be urged to intervene, as all Ministers are (the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, knows this as well as I do), on behalf of their Party. It has always been a principle that the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, and the Postmaster General before him, is the sponsoring Minister; that he has never been involved with representations as to whether a programme is biased or insufficiently balanced. That has been a matter for the Chief Whips of the Parties; or sometimes the Prime Minister, or maybe his Chief Press Secretary, or whoever he delegates to act in this way. It is not a matter for the Minister who is responsible for the standards and for the independence and, above all, for the finance of the two broadcasting organisations. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, when he replies, will be able to say something on this issue, because it is one that all those of us who have worked in broadcasting and thought about the implications know to be of considerable importance.


My Lords, I am very grateful to those noble Lords who have commented on this Order. I am sure that we were particularly interested in what my noble friend Lord Slater said about his experiences, and he has enabled me to share with him and with the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in congratulations and thanks to all the servants of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. I am sure we all agree that we are indebted to those who have served in that organisation.

The noble Lord, Lord Denham, suggested that there was something of a rush to introduce this Order. I must confess that I cannot agree with him on that, although I am always delighted to agree with him whenever I can. If the thing were to be done, it were best done fairly quickly at the outset of the new Government. The disposition as between the Department of Industry, which has responsibility for certain industrial affairs and experience in investment in industry, is surely the logical choice, so far as the Post Office is concerned; and, on the other hand, these former responsibilities go as they were to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is of course right in saying that in this House we shall have the advantage of having my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich as spokesman for that Department. I am sure that my noble friend greatly appreciated the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham.


My Lords, the noble Lord says that we shall have the benefit in this House of hearing the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, on these matters. But could he tell me whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is to have an overall responsibility, within the Home Office, for the day-to-day supervision of broadcasting policy and not just responsibility in this House?


My Lords, I take the point. Under the authority of the Secretary of State for the Home Department he will have responsibility for this section of the overall Home Office responsibilities. The point I make is still valid, that we have the advantage of the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in this House. Although I understand the importance of the point which the noble Lord was making, I do not quite understand his fears. The responsibilities which the Home Secretary will now carry are no greater and no less than were the responsibilities previously held by the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, so there can be no question of the new dispensation exercising greater control over the broadcasting media. There is no question of that at all. I am very pleased indeed to give the noble Lord the assurance for which he asked.


My Lords, this is not the assurance for which I asked. I was not suggesting that there would be greater control. I was suggesting that, because the Home Secretary is a member of the Cabinet, which the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications has not been, and because he is a very senior Minister and is likely to be involved with chairing Cabinet Committees and will be part of the central policy-making group in this Government, there will be a risk that his independence as the sponsoring Minister for broadcasting may come into conflict with furthering the interests of the Government as against the Opposition. My point is that it is a legitimate function for Government to apply pressure on the media as it is a legitimate function for Opposition Parties. But the two functions must not become blurred. The sponsorship of broadcasting must be kept distinct, as it has been in the past, from the representational functions which lie properly elsewhere.


My Lords, is it not true to state that any Members of your Lordships' House, or any Members of the other place, are so privileged that they will be able to direct Questions on to the Order Paper for any relevant information they desire and take the Secretary of State for the Home Office to task if something, as they see it, is not in their favour and not in their interests? As the noble Lord is aware, the devolution of responsibilities to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is a matter for the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who will be responsible for the designation of the appointments that have been made within that Department.


My Lords, I think that I remember the distinction which the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, was making. I have many times in this House and in the other place heard the point that a Department was disadvantaged by virtue of the fact that the sponsoring Minister was not a member of the Cabinet. This is the first time I have ever heard it put before Parliament that a sponsoring Minister is somehow placed at a disadvantage because he is privy to the deliberations that go on in the Cabinet. I think I understand what the noble Lord was saying, and I can only repeat that this is a point that has occurred to all those who have discussed this matter, and I am empowered to assure the noble Lord and the House that there is absolutely no question that the Home Secretary's relationships with the B.B.C. Governors and with the Broadcasting Authorities will be the same in the future as they have been in the past. I hope that this will satisfy the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Denham, seemed to think that there may be some conflict of interest when it comes to re-equipment. Here again I think that the fears are possibly not well founded. However, what has been said will certainly be taken into account. The noble Lord also asked me whether this change was something that was in the minds of the Labour Party, or the Labour Government, when the 1969 Act was put through. I refer him to the authority of my noble friend Lord Slater, who was closely concerned with that Bill, and who said it was not in our mind at all.

