HL Deb 13 June 1978 vol 393 cc277-91
The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill before your Lordships has but one purpose: to extend the life of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which would otherwise effectively expire on 31st July 1979—now only 13 months away. The Bill proposes that the authority's life should be prolonged until 31st December 1981.

Your Lordships will recall that it was announced in the gracious Speech at the opening of the present Parliamentary Session, that the Government would be bringing forward proposals for the future constitution, structure and organisation of broadcasting. These proposals are being formulated in the light of the Report of the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and the many comments received on the Committee's recommendations. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary intends to publish these proposals soon in the form of a White Paper.

Your Lordships will appreciate that the number and, indeed, the complexity of the issues raised in the Annan Report have ruled out the possibility of major broadcasting legislation this Session to implement the Government's proposals. In any event, of course, the Government would not have thought it right to introduce such legislation in advance of the publication of the White Paper. Your Lordships will also appreciate that this major legislation could not he expected to be on the Statute Book much before the middle of 1979, by which time the life of the IBA and its contracts with the independent television and local radio contractors will, if they have not expired, be on the point of expiring.

Independent broadcasting is a substantial industry in this country. It employs some 13,000 people and has an annual turnover of some £300 million. So it would be quite undesirable to leave it until mid-1979 to assure the industry of its continued existence beyond 31st July 1979. The Bill before your Lordships accordingly proposes an interim extension of the IBAs' life for a period of nearly two and a half years beyond 31st July next year. This will enable the Authority to continue to provide the television and local radio services for which it now has responsibility pending the publication and the Parliamentary consideration of the Government's proposals and the implementation of the resulting decisions. I understand that the Authority has reached the conclusion that if this Bill is enacted it will extend the existing ITV and independent radio contracts until 31st December 1981, but that it will continue during this period to develop and, where necessary, improve its programme services. It would, as your Lordships will understand, be impracticable for the Authority to contemplate any changes in the existing franchise areas or franchise holders for a period as short as two and a half years.

It may he for your Lordships' convenience if I were to explain why the Government have proposed a two and a half years' extension, because this is obviously central to our consideration of this particular Bill. Obviously, we need a realistic extension. Equally, however, the extension must not be so long as to be likely to defer unnecessarily the imple- mentation of decisions affecting independent television and independent local radio. The Government consider, on the basis of information from the IBA, that a period of between one and two years from the new legislation receiving Royal Assent will be needed by the Authority to complete the procedures (which the Authority envisages will include public hearings, as recommended by the Annan Committee) for awarding, on the basis of the new legislation, programme contracts, and for these contracts, particularly any new contracts, to come into operation. If one were thinking in terms of this legislation being on the Statute Book towards the middle of next year—and I must not be taken in any way, of course, as anticipating what might be in the gracious Speech at the opening of the next Parliamentary Session—it would be reasonable to suppose that the new contracts might come into operation during the course of 1981; and it is for this reason that Clause 1 of the Bill proposes an interim extension of the life of the IBA until the end of 1981. My Lords, I commend this modest Bill to your Lordships' House, and beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, the House will certainly be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his very clear and detailed explanation of this, as he has called it, modest Bill. I think it is a little more than that. I think the noble Lord is being not quite fair: it is, I believe, a very important Bill, for one or two reasons. Of course, at first sight it is not terribly complicated, but it seems to raise more than one issue. Many of these issues were discussed at considerable length in another place, but certainly I would hope that we in this House can dispose of this Bill with more despatch.

It appears that the Bill will be required for two purposes. The first is to provide, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, a breathing space for another two years before the existing framework of independent broadcasting, both television and radio, needs to be reviewed; and, of course, this breathing space will need to be used all the more wisely. The second purpose is to provide the Government with yet more time to produce their views on the Annan Report, be these views in the form of a White Paper, as suggested by the noble Lord, or possibly in the form of a Green Paper, if he thinks that might be appropriate. However, all of us in this House must agree that some definite expression of view becomes ever more necessary, because such a postponement as is suggested in the Bill means that further concern and worry is aroused all over the country in franchise holders and, indeed, in viewers and listeners.

