HL Deb 27 April 1983 vol 441 cc932-8

3.35 p.m.

Lord Elton

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 now make a Statement on the Government's White Paper on the Development of Cable Systems and Services, which is published today, in the name of myself and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Industry. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

"The White Paper, as the subject requires, is a long and complex document—nearly 250 paragraphs. The House will need time to study it and form its views on it. Subject to arrangements to be made by my right honourable friend the Leader of the House, there will be an early opportunity for a full debate.

"Meanwhile, I hope it will assist the House if, in this Statement, I draw attention to the main cable issues to do with the regulation of programme services and the safeguarding of public service broadcasting, which were still unresolved when we debated the Hunt Report on 2nd December last.

"The White Paper sets out a plan of action for future cable development. Central to this plan is the creation of a new statutory cable authority. Work is now starting on the preparation of a Bill to be introduced at the earliest practicable date. The cable authority will have two main roles: to award franchises to cable operators for the provision of cable services, and to exercise supervision over those services in the manner which the White Paper describes in detail. I wish to stress five particular aspects.

"First, pay-per-view. The Government have decided not to follow the Hunt Report in excluding this method of financing cable services. Cable operators have made it clear that they attach much importance to it and we believe that over a wide field pay-per-view can be allowed without damage to BBC and ITV services and the many viewers who rely and will continue to rely on them. To protect the interests of those viewers, the cable authority will have the duty to exclude from pay-per-view events customarily covered by BBC or ITV.

"Secondly, that restriction is in addition to the ban which, adopting the Hunt recommendation, we propose on the acquisition by cable of exclusive rights for the great national sporting events, such as the Cup Final.

"Thirdly, advertising. We follow the Hunt Report in proposing that the cable authority should adopt an advertising code which in essential particulars would follow the existing IBA code. Arrangements for clearing the copy of advertisements would follow broadly the pattern for those on independent broadcasting. On the amount of advertising, we depart from Hunt in preferring to limit advertising on cable, on channels broadly comparable to ITV, to the amount allowed on ITV—currently six minutes an hour on average. Channels wholly or mainly devoted to classified or other advertising will however be allowed, and these limits will of course not apply then.

"Fourthly, foreign programme material. Here we intend that there should be from the outset more stringent obligations than Hunt proposed on the use of British programme material. The Cable authority will be required to see that a 'proper proportion' is shown on each channel as appropriate; to work towards a progressive increase in that proportion as United Kingdom production capacity grows; and to report progress regularly to the Government. We are anxious to maintain and develop the strong national production capacity which the BBC and ITV have helped to create.

"Fifthly, the Government are anxious that the cable authority should ensure high standards of cable programme services. The same rules regarding good taste and decency as apply to BBC and IBA programmes will apply to all cable channels.

"There will be no exception for channels with electronic locks. As the White Paper says, so-called adult channels have no place on the sort of cable systems which the Government wish to see develop.

"Finally, in the period before the legislation is enacted we are anxious to maintain and continue the momentum for cable development, through interim arrangements, of two kinds. First, the Government will be prepared, under existing powers, to authorise a limited number of new cable systems—not more than 12—as pilot projects, each covering a maximum of about 100,000 homes. Projects will be chosen for offering a positive contribution to advanced technology, a comprehensive range of programme services and a capability of interactive services. Secondly, we propose to allow cable relay operators to offer new programme services over their existing systems for a transitional period. Where necessary the obligation to relay BBC and ITV services on the cable will be dropped, provided operators offer their customers alternative means of reception at no extra cost. No application under either of these interim arrangements will be entertained until Parliament has debated and approved the White Paper.

"Mr. Speaker, the Government believe that the White Paper offers an acceptable and well-balanced set of proposals. They will give cable an excellent opportunity for development, with the stimulus that this will provide for advanced technology. At the same time they will protect public broadcasting services and those who rely on them. I commend them to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement on the White Paper. I am sure that your Lordships would also wish, as in another place, to have an early and full debate on the contents of the White Paper. Cable television is potentially of great benefit to the nation, but it would seem that the Government's proposals and their rush for implementation before an Act is on the statute book meet more the needs of private profit and less the longer term needs of the nation as a whole.

