HL Deb 04 March 1982 vol 427 cc1385-94

4.2 p.m.

Lord Belstead

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

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a Statement about the Government's intentions regarding the future development of direct broadcasting by satellite.

"The House will recall the report of the Home Office study of DBS published last May. Reaction to that report has been largely constructive and positive. The Government now see a need for early decisions if the industrial opportunities which DBS offers this country are to be grasped in good time, in a situation in which there will be keen international competition.

"The Government have therefore decided, in principle, that this country should make an early start with DBS with the aim of having a service in operation in 1986. Because of the importance of making this early start, the Government have concluded that the best course would he a start with two channels initially; the number of channels could be increased up to the maximum of five channels permitted by international allocation as and when demand justified it. The services would be transmitted at powers sufficient to permit both individual reception and community reception with cable distribution. I intend to make a further announcement shortly about the future role of cable.

"As regards finance, the Government expect the capital cost of providing the satellite system to be found in the private sector.

"On the industrial side, various interests in the aerospace and related industries have shown that they are ready to play their part in this challenging new venture and we shall be working closely with them and with the domestic electronics industry to ensure that the economic benefits are effectively realised for the United Kingdom.

"On the broadcasting side, it is clear that DBS must develop in a way that is consistent with our existing broadcasting arrangements, especially as regards supervision by a broadcasting authority and maintenance of proper programme standards. The BBC has already put forward proposals for two DBS channels. One would be a subscription service, including a substantial element of feature films and major sporting, cultural and other events not presently available for transmission on BBC 1 or BBC 2. The other would be a service which would draw on the best television programmes from around the world, and indeed from this country. This would be financed basically by licence fee revenue, which would probably include a supplemental licence fee for DBS.

"The IBA and commercial television companies have also shown some interest in providing DBS services, but their plans are less well advanced. Additionally, more time will be needed to devise the right framework, which would be likely to involve legislation.

"In these circumstances, the Government believe that the right course, if the necessary early agreements are to be reached between satellite providers and users, is to authorise a go-ahead with the BBC proposals. However, the Government attach importance to the participation of commercial television companies in DBS. What we are now proposing would leave ample future opportunities open to them. The Government intend to press ahead with the necessary preparatory work and would be ready to introduce legislation for the purpose as necessary.

"Meanwhile, the immediate requirement is for the BBC and the British space industry to enter into discussions with a view to constructing and agreeing detailed proposals.

"I commend these decisions to the House as a sound foundation for a development with major significance for this country's industrial and employment prospects. The House will no doubt wish to have an opportunity of discussing them; my right honourable friend the Leader of the House will be finding time for an early debate".

That concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, we on this side wish to thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. The House will recall that at the conclusion of the debate in your Lordships' House on 3rd December last the noble Lord indicated that the Government would be making an announcement early in the new year; we are happy to congratulate them on keeping that undertaking so promptly.

We also support the Government's emphasis on the need for an early decision. This industry—the whole of the electronics field—is moving forward so fast that it is indeed wise that decisions are made early rather than that decisions are overtaken by events themselves. We note, and approve, the decision to have two channels initially. We also agree with the broad concept that one channel should comprise a subscription service, which would include a substantial element of feature films, and that the other should comprise, broadly speaking, a miscellany of the best of the other transmissions that are received. Those concepts are broadly agreeable to us and we hope they will be proceeded with with expedition.

More particularly, we welcome the stimulus that will be given to the important sections of British industry that will be involved in all the preliminary processes of construction and the provision of equipment. At a time when the country is suffering somewhat severely, it is pleasant to envisage a stimulus being given to at any rate one important section of British industry, and we welcome that too.

There are a number of questions that remain to be asked. We welcome the proposal to hold an early debate in another place and we hope that such a course will be followed here, doubtless through the usual channels. In the meantime, there are still one or two matters to be cleared up and on which we should like some preliminary information. First, have any estimates been made of the likely cost involved? We take it that initially the costs are restricted to our share of a satellite and the necessary retransmission equipment; but we should like some information on the estimate of costs.