The breathing space to which I have referred causes anxiety to those who, for various reasons, wish to change the existing structure of the IBA, and especially the television framework. One example that has come to mind, certainly in another place, is that the East Midlands are raising their voices to have a more locally-based television station than the existing arrangement. We have to admit that the existing arrangement has worked particularly well. There was an example, of course, on the occasion of the last revision of the franchises of the independent television authorities, in the way of some feeling of Yorkshire pride which allowed a station to be set up at that stage separate from the station and franchise which had covered the whole of the North of England, from the North Sea right over to Merseyside in the West. But the postponement of such changes for another two years will enable the Annan proposals to be implemented, we hope before 1982. However, there is also concern among the existing franchise holders in both independent television and independent radio, who would like to know as soon as possible whether or not they will be allowed to keep their entire franchise or only a part of it. This uncertainty cannot really be healthy for our broadcasters.

During the debate in another place on this Bill a number of questions were raised. I think all of them were satisfactorily disposed of by the honourable Lady the Minister in another place, but there was certainly one question which caused some anxiety in my mind, and I just wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will be able to assist me, possibly in the form of a letter later, or possibly he might have some notes which will enable him to help me this evening.

It seems that the broadcasting of Parliament has made a great difference to our work as well as to the lives of our listeners, who may be amused or bored—or possibly they may be appalled, but I hope they are not—by what they hear. Certainly I hear and see things in this House and elsewhere which are often for the worse, yet I believe in everything that is good, especially in this House; and, happily, everything that I have heard broadcast has been for the good. But the query which causes me some worry is the position of Members of Parliament, in both this House and the other place, who have any kind of interest in an independent television or independent radio station, and who are, I understand, for that reason, debarred from appearing in any political programme over the entire independent television or independent radio network. I think I am right in this supposition. But am I correct in thinking that such MPs cannot have their comments reported during the broadcasting of Parliamentary proceedings? If I am correct in this, I think it could be a little hard. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris, can help me on this point this evening.

The noble Lord has pointed out that this Bill is a simple one. It seems to exist to rectify the position of the IBA for another two years when, I hope and believe, the Government will be able to use all its intellect to provide a worthwhile framework on to which the Annan proposals can rest. For this reason, the Bill is reasonably satisfactory. I hope it can be given a speedy passage so that the position of the IBA stations is not harmed in any way.

7.41 p.m.


My Lords, as a director of an independent radio company, I must begin by declaring an interest in this matter; but, having done that, I must say that I have no desire to detain your Lordships at this late hour, particularly when there is other pressing business to be completed. Nevertheless, I should find it difficult not to express my disappointment at the sight of the somewhat diminutive Bill which has finally arrived here in a truncated form compared to that in which we originally saw it in print. Noble Lords will recall that when we saw the Bill originally, when it was first printed, it was rather a different Bill. Since then Clause 2, roughly half the Bill, has been taken out and, to conform with that extraction, the Long Title has also been substantially amended.

Perhaps I could, at the same time, express my general regrets that it has not been possible to introduce legislation on any aspect of the Report of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, which has already been referred to. I can understand the reasons, given clearly and succinctly by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, why the Government cannot implement the whole of the Annan Report here and now; and I would join with the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on introducing this modest measure, as he called it, so briefly. It has been my experience that the briefer the Bill, the longer the speech that we sometimes get to introduce it. But this has not happened on this occasion.

I must say that a number of matters were highlighted in the Annan Report. They were debated in this House and in another place and were all underlined as being particularly urgent—the disposal, if at all, of the fourth channel; the whole question of independent and of local radio and the control of local radio. I think that there are some noble Lords who hoped that it would have been possible for the Government to introduce some limited legislation on the more urgent parts of the Annan Report; although I understand the reasons given why it is wise to have a White Paper and further debates here and in another place before our minds are finally made up on these very important matters which will affect broadcasting for many years.

