HL Deb 09 June 2004 vol 662 cc271-6

Four years ago we, along with about 20 other peers, proposed to the Liaison Committee that we should have an International Affairs Committee of this House. There is a wealth of experience of international affairs in the House which could be channelled more effectively through a new committee sometime in the future without trespassing on the various EU Committees—say after the next election.

New arguments which have come up are:

The Liaison Committee rejected it last time on the grounds that there would be overlap with the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, but we don't think this is really good enough. This House in any case is here to look again at government policies and decisions made in another place.

However, as we see it, the new committee would complement and not in any way revise reports of Commons committees and would take care to avoid any overlap.

The attached list of about 40 peers combines those who supported the idea last time with others who have joined since.

We very much hope you will give this idea full consideration at your next meeting on May 10th and we would both be willing to attend to present the arguments and answer questions.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I am, of course, delighted that the Liaison Committee has agreed to support the proposal for a Select Committee on the review of the BBC charter and very much hope that your Lordships will endorse its recommendation. I thank the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for what he said.

I particularly want to thank my colleagues who were so important in helping to present to the Liaison Committee what turned out to be a rather more acceptable project than my original suggestion. That, as your Lordships may remember, had been for a more widely based ongoing communications sessional Select Committee, which would have been able to draw more permanently upon the considerable expertise and experience that exists in your Lordships' House.

However, despite what I have heard from the Chairman of Committees—and at the risk of sounding as though I am never satisfied—I venture to mention the remaining concern that the committee apparently has to wait until the beginning of 2005 to start its work. The Green Paper is not due until then but, as we all know, the whole process of charter review is already well under way. At the very least, I should have thought that it would be helpful to everyone if the Select Committee was able sooner than that to invite evidence from those taking part in the existing numerous consultations and thus to alert a wider public to the committee's promised existence.

I hope, therefore, not only that your Lordships will agree to the Liaison Committee's proposal, but that also a way can be found of ensuring that the existence of the Select Committee is well publicised at an early date and that a general invitation is extended to interested organisations to start preparing their evidence.

Lord McNally

My Lords, although I have a specific interest in wanting to see this committee established, I shall make two general points about the report. I urge the committee not to become too structured in its response as it states very clearly that the BBC charter committee cannot start until the committee dealing with assisted dying has finished its work.

We all know that committees can take a long time dying. We are working to a specific timetable in terms of the BBC charter. I was much more encouraged when the Chairman of Committees wrote to me and said that he would be happy to review the situation, to ensure that the committee on the BBC Charter has the resources to enable it to make a timely report". I should like clarification on that. It would be misleading the House if in February or March next year, with the committee on assisted dying still proceeding, we were told, "Well, I am sorry; the House voted last June that you could not start work until this committee had wound up". That is what I mean about being over-prescriptive.

Another suggestion has been made and I made it in my letter. In government there are plenty of precedents for setting up committees. Ofcom is a very good example. When there is a job of work to do, one does the preparatory work of appointing the people, inviting the evidence and so on in advance of the starting gun. That could be easily done without the over-prescriptive suggestion in the Liaison Committee report. We could use the weeks and months before the committee started. I have no quarrel with the committee's starting point being the Green Paper. But I think that the preparatory work could be done now so that the committee can hit the ground running. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the situation where usual channels are looking for recruits and so on and precious weeks are lost.

The general point I want to make is that this response is over-prescriptive and that the committee could have given a general go ahead. We could then use flexibility and common sense to start up the committee at the right time to do a real job of work. As it is, I think that we have, as it were, blundered into a very good solution. The work of this committee will be able to start after the House of Commons committee, which, under the wise leadership of Mr Gerald Kaufman, is already taking evidence. We will have that report and other evidence in our hands and be able to work.

My other point is on paragraph 8. The committee is most distinguished, but it is not the prefects' committee and it should not behave as such. If noble Lords want to collect signatures and submit them to the committee, I believe that is a matter for noble Lords. It is no business of the committee to say that they do not want to have them. We know what will happen: people will be told that it is just a bee in the bonnet of a single noble Lord. If a noble Lord wants to put an idea and demonstrate that he or she has widespread support in this House, it is a matter for their judgment and not for the committee's.

Lord Fowler

My Lords, I very much support the proposal of the Liaison Committee and I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, have said about the position and timing of the committee. It seems to me that the renewal of a BBC Charter is self-evidently a crucial issue. It is a totally appropriate subject for an ad hoc committee. It is exactly the kind of issue that this House should consider because it is exactly the kind of issue where we could have some influence on the outcome.

Therefore, if the Liaison Committee could do something about the timing of the committee and set it up earlier than currently envisaged, it would be very much to the benefit of the committee and the House. The sooner the committee is set up the better and the more chance and prospect there is of the committee—and ultimately this House—having influence.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, I rise in general support of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I think that the issue of looking at the BBC is determined not by how long the committee dealing with the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill takes to look at it, but the imminence of the review of the BBC Charter. Therefore, to tie one to the other is illogical.

