HL Deb 12 March 1980 vol 406 cc1071-7

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the strength of feeling of the musical world, the distress of students of music and the disappointment of listeners at the cuts forced on the BBC, which are to be met in part by cutting the regional orchestras.


My Lords, it is entirely a matter for the BBC governors to decide how to deploy the BBC's resources within the total income available to the Corporation. I understand that the governors' present broad proposals, which will be the subject of consultation with interested advisory bodies and the unions, still need more detailed work. I accept, however, that the governors have had to make a number of painful decisions and adjustments.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, which was the kind of reply that I feared I might get, may I ask him whether he is aware that the BBC have made, and still make, the biggest contribution to music, and indirectly to musicians, of any broadcasting organisation in the world? Is he also aware that they made their needs clearly known, which were to have not less than £40 for their licence and they only got £34, which is a 15 per cent. reduction on what they wanted, and this has left them in a difficult position?

Secondly, may 1 ask whether the noble Lord is aware that the very highly skilled professional musicians who are particularly affected by the recent decisions—and there is a great scarcity of these musicians—require, above all things, steady employment on annual contracts, and that the BBC has reduced its annual contracts by 172 places, from 551 to 379, as a result of this unsympathetic treatment by the Government?


My Lords, the Government are indeed aware of the problems which the noble Lord raised but, as a former Minister of the Arts, I hope he will not think it impertinent if I tell him that these very detailed matters are much better raised in the form of an Unstarred Question or a two-and-a-half hour debate.


We will have one later, my Lords.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he has thought of approaching the commercial broadcasting and television companies to see whether they could begin to make some kind of contribution to music in this country? The present situation, coupled with the BBC's cuts, is catastrophic, and the failure of these extremely rich com- panies to provide anything like adequate support for music is a disgrace.


My Lords, I will pass on to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary the suggestion my noble friend makes.


My Lords, as regards the projected murder of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Scotland, may I ask the Minister whether he realises that this has outraged the entire musical world? In view of the volume of protests, not only from Scotland but from many other countries, may I ask the noble Lord to consider whether the Government might make a formal request to the BBC not to do this, because this act of vandalism—and it is no less—is not only unprecedented but uncharacteristic of the BBC?


My Lords, the Government are very well aware that the proposed cuts have made front page news in Scottish national dailies, as they have in many publications elsewhere in Britain. I will certainly pass on to my right honourable friend the suggestion which the noble Lord makes.


My Lords, surely one issue of general importance which should not be deferred to the Unstarred Question which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, intends to put down is the interference by the Government in the BBC's proposal to raise the licence fee. Is it not a fact that if the BBC's request had been granted there would have been no question of having to cut any of the orchestras as they are being cut now? Will the Minister take this one back and reconsider the refusal of the Government to allow the BBC the revenue it needs? Would that not be in accordance with the general policy followed by the Conservatives of loosening the reins of Government and allowing a greater degree of freedom among bodies such as the BBC which hitherto have been subject to too great a degree of Government control?


My Lords, that supplementary question by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, demonstrates the complexity of this problem. He is of course aware that the increase in licence fee which took place in November 1979 and announced by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was an increase for at least two years. I do not think I can add to what my right honourable friend said on that occasion.


My Lords, cannot the Minister ask the BBC to look again at ways and means of finding the necessary money? There has been—and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played a part in it—a considerable resurgence of musical life in Scotland. These cuts will be disastrous. Is the noble Lord aware that this is not the time to impoverish Scotland or the regions?


My Lords, I will pass on to my right honourable friend the suggestions which the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, has made, but the real difficulty is that it is a matter for internal organisation within the BBC.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, while I think the sum of £34 for a licence is high enough for the time being, may I ask my noble friend whether it is possible to ask those who are making a great deal of money out of North Sea oil or whisky to pick up, as the Americans say, this tab?


My Lords, my noble friend has made a very helpful suggestion which will be brought to the attention of my right honourable friend.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the difficult climate of Northern Ireland another spark of life has been dimmed by these cuts forced on the BBC? Will the Minister use his good offices and influence with his Northern Ireland Ministerial colleagues to encourage efforts to retain the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra in suitable alternative musical employment in Northern Ireland?


My Lords, the supplementaries on this Question have demonstrated the great importance of this topic, and I will certainly pass on to my relevant right honourable friends a copy of Hansard of the proceedings in your Lordships' House this afternoon.


My Lords, would the Government consider, perhaps through the Minister of Sport, approaching both the BBC and the independent companies with a view to the rationalisation of the showing of sporting activities? It would save vast sums of money if they agreed to operate on an alternative basis, so avoiding duplication which the country really cannot afford, not only in terms of money but in terms of the starvation of cultural activities which are very dear to people not only in Scotland but in all parts of the British Isles. All we need is a little common sense and initiative. On this one occasion would the Government show willing in this respect?


I think that is another question, my Lords. The Government are, naturally, willing to receive and examine helpful suggestions in this connection, but I cannot guarantee more than that.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a number of oil companies, American and other, are "picking up the tab "to a substantial extent in support of other Scottish musical organisations, notably the Scottish National Orchestra, of which I was until recently the chairman, and that it would be unfortunate if there was any suggestion that those funds might be diverted away to another source, because these existing organisations are seriously threatened financially as to their existence at the present time?


My Lords, while being aware of what my noble friend said, I can only bear those matters in mind.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister to remind the Managing Director of BBC Radio that less than 12 months ago he said that the very point of public service broadcasting, and indeed its reason for survival, was to nurture musicians? Would the noble Lord not agree that if the BBC were to withdraw from this role it would be disastrous both for music and the nation?


My Lords, I think we are getting into difficult waters because that is rather far from the original Question. While I have every sympathy with what the noble Lord said, I do not think I can commit the Government to anything further on this matter at the present time.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this is not the first occasion on which the BBC Scottish Orchestra has been under the threat of being disbanded? Is he aware that there will again be very strong pressure indeed for it to be retained on this occasion?


My Lords, the Government are aware that the financial restraints have been very considerable, but the central issue is that the BBC is not immune from the problems posed by inflation, a problem which occurred during the time of Governments of both parties over a period of at least 10 years.


My Lords, if the regional orchestras are to be cut, will the Government confirm that they will now not require the Arts Council to cut the already meagre grants to the national orchestras?


My Lords, the noble Lord is making a suggestion which is quite outside the terms of this Question, and I think that it would be quite inappropriate for me to comment at this point.

The Earl of SELKIRK

My Lords, since local radio is now being developed all over the country, is it necessary for the BBC to have four radio channels? Could these not be run by regional radio or, alternatively, by radio which includes advertisements.


My Lords, I do not think that I should be straying too far from my brief if I said that one of the central issues has been the expansion of local radio in extending the services of the BBC during the time of severe shortage of resources.


My Lords, while I accept the fact that your Lordships have a great interest in this subject, I wonder whether I might remind you that my noble friend's original Answer was that this was a matter for the BBC. I think that your Lordships will agree that my noble friend has—to use the expression of my noble friend Lord Eccles—picked up the tab for the BCC fairly effectively. Your Lordships may consider that it might be desirable if we moved on to the next business.