HL Deb 10 September 2003 vol 652 cc291-5

2.51 p.m.

Lord McNally

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they will ensure that both Parliament and public are fully involved and consulted during the process of BBC charter renewal.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, the Government will announce how they intend to conduct the charter review before the end of the year. I can give a commitment now, however, that the process will be both wide-ranging and thorough, that public debate will form a critical element of the review and that there will be opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I welcome that reply and hope that the statement of how the Government intend to conduct the review will be made in the form of a parliamentary Statement so that it may be scrutinised in both Houses. Is the Minister aware that there is considerable public concern that charter review in the hands of this Government needs to be fully transparent? There are grave public concerns that it may well be a combination of payback time by politicians with a grievance and "pay-for" time for commercial interests. Therefore, the BBC and its integrity need to be fully protected during the process.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord was good enough to write to me on this subject at the end of July and to issue his letter to the press. Therefore, I assume that he can take some credit for fomenting public concern. But the basis on which he wrote to me and the concerns that he expressed are entirely inappropriate. There is no question of there being a payback time. The Secretary of State has at all times made it entirely clear that she rejects any attempt to confuse our desire to correct any statements made by the BBC with the charter review process. We shall maintain the BBC's independence and we shall not be influenced by matters taking place now. In answer to the noble Lord's other questions, our process, of course, will be entirely transparent.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I appreciate what my noble friend has just said about the crucial importance of the independence of the BBC. However, assuming that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not asking for a referendum to obtain public support for any renewal of the charter, is there not a danger that the renewal may occur during the course of a general election, which at present is supposed to take place in about 2006? In those circumstances, will the Government consider bringing forward the date of the charter renewal rather than risk it being involved in the type of party-political conversation that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord McNally?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I know even less than my noble friend Lord Barnett about when the next general election will be. However, the last charter was granted in 1996 for a period of 10 years. We have made commitments, particularly in relation to the licence fee, for that period until the end of the charter review. I do not believe that any strong reasons exist for changing that period now.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, when the charter is renewed, would it be possible to slip into it a little piece requesting the BBC to return the main news bulletin to nine o'clock every evening?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there are two documents: the charter, which is about eight pages long; and the agreement, which is about 16 pages long. I do not believe that either of them goes into the type of detail to which the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, refers; nor do I believe that they should.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, that leads beautifully to my question. Granted the overwhelming importance of the charter in constitutional terms, the agreement is none the less the document that deals with the nitty-gritty of day-to-day broadcasting. Can the Minister give us any assurance about parliamentary discussion of the BBC agreement?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords. I can certainly say that there will be parliamentary discussion of the BBC agreement. It is a constitutional oddity that, although there is no requirement for the BBC charter to be considered by Parliament, there is a requirement for the agreement to be considered by the House of Commons because their Standing Orders require anything which affects communications across the sea—that is, the BBC World Service—to be considered by Parliament. But, of course, we intend to go very much further than that.

The detail of parliamentary scrutiny is at least in part a matter for Parliament. However, we certainly recall that in 1996 the previous government said that there would be an opportunity for each House to debate the document. They undertook that if either House were to demonstrate that it found the charter or the agreement unacceptable as drafted, the government would consider whether changes were necessary and, if so, would withdraw the documents and prepare new drafts.

Earl Russell

My Lords, in his first reply to my noble friend, the Minister—I believe that I quote him correctly—made a reference, first, to correcting mistakes by the BBC and, secondly, to preserving the independence of the BBC. Does he agree that there is, if not a contradiction, a certain potential tension between those two remarks? Does he also agree that the Government are not an impartial judge of impartiality?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my remarks about correcting mis-statements were a direct response to an accusation made publicly by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I made it clear that they have nothing to do with the charter review process or the independence of the BBC.

Lord Elton

My Lords, will the charter or the agreement define the balance of power and authority between the governors and the executive of the BBC, and can we be assured that that matter will be a subject of discussion in this House?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the question of what detail is a matter for discussion in this House is, at least in part, as I said, a matter for this House—a matter for Parliament. My understanding—I could be wrong on this; I have not read the documents recently—is that the issue of the role of the governors is a matter for the charter and not the agreement. However, I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, if I am wrong about that.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the BBC is the only one of our media which is not beholden in some way to proprietors, advertisers or the government? As that is so, is it not clear that it is the only truly independent voice—one of our few successful institutions—and that any aspect of charter renewal must preserve that distinct position, which has been of outstanding benefit to our country over the past 80 years?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Sheldon has just said. That is why I have already said that we shall, at all costs, maintain the independence of the BBC. That is why, in relation to the charter review, I also said that the process will be wide-ranging and thorough and that it will include a public debate and opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny. I believe that those are the assurances which my noble friend seeks.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, does the Minister have some sympathy with the BBC with regard to its charter requirement to maintain a proper balance and to be even-handed in all respects? For example, with regard to the Prime Minister's speech yesterday to the TUC, which version would the BBC have been correct in reporting—the robust version handed out in the official statement or the weaker, wetter version, being what was actually said to the TUC?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe that it would be at all appropriate for me to comment on the BBC's treatment of the Prime Minister's speech. But my understanding is not the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Eden.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, in looking forward to charter renewal, do the Government agree that if the BBC was fully under the remit of Ofcom—an independent regulator—the current row leading to the Hutton inquiry would not have escalated in the way that it has?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is a hypothetical question on which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is entitled to form her own views. I shall not anticipate the form which the charter review will take or the role of Ofcom in any final BBC Charter or agreement.

Lord McNally

My Lords, do not the Minister's replies make an unanswerable case for the recalling of the Puttnam committee, particularly because the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is extremely good at sequels?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I realise that sequels are often very popular but, on the whole, sequels tend to be poorer than the originals. That is not in any sense a criticism of my noble friend Lord Puttnam or of any of his colleagues.