HL Deb 02 May 1995 vol 563 cc1326-8

3.2 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that when Parliament debates the new BBC Charter and associated Agreement neither will have been finalised, and in particular that the Charter will not have been presented to Her Majesty for approval.

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

My Lords, the Royal Charter of the BBC will be laid in draft and will not be presented to Her Majesty for approval until after debate in both Houses of Parliament.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that most satisfactory Answer. Can he give an assurance that the Bill amending Parts V and VI of the Broadcasting Act 1990 to merge the existing Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission will be passed before we have the debate on the new Charter and Agreement?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the merger of the two bodies that my noble friend mentions, the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, will require an Act of Parliament. I cannot bind the next Parliament to when that will be.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the new Charter, before it is debated, be published so that we can study and examine it and have a very useful debate in this House?

Viscount Astor

Yes, my Lords, it will be published before we debate it.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether his Answer about the submission of the Charter in draft means that it will be open to this House to amend it?

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. The agreement will be laid as a signed document. However, that document will specify that it is not binding until it has been approved by resolution in another place. I expect that noble Lords will wish to take the opportunity for a debate before the agreement is debated in another place. That will enable the Government to consider any views expressed by this House before the agreement is finalised.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, have the Government closed their mind on the whole question of whether the BBC should have a Royal Charter, when everybody else has to put up with an Act of Parliament?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we believe that the BBC should be governed by Royal Charter. Indeed, that was the recommendation of the Select Committee in another place, with which we agree.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Agreement, and the Minister himself, will receive the warmest support from this side of the House provided that the Charter contains a few simple and sensible obligations? Is he further aware that by "simple and sensible" I mean: a commitment to public service broadcasting as a supreme priority; obligations to continue full coverage of the arts, education and parliamentary proceedings; and obligations to due impartiality, freedom of expression and the highest taste in programmes? Given those few simple commitments, the Charter will be in no bad form to go before Her Majesty.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord will agree, documents and Bills laid by the Government before this House are always simple and sensible. I am sure that the noble Lord will be able to agree with that when we bring forward the Charter and the Agreement.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend give some indication of whether this matter is likely to come before this House before we rise for the Summer Recess or afterwards?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is a matter for the usual channels. I shall make sure that my noble friend's remarks are brought to the attention of the Chief Whip.

Lord Elton

My Lords, did my noble friend notice an omission in the list of admirable characteristics that were read out—or rather spoken from memory—by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue; namely, a strict regard for the truth? In answering, will my noble friend also clarify what he said about the procedures for making the document binding in law, which, as I heard him say, depends only on the views of the other place and not on the views of this House?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, another place has the ability to vote on the agreement under Standing Order 55. There is no such Standing Order in this House. That is why there is a vote in another place and not in your Lordships' House. That deals with the arrangements for communications overseas.

As regards the other part of my noble friend's question, perhaps it might help him if I say that the BBC, in common with other broadcasters, is required to observe due impartiality in dealing with issues of public controversy. We intend to include specific and clear obligations along these lines in the new BBC agreement. We have taken full account of the genuine and understandable concerns expressed by noble Lords. The guidelines will be very similar to the ones that are currently used by the ITC.