First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 31 March 1987



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Miss JANET FOOKES

Ashton, Mr. Joe (Bassetlaw)

Baker, Mr. Nicholas (Dorset, North)

Baldry, Mr. Tony (Banbury)

Browne, Mr. John (Winchester)

Buchan, Mr. Norman (Paisley, South)

Corbett, Mr. Robin (Birmingham, Erdington)

Faulds, Mr. Andrew (Warley, East)

Freud, Mr. Clement (Cambridgeshire, North East)

Gale, Mr. Roger (Thanet, North)

George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South)

Harris, Mr. David (St. Ives)

Jackson, Mr. Robert (Wantage)

Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey (Wealden)

Knight, Mr. Greg (Derby, North)

Lawler, Mr. Geoff (Bradford, North)

Lloyd, Mr. Peter (Fareham)

Mellor, Mr. David (Minister of State, Home Office)

Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby)

Miss P. A. Helme, Committee Clerk

3 First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 31 March 1987

[Miss JANET FOOKES in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Broadcasting (Extension of Duration of IBA's Function) Order 1987. I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Fookes, and hope that we will not detain you for long. Those who follow these matters closely will know that the order is consequential on the decision of the House to give a Third Reading to the Broadcasting Bill last week. One purpose of that short Bill was to extend the contract period for direct broadcasting by satellite from 12 years to 15 years, to ensure that, as far as possible, investors could obtain adequate returns in an exciting but expensive and risky venture. As we explained, the Bill necessitates an order to extend the life of the IBA from its present expiry date of December 1996. The latest date on which a DBS service could start would be the autumn of 1990 and the contract in the Bill for providing the service would run until autumn 2005. Plainly, the IBA cannot enter into those arrangements if it is due to cease to exist on 31 December 1996. We propose to extend the IBA's life until 31 December 2005 so that it will have the power to enter into the necessary legal arrangements with the company providing the satellite and programmes for the DBS service.

10.32 am

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): I join in welcoming you, Miss Fookes, to the Chair of the Committee. I share the Minister's view that the order need not detain us unduly. In effect, the Minister said that unless we approved the order the IBA, which is the parent of direct broadcasting by satellite, would leave the poor little infant alone in the world. Now that the IBA has awarded the first DBS franchises, that anomaly is clearly nonsense. It is right that the IBA's life should be extended to at least the period for which the initial licences are given. The Government have really stirred up broadcasting, both television and radio. We have seen recently that the IBA may have been given insufficient powers to control DBS properly. Reports say that the privatised British Telecom now wants 16 channels on the Astra satellite, which it will hire out 4 to transmit programmes to the United Kingdom—a sort of extra-terrestrial cabling exercise. BT wants to wander outside its traditional telecommunications role into broadcasting and, as I understand it, the present legislation for the IBA does not cover that development. Lack of proper control of DBS—I refer not to anything remotely concerned with stifling "nanny-ism" but more to parental guidance—could lead to dangers for our democracy under BT's proposals. There would be nothing to stop BT selling transmission time on its channels to those with pockets and purses deep enough to broadcast political messages, which would cut across all the sensible political controls that we have at present. A strength of the present system on both channels—that paid for out of the licence fee and those paid for as we shop—is that no one can buy time to advance political views. That standard must remain unless our democracy is to become one-sided. I believe that it is that development that so distorts much of the election process in the United States. We need an IBA in some shape or form if for no other reason than to oversee what is likely to be the slow development of DBS to avoid a damaging free-for-all, which can only damage public service broadcasting here and put pressure for lower programme standards in the chase for larger audiences to bump up advertising revenue. The IBA has a role in the campaign that may be needed to protect this Government and viewers from the follies of pay-to-view television, now I gather by channel rather than by programme. Again, there are public service broadcasting aspects which need to be protected and promoted by the IBA. The IBA has an important role in assisting again, in an orderly way, in access of independent producers. It has made its proposals, as has the BBC, but needs to ensure that there is no massive de-manning, lowering of programme standards or loss of the regional flavour of regional television. In fact there is a strong case for a strengthening of regional programme-making by both the current ITV franchise holders and independent producers. I strongly dissent from the view that an event or programme is good only if it happens in London, or is made in London. Technological change will force changes in broadcasting upon us swiftly. I think it is best if Parliament is in the driving seat, leading the way rather than respondng. With all of these changes, and against the background of the extension of the life of the IBA, I should like to ask the Minister whether it would not be better to match the recent radio broadcasting Green Paper with one on television, including DBS. There can be no effective consultation with everyone in the industry and those beyond without some framework against which this consultation and debate can take place. The radio Green Paper is certainly written loosely enough to avoid any risk of firmly committing the Government to a particular course of action, though 5 some preferences are stated or implied. We should have a similar procedure for television where, if anything, the prospective change is likely to have an even bigger impact because of the nature of television. It is one thing to hear a broadcast and be affected; it is all the more powerful if it walks and talks and is in colour. I hope that the Minister will at least think about the need for such a development and undertake sympathetically to consider the point.

10.38 am

Mr. Mellor: I listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments, which, as usual, contain much common sense. We believe that satellite broadcasting needs to be subject to the same sort of regulation as terrestrial broadcasting, and we have worked hard to promote successful negotiations within the Council of Europe—which is a more appropriate framework than the European Community—to try to ensure that there is a Council of Europe convention to deal with trans-frontier broadcasting. We aim to ensure that there is a seamless web of regulation, which does not stifle the development of these services but ensures that standards of taste, decency and so on are maintained.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North East): Will the Minister ensure that if such a body is set up it will have reasonable clout, unlike the Press Council? There would be nothing more pointless than having yet another authority that has no rights and no power.

Mr. Mellor: That is an important point. I think that we should follow the model of the Broadcasting Act 1981, which provides a regulatory regime that has some teeth. Plainly that is more difficult to achieve in an international context, but the question of the enforcement of these arrangements is the 6 key to the matter, especially when some European countries are defensive about satellite broadcasting. They welcome it in principle, but then put obstacles in the way of advertising and such matters. One country even objected to a McDonalds hamburger advertisement, for imprudent reasons—not on nutritional grounds, but because children are featured in it. It is a sign of the gap between rhetoric and practice that needs to be addressed. The future of television is not a matter that we wish to keep within the House. We are holding discussions within Government on the key points raised in the Peacock report, relating particularly to the future of the ITV system, the future framework of Channel 4 and the future payment for BBC services as we should like the opinions of the House and the public on those points. While the extent of the desirable changes will determine the future manner in which the issues will be handled, we have been pleased with the response to the radio Green Paper. People have recognised our genuine desire to make this not a partisan issue but one on which we can create a genuine partnership with the creative broadcasting community in the best interests of the consumer. We should like to widen their choice and hold on to the real advances in broadcasting standards permitted by the present framework. Plainly that is a precedent that will tell in deciding on developments. Our aim is to include as many people as possible within discussions—we do not wish to exclude anybody.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Broadcasting (Extension of Duration of IBA's Function) Order 1987.

Committee rose at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Miss Janet Fookes (Chairman)

Baker, Mr. Nicholas

Corbett, Mr.

Freud, Mr.

Gale, Mr.

Lawler, Mr.

Lloyd, Mr. Peter

Mellor, Mr.