In regard to the Government's proposals concerning a subscription service, it would be useful to have some idea of the approximate level of subscription envisaged at this stage. We appreciate that the Government might find it difficult to be precise about that or to be bound by any figure that they are prepared to give at the moment. However, it would be useful to know the area in which they are thinking regarding an annual or other subscription. The announcement also refers to a supplemental licence fee in respect of the second channel. Again, if possible, we should like to know what kind of level of fee is being proposed. Once again one appreciates both the difficulties and the disinclination to be bound by any particular figure, but it would be very useful to know the kind of area that is being thought about for that particular aspect.

We note, and indeed approve, the Government's further assurances concerning the future of the IBA and commercial television companies, which, as the noble Lord indicated, are not quite so far advanced as the BBC in this matter, and we look forward to hearing in due course what proposals there are in this connection.

We note that a Statement will shortly be made about the future role of cable. In this field, decisions are needed fairly soon, since technical facilities already exist for the dissemination by cable of video film which, as your Lordships know, can be bought quite easily in any shop in the country. On the face of it there would seem to be no reason why facilities should not be provided for the dissemination within blocks of flats and similar premises of video film fed into an existing cable. I am given to understand that that would require separate legislation, but, when a Statement is made about cable, it would be useful if the Government can indicate how they propose to proceed.

Finally, we should like an assurance that there is nothing in the Statement that prohibits any individual who can afford it from installing his own dish on the top of his house or flat to receive such signals as would emanate from DBS, which the noble Lord has spoken about this afternoon.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement. As the Statement mentions, this is a matter of very considerable importance, with implications for the future of broadcasting and indeed all those who in one way or another depend on broadcasting. At the outset, we on these Benches wish to say how very glad we are to see from the Statement that the Government have kept an open mind on certain aspects of the matter. However, that having been said, we wonder about the decision to accept, rather suddenly, without further public consultation, the advice of the BBC. The BBC has already put forward proposals for two DBS channels, and it has been decided that it would be right to authorise the go-ahead.

I wonder whether the noble Lord has thought about the following point. If one of the channels is to be a subscription channel used largely for feature films, the BBC might show its feature films on that channel before showing them on either BBC 1 or BBC 2. That might lead to a situation in which the BBC was able to price independent television out of the market in purchasing material of this kind. I think such points should be thought about further.

I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, recollects that, when the independent television franchises were recently considered, the IBA, no doubt on the advice of the Government, decided to embark on an exercise to "take the public mind", as it termed it, involving the whole matter of detailed public consultations. In addition, when Channel 4 was being discussed there were widespread public consultations, and one wonders whether some of the matters that we have now been told about ought to be the subject of a little more public consultation before irreversible steps are taken.

With regard to cable television, the Statement said that the services will be transmitted at power sufficient to permit both individual and community reception with cable distribution. Will the noble Lord accept that with individual reception, with everybody installing apparatus on their roofs, it would be very difficult to monitor and supervise precisely what was being received, and by whom. Therefore on this Bench we tend to believe—and I wonder whether the noble Lord agrees—that the future here lies in cable television.

Does the noble Lord also understand that at the moment cable allows for merely four channels, whereas, if we proceeded with the installation of a network of fibre optic cables, we could possibly have 40 or 42 channels? Therefore on these Benches we are very glad to note that the noble Lord's right honourable friend intends to make a further Statement in the future with regard to the role of cable.

Finally, I should like to endorse something that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said. The Statement says that there will be a debate in another place, and my noble friends and I hope that there will also be a debate in your Lordships' House on these very important matters, which are of considerable public significance.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the reception that they have given to my right honourable friend's Statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, said, we had a debate before Christmas on a Motion of my noble friend Lord Windlesham, and I have no doubt that if it is for the convenience of the House, arrangements can be made through the usual channels for further discussion in your Lordships' House. In giving a welcome to the announcement, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, was good enough to say that this is an important matter generally, and I should like very strongly to notch the Government's agreement with that. Before making the Statement we considered that it is in both the industrial and the broadcasting interests of the country that the opportunities which technological development offer should be seized. That is why, although there are difficulties and there will be further problems which must be looked at carefully and overcome, we have adopted a positive approach to direct broadcasting by satellite.

