HL Deb 03 July 1986 vol 477 cc1050-64

4. 41p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Glenarthur)

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

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the report of the committee on financing the BBC under the chairmanship of Professor Alan Peacock which was published today. I should like to record my deep gratitude to Professor Peacock and his colleagues for their industry in pursuing their inquiries and for their efficiency in completing their work and producing this report in 12 months.

"The committee puts forward a number of interesting and constructive proposals for replacing the present system of financing the BBC in a few years' time, which I shall come to. However, it rejects the proposal that the BBC should at present be funded wholly or in part by advertising and concludes that at this stage the licence fee, with some modifications, should remain as the principal source of funding for the BBC. The committee argues that, since spectrum is still scarce, and there is as yet no way in which the consumer can pay direct for the programme of his choice, the introduction of advertising would reduce the effective range of choice open to viewers and listeners. Given the original work which the committee undertook and commissioned on the economics of the advertising market and on the relationship between advertising and broadcasting services, we cannot lightly put aside its assessment of this point. However, before reaching any conclusions the Government would welcome comments on the committee's analysis.

"The committee's view is that our present system of public service broadcasting has provided the best means of securing diversity of choice and programmes of quality—under the prevailing market conditions. The committee sees a need for this system to remain in being for some years, though with important modifications, but argues that, under pressure for inevitable technological change, it must and should give way to arrange-ments where, as channels multiply and customers find means to register their own preferences directly, a genuinely competitive broadcasting market develops. The committee believes that this will take time but in a few years, in preparation for this, payment for BBC services should be made through subscription, leading to the end of the licence fee system. In the longer term, perhaps through the provision of a national cable grid, a genuinely competitive market in television services could be brought about so that the current arrangements, dependent on the duopoly, would no longer be needed. There would be scope for greater diversity of programmes and a wider choice for consumers, who would have much greater freedom than is now possible to decide which programme services they would like and at what price. Special arrangements are envisaged to ensure that public service programmes are available which, though needed, the market might not produce unaided.

"The Government see much merit in this approach which fits well with our general philosophy. All of the committee's proposals, which have profound implications for all broadcast services, and the institutions which provide them, deserve and will receive careful study. We shall reach final views on the Report only in the light of parliamentary and public reaction; and we should welcome any comments from the public and other interested parties. However, there are four matters on which I should like to make some comment now.

"First, there is the proposal by four members of the committee that IBA contracts should be awarded by a competitive tender, with the IBA required to make a full public and detailed statement of its reasons if it decided to award a franchise to a contractor other than the one making the highest bid. The Government have reached no conclusion on this recommendation. However, we are anxious that the option for change should remain open. This would not be the case if the IBA proceeds to arrange new ITV contracts to take effect from the beginning of 1990 for eight years. Accordingly we are considering with the IBA the relationship between this timetable and the committee's recommendation. We do not propose to disturb the work the IBA has in hand to make a contract for the provision of DBS services.

"Second, there is the question of the regulaion of the content of broadcast programmes. The committee suggests that broadcast services should be subject only to such regulation as is provided for all material in the general law of the land, as is the case for the print media, and that in the long term there should be no pre-publication censorship or vetting of any kind of broadcasting. There is also a recommendation that arrangements should be made now that the non-occupied night time hours of existing broadcasting frequencies should be sold for broadcasting use and that there should be no regulation of the programme content for such services except in so far as the law of the land, amended as necessary, restricted it. Our present arrangements reflect the view that the peculiarly intrusive nature of broadcasting, and in particular of television, continue to require special regilatory arrangements to ensure certain standards in broadcast services. For this reason we have broadcasting authorities to enforce controls on such matters as taste and decency in broadcasting which are much stricter than applying to the print media, or than could easily be accommodated in the criminal law. The present regulatory regime, and the institutions to give effect to them, are certainly not sacrosanct; but the Government believe that any future arrangements should be no less effective than those now in place.

