HL Deb 05 March 1992 vol 536 cc984-6

3.22 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements are being made for a full and open public inquiry into the future of the BBC before any policy options are prepared by government as a basis for consultation.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary intends to publish a discussion document this year about the future of the BBC. We hope that there will be full, public discussion on the subject. We intend to consult as widely as possible.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the BBC is not just another public service but one of the nation's finest assets? Would he therefore agree that its quality, rugged independence and integrity must at all costs be preserved? If that is to happen, does he agree that there must a full public debate before the parameters concerning its future shape and status are decided? Is the noble Earl aware that there is growing anxiety about the plethora of working parties—some indeed in the Home Office—on the future structure, shape and content of the BBC? Can he reassure the House about exactly what is happening?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, gave, the Government will produce a discussion document and will invite as much opinion as possible before any decisions are taken. I understand that 15 task force reports are the result of the first phase of the BBC's task force. In the next few months the BBC will be drawing up its own ideas about its future. It aims to publish its proposals later in the year and its document will be an important contribution to the public debate. But I understand that the director general has made it clear that there is a lot of work still to be done.

Lord Morris

My Lords, in considering the future of the BBC, will Her Majesty's Government bear in mind the considerable distress that has been caused by the BBC's apparent inability to so arrange its affairs that only a very small minority can witness the stirring events that now unfold in the Antipodes? Furthermore, can my noble friend at least persuade the BBC to express to the Government of Australia and to its Prime Minister in particular our deepest sympathy in their suffering?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is just about as far away from the Question as one can possibly get. I can only tell my noble friend that the programming arrangements are a matter for the BBC.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, considering the document which the Government intend to publish, are they proposing to take any action that would enable the BBC to avoid having to broadcast such quite dreadful stuff as it had to broadcast on Radio 4 immediately after the news this afternoon? I refer to a Conservative political broadcast which plumbed new depths.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, heard that. I am sure that he was better informed as a result of it. What is put on by the BBC is a matter for the BBC and it is not the Government's intention, either by this document or any other—if the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, can contain himself for half a minute—to tell the BBC what to do.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that when people from the Commonwealth and other countries, particularly the United States, stay here for a few weeks they are very impressed by the way in which the BBC is managed and by the way it which its programmes are shown to the general public? We should be proud when Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and people from Germany and France are remarkably impressed by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The only thing that spoils the whole show is that they cannot understand why we have such a biased press.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the BBC has a high standing both in this and other countries. We hope that that will continue.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that in future the BBC licence fee will not automatically rise without public consultation on the excess amount being sought over value for money?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is at the moment the intention that the fee should increase only in accordance with the Retail Prices Index. We shall review the BBC's progress in improving efficiency and developing other sources of income before setting the 1994 increase.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, in view of what the Minister has said, can we still be confident that the Government will continue to support the BBC as the cornerstone of public service broadcasting as they set out in the White Paper preceding the 1990 Act? I ask this question particularly in view of the recent statement of the Home Secretary, with its implied threat, that, The BBC has got to be very careful indeed over the next eight to 10 weeks".

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not think that there is any implied threat there. With regard to the substance of the first part of the noble Baroness's question, she need have no fear provided the present Government continue in Government. If she decides to help in that case she will be satisfied.

Lord Annan

My Lords, can the noble Earl give an assurance that the financial contribution from the Foreign Office towards the World Service will continue, since this service is very highly prized and one of the jewels in the BBC's crown?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I fully accept the importance of the BBC World Service but the whole of the future of the BBC will come up for consideration when its licence and charter agreement come to an end in 1996. I cannot go beyond that.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the noble Earl not agree that his answer is difficult to reconcile with a situation in which the BBC has already indicated that it is cutting 3,000 jobs and is proposing changes covering 40 per cent. of studio facilities and outside broadcast capacity encompassing six studios, three film stages, nine outside broadcast units, eight single camera units and 71 edit suites? With all the rest that is going on, does this not suggest that a great deal is to be decided before the public debate has begun? Is that not totally unacceptable?

Earl Ferrers

No, my Lords. I do not think so. The BBC is bound to have to take decisions during the course of its period of licence. There are another four years yet to go. One cannot expect an organisation to be fossilised for that period of time. The BBC is quite right to take such action as it thinks is necessary, which is quite separate from viewing the future of the BBC and the way it will go after 1996.

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