HL Deb 23 June 1992 vol 538 cc375-8

2.46 p.m.

Lord Buxton of Alsa asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will extend the moratorium on takeovers of British ITV companies until the end of 1995 to allow time for the harmonisation of European rules on media ownership.

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very brief response. But I can assure him that I am by no means reassured or encouraged by it. Does he agree that at the end of next year—that is to say, in 18 months' time—anyone in this House may wake up to find that their local ITV station and its service are wholly owned by an Italian, a German, a Frenchman or whoever else it may be? Does he further agree that those countries which are our European partners have perhaps wisely protected themselves against such an occurrence in their countries and that no British national is allowed to take over other European stations? I ask my noble friend very seriously to confirm that that is the Government's belief and their intention.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, if any ITV licence is taken over, the obligations and conditions attached to it will remain in force. Where discriminatory measures appear to exist in the EC, it is the Government's intention to raise the matter with the European Commission in order that it can take the right action. I understand that Central TV has already approached the Commission.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I do not know whether to congratulate the Minister or commiserate with him on taking over the prickly thorn of broadcasting. But is he aware that, despite the efforts which have been made, particularly from this side of the House, the disastrous Broadcasting Act 1990 leaves us totally exposed to takeovers from abroad after 1st January 1994? Can he confirm that the ITV companies are particularly vulnerable to foreign takeovers because they have to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to the Treasury, which is money that could otherwise be used to ensure financial stability, while, incidentally, British Sky Broadcasting, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, is subject to minimum regulations and pays no money at all to the Treasury? Can he say whether the Government intend to do something about our lamentable position during the UK Presidency of the EC which starts on 1st July and which would seem to give us an opportunity to try to put some of these matters right?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am delighted to accept the congratulations of the noble Baroness as opposed to commiserations. She is right to say that the Government were persuaded during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill by the many strong arguments to provide a period of stability at the start of the new licence period from January 1993. That was done. But takeovers are an important market discipline. After the initial moratorium period it would not be right for the Independent Television Commission, a regulatory body, to interfere with issues of ownership over and beyond the restrictions in the Act.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when I wake up in the early hours and switch on the television I see programmes that are so sick and repulsive that I wonder whether our TV would be any worse if it were taken over?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the content of ITV programmes is a matter for the ITC and the regulations, not for the Government.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, if the noble Viscount is saying that the Government intended to introduce a period of stability after the passage of the Act, has he any comment to make on the takeover of Tyne Tees Television by Yorkshire Television during the moratorium period? Secondly, if the Government are to take up the matter of discriminatory provisions within the European Community which prevent British companies bidding for European companies, surely it would be possible in the course of those negotiations to extend the moratorium, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, has suggested, to protect British companies from the unequal terms on which they are competing.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, primary legislation would be necessary to extend the moratorium. On the matter of Yorkshire Television and Tyne Tees Television, it was for the ITC to decide whether to use its moratorium powers that are set out in the Broadcasting Act. It decided that the merger would be in the interests of the viewers in the area and of both companies. With regard to the noble Lord's point about the EC, obviously we believe that member states should not treat their own nationals more favourably than those of other member states. We believe that such action would be contrary to the Treaty of Rome. As I have said, we shall be getting in touch with the European Commission regarding some of these points.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the general assumption behind the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, is widely held among the people who really understand broadcasting and who have been intimately connected with it since this country first had commercial broadcasting?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Broadcasting Act lays down a number of restrictions about the ownership of television companies. I take my noble friend's point about EC broadcasters' ownership of such companies but, as I said earlier, they are subject to all the licence conditions that were given out originally.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, do the Government take the view that the means of public information are a special case and that the extension that they made was the proper thing to do? Indeed, it would be proper to extend the moratorium on a permanent basis. Do they accept that there are certain areas which the market should not be allowed to penetrate without safeguards?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, no, we do not believe that the moratorium should be extended. We believe that takeovers are important and we would not wish to produce a framework that is so rigid that it prevents them, as has happened recently with the Yorkshire/ Tyne Tees takeover.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I wonder whether we should move on.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, I shall be brief. May I ask my noble friend to take on board the question of the EC and the lack of parity? I knew that the debate would become confused by the Yorkshire/ Tyne Tees matter; but will he recognise that it has nothing to do with the Question? We are on an unequal footing. Britain is at a disadvantage. If my noble friend were old enough he would realise how worried some of us might become. Is this not analogous to waking up in September 1939 and finding that BBC radio services were owned by Lord Haw-Haw?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I take very seriously the points that my noble friend has raised. As I have said, this is a matter that we shall be taking to the Commission. I shall bring the points that he has made today to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.