"Third, there are the recommendations on radio. The Peacock Committee recommends that the BBC should have the option to privatise Radios 1, 2 and local radio in whole or in part and the IBA regulation of radio should be replaced by a looser regime. Five of the Committee's members went further and said that Radio 1 and Radio 2 should be privatised and financed by advertising and that further radio frequencies becoming available should be auctioned to the highest bidder. I have already announced my intention to publish a Green Paper looking at the existing framework for the provision and regulation of radio broadcasting as a whole. I believe that it would be helpful for this consultative document to examine further services at national, local and community level and that the future of BBC radio services and of those provided by the IBA should be looked at in the ight of the Peacock Committee's recommendations.

"Fourth, we see merit in a number of the committee's shorter term proposals designed to pave the way for the free broadcasting market which they wish to create, including for example the recommendation to increase the proportion of television programmes supplied by independent producers. The best way of achieving this will need careful consideration.

"I welcome the Committee's report and the many stimulating ideas which it contains. It is a challenging piece of work. We look forward to the constructive public debate about the future of broadcasting which I am sure it will encourage."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, we on these Benches should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend. It would be singularly ungracious of us too if we did not thank the members of the Peacock Committee for their industry over the past 12 months. Perhaps I may be permitted to close my eulogy with those words.

The first reaction that I believe many of us would have is thank heavens the report rejects the proposals that the BBC should be funded wholly, or partially, by advertising. The dislike that some of us have is for the words "at present" which appear both in the report and in the Statement. The Government appear anxious from the Statement which has just been repeated to us to keep their options open. These Benches, without any qualification whatsoever, oppose BBC advertising, hook, line and sinker: not least because we believe very definitely that this would have the effect not only of lowering standards—a most important matter—but it would also throttle some of the media including local commercial radio stations.

The Statement goes on to say that the committee would like to see a genuinely competitive market develop and that meanwhile there should be a payment made by subscription, presumably dependent on user. We think that is a very bad idea indeed. If I may alliterate for one moment, it seems to want to make the BBC into the begging-bowl broadcaster. I say that for the obvious reason that it seems to me, if I may say so humbly, that any such suggestion will encourage the public to switch from the BBC as soon as they possibly can presumably to save themselves money; but, far worse than that, will encourage the BBC to produce only the programmes that will be largely in demand, and this will obviously detract from the standards of which we are so proud in relation to the BBC.

The Statement then concentrates on certain matters. The first is that IBA contracts will be awarded by competitive tender with the IBA who would be required to make a full, public and detailed statement of reasons if it decided to award a franchise other than one making the highest bid. I emphasise that that is a recommendation proposed by four members out of the seven-man committee. The Government say that they have reached no conclusions on that recommendation. On behalf of these Benches, I should say that we reached a conclusion immediately: it is that money alone will not be allowed to speak, as far as we are concerned, in the awarding of tenders.

I move quickly to the second item which is mentioned so specifically in the Statement: that concerns the regulations of content of broadcasting programmes. I believe many of us in this Chamber are still anxious about violence and sex as portrayed often in television where some of us feel that young people are being adversely affected. Your Lordships' House has expressed itself strongly from time to time on these matters. May I ask the noble Lord the Minister what is the position of the code which was under discussion? Can the Board of the BBC be encouraged to take a more lively interest in guiding policy in this connection?

Thirdly, the Peacock Committee recommends for radio that the BBC should have an option to privatise Radio 1 and Radio 2 and local radio in whole or in part. We believe that the BBC must be allowed to cater for all types of people and for all types of taste. From our point of view, we oppose any recommendation to privatise.

I conclude my observations on this Statement and on the report generally. One could go on for a long time, but the House would not appreciate that at Statement time. I envy somebody much wittier than I who, in one sentence, summarised what he thought to be the position of the Peacock Report. He said that this must be the first peacock to be pigeon-holed before it was even hatched. I borrow the Statement and ask the Minister for his comments on it.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches I join the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in thanking the Minister for repeating this important Statement on this very complex and important report.

Many of us on these Benches when the Peacock Committee was first appointed tended to regard the whole exercise as a delaying device; a device intended to postpone rather difficult and touchy decisions, perhaps even until after the next general election. It would seem from the Statement, from promises of further Green Papers and the Government waiting for further comments that it might turn out to be exactly that. However, there are some matters that cannot wait that long.

