HL Deb 06 July 1995 vol 565 cc1237-40

Viscount Caldecote asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the draft of the new BBC Charter and Agreement will be published.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)

My Lords, the Government intend to lay the draft Charter and Agreement in the autumn.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply and congratulate him on his promotion to a new portfolio. Will the Bill to combine the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission be brought forward before the draft Charter, because the two interact very closely?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his kind opening remarks. As has been intimated, we have stated our intention to effect the merger of the BSC and the BCC and we hope to introduce a broadcasting Bill next Session to implement our cross-media ownership and digital broadcasting proposals. It is likely that this will include provisions to merge the two bodies. We hope to have tabled the draft Agreement and the draft Charter in the early autumn.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I join in congratulating the Minister. Can he give an assurance that there will be a substantial debate in your Lordships' House on the draft Charter and Licence in the overspill period? Can he give any information as to what decision, if any, has been made with regard to the BBC transmission services?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, any debate would be a matter for the usual channels in the ordinary way. There will certainly be a debate in the other place and I expect that there will be a demand for a debate in your Lordships' House as well. The noble Lord asked about transmission services. As the noble Lord will know, that matter is currently under investigation.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, there have been reports in the newspapers that a special committee has been set up by the BBC to investigate the use of bad language and other similar trends of recent years. Has that anything to do with the publication of the Charter and Agreement? What powers does the committee have? What is it all about?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I can confirm that we welcome the announcement this week by the chairman of the BBC's board of governors, Mr. Marmaduke Hussey, that the BBC is to hold a conference on standards of taste and decency to identify what audiences find acceptable. It is expected that new guidance to programme makers will emerge as a result. We think it most important that these matters are dealt with in a manner which is acceptable to the public at large.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when the two bodies come together we hope that the new body will have more power than the two had separately? At the moment they seem very flabby, and very reluctant to uphold decency, condemn violence and carry out a number of other things they are empowered to do but never seem to. When "The Last Temptation of Christ" was broadcast, it was very heavily criticised by large numbers of people but the BSC and the BCC said that it did not count as a religious programme. That is how they got round the mistakes they made. The BBC would not allow it to he shown on its channels.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his remarks, which I know echo the views of a large number of people. The new Agreement with the BBC will place specific obligations on the corporation to avoid offending against good taste and decency and not to abuse religious views. Those will replicate the requirements of the Broadcasting Act 1990 in respect of commercial broadcasters. The BBC's governors will be responsible for approving appropriate standards for BBC programmes.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his promotion. Given his obvious good sense, I am sure that he will work very closely with the BBC. Will he accept from me that, given the huge number of hours of programmes put out on radio and television by the BBC, what is really surprising is how few grounds there are for serious criticism?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his good wishes. Those are normally a preface to a difficult question. In this instance I am glad to be able to confirm that we believe that the BBC sets itself the highest standards and that in most instances it reaches them.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether there will be any provision in either the Charter or the Agreement to require the BBC to act with integrity and responsibility? I have in mind in particular the quite indefensible behaviour in publishing parts of a highly confidential draft report of the Scott Committee. If there is no such requirement, why not?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his comments. It must be emphasised that there is an overriding duty of impartiality on the BBC and on broadcasters generally. I hope your Lordships will forgive me but I have not seen the details of what might or might not have been a draft. I am not in a position to give any precise and helpful reply to the noble and learned Lord. However, I shall make sure that when matters progress further he is kept fully in the picture.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, perhaps I may emphasise that I was not talking about impartiality. I was talking about integrity.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in congratulating my noble friend, along with others, on becoming, as it were, another sort of usual channel, may I ask him whether we can hope that when the draft Charter and draft Agreement are published the structure that they reveal will mean that the governors of the BBC are at a sufficient distance from the day-to-day managers of the BBC, and sufficiently distinctly serviced, to be at arm's length from the corporation when enforcing the terms of the agreements he has just described?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. The BBC is subject to regulation by its governors. Therefore, it is important that the governors remain sufficiently at arm's length from the management of the corporation to be able to do exactly what my noble friend describes.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we join in the congratulations to the new Minister and assure him that, provided that he is as positive and helpful as his predecessor, we shall give him an equally easy ride. Within the context of broadcasting statements, will he confirm that announcements on the sale of BBC transmitters and on digital broadcasting will be made before the House rises? Most importantly, will he give an assurance that there will be an opportunity for full public consultation on those proposals?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for his kind remarks. I can assure your Lordships that I shall endeavour to do everything I can to ensure that I have as easy a ride as I can achieve. The Government are considering the way ahead on digital broadcasting and will issue proposals as soon as possible. There will then be an opportunity for consultation on the proposals.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that when the regulatory bodies fail to take firm and decisive action over offensive material shown on programmes, Her Majesty's Government will call those regulatory bodies to account?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it is a matter for the regulatory bodies to exercise their discretion on the basis of the facts they have in front of them. One of the important characteristics is that BBC public broadcasting is kept at arm's length from the Government.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, may I also congratulate the Minister. When he comes to consider the draft Agreement, will he bear in mind the extraordinary contribution of the World Service of the BBC in providing an amazingly accurate and honest description of international affairs? In central and eastern Europe in particular it does remarkable work. I hope that the Charter and the Agreement will reflect the tribute that we wish to pay.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right in recognising the contribution of the World Service. Of course, it does a good job not just for our own country but for the rest of the world.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords—

Noble Lords

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