The noble Lord asked about costs. The direct broadcasting by satellite study published by the Home Office in May last year gave an indication of the kind of costs involved per channel, but the actual costs would depend on negotiations between the satellite providers and the users. Of course, we now want the negotiations to proceed, and I hope that the noble Lord will not think me evasive when I say that the best way I can answer his questions about overall costs, costs of the subscription service, and the cost of a possible DBS licence fee, must lie in looking at the costs set out in Chapter 4 of the DBS study. It must also be borne in mind that the costs will depend, first, on how the negotiations between the BBC and the providers of the satellites work out in practice. Then there will be the question of whether commercial television is able to participate, as, on behalf of the Government, I very much hope it will. In that case the unit costs of using the satellites concerned will probably be reduced.

The noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Winstanley, both commended the use of cable from an environmental, as well as a technical, point of view. As my right honourable friend said in the Statement, he hopes soon to make a further Statement about cable television.

I wish to add only one other comment. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, perhaps chided me a little about bringing forward a decision that might preclude further consultation. There has, of course, been fairly considerable consultation. There was a good deal of consultation before the satellite study was published. Then there was the publication of the study in May. After that there was consultation on the study; and, of course, all the time we have been trying to listen to what was being said to us by those concerned. May I underline finally, once again, that although the Statement says that we believe that the first two channels should be allocated to the British Broadcasting Corporation, we very much hope that it will be possible for commercial television to lay plans to participate in what we believe will be an exciting new experiment.

Lord Aylestone

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that the decision to go ahead now with DBS is unquestionably the right one and should bring additional employment to the space industry almost immediately? But, in addition, may I ask him whether he feels that the method of doing it was given sufficient argument and debate in this House or in the other place before the decision was taken? Finally, may I ask him whether the proposed supplemental licence fee will be applicable to only those people who receive DBS, or is it to be to all licence holders?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, on the noble Lord's last point, this is of course for consideration. We are talking about a possible supplemental licence fee which will be certainly four years away, and does not fall within the scope of the present duration of the licence fee, even though the present fee is lasting for three years. This, of course, must be considered by those who are concerned when we get nearer to that event.

I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, also chides me with insufficient consultation. I really do believe that the consultation before the publication of the study last May; then the study itself; then the consultation which went on for a considerable time over many months, with people giving their views on the study; and then (because your Lordships' House is unique) a debate in this House, but not in another place, raised by my noble friend Lord Windlesham, which gave an opportunity for noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, to represent views, have given quite an airing to this difficult subject. But now my right honourable friend is making it clear that he wants the further views of another place; and I give an assurance to the noble Lord that if it is possible through the usual channels then, of course, the Government also want the views of your Lordships, through your Lordships' House.

Earl De La Warr

My Lords, could my noble friend help us by being a little more specific on this question of the timing of the allocation of channels; that is to say, as between the BBC and the independent contractors? He has said very clearly—and it is very welcome—that he would like to see the independent contractors coming in. What he has not been quite specific about, I think, is whether, if the independent contractors can make up their minds in time, they will get one of the first two channels, or is the decision already taken that if they come in they will come in as number three?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, what the Statement says is: The Government intend to press ahead with the necessary preparatory work"— —and this is referring to the possible participation of commercial television— and would be ready to introduce legislation for the purpose as necessary". If I may reply to my noble friend Lord De La Warr in this way, we are most anxious that there should be room for broadcasting services, other than the BBC, provided by commercial companies, in direct broadcasting by satellite; and the Government are genuinely keen to encourage this. However, decisions will be needed on the structure for, and the supervision and financing of, such services, and legislation will be needed to implement these decisions. We do not think that this country can afford to defer a start on direct broadcasting by satellite until those decisions have been taken and the legislation passed, but I hope that the undertaking which is there in the Statement for all to read will show that the Government are keen that commercial television shall participate in this field.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while there can often be a lot of merit in discussion, and that up to a point one has to have that, if discussion goes on too long you can miss the boat? I should like to ask how 1986, which is the year, as he announced, when something tangible may be seen, compares with what other countries in Europe have in mind. For example, in what year do the French anticipate taking advantage of this new technological development? One has to remember that when the last channels were allocated for sound broadcasting we did not earn a very good reputation. Indeed, the story went around that when the channels were being allocated our representative happened to fall asleep, and as a result we got the worst end of the ones that were being put out. Is my noble friend aware that I am merely emphasising that to show that speed is of the essence if, with the world-wide opportunity to participate in this, we are going to have our full and proper share of it?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am very glad that my noble friend has asked me this. This Statement gives a green light to the British space industry and the BBC to negotiate and develop detailed proposals for an early start with direct broadcasting by satellite now. So far as comparison with, for instance, the French and the Germans is concerned, we are not behind them. We have given a lot more thought than our neighbours to the new programme services that our satellite channels could provide. They have gone ahead for industrial reasons and for the moment are planning simply to rebroadcast their existing television channels. Our satellites should be in the air at much the same time as theirs.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Lord will recollect that I asked him the question as to whether he would confirm that, in the interim, it was perfectly legal for individuals to install their own dishes on their own houses and receive transmissions from satellites already in their geostationary positions although belonging to other countries. I wonder whether he would deal very shortly with that point.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the simple answer to that is, I think, yes. There is a longer answer and, if I may, I should like to write to the noble Lord about it.