But, my Lords, there was one urgent matter which was dealt with in the Bill as it was originally; namely, the operation of Section 4(2) of the Independent Broadcasting Act in relation to the broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament. This is a matter which I have raised in this House on a number of occasions. Indeed, I drew attention to it more than a year ago in an article in The Times when, I think, other people had not noticed that the operation of Section 4(2) of the Independent Broadcasting Act meant that as soon as we started broadcasting the proceedings of Parliament, the Independent Broadcasting Authority would immedi- ately be in breach of the law if any particular one of a number of noble Lords or Members of another place happened to be speaking. That seemed to be a nonsense "0up with which we should not put" for very long. It seemed au absurd situation; and the Bill as originally printed remedied that.

Perhaps it is appropriate to remind your Lordships of what Section 4(2) does. I speak from memory and without the Act before me. The Section requires the Independent Broadcasting Authority to secure the exclusion from its programme of any expressions of opinion on matters of political or industrial controversy, or matters of current public policy, by a whole range and number of prescribed persons: members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, directors of the contracting companies, officials and so on. It so happens, as your Lordships will be aware, that a number of these prescribed persons happen to be Members of this House and a number also happen to be Members of another place.

It was proposed to deal with this in a very limited measure merely by inserting another brief clause to say that Section 4(2) would not apply to the broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament. That, at least, would have put an end to that particular nonsense; but it would not have put things right altogether. It is right to remind your Lordships of the fact that Section 4(2) has a number of effects. It means, for example, when the proceedings of various local authorities are being broadcast (as they often are) by local radio stations, that immediately certain members of the local authorities, county councils, metropolitan authorities or other local authorities, happen to be speaking, the Independent Broadcasting Authority can at once become in breach of the law. In my own area, the moment the Leader of the Conservative Party in the Manchester City Council happened to be speaking, the independent local radio, if there were broadcasting that debate, according to the law would have to fade it out—but not so the BBC; because these embargoes apply only to independent radio or independent television. There is no such restriction on who can broadcast or who cannot broadcast so far as the BBC is concerned. That is an obvious anomaly which many of us think should have been sorted out.

I have my own view. I think that the constraints under which the Independent Broadcasting Authority operates—the overall requirement for the Authority to present balanced programmes, to give fair representation to all shades of political opinion, to be impartial and to be dispassionate—are along the lines of the BBC Charter and probably a sufficient safeguard. But I understand the reason why the clause was in the original Act. It would have been intolerable had an individual been able to use his position in a particular station, on radio or television, to promote some particular point of view, he it industrial, political, or any other of the prescribed topics. I can understand why it crept in. But I should have thought that the powers that the authority had already would be enough.

My Lords, let me say that certainly I should like this Bill to have a Second Reading, and I accept the reason given that it is important that these people should not he left in doubt as to their fate; although I am bound to say that there is the odd—I will not mention the name—broadcasting authority whose franchise I would not mind being looked at again fairly soon. I will not go further than that. Nevertheless, I think that for the sake of those who work in this industry, it is important that the present uncertainty should he ended. I think that is very important indeed, particularly when we have, as the noble Lord has said, a White Paper on its way with regard to other matters. I accept that and I have no wish to hold up the Bill. I would merely say this to the noble Lord. I, and, I am sure, other noble Lords—and I daresay Members of the other place—would be more than willing at Committee Stage to insert some limited Amendment, at least, to do away with the nonsense in relation to the broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament.

The noble Lord appreciates, I think, that I should prefer to introduce some more complicated Amendment, but I know that that might have consequential effects—the Government may not feel that they could cope with it: and we might lose the Bill altogether. But I make that point and perhaps we may hear whether this may be acceptable. If it were acceptable, I should be willing to move some kind of Amend ment which would put some sense into the present position in relation to the broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament; whereas, at the moment, the Authority is (or could be) in breach of the law every five minutes in broadcasting the proceedings of either House. I leave it at that. I should like to see the Bill have a Second Reading and I shall be interested to hear the comments of the noble Lord on that particular point.