I shall now refer to matters in the Statement and in the report which from these benches we welcome. First we welcome warmly the statement that the licence fee should remain as the principal source of funding for the BBC. We welcome that, but it is something which cannot wait and in advance of any Green Paper we should like to hear something about a fixed licence fee over a lengthy period, perhaps index-linked, established as soon as possible. On these Benches we have always felt that for the BBC having to go at short intervals cap in hand to the government of the day for an increase in the licence fee has always rendered the BBC perhaps undesirably dependent on the government of the day, whatever government that may be.

Secondly, we welcome the Statement rejecting, for the moment, advertising on BBC television. I think, too, I should like to welcome what is said in the Statement and in the report which recognises what can be done with new technology to enable pay television to become a reality. That would provide enhanced opportunities for minority interests in many ways. With the use of DBS (which has been referred to in the Statement) it is possible that there may come a time when one might be able to choose a particular programme, perhaps an opera from New York or even a boxing-match from somewhere else in the world, and be able to watch that live at three o'clock in the morning by paying a fee. The technology is available for that, and I am glad to see that that technology has not been rejected.

In relation to the parts of the report and the Statement to which we take some exception, I should say at once that the idea of giving the franchises to the highest bidder surely is absolutely absurd. The only power the Independent Broadcasting Authority has over programme standards is its power to award, to withhold or withdraw a franchise. If the franchises were once sold off to the highest bidder one might as well abolish the IBA the following day. That is something which noble Lords on these Benches would certainly not support.

Also, we have some doubts about Radios 1 and 2 being paid for by advertising and being privatised. Radio is not free; it has to be paid for. It is paid for at the end of the day by the listener. It is my impression that the BBC under its present structure is able to mount Radio 1 and Radio 2 very cheaply indeed. It is my belief that any private company who bought it would find it very much more expensive to provide the same service, and that extra money would have to be provided by the listener.

Finally, I should like to acknowledge from these Benches that it would appear from the comments that have been made by the Home Secretary and by the Statement which has been made here, that Mr. Hurd really is perhaps more deeply committed to the maintenance of broadcasting standards than some of us feared. We look forward very much indeed to debates on the promised Green Paper and to taking a full part in them. We hope that important matters such as the licence fee and making it index-linked over a lengthy period could be dealt with before the time of the Green Paper.

5 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments on the Statement. I shall endeavour to respond to some of the points that they have raised. Many of those points are points which will have to be taken in the round, with the other views that will be expressed generally on what the Statement contains. To that extent I can assure them that what they have said will be noted very carefully.

The question of advertising was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. His view was that he was glad that that was not a recommendation which had been adopted by the committee. Certainly the Government welcome the committee's endorsement of the valuable contribution of the BBC and the IBA, and I think we must accept that the committee has done important and original work on the economics of advertising on television which cannot lightly be laid aside. But I think that nevertheless we must look forward to further discussion on the issues that have been raised before we make up our minds.

As to the matter of subscription, again raised by the noble Lord opposite, the Government certainly welcome the careful technical and economic studies which the committee has undertaken on that issue. My right honourable friend is persuaded that subscription will have an increasing role to play in the financing of broadcasting. The Government's plans for direct broadcasting by satellite specifically envisage the possibility of payment by subscription and the transmission standards for DBS are particularly suited to subscription technology. Cable programmes, of course, are already paid for in this way. It is clearly attractive that people should be able to pay directly for those services which they wish to receive and not for others. I am sure that this will have added benefits in making the broadcasters more responsive to public opinion.

However, there are many technical questions to be overcome before we could entirely replace the licence fee by subscription and again we look forward to hearing particularly the views of the broadcasters, the set manufacturers and others who have technical knowledge of this issue before our minds are made up on the right way forward.

I listened with care to both noble Lords' comments on the content of programmes. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked me specifically about it. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary met the chairmen of the BBC and the IBA in December to draw their attention to the public concern which had been voiced about this question. There is no question but that the broadcasters have taken the concerns very seriously and they have both instigated reviews of their procedures. The IBA in particular has been running an advertising compaign to remind parents of its family viewing policy and the fact that some programmes after 9 p.m. may not be sutable for children and to encourage parents to share responsibility for what their children watch. The BBC has reconvened its internal committee to consider programme standards and I understand that it will be reporting shortly.

