HL Deb 05 April 1995 vol 563 cc174-6

2.40 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether either House of Parliament will be able to amend the proposed new BBC Charter and Agreement.

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

My Lords, the Royal Charter is granted by Her Majesty and the Agreement is a contract between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the BBC. However, we intend that both documents should be laid before Parliament and debated together by both Houses before they come into force. Should either House of Parliament indicate that the documents as drafted were unacceptable, then the Government would carefully consider whether changes were necessary.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this is a big constitutional point? We are about to introduce a new Charter and Agreement and it is only right—I am glad to have it confirmed in Hansard—that it should be discussed in both Houses. I am sure that we have something to contribute. Recent events in connection with "Panorama" and Channel 4—sorry, Clause 4, that is more important—underline the need for us to look at these matters carefully. I draw my noble friend's attention to today's Daily Telegraph where Simon Heffer has an interview indirectly with Tony Hall from which it emerges that the current Producer Guidelines—

Noble Lords


Lord Orr-Ewing

I have here a book containing some of the regulations that provide for them. The guidelines are 276 pages long, so I cannot summarise them. What has been issued is for guidance only. In no sense are these BBC rules or undertakings. This is a serious matter which should be discussed.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend will forgive me if I do not start the debate on the BBC at this moment. In answer to his question that the BBC, in common with other broadcasters, is required to observe due impartiality when dealing with issues of public controversy, we intend to include specific and clear obligations along those lines in the new BBC Agreement. We have taken full account of the genuine and understandable anxieties expressed in your Lordships' House and, indeed, elsewhere.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that three times this week the Scottish courts have held that there is a prima facie case that the BBC is in breach of its duties in relation to due impartiality concerning the Scottish local elections? In those circumstances, if the BBC complains about political parties going to the courts, would it not be wise for the BBC to set up its own panel of governors to adjudicate in advance of a programme on any responsible complaints made by political parties in relation to due impartiality? Does that not underline the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, that the BBC Charter and Agreement should be subject to the same detailed scrutiny, including the right to amend, in both Houses of Parliament as are the commercial television stations under the broadcasting Acts?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, refers to the recent actions in the courts in Scotland. I understand that those matters may be subject to further action in the courts and therefore it would be wrong for me to comment on the facts of the case. In relation to the points made about the Charter and the Agreement, I must emphasise again that there will be a debate in both Houses of Parliament. We will take any anxieties expressed by your Lordships, as we always do, very seriously. If the Charter or the Agreement were not felt to be doing the job properly, we would have to withdraw them and have new versions prepared.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, the action in the Scottish courts in the past week has opened wide the whole question of BBC impartiality and whether the Royal Charter is the proper instrument for this purpose. That needs to be thoroughly investigated and Parliament must have the right to propose changes if necessary.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, Parliament has the right to propose any changes it thinks fit to the BBC Agreement or Charter. Indeed, we had a recent debate in your Lordships' House and the Government gave the commitment that there would be a further debate once the Charter and Agreement are published. But the BBC is there by Royal Charter which is granted under Royal Prerogative. It establishes the BBC as a public corporation and sets out its powers. It is not, as such, subject to parliamentary approval, but Parliament has an important role to play in the management and the role of the BBC.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that many of us on these Benches are broadly in agreement with what he said in his first two answers? Is he further aware that although we may differ from the Government, perhaps quite strongly, about how governors of the BBC should be appointed and how the Charter should clearly specify the powers of the board of governors and the board of management, we agree with the Government that the governors must he trusted to govern without meddlesome interference from any outside body?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an Important point. I hope that when we publish the Charter and the Agreement we shall address the noble Lord's concerns so that it is entirely clear what the role of the governors and the role of the board of management should be.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, has the noble Viscount noticed that under "No day named" I tabled a Motion to resolve the matter by saying that we should not have a Charter at all? It should be an Act of Parliament.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, if the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, achieves a debate, and if I am asked, I shall certainly reply to his proposal and we can discuss the issue then.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when it was first decided that the BBC should have a Royal Charter, sound broadcasting was in its experimental infancy? Television was not introduced until 30 years later. Is my noble friend aware that the BBC is now an influential and vital part of national life? Should not Parliament therefore have the right to decide in detail how it should operate and be governed?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the current Royal Charter, Licence and Agreement were dealt with in exactly the same way in 1981. The Government agree with the Select Committee in another place that the BBC should continue to be established by Royal Charter.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that while the Charter is not amendable and the Government can do no more than take it back if the opposition is sufficiently vociferous—which seems unlikely—the Agreement is amendable? Will the noble Viscount confirm that?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Agreement is not amendable. The Government would have to take back the Agreement and the Charter. I should point out to your Lordships that Parliament has an important role to play with regard to the BBC. The BBC submits its annual report and accounts to Parliament and Parliament sets the licence fee. The BBC's activities can be scrutinised by a Select Committee.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, do we not have too many interminable debates in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading by way of amendment? Do we want to add a new class of them?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble and learned friend makes an important point. I am sure that when we come to discuss the Charter and the Agreement your Lordships will see the benefit of both.