HL Deb 16 February 1998 vol 586 cc5-7

2.49 p.m.

Baroness David

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In view of the BBC's imminent removal of children's radio broadcasts, and the absence of children's programmes on commercial radio, why children's listening needs are not specifically protected in the BBC Charter and in the broadcasting Acts which govern the independent sector.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, under its formal Agreement with the Government, the BBC is required to provide a high standard of original programmes for children and young people. Within this framework, however, decisions on editorial content and delivery of programmes are for the BBC itself. Presently there are no frequencies available to support a further analogue national commercial radio service. Given the very limited availability of frequencies for digital commercial radio, the Government do not wish to prescribe the nature of the services to be conveyed on them at this time.

Baroness David

My Lords, while that is not an entirely unexpected Answer it is nonetheless unsatisfactory. Does the Minister realise how strongly people feel about the ending of children's radio and how they resent the Secretary of State going back on his commitment at a meeting at the Labour Party conference to reserve, not just one but several digital audio channels for children and education"? Surely, when the national curriculum is being changed to provide more time for English, thereby cutting down on history, art and music, it is counter-productive for the BBC to cut listening on radio when it helps so enormously with children's concentration, communication skills, language and movement, in particular if parents are listening with their children.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am well aware of the disappointment of my noble friend and many others. I was careful to respond that, although at present we do not wish to prescribe the nature of services to be conveyed on digital commercial radio because the number of services available is very limited, there is a real prospect that in the future more services will be available and then the prospects of improved children's services will become very much more live.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is it not clear that today's generation of producers simply does not understand the role that children's imagination can play through the use of children's radio? I speak as a nephew of Aunt Elizabeth on "Children's Hour". Many listened to those programmes with unalloyed joy over many years; now there is nothing like them. Does the Minister not think that that is a great pity?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I respect the noble Lord's ancestral interest in children's radio and I share his personal experiences of it. One of the difficulties that many people find, if I may speak personally, is that it is difficult to get children to listen to radio when television programmes are available for them. I do not say that that is an argument against children's radio being made available.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we are living in a completely different age from that described by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin? Many of us enjoyed "Children's Hour". However, these days my grandchildren are more likely to work computers than listen to the radio. I find that sad, but they do not.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I believe that my previous answers were in that direction.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, were not the final remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady David, to the point? Children's broadcasting easily involves children with their parents. Although that may be a minority activity—many bright children work closely with their parents listening to sound radio programmes—the needs of the minority should not be sacrificed in the cause of supplying the needs of the majority.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is a valid and worthwhile point. The difficulty has been finding slots which would involve children, as well as children with their parents, in sufficient numbers to create an adequate audience.

Lord Annan

My Lords, has the Minister taken on board the criticism made of BBC children's programmes on television, which are becoming swamped with trash from the United States? Does he not think that it is extremely important that the views expressed in the House today should be conveyed to the Director-General and a request made that he should respond to those views and not treat them with contempt, as the BBC has done so often in the past?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that all the views expressed in the House today will be conveyed to the Director-General of the BBC as well as to the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a frequency of 225 kilohertz is available? It is free and would allow a specialist programme for children and their parents to be broadcast from Glasgow, following which coverage could be extended gradually over the country. Is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of support for the setting up of such a programme?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am aware of the degree of support for children's programming, whether in the form of a separate channel or through increased provision for children on existing channels. As regards the 225 kilohertz frequency, the problem has emerged that it conflicts with the broadcasting requirements of other European countries. Those countries have protested strongly at the use of 225 kilohertz for a national channel.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, in responding to the BBC and the independent authorities, will the Minister take account of the significant criticism made by the Broadcasting Standards Commission in its report of November 1997 in relation to the domination of imported material in children's broadcasting? Will he take into account in particular the report published today by the European Broadcasting Union? It indicates, I understand, that the BBC's entire pre-school budget for the next two years will go into the Teletubbies? Does he agree that that is less a case of dumbing-down than dumbing-out?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not familiar with the second report to which the noble Lord refers. We shall take full cognizance of the first report, although I must repeat that it is a matter for the broadcasters rather than for government.

Lord Hussey of North Bradley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that considerable and necessary savings have been made in the BBC over the past 10 years? Would it not be prudent therefore to invest some of that money in the television and radio audiences of tomorrow instead of today, thereby widening choice, not restricting it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that any savings which have been made should be used for the future television and radio services, as the noble Lord rightly suggests.