HL Deb 24 November 1994 vol 559 cc359-62

3.10 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the new BBC Charter and Agreement will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament; and if not, why not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, the BBC's Royal Charter requires the approval of neither House of Parliament, since it is granted under the Royal Prerogative. However, the Agreement is subject to the approval of the House of Commons, under Standing Order 55, since part of that document deals with arrangements for communications overseas. Both the Charter and the Agreement will be laid before Parliament before they are brought into force and the Government intend that both Houses should have the opportunity to debate them.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is it right that as the Royal Prerogative is centuries old and situations change it needs to be examined? We are an adept and flexible House and can change. Is it also right that, although we are free to debate the Charter and the Agreement, we are not in any way free to amend them? If that is right, why?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the BBC is not a creation of statute. Its Royal Charter is granted under the Royal Prerogative and is not subject to parliamentary approval. Obviously, when the Charter and the Agreement are debated, the Government will have to take seriously any comments made by Members of this House or another place.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, the present Charter cross-references to the instructions that can be made as regards a licence agreement and so forth by the Minister of State concerned. Will those documents, with the form of statutory instruments, be debatable and "votable" in both Houses of Parliament?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not believe that the Agreement and the Charter are "votable" on by your Lordships' House. Any statutory provisions that come before your Lordships' House as affirmative or negative instruments would be "votable". I understand that the approval of the House of Commons only is required under Standing Order 55 which states: In all contracts extending over a period of years, and creating a public charge, actual or prospective, entered into by the Government for the conveyance of mails by sea, or for the purpose of communications beyond sea, there shall be inserted the condition that the contract shall not be binding until it has been approved of by a resolution of the House of Commons. Proceedings in pursuance of this order, though opposed, may be decided after the expiration of time for opposed business".

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, an important issue of principle is involved. Is the Minister aware that it is strange that, as regards the future of the BBC—a matter on which for many years this House has exercised a greater influence than has another place—this House does not have equal rights with the other place in terms of the final approval of the licensing agreement?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the matter relates to Standing Order 55 as it applies to the overseas arm of the BBC. The current Royal Charter and Agreement were dealt with in exactly the same way in 1981 when they came before both Houses of Parliament for debate. With the agreement of the usual channels, the Government intend that your Lordships will debate the White Paper and the Charter and Agreement when they are laid before Parliament.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, did my noble friend say that, while the consent of the House of Commons is required to the Agreement, the consent of this House is not required? If that is so, what is the explanation?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the consent of another place is required under Standing Order 55. I understand that there is no such standing order in your Lordships' House.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, the BBC provides good television programmes for sale abroad where they compete with CNN and Sky Television. That is outwith the kind of arrangements which years ago one considered to be the activities of the BBC. Does this House or the House of Commons have no say on the financial aspect, which was not considered in 1926 and subsequently?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the BBC submits accounts to Parliament and Parliament sets the licence fee. The BBC's activities can be scrutinised by a Select Committee and can be the subject of debate. The Government agree with the National Heritage Select Committee of another place that the BBC should continue to be established by Royal Charter. This underlines the fact that while the BBC is accountable to Parliament, it is largely independent.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that your Lordships' House is in one important respect much more representative than the Members of another place? Among your Lordships are those who have reached the top in the professions, industry, commerce and the Armed Forces. We also have as Members Bishops and Law Lords, none of whom can be found in another place. Therefore, has not the time come for this House to have the power that the other place has with its less-representative membership?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am happy to agree with my noble friend. I am aware of the experience and wisdom of your Lordships' House. I believe also that another place is representative of the country. The part of the Royal Charter that is subject to Standing Order 55 relates to transmissions overseas. The Government intend that both Houses will have an opportunity to make their views known. Although no formal approval of this House will be required, it will have an opportunity to debate the issue before the documents come into force.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I shall not comment on the representativeness of this House because that may change. We too would welcome the opportunity to debate the White Paper and we look forward to doing so. The White Paper deals with the likelihood of the privatisation of the transmission services of the BBC. Is the Minister aware that a recent professional analysis showed that that privatised service would cost the BBC an additional £30 million a year? Will he assure the House that the Government will not act purely on grounds of ideology?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we have appointed consultants to consider the options as regards the future of the BBC's transmission services, taking account of the BBC's plans to develop digital television broadcasting. The consultants will report their conclusions by the end of this year.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, in speaking of the representative nature of your Lordships' House the noble Lord forgot to mention a former deputy chairman of the BBC and I therefore declare an interest. Is the Minister aware that I too welcome the opportunity to debate and vote on the White Paper, which I hope will be approved overwhelmingly by all sides of your Lordships' House? Is the Minister further aware of my concern about the appointment of more consultants? I may upset some of my fellow accountants in saying that we all know the cost of appointing more consultants to do for the Government jobs that they should be capable of doing themselves.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. I am aware that he was a distinguished member of the governors of the BBC. It is important that consultants are appointed to look into plans to develop digital television broadcasting. It is an extremely complex area and will take a huge amount of investment. We must look at the matter carefully and if expertise is available to the Government in order to help them to make up their mind we should take note of that expertise.