HL Deb 24 February 2005 vol 669 cc1338-40

11.23 a.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have made to the BBC with regard to the future of "Yesterday in Parliament".

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, no representations have been made. The agreement between the Government and the BBC requires the corporation to transmit an impartial day-by-day account, prepared by professional reporters, of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament. The BBC's editorial independence means that it is entirely up to the corporation as to how that requirement is being fulfilled.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that response. Is he aware of media speculation this week that as part of the BBC's review of services it has been looking at a cutback in staff and in the "Yesterday in Parliament" programme? Does he agree that that would fly in the face of the BBC's public service responsibilities, and will he make the necessary representations?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend referred to media speculation. I think that the speculation was fairly limited. On the whole, I would prefer to believe the BBC's position, rather than speculation in other parts of the media. I understand that the BBC wrote to the Evening Standard, where the story first surfaced, and said that there was no truth in it.

Baroness Boothroyd

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some years ago the BBC sought to change the timing of its parliamentary broadcasting and strong representations were made for it not to do so? On behalf of the Commons, I made some representations, and I saw the chairman of the BBC at the time. However, in its wisdom, the BBC changed the timing of its parliamentary broadcasting, with the result that the audience took a nosedive, and it had to produce evidence to that effect. I believe that it changed some programmes back as a result of its experience. Does the Minister not think that, having had its fingers burnt on one occasion, the BBC may leave things well alone?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, it is clearly the right of parliamentarians to make representations in this respect. As the noble Baroness indicated, she did so to a certain extent in the past. It would be odd if the BBC did not take note of such representations, but the House will recognise that that is different from asking the Government to make representations about a particular programme.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, the issues clearly need to be set in the context of the BBC's public service obligations, but we are awaiting a Green Paper on the renewal of the BBC's charter. Why has it not been published this week? Is the Secretary of State still seeking further inspiration from a Member on our Cross Benches?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am sure that the Secretary of State would benefit from inspiration from any quarter. Let me reassure the House that the Green Paper is imminent, and therefore the noble Lord will not have to contain his impatience too long.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, is the House aware that BBC Parliament started broadband live broadcasting of the House of Lords last night? Does the Minister agree that, in the light of the fact that BBC Parliament shows live coverage of your Lordships' House only when the House of Commons is not sitting, we should look for other ways to raise the profile of the brilliant work that is undertaken in this House?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am second to none in applauding the excellent work done by this House, but the noble Baroness perhaps underestimates the extent to which video recording is now available in households in the United Kingdom. The actual timing of programmes is not as important as it was in the past. I am sure that the BBC will recognise the strength of opinion expressed from the Opposition Front Bench.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as newspapers give less and less space to politics, it is essential that other media, particularly radio, give good coverage to parliamentary proceedings and news?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend is right, and that will be seen when the Green Paper emerges. I cannot presume too much, but it will be recognised that we continue to regard the public service obligation of the BBC as including the proper coverage of developments in Parliament.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is it altogether wise to publish the Green Paper in advance of the general election? Could not its contents he interpreted as an attempt by the Government to influence the independence and impartiality of the BBC?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord will find that to be the public response to the Green Paper. As the noble Lord will recognise, a timetable was set out for the consultation that the BBC has carried out on the renewal of the charter and the report on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It is timely for the Government to respond. There is probably no time when a report on, and discussion about, the BBC would not generate a fair degree of political controversy.

Lord Acton

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, for her heroic efforts in leading Members of Parliament in 1998–99 to success in getting some of "Yesterday in Parliament" put back on FM, but should not the goal, in view of the tremendous importance of the matter, be to get back to the pre-1998 position?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is a matter for the BBC, not for the Government. It is a matter for the Government that the BBC fulfils its broad remit in terms of its public obligation. My noble friend will recognise that it would be entirely inappropriate for the Government to express a view on a particular editorial decision.