HL Deb 18 April 1996 vol 571 cc786-7

3.18 p.m.

Viscount Chelmsford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the views expressed in the European Parliament concerning quotas for television programmes, as proposed for inclusion in the television without frontiers directive; and, if not, what action they are taking to propose a suitable alternative.

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

My Lords, at the Culture and Audio-visual Council on 20th November last year all member states agreed to retain the text of Articles 4 and 5 of the 1989 television without frontiers directive. These articles require a majority of European programme content and at least 10 per cent. of that to be from independent producers. The Commission has confirmed its support of this agreement and it is not in favour of the proposed European parliamentary amendments relating to quotas.

Viscount Chelmsford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer which, if it holds, is very satisfactory. If, as we heard before the Easter Recess, the Commission is now engaged in conciliation it may not hold. Is not the use of subsidiarity a viable alternative which the Government might like to consider in such circumstances? Does the Minister agree with the comment that has been published by EURIM, the European parliamentary group of which I am a member, suggesting that public service networks provide the means to preserve national cultures with the least market distortion?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we believe that the Commission is clearly committed to the provisions of the proposed amendments to the television without frontiers directive. It is other provisions of the European Parliament's proposed amendments about which it is considering that it may change its view. It is important to realise that this is a First Reading by the European Parliament. There is still a long way to go in the legislative process before any changes reach the statute book. Lastly, it is the case that in this country, public service terrestrial broadcasters are subject to a whole range of positive programming requirements which are in the public interest.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, do the Government agree that while it is important to resist the flood of cheap American imports into some of our satellite channels, quotas are not the best way to achieve that? Will the Government ensure that during the further passage of the Broadcasting Bill in another place they will do everything possible to encourage high quality original British programming, not only from the BBC and the independent television companies but also from BSkyB?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, for supporting the Government's position in respect of quotas. Of course, it is the Government's wish that the quality of British television and television productions made in this country should be of the highest quality possible.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that quotas distort competition in the industry and, as it is an industry which must operate in a world market, quotas are bad for the broadcasting industry?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in giving future consideration to the views expressed by the European Parliament on such matters, will the noble Lord bear in mind that most views expressed in the European Parliament are expressed on behalf of a minority only because only a minority of its members attend? Will the noble Lord give the House an assurance that he will pay due attention to that fact?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am sure that in view of the fact that some noble Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, have been Members of the European Parliament, we can form our own views on the merits and the quality of the opinions which it forms.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that the British people will not tolerate being told by the French, the Germans, the Greeks and so on what they can and cannot watch on their television screens?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the British people are not being told by those nations what to watch on television. They have a perfectly good on/off button.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is rather sanguine as to what the British people can be told about what to do and what not to do? They have just been told that they may not export perfectly good British beef to the Continent or elsewhere.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, that is a trifle wide of the Question which I have been answering but of course, on this occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, is absolutely right.