Lord Willis

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord is aware that the decision to move ahead with satellite broadcasting will be warmly welcomed; but I wonder also whether he would comment on one particular very important point of principle that arises out of this. For over 40 years the BBC has, in return for a licence fee, given the best product available to those people who have paid the licence fee. Now, however, in this proposal we have a change, and a change of very deep principle. We are now going to create first- and second-class viewers of the BBC. In the past you could expect that the BBC would provide you with the best films at its disposal. In the future you will not get those best films, at least on the first run, unless you pay the satellite broadcasting fee, the subscription service fee. This is a very radical point of departure for the British Broadcasting Corporation and for the Government, and I find it one which has alarming possibilities. It leads to all kinds of questions of advertising, commercialisation of the BBC and so forth. I wonder whether the noble Lord would care to comment on that. because it is causing some concern in the circles in which I move.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, there has been a worry expressed—and the noble Lord expresses it this afternoon—about subscription services, but if I may say so it is not one which I think the Government share in relation to a BBC subscription service of this kind. The Corporation has affirmed that its first duty is to the licence fee payer, and as the Direct Broadcasting by Satellite Study pointed out, in fact in paragraph 8.9: The BBC sees the subscription service as a means of positively benefiting BBC 1 and BBC 2". Meanwhile, the Statement is very careful to say that of course we need to work out for commercial broadcasting on direct broadcasting by satellite correct supervision and standards of programmes. We believe that through the BBC we have those anyway with the supervision of the BBC, which is one of the reasons why it is so much easier to get started with the Corporation.

Lord Drumalbyn

My Lords, may I ask a question in clarification? Am I right in thinking that there are two phases in this: that the first is to get the satellite in the air and to do some experimentation with it, and the second to give the general service that is likely to emanate? Am I right in thinking that it will be possible to go ahead almost immediately with the launching plans, but that it will still be many years before the satellite gets into a geostationary position? In the meantime, obviously, there will be many difficult problems, such as that which has just been raised, which will have to be settled. May I say that I hope that my noble friend will not be too precipitate and too definite in the other plans that are being laid as to the way in which the services are to be operated and charges to be made. I do not see how they can be very definite because it is going to be difficult to know what the uptake will be of those who wish to incur the very considerable expenditure of getting an individual service.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his putting his finger on a difficult second point. On the first point that he raised, about the time lag, I understand that the technology for being able to have direct broadcasting by satellite is already well-known. We must now wait to see (and probably we shall read of it in the press) what British industry has to say in their negotiations with the BBC about the time-scale for getting started. It has been the Government's understanding for many months that it will be about 1986 before transmissions can begin.

The difficult point on which I think my noble friend put his finger is how easy it will be to work up an audience for direct broadcasting by satellite. These are commercial and broadcasting matters which need careful broadcasting and commercial judgment. These matters the BBC and commercial TV will be giving consideration to, and I think we shall be debating them again in your Lordships' House.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I apologise for intervening a second time but, in view of the last two questions, will my noble friend bear in mind that if even before it has started we give the impression that we will surround it with all sorts of regulations and nannying from central Government, it may be that the finance which would be forthcoming from people who take up subscriptions will not be there? Let us accept that we will get the satellite scheme moving, but not that we will tie it in with so much regulations and red tape as to make it unpleasant for people to operate it afterwards.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this Statement gives the green light for going ahead with direct broadcasting by satellite. As far as the important questions of super- vision and standards are concerned for future plans for direct broadcasting by satellite, this is a matter which we should debate at greater length.