My hon. Friend mentions Jimmy Hill. Personally, I prefer Jimmy Hill to Tony Blackburn. I think these matters raise a question in people's minds. There is cause for concern on this score, but I believe that the argument about salaries paid to the top people is marginal in comparison to the total question. Even if a strong line were taken, the financial crisis would still remain.
General salaries in the BBC are not lavish. I understand that even after the 20 per cent. settlement in August, which rightly because they had not been consulted upset the Government, BBC pay is still not lavish for the generality of staff. Indeed, that 20 per cent. settlement was a patching-up operation after a period in which the public sector had been badly treated in pay terms. The BBC says that 97 per cent. of outside contributors are paid less than £2,000 a year from the BBC. Therefore, we must get the salary question in context. I am certain that there should not be savings by sackings or by dispensing with live artists.
I served on the inquiry by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries into the IBA, and it became apparent that it was most important that we should do all we could to foster talent in television and radio. It would be wrong at present to disperse talent, to make it more difficult for artists to work and stay in their professions. It would be deleterious to the long-term interests of broadcasting.
I do not want as a viewer to see constant repeats. The BBC, in defence of itself, is saying, as a virtue, that it used so many repeats on BBC 2 at Christmas. That is a confession of failure. I do not want to see repeats. I want to see fresh productions and not a canned public service broadcasting system. The increase in income is essential if quality and diversity of programmes is not to suffer. It is essential that there should be no reduction in the service. We want to have the highest quality public service television and radio.
It is most important that no advantage be handed to commercial interests at this time. This is particularly true of local radio, where the contrast between public service and commercial service is most marked. Ever since you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I served on the Standing Committee which considered the Sound Broadcasting Bill I have listened long and often as a penance to the London Broadcasting Company commercial service. Day by day it appals me. Such a standard should not be tolerated in our capital city. At weekends I listen to Radio Stoke, and the contrast is enormous. Radio Stoke provides a service of which we can be proud; LBC we should be ashamed of.
It would be to the detriment of broadcasting if stations like Radio Stoke had to go out of business, leaving the field to companies like LBC. We have to face the fact that the strength of our broadcasting system is in having a public service which can set standards. It would be disastrous if that public service had to be reduced substantially because of the unavailability of funds.
If we want the service, we have to pay for it, and quality broadcasting is much more expensive than broadcasting where standards are not properly considered. I remember Mr. Wilfred Proudfoot telling up that all he wanted was 40 records and a record player for a broadcasting station. He had done it, and he was successful. Broadcasting can be cheap in both senses of the word. It can be cheap, and cheap and nasty. I accept what the Federation of Broadcasting Unions has said, that quality broadcasting is of necessity going to be more expensive. We should meet that expense.
The BBC would obviously prefer an increase in the licence fee. I believe that this should not be granted. I am opposed to the licence system in itself. I declare an interest: I represent people who are involved in the detection of licence evasion. They would lose their jobs if the licence were abolished. The licence is a poll tax. It is regressive. Any increase at present would cause great hardship to many people. The House should think carefully before agreeing to increase it.
I am glad that the Deputy Chief Whip is present at this unearthly hour. I must tell him that it will be very difficult for the Government Whips if the Home Secretary should try to put through the House a substantial increase in the licence fee in present circumstances. I believe that Members on the Government side are utterly opposed to a substantial increase at present. The Government must know that they will face difficulties if they try to introduce a substantial increase.
I appreciate that by international standards our licence fee is low. In France the licence is half as much, in Belgium it is twice as much, and in Denmark it is three and a half times as much. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North gave the comparison with the fee in Eire. I understand that television is cheaper than daily papers. Even so, the licence fee should not be increased.
Before we make long-term decisions on the financing of broadcasting we should wait for the report of the Annan Committee. In the meantime the Exchequer should make a grant without strings to the BBC. There should not be a tax on sales, because the unemployment figures are bad. The short-time working figures are perhaps even worse. It would make the situation worse if an additional tax were to be placed on consumer goods.
The BBC would no doubt resist being granted a sum to tide it over until Annan has reported, on the ground that it might take away its independence. However, until Annan reports I think this should be the solution.
It is important that we defend our public service broadcasting sector. I am certain that we should keep it—for the time being—within its present structure.