I should like to comment on some of the areas specifically mentioned in the Statement. First, pay-per-view. Will not one of the effects of pay-per-view be that the most popular programmes and the most recent films, as opposed to national events, will be bought for pay-per-view, creating a situation of even greater advantage for those living in the more populated and richer areas?

We would welcome the limits proposed to be placed on the amount of advertising. The Statement refers to the cable authority adopting an advertising code ' which in essential particulars would follow the existing IBA code". I wonder if the noble Lord could indicate whether these "essential particulars" will follow the type and quality of advertising control imposed by the IBA on ITV at present?

We would welcome the remarks made concerning the amount of foreign material to be included. The Statement refers to the fact that: The cable authority will be required to see that a 'proper proportion' is shown on each channel as appropriate". What does that mean? We would be concerned that "a proper proportion" would mean that at least as much British produced material is shown on cable as the IBA would insist on being shown on the independent television channels.

We welcome the rejection of the Hunt proposal of a specific adult programme with electronic locks. When your Lordships debated the Hunt Report the idea of the electronic lock was exposed as being the fallacy that it is. Finally, we wonder what is the rush to proceed with an experiment before any Act is on the statute book at all. We are very concerned that the results of these proposals might be an ever-increasing divide between two nations.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for repeating this important and, so far as it goes, reassuring Statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has said, the House will need time to study the White Paper. Having glanced at it I think the noble Lord can say that again! It is a very complicated document, and thus the noble Lord may care to note that, like the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, we on these Benches greatly welcome the assurance that there will be an early opportunity for a full debate on these important matters.

As regards the detailed content of the Statement, I would merely raise three brief points for the noble Lord's consideration. First, will the noble Lord note that we on these Benches particularly welcome the assurance about a restriction on the use of foreign programme material, and also the requirement for the use of a reasonable proportion of British programme material? We regard that as particularly important, and would like the noble Lord to note that we welcome it. Perhaps the noble Lord would also note that, on balance, we think that the Government are probably right in not turning their back on pay-per-view, particularly when we bear in mind the present plight of Channel 4 and of TV—AM, which appears to indicate that supplies of funds from advertising as support for broadcasting are not inexhaustible.

Finally, can the noble Lord tell us whether there is any significance in the fact that there is little reference, if any, in the Statement—I do not yet know about the White Paper—to the interactive services which may be carried by cable, such as the paying of bills, reading meters and things of that kind? Does the noble Lord the Minister not agree that perhaps some of those services are more important than the purely entertainment aspects of cable? Therefore, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Elton, if he would tell us whether there is any special significance to be attached to the fact that all reference to interactive services has been omitted from the Statement.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for their reception of the Statement. Both noble Lords are anxious that there should be a debate. I understand that it is likely to be on 23rd May. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, suggested that the principal motivation of the White Paper is to generate private profit. To that suggestion I can only say that private profit will only be generated by public interest and support. The public only pays for what it wants, and if there is private profit that will be a vindication of the policy which we are pursuing.

The question of pay-per-view is an important one. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, supports the Government in their decision to pursue it, and that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, regards this as preferential for what he terms the more populated and richer areas (which does not apply to the inner cities, which are the most populated areas in many cases). I do not wish to pursue that at this stage. This is not the occasion for a debate; that occasion will come on the later date which I gave your Lordships.

The question of the proper proportion of British-generated material is obviously one which must be dealt with flexibly because it will depend upon the capacity of the British producing agencies to generate enough material of a sufficient standard for the service which we propose. That is why, in the sentence following that to which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, directed your Lordships' attention, we say that they will be directed also, to work towards a progressive increase in that proportion as United Kingdom production capacity grows". Finally, I should like to draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, to the record of what I said. He will find that I in fact referred to the interactive services, albeit in the context of the interim arrangements. I said that projects will be chosen, among other things, for their ability to provide interactive services, which we regard as important. It is because of the pace of technological change that we believe we must maintain the impetus. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that that is why we wish to proceed after debate but before legislation—to catch the wind in our sails while it still blows.

Lord Aylestone

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for repeating this Statement, I should like to ask him three brief questions. First, who will be responsible for setting up the new cable authority? Will it be the Home Secretary or, perhaps rather more correctly, the Secretary of State for Industry? My second question is on programme content. The Minister may recall that in our debate in November he agreed with me that there was some doubt as to whether the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and the Indecent Displays Act 1981 would apply to cable television. I have not cleared my mind. Has he? If he is still in doubt, will this be included in a new, proposed Bill?

