HL Deb 19 December 1995 vol 567 cc1508-12

2.53 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1990 concerning advertising by organisations whose aim is wholly or mainly political, the European Union should advertise itself on commercial radio stations.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)

My Lords, the Broadcasting Act 1990 establishes the Radio Authority as the body responsible for securing compliance with the rules concerning advertisements on commercial radio stations. Decisions on these matters are for the authority to take.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I find that Answer most interesting? Will he confirm that the European Union is perhaps the most highly politicised body and certainly very divisive not only of the people in the country but also of political parties? Does he agree that if the EU is allowed to advertise its wares on radio, or on television for that matter, it will be in order for the Campaign for an Independent Britain, of which I am chairman, and others to advertise the disbenefits? Will it be in order for us to point out to the people of this country that because of the EU they pay£18 a week more in food costs; that every family pays an extra£180 a year in taxation; that we have had a£97 billion trade deficit with the EU and the consequent loss of jobs; and that EU policies, as we heard in the first Question, are destroying our fishing industry and many other industries because of stupid regulations?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord asks an extremely drawn-out question. The proper person to whom it should be addressed is not me but a representative of the Broadcast Advertising Clearing Centre, which is the central copy clearance body responsible for preventing certain categories of television and radio advertisements.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Her Majesty's Government, individually as a government, or through the Council of Ministers, or through the European Council, have abandoned all efforts to limit the amount spent by the Commission through the European Community budget on propaganda? Is he further aware that at the meeting in Madrid the matter was not even raised by the British Prime Minister, as he admitted in his Statement in another place yesterday? Is it to be the case that£50 million a year is to be spent by the Commission on its own propaganda without any authorisation and as of right in spite of the fact that it is broadcasting propaganda of a highly tendentious nature to promote only its own interests and policies unique to the Commission?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord draws to my attention an aspect of government policy which, if it be, is not known to me. The European Commission's information budget is agreed in detail with the Council and the European Parliament. That budget subsequently must be discharged by the European Parliament and will he scrutinised by the European Court of Auditors. The new Financial Commissioner, Mr. Liikanen from Finland, is strengthening budgetary controls in the Commission and has strong support from the United Kingdom Government in that respect. I am not in a position to answer the detailed points in the noble Lord's question, which are somewhat wide of the Question on the Order Paper. I shall write to the noble Lord when I am able to do so constructively.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, in view of the attitude of Her Majesty's Government to the single European currency, does my noble friend think it right that the European Union should spend British taxpayers' money on advertising the single currency?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the position of the United Kingdom Government in respect of any possible single European currency is well known; they are reserving their position to examine the merits. Any information which may be disseminated by the European Community or the Commission about the details of that is a matter to be dealt with by the Council of Ministers.

Lord Monson

My Lords, perhaps I may refer to one of the Minister's earlier answers. Did he say that there is no obligation on broadcasters to maintain a political balance as regards advertisements as opposed to the programmes?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the position as regards advertising on commercial radio and possible political activity is spelt out in detail in Section 92 of the Broadcasting Act 1990. In particular, two criteria must be met for a broadcast to be carried. First, the person placing the broadcast must not be political, although it can be placed by an administrative or governmental body. Secondly, the advertisement itself must not be political.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the information office of the Commission. Would he agree that much of the information that it puts out is inaccurate? Would he further agree that when a country puts out inaccurate information officially it amounts to propaganda? Finally, would he agree that propaganda is one of the hallmarks of a fascist state?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I have no evidence of inaccurate information emanating from the office of the European Commission. If the noble Lord has, I would be grateful if he would draw it to my attention.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, since the House appears to be almost traumatised by the prospect of the dire impact of the Brussels spin doctors on the simple minds of the Anglo-Saxons, will the Minister enlighten us by giving an example of one of these acts of propaganda?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the advertisements to which reference has been made are three that were recently broadcast on commercial radio. It may be of interest to the House if I read the typescript of one of them. It is called The Connoisseur and reads: At the airport. An argument between a woman passenger and the check-in steward. Steward: 'I'm sorry, madam, but the flight you are booked on is full. Next please.'. Passenger: "Just a moment. If a scheduled flight is overbooked, there are laws which entitle me to a seat on the next flight and cash compensation of at least£130.'. Steward: "True, Madam. You are even entitled to have your hotel and meals reimbursed.'. Passenger: "You see? When you make the effort you can really be quite charming.'. Voice off (over "Ode to Joy'): 'Throughout Europe, to help you defend your interests, the European Community and Britain within it give you rights. Make sure you use them. Send for a free fact sheet to PO Box 9432, London NW1 4WA.'".

Lord Marsh

My Lords, would the Minister like to explain why that particular advertisement is not political?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as I explained in my first Answer, whether or not matters are political is a matter for the Radio Authority.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the fact that the European Commission finds it necessary to spend any money at all on praising its policies suggests how deeply unpopular it is, not only in this country but throughout Europe?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, if I have understood the advertisement properly I believe that its purpose is to draw to the attention of citizens the rights that they have to seek redress where they have suffered damage.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there was great amusement when he read out the text of the advertisement? Is he further aware that many people are offended not only by the advertisement but also by the hijacking of the greatest piece of music ever written for the political purposes of the European Union?

I refer to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington. Is the Minister really happy that the European Union will be spending many millions of pounds on advertising the European single currency and EMU in this country and that the Government will not use the same methods to put across their point of view which I believe is that of the majority of British people? Why will the Government not give an assurance that they will counteract the blatant propaganda put out on behalf of the EU?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I explained in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, that I wish to look into this matter and reply in detail. But the noble Lord is looking ahead an extremely long way as to what the European Community may or may not do in that regard. As regards the use of music, I imagine that it is a matter of great distress to those who love the old German folk song "Tannenbaum" that it was hijacked by the Red Flag.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the answer he gave some moments ago he stated that the European Council had some control over the expenditure? Is he aware that in his statement in another place yesterday the Prime Minister said: On the expenditure on publicity, I am bound to say that the Commission's public relations campaign was not, as reported, put to Heads of Government at Madrid and received no specific endorsement from Heads of Government at Madrid. The reason is that the Commission has authority to determine the proportion of its budget to be spent on information work and has chosen to exercise it in that fashion"—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/95; col. 1228.]

In other words, it is a law unto itself.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, as ever, makes his point in a vigorous and robust manner. The position is that the European Commission's information budget is agreed in detail with the Council and the European Parliament in accordance with the normal budgetary provisions. As regards the detail of the expenditure within the chapters in the budget as it relates to the European Commission, that is a matter for the Commission.

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