HL Deb 29 January 1975 vol 356 cc498-507

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a Statement about the broadcasting licence fee.

"The current licence fees of £7 for black and white and £12 for colour have stood unaltered since July 1971. The British Broadcasting Corporation have applied to the Government for an increase in the licence fee to meet rising costs.

"In reviewing the BBC's forecast of expenditure over the next few years, the Government have had to bear in mind different and conflicting considerations. First, there is the need to ensure an effective and soundly based system of public service broad-casting. To starve this system of funds by failing to make some reasonable provision for rising costs would entail cuts of such severity as to damage the whole balance of services which the Corporation has achieved and which are a national asset as well as an important part of individual amenity. But there is another factor. As a country we face a period of exceptional economic difficulty. No sector of our public life can be exempt from the stringency which this entails. In addition, the Government had to bear in mind the incidence of the fee, particularly on those who live alone on small incomes.

"We have sought to balance all these considerations and have reached the conclusion that, while an increase in the licence fee for both black and white and colour is inevitable, the BBC must recognise the need for some economies and the public for some limited reduction in the level of the services that the licence fee sustained in 1974. The Government have therefore decided that with effect from 1st April the licence fee should be increased from £7 to £8 for black and white and from £12 to £18 for colour television. I believe it right that the rate of increase for black and white, which will be 14.3 per cent. over 3½ years, should be kept as low as possible. The necessary Regulations will be laid early next month."


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for repeating that short and clear Statement. Although he will appreciate that it is not a very welcome Statement, I think most of us probably agree that in the circumstances it is necessary to make it. I think that Her Majesty's Government are right not to give the BBC all that they are asking for, and to call for economies ; all of us can quote instances where we feel that in certain cases the BBC have been quite unwarrantably extravagant. I hope that the economies will be made in the right way—not by reducing quality but just by drawing in their horns where this can be done. I think that Her Majesty's Government are probably also right that the increases should hit colour television harder than black and white television, although I hope that the noble Lord will bear in mind that it is not always the richest households which have colour sets nor the poorest households which have black and white sets. The noble Lord's right honourable friend has been kind enough to work out for us in percentage terms the increase in the fee from £7 to £8 ; he has been even more kind in crediting us with the intelligence to work out for ourselves what the increase from £12 to £18 is in percentage terms. However, without knowing the proportions of licences issued, or expected to be issued, for black and white and for colour television, it is impossible to know what will be the total likely increase in revenue to the BBC. I wonder whether the noble Lord could possibly give us those figures?


My Lords, may I join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating this Statement. For some people it is a susbtantial increase, particularly for colour television, at a time when so many other costs are rising. Therefore it is a serious matter for them. I fully agree that the BBC should not be starved of funds, but I wonder whether sufficient consideration has been given to the very high fees which I understand are paid to disc jockeys and to some other entertainers. There seems to be some lack of balance in that respect.

Later in the Statement there is a reference to black and white television, and there seems to be an implication that there is a choice between black and white and colour television. Am I right in understanding that manufacturers are ceasing to make black and white television sets, whether for sale or for renting? If that is so, there will not be very much choice, even in those areas where colour television programmes are difficult to obtain. Finally, I notice that there is no reference to the Annan Committee. Has there been an interim Report from the Annan Committee?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Denham, asked about the increase that this amounts to in percentage terms and I am trying to work it out with some degree of speed. The noble Lord kindly gave me a few moments' notice that he would be asking this question. I understand that the figure is in the region of 33 per cent. Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, have both rightly said that this constitutes a very substantial increase in the licence fee. On the other hand, both have frankly recognised the reality of the situation, which is that we have a simple choice. Either we make a substantial increase in the licence fee or there will have to be swingeing cuts in the services of the BBC. If one did not agree to a substantial increase, it would almost certainly mean the immediate abolition of BBC 2 which would obviously be a very serious matter; all the more so because— the noble Lord, Lord Wade, touched on this point—the Committee which is presided over by my noble friend Lord Annan is at the moment considering the whole future of British broadcasting. Therefore it would be ridiculous at a moment like this to allow our third television channel to go out of existence altogether. Both the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, have drawn attention to the need for the BBC to maintain strict control over their expenditure; and I am quite sure that the BBC are well aware of some of the criticisms that have been made in both Houses of Parliament and in the Press in recent months about some examples, or some alleged examples, of excessive expenditure. I am sure that they will pay great attention to what has been said in this House. However, as both noble Lords will recognise, this is a matter for the BBC, not for Ministers.


