HC Deb 13 September 2004 vol 424 cc965-7
2. Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West)(Lab)

What principles will guide the Government in their review of the BBC charter. [187892]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell)

The principle guiding the review of the BBC charter is that the outcome will be a strong BBC, independent of Government. The review process is thorough and extensive. We have already undertaken large-scale consultations with industry and the public, and the process will continue to be characterised by vigorous and open debate.

Mr. Best

I am delighted to hear the Minister use the words "independent" and "vigorous", because that is exactly what we need from a public service broadcasting body. Will we get a guarantee that that means that there will be no commercially funded element that may make the BBC dependent on commercial interests?

Tessa Jowell

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He probably knows that the BBC is currently undertaking a review of its commercial services and is bound by strict fair trade rules. The governors are obliged to ensure that they are complied with. My hon. Friend's question will be addressed in the course of charter review. The BBC have already preempted that to some extent by taking steps to review the role and extent of commercial services.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)(Con)

I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to a strong and independent BBC. However, does she acknowledge that one of the functions of independence is political neutrality? What steps will she take to ensure that, in the run-up to the by-election in Hartlepool, during which the Labour party conference will be taking place, there is equal coverage of all the parties—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That has nothing to do with the renewal of the charter.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)(Lab)

Does the Secretary of State agree that in 2017, we shall still have a national health service, primary schools and secondary schools and a BBC? Given that we are considering switching from analogue to digital by 2012, is there any sense in having a charter? If so, is there any sense in having it for 10 more years?

Tessa Jowell

That is an important question, which is, in a sense, most relevant during the current charter review because we expect the switch-off of the analogue signal during the period that the next charter covers. A further 10-year charter is likely, but not certain. The independent panel, under the chairmanship of Lord Burns, which is advising me on charter review is considering the matter specifically.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

What is the Secretary of State's vision of that digital future? Does she agree with the BBC's statement of values for the charter when it states that it wants everyone in the United Kingdom to have equal access to digital services? How will she achieve that? There are worrying stories that she has abandoned SwitchCo and the source of money that is necessary to achieve the digital switch-over. Which parts of the UK will go first and which will go last?

Tessa Jowell

With great respect, that question was nonsense. There is no question of abandoning SwitchCo or walking away from the money. The broadcasters are considering the timetable and costs of converting the transmission network from analogue to digital. The Government are clear that digital switch-over will take place on a basis that guarantees universal access to people who currently receive analogue. We expect the principal technology to be through digital terrestrial television, but satellite and cable will also have an important role. We expect the broadcasters to bear the major costs, principally of upgrading the transmission network, of achieving the switch-over.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby)(Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an increased commitment to the nations and regions should he an important principle that guides the Government when they review the BBC charter, possibly with the relocation of production facilities and channels—for example, Radio 5 Live or BBC 3—to the north of England?

Tessa Jowell

I agree with my hon. Friend. In the past few weeks, the BBC has made some encouraging statements about its intention for substantial relocation of staff and functions out of London. The BBC must reflect the identities and characteristics of the whole UK. It cannot do that if it is principally an operation that broadcasts from London.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)(Con)

Will the Secretary of State accept that one of the fundamental principles that must be upheld in the charter review is that the BBC must be politically impartial and balanced in its coverage? Is not the decision to call a by-election in the middle of the conference season—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have already ruled on that matter.