So far as the code is concerned, both the BBC and the IBA have been reviewing their codes and how they have been implemented. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, opposed the recommendation that a car-radio licence should be introduced. The committee makes a specific recommendation on that point. In the body of its report, however, the committee refers to the desirability of broadening the base of the licence fee by the method that is suggested. There are, therefore, various options incompassed by the recommendation to broaden the whole base of the licence fee. They all have their attractions. They have their disadvantages and advantages. But they inevita-bly introduce new complexities into the collection and enforcement system. Again, this is a recommendation which must be considered in the light of the commit-tee's report as a whole.

As to the matter of the ITV contracts, again, as I said when I repeated the Statement, the current contracts between the IBA and the programme companies terminate at the end of 1989 and we shall be exploring with the IBA what scope there is for action on the committee's recommendation within the IBA's timetable for new contracts.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble Lord the Minister continues, is he able on behalf of the Government categorically to say that the mere possession of cash, therefore making possible the highest offer, must not be the criterion for granting franchises? Is he not able to make a categorical statement on behalf of the Government to that effect?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think that I should be very rash to make any categorical statement at this stage with the report fairly new in our hands. What I have said is that my right honourable friend will consider the matter in the way that I described in the Statement. As to the question of selling Radio 1 and Radio 2, the term used by the committee was "privatised". The Green Paper on radio provides an opportunity for us all to consider what sort of radio services we want in future, by whom they should be provided and the nature and extent of the regulation required. So, again, I am afraid that this is a matter which has to be considered in the round, so to speak.

I certainly share the view that the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, expressed about new technology, summarising briefly his remarks. There is a great deal of complexity in that and I certainly share his other view that the matter which is being considered by the Peacock Committee in a most comprehensive way is an extremly complex matter, as anyone who reads the report will understand. I believe that I have covered most of the points that have been raised. If I have not, I shall correspond with noble Lords.

Lord Parry

My Lords, I should first—

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords—

Lord Parry

My Lords, shall I give way?

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, it would be courteous for the noble Lord to do so. I cannot answer for the House but it is certainly appreciated by me.

May I direct the attention of my noble friend the Minister in particular to Recommendation 8 at page 142 of the report, which contains what is at first blush the somewhat surprising requirement that within 10 years the BBC and ITV should be required to secure not less than 40 per cent of programmes from what are called independent producers? Will Ministers subject this proposal to careful scrutiny and ensure that there is no derogation from the accepted aim and traditional endeavours, as particularly exemplified in BBC2 and Channel 4, to provide programmes of high quality and distinction?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I note my noble friend's remarks. We have been much impressed by the contribution of independent producers following the introduction of Channel 4 and we recognise that there may be a place for widening their role. But we question whether formal quotas are the right way of doing that. I think I can only say to my noble friend that we look forward to the views of independent producers and established broadcasters on this important question.

Lord Parry

My Lords, as I was saying when I was interrupted by my own own politiness, it is necessary for me to declare my interest as a member of the general advisory council of the BBC and as someone who has spent a very considerable number of years on the IBA Committee. I do that because what I shall now say is my own opinion and in no way carries the imprimatur of the committee on which I serve.

I wish to welcome the Peacock Report and the speed with which it has come before the House because in a democracy it is absolutely essential that the people who contribute to it in the media are confident of their own position. There has been a very great deal of indecision among those who produce the programmes and a great deal of indecision in the BBC and in the independent television companies because of the various reviews that have been undertaken. So I welcome the speed and I welcome some of the recommendations.

I particularly welcome, with my own interest, a sentence that I find in paragraph 593 on page 133. It says: In practice we have no doubt there will be a distinct and important role for the BBC as far ahead as anyone cares to look". While the Minister, as he said, is not in the business of giving categoric assurances, I am sure that will carry a great deal of assurance. I hope that the Statement he has been kind enough to repeat to the House gives that sort of assurance to the BBC and that we can all be assured that this fine institution has a long future before it.