My Lords, will my noble friend accept that it is not only the two noble Lords who have spoken who are concerned about the fees that are being paid for BBC television licences? Will the noble Lord ask his right honourable friend to have some inquiries made into the size of the fees that are being paid? There is a great suspicion abroad in the country that exorbitant fees are being paid and that the two television organisations are running a quite fantastic show in this particular connection. In particular, the quality of some of the broadcasts leaves very much to be desired, in view of the very high fee people are asked to pay. There appears to be a general feeling—and I am expressing it to my noble friend as a result of the representations which have been made to me from time to time—that in the general interests of the populace as a whole a searching inquiry should be conducted into the question of expenses and how both organisations are being run.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Popplewell has returned to the point which I know concerns a number of your Lordships. He has returned to the point about the scale of fees paid by the BBC and, to some degree also, the quality of the broadcasts. I must emphasise first that this is not a matter for the Minister, it is a matter for the BBC. Secondly, I must emphasise that the Government have agreed to a substantial increase in the licence fee while also deciding not to concede the scale of increase for black and white receivers which the BBC wanted. This will necessitate significant cuts by the Corporation and, in the light of that, I think many noble Lords will be reassured on this point.


My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that I have had to consider applications from the BBC on various occasions for increases in regard to television licence fees, and I am rather surprised at the Statement which he has made to-day on behalf of his right honourable friend who is responsible—so that in regard to colour television. The increase on black and white is more or less negligible in effect, because it does not reach that amount which, no doubt, the BBC would have been asking for in the first place.

Although my noble friend is not in the Department he is seeking to answer questions on behalf of that Department. Will he pass on the view to his right honourable friends who is responsible—so that it may reach Cabinet level—that it may have been a mistake in the first place when we decided that the second channel ought to go to BBC 2? As I see the position to date, that channel has not been a success and too much money has been spent upon it which could have been directed to other areas. Is the noble Lord further aware that, having had to answer, when I was in the other place, similar questions to those which he has had to answer to-day, I regret that I have had to take this attitude in regard to this issue on this occasion?


My Lords, I will recall the record of my noble friend when he was, I think, Assistant Postmaster General and had the unenviable task which has fallen to me this afternoon of communicating bad news to the House. I would not join with him in saying that the decision to go ahead with BBC 2 was a mistake. In my opinion it was an exceptionally reasonable and sensible thing to do, and I should think it indeed a very high price to pay if we were to decide not to concede an increase in the fee which would allow that service to continue.

I fully accept the second point made by my noble friend. The scale of the increase so far as colour television receivers are concerned is extremely high. One recognises that it is 50 per cent., but I am afraid that is just a reflection of the rate of recent inflation, and there is no way in which we can avoid an increase of this size until we can bring inflation under control.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that after nearly four years without an increase in the licence fee an overall increase of 33 per cent. in this inflationary world can hardly be considered excessive? Secondly, is he aware that the decision more heavily to load the colour licence fee not only makes good sense, in that generally speaking the fee will fall upon those better able to bear it, but it has an advantage from the angle of the Corporation because that is the one element in broadcasting income which is likely to increase? Thirdly, is he aware that—easy though it is to see signs of extravagance in the expenditure of everybody else—in recent years the BBC has in fact had a most rigorous external inquiry and that, broadly speaking, in my experience there is no general extravagance within the Corporation, although we can all point to instances where, in our own view, money could have been saved?


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. He rightly draws attention to the fact that the number of colour television receivers almost certainly will increase quite significantly in the next few years, and to some extent this will assist the BBC at a time of extremely high inflation.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, since the Minister tells us that the increase is not sufficient to maintain all the services, may we have an assurance that sound radio will not be cut?


My Lords, in view of the fact, as I have pointed out, that Ministers are not responsible for decisions of this kind, all I can say to the noble Viscount is that I will draw the attention of the Chairman of the Governors of the B.B.C. to the point he has just made.

Viscount SIMON

My Lords, could the Government consider—or, perhaps, reconsider, since the fees are being increased—the possibility of a rebate in fees to those householders who are placed geographically in such a position that they cannot receive one or more of the national network transmissions?


My Lords, this matter has been drawn to my attention, particularly by a number of Members of another place. They have pointed out the degree of unfairness that is involved in areas of the kind to which the noble Viscount has just referred. The problem is that it would, in fact, administratively be quite impossible to make a concession of this kind, because it would be impossible for the Government—or the Post Office, which is the Department involved in this matter—to make a decision in each case as to the quality of television reception in a given area.


My Lords, are the Government quite happy that everybody who possesses a colour television set, or indeed a black and white set, actually has a licence? I am wondering whether there is some way in which this could be tightened up. For instance, when a television set is purchased could one not be asked to produce the licence before one takes the set from the shop, or before it is delivered?


