§ It is acknowledged that the pre-legislative scrutiny committee chaired by Lord Puttnam on the Communications Bill carried out a thorough and constructive piece of work. That committee was immeasurably strengthened by the expertise and experience which was added to it by peers with wide experience of the communications industries.
§ The Puttnam Committee always envisaged that BBC Charter Review would be seen as a natural continuation of the re-shaping of communications undertaken by the establishment of Ofcom and the bringing into being of the Communications Act. It was also assumed that a mechanism would be found to continue to make use of the experience and expertise in the Upper House as Charter Review progressed. At the moment there are exercises being conducted on Charter Review by the DCMS Committee of the House of Commons, by Ofcom, and by Lord Burns on behalf of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Various political parties have said they have formed their own study groups.
§ In the circumstances it is, at the very least, a missed opportunity not to provide the mechanism which an ad hoc Select Committee could provide to make use of expertise existing in the Upper House on broadcasting matters to provide a suitable platform for these and other interested parties to explain their positions and priorities. The Committee could work to a specific time-table to provide maximum assistance to Charter Review. For example, if established before the summer recess it could invite written submissions immediately, start taking oral evidence when the House returns in September and have a report ready by early spring of 2005.
§ Without such a Lords committee parliamentary scrutiny of the Review process will be heavily weighted to activity in the House of Commons and, in particular, to the work of the DCMS Select Committee. Valuable though that work will be, it will be seen to provide unbalanced scrutiny of the process when compared with that undertaken for the Communications Act. It would seem extraordinary if the Lords were to remain silent on issues where the full range of its experience and objectivity are especially appropriate.271
§ Letter dated 18 March 2004 from Baroness Howe of Idlicote and others to the Chairman of Committees
§ Thank you for your letter of 27th January concerning the proposed select committee on communications. I have now had the opportunity to discuss your reply with a wide cross-section of peers, and this letter is written on their behalf, with their names and signatures shown below.
§ A great deal has changed since the Liaison Committee decision, which we believe justifies an early meeting to decide upon a more focused proposal.
§ It is our view that there is an immediate need for an ad hoc committee to be established to take evidence and report to the House on the issues surrounding the review of the BBC Charter, which as you know must be completed by 2006. Such a timetable makes it especially urgent for such a committee to start its work immediately if it is to make any meaningful input into the charter review. The House of Lords has many members with uniquely wide experience of broadcasting matters and the formation of a special committee of the House would enable this issue of such vital public concern to be investigated thoroughly, adding to the public debate for which the Government has called.
§ I would be grateful if you could call a meeting of your committee to discuss the specific proposal as a matter of urgency. I should like at that meeting to take advantage of your kind invitation and attend with a small number of like-minded colleagues to state our case.
§ I look forward to your earliest response.