The noble Lord, Lord Denham, asked me whether I would spell out a little more the precise range of responsibilities that will now fall on my noble friend and, through him, the Secretary of State for the Home Department. If I read these out it will be seen that there is a great deal to be done without even trying to interfere with the programme content of the broadcasting authorities. Broadly, the Home Office will receive the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications powers under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts (powers to control the use of frequencies), the B.B.C's Charter and Licence Agreement, the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act and Part IV of the Post Office Act 1969. The Minister's other functions will go to the Department of Industry, as I have said. In practice, the Home Office will acquire the Radio Regulatory Division, which licenses the use of frequencies, for example, for aeronautical services, private mobile radios, maritime services, and negotiates international agreements on the use of the frequency spectrum; the Broadcasting Department, which is responsible for advising Ministers on policies relating to the B.B.C. and I.B.A. (which include the authorisation of the B.B.C. and I.B.A. transmitters) and on broadcasting generally, including the use of frequencies for broadcasting and the use of cable to provide broadcasting services; the Directorate of Radio Technology, which provides the engineering support for the Radio Regulatory Division and the Broadcasting Department. I hope that, with these details, noble Lords generally will be satisfied that this is an Order which can be safely approved.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, noble Lords may be somewhat surprised that the submission of this Order for your Lordships' approval has given rise to a debate, but as the dialogue proceeds I am not at all surprised because it appears that this ought not to be a final decision. My noble friend, in replying to a suggestion made from the Opposition Front Bench, said that there was no reason why there should be delay, and said that if this decision has to be taken it ought to be taken quickly. I am not so sure. It seems to me that the matter of broadcasting, which is associated with the media, important as it is now, may become much more important in the future. Without offering an ultimate view, it would appear to me that there might be greater advantage both to the media and to the customers, the clientele, and the country in general, if we had a separate Ministry with an independent Minister.

There have been discussions in the past about the intervention of the Cabinet in the matter of broadcasting—for, instance, whether a programme is suitable or not—and whenever that matter has been raised. I recall from past debates in the other place, the reply has always been that it is entirely a matter for either the B.B.C. or the I.T.N. or any of the companies concerned, and not for a Cabinet decision. But it would appear to me that, if the Home Secretary is to be involved in this matter, with the vast range of subjects that come before him from time to time it might be very difficult for him to take an independent line. It may seem a little farcical to Members of your Lordships' House when I mention it, but I can recall what happened many years ago in the time of the first Labour Government, of which I was a Member. We were faced with the Campbell case, in which somebody who had been accused of taking subversive action, or making a statement of a subversive character, was immediately indicted on the submission and action of the Attorney General of the time, Sir Patrick Hastings, and no doubt with the endorsement of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Cabinet was alleged to have intervened. There was a terrific row; indeed, it was one of the contributory factors in the resignation of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald and the downfall of the Government, which affected me personally because I was just getting warmed up.

Without, as I say, offering a final view on this matter—it has only been thrown at us only in the last few minutes—I would beg my noble friend, and I know how responsive he can be, to take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has said. It would be very improbable that I should agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has said, but somehow I gained the impression that this ought not to be the final decision. I would prefer, and I offer it as a tentative view, to have something of the nature of an independent Ministry, with an independent Minister who can take an independent view when matters of broadcasting, either television or radio, come up for discussion. There may be a lot more to be said about the matter, but I should like to indulge in further reflection before I proceed.


My Lords, may I come in on the heels of my noble friend Lord Shinwell, to say very briefly that I endorse what he has said, and to suggest to the Government that they might examine carefully the experience in Australia, where a Minister for media was appointed two years ago when the Labour Government took office and it proved remarkably successful. It seems to me that there is a strong case for an independent Department and for an independent Minister.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Shinwell asked whether I would take into account what he has said. If I said that I would not take it into account it would be the first time that my noble friend has spoken over the last thirty or forty years that I have not done so. Of course I am very glad to give the assurance for which he has asked. I was also very interested in what my noble friend Lord Willis, from his great experience, had to say. I am bound to say, however, that the prospect of having a Minister for broadcasting would open up fears which I thought the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, was touching upon. Nevertheless, it is a point of view which has been expressed and it will be taken into account. Possibly, as I am speaking, with the leave of the House, for the third time, I might also say that the Government are considering the wider question of the structure of broadcasting; not, I hasten to add, the question of who shall be the responsible Minister. It is fairly certain that within the next week or two a Statement will be made to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to: The said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.