My Lords, there has been a considerable improvement in the situation in the last few years. In 1966, there were believed to be something in the region of 2 million people evading payment of their television licence fee, but the figure is now down to something like 650,000. However, that obviously still indicates a fairly substantial amount of evasion and we will certainly do everything we can to improve the situation.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, have Her Majesty's Government considered the possibility of licensing the individual set rather than the household in which a number of sets may be used? If so, why has the idea been rejected?


My Lords, at the moment we have not thought it appropriate to make a decision on the lines of the suggestion made by the noble Viscount, but this is one of the many matters which will be looked at by the Annan Committee.


My Lords, will the Minister say whether the increase in fees is likely to advance or retard the possibility of Scotland and the Channel Islands receiving BBC2, which at the moment they do not receive?


My Lords, I cannot answer offhand so far as the Channel Islands are concerned. I remember that a similar question was put to me some months ago, but it would be foolish for me to try to answer now without notice. The situation in regard to Scotland is that the BBC's own programme so far as UHF transmission is concerned, involving a substantial public expenditure programme, is now proceeding, and I hope that this will be of some benefit to Scotland as well as to other areas.


My Lords, to my literal mind, an increase of £12 to £18 is 50 per cent. It also seems to my literal mind that this is an increase of an inflationary nature, which I thought it was the plain duty of Her Majesty's Government to avoid. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, that inflation justifies inflation; and I hope Her Majesty's Government do not agree with him, either. Although he has denied that it is any responsibility of Ministers, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in repeating the Statement, offered us economies on the part of the BBC. May I ask the noble Lord for some assurance that these economies will be, so far as is humanly possible, in the organisation and operation internally, as it were, of the BBC, and not by taking the easy course of cutting and reducing services to viewers and listeners?


My Lords, on the point of economies, as I have indicated already these really are matters for the BBC. It is not appropriate for Ministers to become involved in the detailed day-to-day running of the BBC. That was the view of the Party opposite when in Government, and it is our view as a Government. Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, must recognise that in the period from July 1971, which was the time of the last increase in the licence fee, there has been an increase in the Index of Retail Prices of 44.5 per cent. This gives some indication of the rate of inflation which we have been experiencing, and of the seriousness of the problem facing the BBC. There is no way in which we can avoid this. I put it frankly to the noble Lord and other Members of the House that the position is that if we do not increase the licence fee on the basis that we have announced today, there will be swingeing cuts, not merely involving the fees of performers, and such things, not only in the programmes on BBC 2, but on BBC 1 as well. That would be the inevitable consequence of a refusal to make a substantial increase in the licence fee. We think it would be quite wrong to make a decision of that sort in particular at a time when the Annan Committee is considering the future of British broadcasting. That is why we have made the recommendations that we have made today.


My Lords, I do not propose to enter into the merits of increasing the licence fee, nor to quarrel with the decision of the Government. But I must confess I am inclined to quarrel with my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich on the principle that he has just enunciated; namely, that it is not the business of the Government to involve itself in the affairs of the BBC on the matter of programmes and services. I would ask that it be noted that when the BBC want the fees increased because of increased costs, and so on, they have to come to the Government in order to get their consent, because the BBC cannot increase the fees without the consent of the Government. Therefore, the approbrium falls on the Government for having increased the fees, not on the BBC, so surely the principle is rather misplaced. If the Government have to make a decision which means an increase in the fees in order to provide finance for the BBC, surely the Government ought to have some right to intervene at some stage, particularly in the matter of the kind of services rendered.


My Lords, if I dare say this to my noble friend Lord Shinwell, who has a slightly longer experience of ministerial office than I, it was the view of the Government of which he was a member that it was inappropriate for Governments to become involved in the day-to-day running of the BBC. It was the view of that Government; it was the view of the Party opposite when in government, and it is the view of the present Government. Once one becomes involved in matters of this sort, one will soon be getting into discussions on particular programmes. At that stage, one will be getting a degree of political control over television which would be a profound danger to democratic society.


My Lords, is it possible for the Government to ask the Committee looking into the future of the BBC to inquire into what money might be saved by the type of programme which is produced? As an illustration, the noble Lord will no doubt remember that within two minutes of the closing of the polls at the last General Election, the BBC produced an entirely misleading result. The BBC must have spent an enormous amount of money in sending people round the country. It should be possible, by looking into the type of programme produced, to see whether a good deal of economy could be made.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, is quite right. There has been a great deal of discussion about this episode, and the BBC is very conscious of the criticism regarding it.


My Lords, personally, I would prefer swingeing cuts to an increase in the price of the licence. Such cuts would at last bring home to the people of this country that if we do not want a lower standard of living, we must work harder. Swingeing cuts would be one of the best ways of bringing this home to the people.


My Lords, cuts will flow from the decision announced today. The new levels of fee are less than have been asked for by the BBC. There will be cuts, though not to the extent that the noble Baroness, Lady Emmet of Amberley, is now advocating.