7.50 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, like the noble Lord who has just resumed his seat, have to declare an interest: I am a director of an independent television company. I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for so eloquently putting the point of view which so many of us share regarding the anomalies in this particular Bill. I have found that the introduction of this Bill provided an opportunity for the Government to correct sonic of the anomalies that have been so well described. That was their original intention; the House of Commons, in Committee, removed the appropriate Amendment. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, will not he discouraged by the lack of excitement in this House tonight to introduce appropriate Amendments at the Committee stage. If so, he can certainly depend on my full support and, I suspect, the support of many noble Lords because the present anomaly creates a situation in, which all Peers are not equal.

We have just concluded a very interesting debate on the future of the Scottish Assembly and its place in the British Constitution. It is a matter in which I am deeply concerned: I live in Scotland and am involved heavily in Scottish industrial and political life. But if I had spoken in that debate, which is presumably broadcast, it would be in breach of the law if anything I said were to be recorded and broadcast in Scotland, or elsewhere in the United Kingdom from that point of view. Under the present arrangements. I am not permitted to appear on independent television or local radio in Edinburgh or in Swansea—it is an all-pervading ban.

This has been applied in the course of my own experience. For some years I was the president of an important organisation in Scotland known as the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society, a very broadly owned and important economic organisation in Scotland. We had a centenary and independent television decided that this was worth of note, as it was. So they came into my office, went through the factories, workshops and offices, and so on. They ended their excellent programme with an interview with the president, only to be told by the Independent Broadcasting Authority on completion of the programme that it was not in order for me to appear as president of that organisation and make a few comments on its achievements.

This kind of anomaly should be corrected now. It applies in relation to political debate; it applies also in relation to the proceedings of this House and the other place. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will explain that we are on the brink of looking at broadcasting legislation in terms of the Annan Report. I think we would agree that the Annan Report is such a complex and comprehensive survey of the whole broadcasting scene that one would lose sight of this relatively minor matter about a third or a fourth channel, and so on, if it were brought into the big debate. The appropriate moment to correct an anomaly is now. I hope that we may encourage the noble Lord, Lord Harris, if the Bill reaches the Committee stage, to accept an Amendment that would be helpful in this direction.

7.54 p.m.


My Lords, I shall not delay your Lordships long. In my view, it is essential that this Bill should be given a Second Reading without delay. I am not connected with any broadcasting organisation, but I feel that I voice the opinions of the general listener and I have taken a view on this matter of broadcasting, particularly the broadcasting of Parliament, for a number of years. It is therefore a great regret to me that so many months have gone by since the publication of Lord Annan's Report. We still do not have a White Paper, or, as my noble friend Lord Lyell said, a Green Paper, to "bite" on. Now we are coming to a time, whether or not we like it, when there is going to have to be a General Election. That means further delay. Therefore it is all the more important that this Bill should get a Second Reading now. The remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Winstanley, and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, have taken a great deal of trouble out of my mind because I was going to mention the broadcasting of Parliament. As I have said before—and I hope will say again—my view is that any future franchise to broadcast, either by vision or by radio, should include in its franchise an obligation similar to Section 13(1) (I think it is) of the licence agreement of the BBC.

Be that as it may, I think that I am right in saying that this problem of privilege and everything that the noble Lords, Lord Winstanley and Lord Taylor, have touched upon is under close consideration, and that is all to the better. Judging from what I have heard tonight, I support what those two noble Lords have said in suggesting that this would be an opportunity to bring in an Amendment which would get over the difficulties to which they refer. What is more, that will cover the general problem of prejudice regarding Parliament and the risks in broadcasting what may be regarded as slander or libel. I support the proposal to give this Bill a Second Reading—and the sooner the better! I look forward to hearing the Amendments which are forecast.

