HL Deb 11 January 1999 vol 596 cc6-8

2.54 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they propose to take to ensure that reductions in payments to the Treasury by independent television companies lead to increased expenditure on programmes.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, under the Broadcasting Act 1990, the terms on which Channel 3 licences are renewed are solely a matter for the Independent Television Commission. The commission has made clear that licence renewal terms were set to enable licencees to continue to provide the same range and quality of services as before while providing a fair return to the Exchequer for the right to broadcast to nearly every home in the United Kingdom.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and recognise that the immediate responsibility rests with the Independent Television Commission. However, does he not agree that it is a proper concern of government and of taxpayers generally that putting right these absurd anomalies of the Conservatives' Broadcasting Act 1990 involves a cost to the Exchequer of £90 million? Therefore, would it not be right that such tax concession and change can be justified only if vigorous steps are taken to ensure that that money is used primarily to improve programme standards, which are badly in need of improvement, and does not go into the pockets of shareholders?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is certainly true that as a result of the renegotiation there is less money for the Exchequer. However, the £90 million to which the noble Lord refers is offset in part by the additional revenue from Channel 5 and Teletext services. The licence renewal process which the ITC went through was not intended to be a negotiation about the content of programmes; it was as set out in the Broadcasting Act 1990, for which I claim no responsibility. It was there to recognise the difference in value of the licences which were originally allocated in 1993.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, leaving aside all technicality and dealing with the quality of service, is the Minister aware that, as regards the television programme about this House, nobody apparently seems to be aware of what on earth is going on?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord refers to the BBC2 programme on Sunday nights, which is a little remote from the Question. I am sure that when noble Lords have finished watching those programmes they will form strong and diverse views about their quality.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the standards of television are dropping dramatically and that over Christmas it was widely thought that they dropped to a new low? What are the Government going to do about it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I never watch television at Christmas so I do not have any personal experience of those programmes. I do not think that audiences at Christmas are dropping dramatically. I am not sure that there is general agreement with the assertion which my noble friend makes.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, in the context of this Question, would the Minister want to encourage independent companies and the BBC to include religious broadcasting in any increased expenditure on programmes? I refer particularly to Christmas morning, when latterly, sadly, there is no live broadcast of worship. If there were, perhaps the viewing figures would increase.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as I made clear in a previous answer, the licence renewal process, set out in the Broadcasting Act 1990, did not involve a renewal of the licence requirements. The existing licence requirements, including programme obligations, and those for religious programming, remain in force and have not changed.