My third and final question is this. Will the noble Lord confirm that the new cable authority will not be allowed freely—and I mean without payment—to take programmes off the air from the BBC and ITV?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as I said, I do not want to get drawn too much into the detail of this Statement when a debate is to follow. The appointments will be made by the Home Secretary. As to the question of obscene publications, I would rather not commit myself to a statement which, on consulting the lawyers, I might regret. But the noble Lord was sufficiently industrious in his pursuit of me on the last occasion to make me sure that he will not allow me to get away with such an answer when it comes to the debate.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, we on these Benches should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for repeating the Statement. We are grateful that among the five points that he picked out was the question of the maintenance of standards. We shall look forward to hearing the ways in which these are to be maintained and the way in which the new authority is to be appointed and is to work, and to hearing about its relationships with the corporation and the independent authority, which are already in existence. By and large, we believe that the nation has been well served by those bodies, and we hope that the newer body will be of the same quality and have the same authority throughout the country.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his reception of this Statement. We will look forward to useful and constructive contributions from the Bench of Bishops during the debate.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, it would appear that what the noble Lord has enunciated this afternoon will require an Act of Parliament. It also appears that, in anticipation of that Act of Parliament, the Government will proceed on certain lines. This seems to me to be a remarkable course. What the noble Lord has enunciated seems to be a reasonable proposition. But would he not agree that, if we can have the debate first and if Parliament can examine these matters, the great advantage is that that occasion also provides an opportunity for ordinary people and a variety of associations to submit their observations and to write to Members of the other House and to Members of this House, which then helps us all to contribute to what might be proposed? Would he not agree that such a proposal might be submitted to his right honourable friend for consideration?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the device of having interim arrangements in advance of legislation was recommended in the Hunt Report. As the noble Lord suggests, the House will have an opportunity to debate the matter before the interim arrangements are brought into effect. This will provide an opportunity for what the noble Lord refers to as ordinary people to bring matters to our attention. My own view is that both Houses of Parliament are full of ordinary people.

Lord Glenkinglas

My Lords—

Lord Denham

My Lords, if my noble friend will give way, the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has been trying to speak for some time. May I suggest that we hear the noble Lord, Lord Annan, first and then my noble friend Lord Glenkinglas.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some people will welcome his statement that experiments are to take place, because it is very likely that these experiments will make for better legislation when the time actually comes to pass a Bill through Parliament? However, I should like to ask the noble Lord two questions. Do I infer from this Statement that it is now possible for any system of transmitting cable television to be used—for instance, tree and branch as well as star, and any other system? Secondly, is there anything in the White Paper which will specifically hold out hope to British industry, which is interested in the laying of either co-axial cable or fibreglass cable, that such firms will receive some preferential treatment in being allowed to develop these systems?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for the idea of having experiments in advance. On the question of the technology, which I rather hoped the noble Lord would not lead me into, I can say that all underground ducts will have to be laid in a star configuration, but tree and branch, or switched topologies, will be allowed. This obviously means more to some people than to others!

Lord Glenkinglas

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that I think his ideas on cable television are very good? Will he also accept that before the debate takes place someone on the Government Benches should be prepared to explain why it is that all these new channels, such as Channel 4, are splendid for people who live in towns but are absolutely useless to a comparatively small number of the population, who have great difficulty in getting television at all?

Lord Elton

My Lords, this is a subject to which doubtless my noble friend will return in the course of the debate.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether the Government have any idea about the time-span involved? How long is likely to elapse before cable becomes a substantial competitor of the BBC and ITV?

Lord Elton

My Lords, indeed, that would be looking into the crystal ball. I cannot tell your Lordships the extent to which or the rate at which what is experimental will become successful. What I can tell your Lordships is that the Government believe that this is an important area, not only for entertainment, which we believe is the necessary infrastructure to provide the paths through which information can pass, but also for a later generation of technological developments, such as that to which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was alluding when he spoke about interactive services, which, to use an Americanism in what we hope will be predominantly a British enterprise, is a whole new ball game.