7.56 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have participated, the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe, the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, who has just resumed his seat, for their welcome to this Bill. I repeat that it is a fairly modest measure; nevertheless it is undoubtedly a significant one in that it lengthens the life of the Independent Broadcasting Authority by 2½ years. There will he a running on of existing contracts, as I have indicated, of both the television companies and the local radio companies. Therefore it would not be right to diminish the significance of this measure.

I will do my best to answer the number of detailed questions which have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, began by referring to a certain amount of argument in the East Midlands about the existing independent television contractor. I understood the point that he was making. He will realise—of course he must take this point—that this is a matter for the Independent Broadcasting Authority and not a matter for the Government. It is absolutely right that this responsibility was clearly laid on the authority by Parliament. Therefore I do not think that it would be right for me to make any comment on this though I know that it is a matter of some debate in the East Midlands.

There is the wider question about Section 4(2) of the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act, both in terms of the wider implications which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and the narrower question raised by the noble Lord and by my noble friend Lord Taylor. It is right to say that the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, also referred to this. He said he wanted me to indicate what the Government's position on this matter was. He was a little concerned about it. As he will I am sure recognise I would never dream of making a Party point; but I find it mildly surprising that this question should be raised from the Opposition Front Bench, given that it was voted out by Opposition Members in the House of Commons. That is exactly why this particular section is not in the Bill because the noble Lord's friends decided to vote against it in Standing Committee. I have the Hansard in front of me.

Certainly two Members of the Labour Party on the Committee voted against it. There were five Conservative Members of Parliament on the Committee and if they had voted the other way the section would be in the Bill. If I may say so—with a gracious smile in the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Lyell—that is the answer to his question. It is certainly unfortunate that this was voted out. We had come to the conclusion that it was desirable to act in this way. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and my noble friend asked: What would the Government view be so far as this question is concerned in your Lordships' House? They have indicated that they are considering putting down an Amendment on this matter and obviously we will look at it when they do so. It is right for me to respond on one particular point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, on the wider question of Section 4(2).

I think I must make it absolutely clear that we would find it impossible, within the confines of this Bill, to deal with the broader questions which he identified. I think that is an issue of such complexity that it must await the substantial piece of broadcasting legislation which will he brought before Parliament. Frankly, I think that is the right way for us to proceed. It would be quite impossible, given the complexity of this issue, which I think is recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, to deal with it in this particular Bill. However, I repeat that on the narrower question we shall obviously look at any Amendment the noble Lord may put down.

I would make only two other points. I took note of the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and, as I have indicated to him in the past, we are certainly taking note of his views in our consideration of the Annan Report. I would take issue— "issue" is perhaps a strong word to use and I shall say instead that I would differ from the noble Lord, Lord. Winstanley, only on one point. That is when he referred to what he described as the "urgency" of the fourth channel issue. As he may recall, that was not the view which was taken by the Annan Committee. In Recommendation 96 they said that the fourth channel should not be allocated until the nations' economy would permit the kind of service they had outlined. They also made another state-merit along these broad lines. So certainly we are not in a situation where the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and his Committee are beating on the door and saying that it is absolutely imperative to take an immediate decision on the fourth channel.

Certainly I recognise there are many people in television who are extremely anxious to have a fourth channel. We understand that, but I must make it quite clear that there are clear public expenditure implications so far as a fourth channel is concerned. We are looking at this particular matter in connection with our study of the Annan Report, and I am afraid that it will be imposible for me to give any indication today as to our final decision on this matter. I should again like to thank noble Lords from both sides of the House for the welcome they have given to this measure. I join them in the hope they have expressed that we shall soon have the measure on the Statute Book.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House adjourn until twenty minutes past eight o'clock.

(The Sitting was suspended from 8.3 p.m. until 8.20 p.m.)

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