HL Deb 07 July 1988 vol 499 cc387-90

Lord Buxton of Alsa asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will confirm that they have no intention during the present Parliament of transferring overall responsibility for broadcasting by radio and television from the Home Office to the Department of Trade and Industry.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister keeps the allocation of functions between Ministers and departments under regular review. No changes affecting responsibility for broadcasting are currently planned.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer, which I find somewhat reassuring although I am not sure what "currently" means. Do all government departments appreciate that whether we like it or not—and a good many of us do not—broadcasting, and in particular television, have become part of the life-blood of the nation and almost like air and water? Do the Government understand that tossing ideas around about public service broadcasting which have grave implications, social and political, for the future is not a very encouraging sign, particularly as it gives the impression that the Government treat public service broadcasting as if it were analogous to the manufacture of electronics or the expansion of supermarkets?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, in his supplementary question my noble friend draws a distinction between straight commerce and broadcasting. In reply I would say that the Government see scope for greater co-operation and efficiency in broadcasting but also attach importance to its social and cultural dimensons. We seek to create an enabling framework for wider choice but without detriment to programme standards and quality.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, having been Home Secretary without responsibility for broadcasting in the 1960s and having been Home Secretary with responsibility for broadcasting in the 1970s, I perhaps slightly predictably prefer the latter position? Under the first arrangement the Postmaster-General, a relatively junior Minister, was responsible for the technical side leaving the wider responsibility to the Prime Minister of the day who perhaps preferred political considerations. Will the Minister accept that the Home Office is better placed to give attention to standards and to public service than either Downing Street or a more technical or commercial department?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the position at the moment is that the Home Office has lead responsibility for the constitutional, regulatory, financial and international aspects of broadcasting policy. In this respect I do not think I would want to add to the Answer which I gave to my noble friend Lord Buxton.

Lord Renton

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the Home Office has a long-established and well justified reputation for impartiality and fairness, qualities which it has displayed within its responsibility for broadcasting? Would it not be better to allow it to continue to exercise that responsibility?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, there is nothing between my noble friend Lord Renton and I in the view which my noble friend and the Government take of the way in which the Home Office discharges its responsibilities. As to the original Answer which I gave to my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa, I do not think I can add to it.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we on this side of the House were immensely relieved to hear the answer which he gave the House just now? The idea that broadcasting should become the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry seems bizarre. If at any time the Government contemplate a change of responsibility in this matter, one should have thought that the Department of Education and Science would be better.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I gave only a partial answer when I read out the lead responsibilities of the Home Office. The Department of Trade and Industry is very much involved with spectrum planning and telecommunications. The DTI's radio communications division also acts as technical adviser to the Home Office on broadcasting matters for which the Home Office has responsibility.

Lord Aylestone

My Lords, as regards the drastic changes in broadcasting—perhaps rumoured; perhaps actually going to happen—the whole problem arises because the Government are late in presenting their White Paper. If the industry knew what was going to happen to it and a responsible Minister in the Home Office was able to deal with it, I can assure the noble Lord that the position would be very much easier.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, it is the Government's intention to bring forward a White Paper on broadcasting within the next few months.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most people would recognise that in a changing world, and in terms of broadcasting with all the facilities that go with it these days such as new transmissions, no one would expect the present system to remain absolutely sacrosanct? We ought to take into account new developments and the new needs that will have to be met.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend has asked that question because the Government want to see greater competition and choice in broadcasting and welcome the prospect of additional programme services. However, such matters as which services should be authorised, when and subject to what kind of regulation need to be considered in the round and in the light of the latest advice on technology. We shall certainly be addressing all these matters in the forthcoming White Paper.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, would it not be better during the time that the new channels are proliferating for the Government to give an assurance that they will keep intact the traditional system of the BBC and ITV until the future is clear?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if I may say so, nothing I have said today indicates at all that public service broadcasting in this country will be altered in the sense that there are obligations on the BBC. With the prospect of additional programme services, there are, however, important questions to address about the future content and style of regulation across the ITV sector. Once again these are important matters which we shall address in our forthcoming White Paper.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, will the noble Lord explain what will be the position in future of amateur radio, which is an important sector?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is another question and I wonder whether on that point I might write to the noble Lord.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether, in continuing its overall responsibility for broadcasting, the Home Office will continue the policies developed by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, of keeping programme standards as the first priority?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the easiest way for me to answer that point is to say that the Government cannot second guess the broadcasting authorities in carrying out their responsibilities for programme content.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some of us do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, when he said that broadcasting in the 1970s under the Home Secretary was better than it was in the 1960s under the Postmaster General? Is he further aware that the Postmaster General did not confine himself to technical matters? For example, I appointed the noble Lord, Lord Hill—and a very good appointment it was too. Would it not therefore be a good idea to recreate the ancient office of Postmaster General to look after this? We might even get a better Post Office service as a spin-off.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that again is a machinery of government question, which is why I am answering these rather difficult questions today. I do not think there is anything I can add to what I originally said to my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa. The noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, will have to be content with that.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord's Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, to which he referred on many occasions, can he explain the role of Sir Jeffrey Sterling and Professor Griffiths, who have been holding a series of meetings with senior figures in the television industry? Can he further explain why no representative of the Home Office has been present at those meetings?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I believe I am right in saying that Sir Jeffrey Sterling is a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry. Many people are interested in discussing the wide range of issues currently facing broadcasting. I think it is nothing but helpful to have an open debate on these matters.

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