HL Deb 11 February 1982 vol 427 cc262-3

3.4 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will suggest to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission that natural justice demands that a complaint against a broadcasting organisation shall not be upheld without that organisation first being given an opportunity of defending itself.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission is responsible for regulating its own procedure, and it would not be appropriate for the Government to seek to influence the commission as to the way in which it discharges its responsibilities. But I know that the commission is determined to deal fairly with the complaints it receives, and that with that object in mind it keeps its procedures under review.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer, but I wonder whether he could go a little further. The complaint in question was not of itself important, but I wonder whether he is aware that nonetheless the method by which the decision was reached, without any consultation with the programme company which was supposed to have offended, has caused widespread concern, at an early stage in the commission's life, about its future intentions. I wonder whether the noble Lord can indicate that the commission has taken note of the widespread concern at the way in which this particular alleged offence was handled?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the Broadcasting Act 1980 makes it clear that the commission should have discretion to consider a complaint either with or without a hearing. Parliament deliberately left the procedures for the commission fairly flexible and reasonably informal, and, if I may say so, I believe that was right. As I said in my original reply to the noble Lord, I know that the commission is determined to deal fairly with complaints and that, with that object in mind, it keeps its procedures under review.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, does that answer mean that an organisation or a person impugned before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission will not have the right, if not to be heard, then of defending itself or himself? Audi alteram partem is an old principle of law.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the procedure is that if a hearing is held, then the broadcasting authority and the programme maker must be given an opportunity to appear and be heard. If there is no hearing the commission may receive written observations. That is the procedure.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that no observations were accepted from the programme company in this case but only a representation made on its behalf by the Independent Broadcasting Authority? Is it not desirable that, before a decision is made, at least a written submission should be received from the authority alleged to have offended?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I quite understand what the noble Lord is saying, but I believe it would be wrong if the Government commented on the commission's procedures. I would for the third time like to say that the commission, with the object in mind of dealing as fairly as possible with complaints, keeps its procedures under review.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, how many times has the noble Lord in his own experience come to a firm decision after hearing the first half of a story, only to come to a completely different decision upon hearing the other half of the story?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is a completely hypothetical question. I do not believe it would help our deliberations at the moment if I tried to give a reply.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, would the noble Lord send to the commission a copy of this exchange of opinions in this House?