I also want to say that in another paragraph reference is made to the controls that exist over the BBC and the IBA in the matter of programmes—controls which do not exist over the press. It is interesting to see that these have been isolated in the Peacock Report and will be subject to discussion in your Lordships' House.

Finally, may I say that I always felt that when the IBA came to consider the granting of new franchises (and there were relatively few occasions when they did that) they had in mind the social obligations to the community as much as anything else. In my own country of Wales, where a notable change took place that set the pattern for the holding of the tribunals and the public reassurances and the examinations that went with them, we were very pleased to see that the system worked well. Personally I believe that if those controls were thrown over simply in order to raise a few extra thousand pounds on putting the thing up to the highest bidder, it would be a very retrograde step. I would urge the Government to consider very carefully all the evidence which we now have of the way in which the IBA's granting of licences and franchises has worked.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I certainly acknowledge the fact that the noble Lord has a great deal of experience and interest in this field. He has mentioned a number of points which of course we shall study carefully during our consideration of the issue over the coming months.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend able to give any indication at this early stage, first, as to the likely date of issue of the promised Green Paper? Secondly, can he indicate the kind of time-scale the Government have in mind, leading up to their final decisions? Here I must declare an interest as a director of a company which applied last autumn, following the invitation extended by the former Home Secretary, for a licence for community radio. Is my noble friend aware that the present Home Secretary, in a written reply in another place earlier this week, said that all those applications for community radio were to be put on ice because of current developments, although we had of course expected a reply many months ago?

Is my noble friend further aware that there is very considerable interest in the Government clearing their minds on the major and biggest issues to which the Statement refers, so that those who have, in good faith and at some cost, prepared plans in response to a Government invitation will be able to know where they stand and what to do by way of pursuing their plans which the Government previously had encouraged?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He asked about the date of the Green Paper. I cannot be specific, but I understand that it is hoped to produce it by the end of the year. As to the further timetable, I am afraid I am not in a position to tell my noble friend what it will be.

On the question of community radio, I note my noble friend's declared interest. He will have seen the Statement which my right honourable friend made in another place not so long ago. Certainly the views of all those who have expressed concern about the efforts that have been made by all those who were prospective applicants for licences for community radio will be considered by my right honourable friend. I can assure my noble friend that my right honourable friend will respond more fully to those views, as they are expressed, in due course.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I shall be grateful if your Lordships will allow me to make one single comment, leading to one question. The comment is this. It seems to me that the general drive of the report goes against the pattern which we have established in this country so far as broadcasting generally is concerned. We have established what might be called a "mixed economy" with a public service element and a commercially-sponsored element. No doubt it works so well because it is a vertical division. Each of the two corporations is required to cover the whole range of broadcasting from top to bottom.

What is proposed here seems to me to be a horizon-tal split. I think that is fundamentally a mistake because it is undesirable that the BBC should, as it were, be cut off from the generality of broadcasting, and it is equally undesirable, and possibly even insulting, that the commercial sector should be regarded as capable only of popular broadcasting and not capable of rising to the levels to which we know it can rise. So I think the general drift so far as that goes is wrong, and we need to watch it very carefully. I agree with the comments made from my Front Bench which seemed to me to drive in that direction.

