I was once on a television programme with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), but I did not realise how many worries were going through his head. He has produced them for the Annan Committee to consider. Before I continue I should declare my interest as a director of Granada Television and of Greater Manchester Independent Radio.
Under the shadow of the Annan Committee, we do not expect to hear from the Government any decisions or, indeed, many views. I do not think my hon. Friends will get any replies about the BBC council, advertising in the BBC and so on. Although this is not a time for views or decisions from the Government, it has been a time when people interested in broadcasting have had to get their brains together to decide what they want, because many have had to submit evidence to the Annan Committee. I doubt whether any other committee, including the Pilkington Committee, has had so much evidence. The evidence of organisations like the BBC and independent television has been well presented, and the committee has a long task ahead in sorting it out.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) concentrated on the fact that when it finally reports the Annan Committee will do so against a background of financial crisis at the BBC. I should like to know, and perhaps the Minister can tell us, what exactly is the financial position of the BBC. In the BBC Handbook for 1976 it was announced that it was hoped to keep the deficit to £10 million. Sir Charles Curran said not long ago that the BBC hoped to keep it down to £30 million in 1977. It is important, in a factual and not a critical sense, to know the prospects for the BBC financially over the coming years at the present licence rate.
Having said that, I would add that I think the Government will have to give some guidance to the Annan Committee on what sort of income the BBC can expect over the coming years. On that information must depend the advice that Annan puts forward. It is absolutely crucial. Will the licence be on much the same scale as it has been so far, taking into account inflation and so on? Can the BBC expect more or less?
The hon. Member for Derby, North also raised the question of different sources of income. This problem is as old as the financing of local government. We always says what terrible things rates are, but nobody can think of anything better and we come back to rates. The licence is a clumsy and unpopular way of collecting money. It is also inefficient.
I remember that when I used to lead for the Opposition on broadcasting I visited four or five post offices to discover exactly how they collected the licence fees. I happened also then to be a director of a television rental company. I thought that if we had been as bad at collecting the rents for our television sets as the Government was in collecting the licence fees, we should have been out of business. It is a difficult thing to do. I expect that the procedure has been brushed up a little now, but perhaps the Minister can tell us what he reckons is now lost on television licences.
On the other side—I do not wish to make a party political point—whereas the situation in the BBC reflects serious financial trouble, on the independent television side it is now going well. Advertising is good, and by and large over the years independent television and broadcasting have been viable, so much so that it has been necessary to introduce a levy to make them not so prosperous. There are two contrasting situations. If a Labour Government had been in office when the second channel was first given out and it had gone to the BBC, one would wish to ask "What would the licence fee amount to now?" No doubt it would be about £50 for the three channels.
I wish now to turn to the subject of local radio. Independent local radio was an experiment. It was unique in that no other country had tried to establish an independent radio system against competition of the size of that provided by the BBC, a well-established and excellent service. Although we in Opposition, and I in particular, pushed the whole idea of local radio, it was bound to be experimental until we found how it would turn out. Now, after a reasonable experience, we can say that it is definitely viable.
Independent local radio got off to a shaky start with the two London stations, Capital and LBC, and to start with they lost money. But the position now, after three years after those stations went on the air, is that the main companies are making money and are viable and that the smaller companies soon will be. The interesting point is that, provided one has the right size of establishment, a very small town can have a viable radio station. I see no difficulty in raising the number of independent radio stations to 60 or 70 before we reach as many as we can manage. The smaller the station, the more truly local it is and the greater the number of listeners. That is a very healthy sign.
The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) said that programmes were not good. I wonder whether he is competent to say whether they are good or bad. Many people enjoy the programmes, so let us allow them to go on enjoying them. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) that the great consideration is that of choice. There is now a choice between BBC local services and our own, and that is an excellent situation.