I recognise the administrative burdens we are placing on staff. I do not know what the timescale is for the review of the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, but if it is not finished by December this year, certainly in my view—and on this I disagree marginally with the noble Lord, Lord McNally—we should not wait for the Green Paper. It is to be hoped that this committee could inform the Green Paper by starting no later than January 2005. So I would seek an amendment. By all means wait for the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill review to be finished, but if it is not finished by January 2005, then start the BBC Select Committee anyway.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, it was obvious during the debate that we had in the progress of the Communications Bill that there is an enormous amount of expertise on all sides of this House on this subject. It would be a great shame not to continue to use that expertise in the way that is being proposed. I entirely support the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in what has been put forward. I have heard the points that have been made, and have rather warmed to the view that the sooner all this gets off the ground the better.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, the Liaison Committee will be aware of the strong support on all sides of your Lordships' House for this Select Committee, although it looked down its lordly nose at the numbers involved. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that perhaps that does not lie in its mouth to say so, because it is important to make clear when these issues have wide and all-party support. However, I acknowledge that the Liaison Committee has rightly focused attention on certain matters; for example, there is no point doing work that other people have done before. When it is published, the Green Paper will be an amalgam of all the consultation processes. To that extent there is no point in treading over that territory again.

I want to underline the points made by noble Lords earlier that, because of the time-scale, we have got to have the preparatory work done before the committee starts. I cannot see that there is any reason why that should not be done. There is a wealth of experience in this House across the broadcasting sector, within which immense changes are taking place. If we are going to do this job—and I am glad that the Liaison Committee has now agreed that we should—we need to do it in the most professional manner possible. That means getting the preparatory work in so that we can make a very clean start early in the New Year.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, I congratulate the Liaison Committee on its decision, and associate myself with the remarks made from all sides of the House on this. It is important that we do not have slippage here—it is very important indeed, as I think noble Lords have emphasised. I should just like to make one comment on the remark made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on the question of collecting names. It may be that that is not done commonly in this House. However, how else is one able to demonstrate the wide appeal of these proposals? I cannot think of any other way of doing it. I commend all the remarks that have been made by other noble Lords this afternoon.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I have three brief questions for the noble Lord on the report. First, is the noble Lord aware there is a factual error in the report? Paragraph 9 states that the House has established a "Constitutional Affairs Committee". It has not; it has created a Constitution Committee. The House of Commons has created a Constitutional Affairs Committee and it is important that the two are not confused.

Secondly, does the noble Lord agree that the report constitutes something of a lost opportunity? It appears far more concerned with means than with ends. The report concludes by saying that for a committee to be established, a compelling case can be made". What are the criteria that will determine whether a case is compelling?

Thirdly, following the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I appreciate why Paragraph 8 is included: it deprecates the submission of long lists of Peers in support of establishing a new committee. Would it not be a good idea to make clear that, in future, adding one's name to such a list will demonstrate a willingness to serve on such a committee? Would that not help to solve some of the problems identified in the report?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I must admit I had thought that most of the House would be grateful that the Liaison Committee had agreed to set up a committee on the BBC Charter. Nevertheless, I know one cannot please a lot of people all the time. On the question of the timing of the committee, it is not just a matter of resources, although the work involved in establishing a committee—issuing a call for evidence and acknowledging written evidence received—should not be under-estimated. The Liaison Committee did consider this extremely carefully and we were keen to ensure that the inquiry was focused and did not duplicate existing work. Therefore, a call for evidence which was issued before the Green Paper was published might not address key areas or might ask for information that was not, in the event, particularly relevant.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, acknowledged that I have been in correspondence with him. He asked what would happen if the committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill went on longer than was predicted at the moment. I did say in my letter that, should it become apparent that that committee would not finish when it was expected to, then the Liaison Committee would indeed revisit the question of resources for the committee on the BBC Charter to enable it to make a timely report. I really do not think that I can go any further at this stage. I would have thought that that would satisfy the House. The noble Lord also referred to Paragraph 9 of the report on the question of new committees, as did the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The committee did look carefully at this proposal. If one looks at Paragraph 9, one sees the enormous expansion of committee activity that has taken place in only a few years. We had a Committee Office staff of 29 in 2000, and four years later it has almost doubled to 46. That is just an indication of the increase in activity.

I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in that we have named one of the committees wrongly. Nevertheless, it is a very important committee and involves not only staff but also Peer resources. They are not always easy to find. I am sure everybody who wants a committee would say, "Oh, we can easily find people to serve on these committees," but judging by my discussions with the usual channels I am not sure that it is necessarily always that easy. That was the considered conclusion of the Liaison Committee. The Liaison Committee is set-up by this House to deal with exactly that kind of thing and I hope the House will therefore approve its report.

A criticism was made by the noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Norton of Louth—and, I believe somebody else as well—of Paragraph 8 of the report which is a very restrained criticism of the practice of collecting signatures. Of course we cannot stop people collecting signatures—people can go round collecting as many signatures as they like. Personally I tend to sign anything which is put in front of me in order to make people go away. I am sure a lot of noble Lords would do exactly the same.

If people wish to put up a proposal for a Select Committee, what I hope we would achieve on those occasions is a carefully considered letter from the proposer of that committee, signed by perhaps one representative from all sides of the House—perhaps four or five signatures on it in all. Then it would be up to the Liaison Committee to decide whether to agree to this committee. The proponents of the committee would, of course, be invited to come in and make their case before the Liaison Committee. That is, I think, the best way of doing it.

I have never been in the House of Commons, unlike the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Fowler, so I have never taken part in EDMs. However, if one looks at some of the EDMs that take place in the House of Commons, one does slightly question whether we want to go down that particular route. I hope, therefore, that the House will approve the report of this committee.

On Question, Motion agreed to.