The particular question arising from this concerns the Green Paper; and here I must declare a slight interest in that I have written radio plays for the BBC and hope to write more in the future. It seems to me that the proposal to sell off, or to refinance, Radio 1 and Radio 2 would be almost as bad as removing them altogether. If you force the BBC to take advertising on these two stations, you then fundamentally alter the nature of the corporation and disturb the delicate balance which has existed in this country and upon which the very success of broadcasting is founded. There are aspects of the report which I think all your Lordships will welcome, but we have to march very carefully so that we do not destroy what has become very precious to us all.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I note the noble Lord's comments. Obviously the committee's recommendations have very wide implications and it would be wrong to reach a snap judgment on any of them until there has been the fullest opportunity for debate within the country and among the particular interests which might be affected. I think at this stage I can merely note the noble Lord's remarks.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's Statement that the Government are to reject the alternative form of finance for the BBC through advertising. I should like to make a short point about the Statement which rejects the recommendation of the report that broadasting standards should be governed by the general law and that instead they should continue to rely—I think these were the words—on the much stricter standards which now exist in regard to the informal obligation which the BBC has. Is my noble friend aware that there are a great many people, including myself, who think that over the last 20 years standards of broadcasting material in the BBC, and the IBA for that matter, have gone steadily downwards and that much material now contains elements of violence and obscenity which are entirely objectionable when they appear in the home—in the kitchen and the sitting room—for the family to see? Is he aware, therefore, that if he is going to rely on that existing obligation he has got to make it a great deal stronger?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am sure that many people share my noble friend's point of view; I certainly respect it enormously. My right honourable friend, in his Statement, made clear that we do not accept the apparent view of the committee that there is no qualitative difference between broadcasting and the print media. Broadcasting, as I said, is particularly powerful; it is available in people's homes at the turn of a switch and, not least, it can be extremely expensive to produce. It costs nothing to pick up a pen and write, but to produce an effective television programme can require an extensive investment in time and money. For all these reasons we believe that special arrangements will continue to be needed for broadcasting to ensure that there is proper regulation of the content of programmes and that there are opportunities for a genuine plurality of voices, views and subject matter to be expressed. That does not necessarily mean that the present structure should be perpetuated, or that the general law, suitably modified, might not have a part to play. I stand by the remarks that I made earlier in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that those are matters that my right honourable friend has already discussed with the chairmen of the IBA and the BBC, and also by my comments on the code.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, I welcome the decision of the Government to produce a Green Paper. In doing so, will the Minister bear in mind the great difficulty that will be presented to the existing independent commercial stations if either Radio 1 or Radio 2, or any other national radio scheme, came to be dependent upon advertising, taking away advertising from the independent local radio stations who are in many cases having great difficulty in generating enough revenue to maintain their services?

Secondly, while I understand the problem that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, described to the House, concerning those awaiting a decision about community radio, there is also likely to be a considerable problem if community radio stations are permitted without any regulation at all, as apparently may be the case. Will that point be considered along with the possible relaxation of some of the regulations on existing IBA radio stations? Will the noble Lord give the House an assurance on those two points?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I can certainly give the noble Lord an assurance that all factors connected with community radio and with Radio 1 and Radio 2, and with everything else to do with radio, will be examined in the Green Paper. Some of the issues that have been raised by the report will require relatively early decisions. Others, and particularly those that look forward to the second and third stages to which the report refers, can be taken rather more slowly. Certainly those points will be borne in mind.

Lord Annan

My Lords, since noble Lords have naturally been reacting immediately to the recommen-dations of the report, perhaps I may say that my own immediate reaction is very much in sympathy with that of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. However, I have a certain affinity with Professor Peacock at this moment. When one issues a report, one implores the public to read it. None of us has had time to read and digest the report.

It seems to me that two points ought to be stressed. The first is that the whole inquiry sprang from the fact that the licence fee was felt to be rising too steeply. There were many complaints from the public, and they were endorsed in many quarters. The BBC tried to defend its position but it was perfectly natural that someone should ask, "Is this still the right way of financing the BBC?" A great deal of the report deals with that particular problem, and that problem we ought to treat seriously. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, considers that there is much chance of the Treasury agreeing to indexing the licence free. I rather doubt it, but that matter is one that will have to be discussed in Whitehall.

The second circumstance from which the report sprang was a deliberate attempt by members of Professor Peacock's committee to look into the technological future. What will happen when we have satellite broadcasting, cable developed more than it is today, and so forth—in other words, when we have a multiplicity of channels that can be viewed in this country? We ought to acknowledge that any committee always has difficulty when it gazes into a crystal ball.

I remember when I was first asked by Mr. Stonehouse to be chairman of the committee on the future of broadcasting in 1970. I was somewhat astonished when he asked me whether I realised that within a few years we would have pictures coming out of the wallpaper. I said that I was interested to hear that. When it actually came to the point, the committee reached the view that the pace of technological change would be rather slower than the Postmaster-General at that time, in 1970, thought was likely.

