HL Deb 11 February 2004 vol 656 cc1100-2

2.58 p.m.

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have concerning the renewal of the BBC's charter.

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

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport launched charter review on 11 December, with the publication of a consultation document, The Review of the BBC's Royal Charter. The review will be wide-ranging, with full public consultation, and we hope that it will be characterised by vigorous and open debate. The only certain outcome of the review is that it will result in a strong BBC, independent of government.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I am obliged for that Answer. Does my noble friend accept that during the debate on the Hutton report, whatever differing views there were, there was a strong view across all sectors of your Lordships' House that the BBC should be a strong and independent organisation in the future? Is there not a great danger that the review could become a party political football if, for example, it is mixed up with a possible general election next year? In the circumstances, would my noble friend be prepared to consider, or at least ask the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to consider, bringing forward the completion of the review to early next year so that it remains outside any discussion on a possible general election, thus retaining a strong and independent BBC, a broadcasting corporation which has earned the admiration of the world?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I know no more than my noble friend Lord Barnett about the date of the next general election, but I do know that for a number of decades it has been considered proper to review the charter of the BBC every 10 years. That has not always been the case, but more recently it has been so. The BBC is given a degree of security and knowledge that its position will be re-examined, which is worth doing. To change that timetable for a putative date for the general election seems a poor bargain.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister recall that during the passage of the Communications Bill, much comment was made about the undue influence of Mr Ed Richards, a special adviser at No. 10, on the outcome of that legislation? Now we are told that there is another blue-sky thinker ensconced in No. 10 who is seeking to influence the outcome of the BBC charter review. If the Minister does not know, I am talking about the noble Lord, Lord Birt. Can he assure the House that the DCMS will play its proper role in the charter review to protect it from influences from other Whitehall departments, including Downing Street?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I had to look around because I was slightly taken aback by the assertion that the noble Lord, Lord Birt, has a role in the charter review. I turned around because, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has a special role to play in that review, and we are very grateful to him and to the colleagues who will be appointed to join him in bringing forward an independent view, confirming the independence of the charter review procedure.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, perhaps I may try again with my noble friend. I hope he does not mind if I say that I found his previous response wholly inadequate. He said that we should not change the approximate 10-year review system that has lasted for so long, but I was not asking him to do so. Does he agree that if this House and Parliament were formally to complete the review by early next year, it need not be implemented until 2006, which is the date in question?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I did not say that there are no circumstances in which we should not change the 10-year review interval; I said that we should not do it for a bad reason. Changing the interval for a reason such as proposed by my noble friend, which would be in unjustified knowledge and anticipation of the date of the next general election, would be a bad one.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his answer to my noble friend about the involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, left confusion more confounded since he made no clear statement about whether the noble Lord, Lord Birt, is informally or formally—as a private citizen or as an occupant of No. 10 Downing Street—playing an acknowledged, deliberate part in the process?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I said nothing about the noble Lord, Lord Birt. I expressed my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for agreeing to participate in the charter review process, bringing to it independence, intellectual probity and strength. I said nothing about the noble Lord, Lord Birt, who is perfectly entitled to participate, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said, as a private citizen.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, would the noble Lord define what he means by the "independence of the BBC"? Is that purely independence from government?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the words I used in my first Answer were, "a strong BBC, independent of government".