However, the technology of broadcasting is moving forward all the time. For that reason we ought to be grateful to Professor Peacock and to his committee for trying to cope with the difficult task of trying to forecast what will happen when there is a major technological change. There are many questions I should like to discuss now, but I wonder whether this is the right moment to do so. Will the Government be willing to find time in the autumn, before any Green Paper is published, for your Lordships' House to discuss the Peacock Report? It surely is the collective wisdom of your Lordships' House that ought to be available to influence the make-up of the Green Paper. Would the Minister reply to that particular point?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Lord. Lord Annan, has more experience probably than anybody in this particular field and I readily acknowledge that that is so. So far as concerns studying the report, I agree that it is a complex document that we would all do well to study in great depth. I agree also with the noble Lord that the subject of the licence fee is a legitimate matter to be examined. That is precisely what the committee has done. I share the noble Lord's view, as we all do, about the complexity of the area with which the report deals; and technology is changing with great rapidity. As to a debate, I note the noble Lord's remarks, but such a proposal is a matter for the usual channels.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we welcome his remarks about the need to study the report very carefully before reaching final conclusions on at least some of the issues that it raises? Is the Minister aware also that some of us are mildly surprised to hear him say so, given that for the past week we have been reading reports in very nearly every national newspaper in which the recommendations of Professor Peacock and his colleagues have been rubbished in a most systematic fashion?

I have two questions to ask the Minister. One relates to a point that was put to him a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, concerning the question of Radio 1 and Radio 2. Is the Minister aware that in table 6.3 of the report it is stressed that the total estimated profits of independent local radio in the year up to September 1985 were £1.9 million after debit? In the context of that situation, is the Minister not aware that if Radio 1 and Radio 2 were privatised or allowed to carry advertising, it is absolutely certain that a substantial number of local independent radio stations would be driven out of business? Is the noble Lord additionally aware that many of us would regard that as wholly objectionable?

Secondly, is the Minister aware that my noble friend put to him a specific question on indexation which, given the number of questions put to the Minister, he no doubt inadvertently failed to answer? Will he deal with that question now?

I draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 624 of the report, where it is stated: One of the most important arguments for indexation is that it would bring a measure of insulation of the BBC from political influence". Is the Minister aware that on the day when we have been told that the chairman of the Conservative Party has set up a special unit in Conservative Central Office to transmit criticisms about BBC programmes, it is particularly necessary that the Government should respond as soon as possible to that particular recommendation? Is he aware also that it is necessary to insulate the BBC from political pressures of that kind when it is suggested, as it often is, that unless the BBC views matters in the way in which the Government want the BBC to view them, there is the risk that the licence fee will not be increased? Given the specific character of that recommendation, will the Minister indicate that the Government will make an early statement on the question of indexation?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, perhaps I may expand a little on indexation. The current settlement which was announced in March 1985, runs until 1987 and unless displaced by a different system until 1988. My right honourable friend's predecessor made clear in announcing the present fee levels that the BBC should plan its expenditure for the three years to 1988 on the basis that it must, for that period, live within an income equivalent to that generated by fees at the present level of £58 for colour and £18 for monochrome.

Therefore, there can be no question of any general increase in the standard licence fee before March 1988. I believe that that allows ample time, if required, for consideration and discussion of the basis on which the level of any changes from that date, and beyond, should be determined. In saying that I note the noble Lord's views.

With regard to the monitoring unit referred to, I can say that this unit was recently established by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to examine, among other things, whether the suggestions of bias on radio and television are well founded. There can be no objection, surely, to regular and informed scrutiny of programmes. I can add that the Government receive complaints from both ends of the political spectrum, and from the centre, that broadcasters are biased against them. I believe that the right people to judge these matters are the governing bodies of the BBC and the IBA. They are independent men and women from a wide range of backgrounds who are much better able to judge these matters fairly than are politicians whose own views are perhaps not entirely impartial.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I think that as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said and as my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, said also, we are in danger after 50 minutes of turning this into a somewhat less informed debate than those which your Lordships currently conduct Perhaps this would be an appropriate moment to return to the Building Societies Bill.

Sensing the mood of the House, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on the Building Societies Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.