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Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): In between offering those tributes, which I am sure have been richly earned, is the Secretary of State satisfied that the concerns and interests of BBC Scotland are being treated sympathetically by the hierarchy of the BBC in London?

Mrs. Bottomley: I am extremely satisfied on that front. I shall say more about those matters later, but I have carefully considered that issue, as has the BBC governor from Scotland. I hope that, on this as on other matters, the scrutiny that has been undertaken will satisfy hon. Members.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): Under present arrangements, Scotland has a national broadcasting council. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the value of the English National Forum and the local radio advisory councils, which are not specially recognised in the charter? I know that she is aware of the issue. Is she prepared to make a more positive statement about that, or even consider amending the charter?

Mrs. Bottomley: My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) have reinforced the fact that it is right that the BBC should be answerable, accountable and involved in the various parts of the United Kingdom and the regions of England. I met members of the English National Forum earlier this week, and I hope that I was able to satisfy them, as I hope I will satisfy my hon. Friend, about our earnest intent that their concerns should be properly considered right at the heart of the BBC.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mrs. Bottomley: Impartiality is important in the BBC and, in fairness, I shall take a question from the hon. Gentleman and then make progress.

Mr. Maclennan: It is important to establish the status of the documents that we are debating. The right hon. Lady may know that that autocrat of the breakfast table, Marmaduke Hussey, wrote to several bodies, including that to which the hon. Member for Norwich, North(Mr. Thompson) referred. On 24 January, he wrote:

Does it not follow from that that this debate is an utter charade, and that the Government have no intention of amending the documents under discussion in the light of anything that may be said--for example, about the apparent oversight of the position of Gaelic in Scotland? That should be dealt with, either in the charter or in the agreement.

Mrs. Bottomley: The Government are well aware of the importance of the BBC and of the legitimate concerns of hon. Members in its affairs. The agreement must be

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debated in the House before it can be implemented. There have already been years of consideration of those issues and months of detailed deliberation. It has recently been debated in another place and careful consideration was given to the points raised there. In the same way, after this debate, we will carefully consider the points raised before finally implementing the agreement. It would be unfair not to inform the House of the inevitable concern of the BBC and others that the uncertainty there has been for many months should be brought to an end.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): Paragraph 2.2 of the agreement states that the BBC will provide

Is the use of the word "may" a mistake, and if it is, could it be amended to "must" or "shall"?

Mrs. Bottomley: It is possible that there could be an amendment. I will consider the matter in more detail. I must make progress with the substance of my remarks, because it is clear that many hon. Members want to speak.

Overwhelmingly, the view that emerged from the consultation by the Government, from the Select Committee report and from all the other contributions was that the BBC should continue to be the United Kingdom's main public service broadcaster. That would not always have been the predictable outcome, and it is no small tribute to the advances that the BBC has made in recent years under the shrewd and effective chairmanship of Marmaduke Hussey. He has been chairman of the BBC for longer than any other chairman, and is the only one to have been reappointed. He was the 17th chairman of the BBC, and the House will wish to express its thanks for all that he has done.

Throughout this process, the Government have listened carefully to the views expressed and reflected on them. Our stance has been that of a supporter of the BBC, but not an uncritical one.

The documents before the House today reflect our conclusions. The draft royal charter is the instrument that will continue the existence of the BBC and regulate its constitution until 2006. The charter is granted under the royal prerogative, and is not subject to parliamentary approval. I welcome the opportunity for the House to consider the draft charter in conjunction with the associated agreement, for which, as I have made clear, I seek the approval of the House. It has been debated already in another place, and we have given careful consideration to the points raised there.

The agreement is a contract with the BBC, setting out how the corporation will meet its objects and obligations. We regard the BBC as a strong, independent organisation serving the public. The agreement contains, for the first time, a specific recognition of the BBC's editorial independence. That independence brings with it a responsibility to audiences. Under the agreement, the BBC will be required to produce a statement of pledges for its audiences. That will play a part in improving accountability. It reflects the principles of the citizens charter.

The outline before the House is a first indication of what it will contain. I want that statement to be developed to contain specific detailed promises. The BBC can be held accountable to the public at all levels--local, regional and national. That work is in hand.

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Central to the future of the BBC is the role of the board of governors. It will be for the governors to deliver the BBC that we all want. They are a strong team, with the expertise to oversee the BBC's public service and commercial activities. Under the chairmanship of the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, we look to them to promote high standards, to enhance the BBC's reputation, to build on its traditions, and to oversee its strategy for success in the future.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): The Secretary of State mentioned the new chairman-designate, Sir Christopher Bland. What sort of confidence can the Opposition have in the independence of Sir Christopher Bland as the chairman of the board of governors, as he is an ex-Tory councillor and has been an active member of the Conservative party? Where is the impartiality there? Is she not replacing one Tory millionaire with another?

Mrs. Bottomley: The new chairman of the BBC has been strongly commended by individuals such as Greg Dyke, Melvyn Bragg and many others, who I was under the impression were thought to be supporters of the Labour rather than the Conservative party.

The role of the BBC chairman is vital, and the greatest possible care was taken to find an individual who had the skill and expertise to lead the BBC forward into the next century. Above all, the governors are the trustees of the public interest. Their duties are clear in the new charter and agreement. They set the overall framework for the corporation, approve strategy, objectives and promises for its services and monitor the extent to which they are being met. They ensure that those who work for the corporation comply with the BBC's obligations. The governors are accountable to the public, and the BBC's management are accountable to them.

The House will be aware that the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, has experience both as a regulator and programme producer. He recognises the distinct role of the BBC chairman and governors, at the centre of the relationship between the BBC and the public. To discharge that role effectively, the governors need to draw on informed and specialist advice. The national broadcasting councils are the key to that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We have considerably strengthened and clarified the role of the national councils. They are to be responsible for assessing public opinion, developing the corporation's objectives in conjunction with the governors, and advising on the allocation of resources and on the contribution that programme makers throughout the United Kingdom could make to the BBC's programme output. That last duty is particularly important.

From the contributions that have already been made to the debate, hon. Members will be aware that it is our concern that the BBC is not a London, but a British, broadcasting corporation. We said in the White Paper that the BBC should continue to be a major provider of programmes, making and commissioning a reasonable proportion and range of its national output, as well as programmes for local audiences, in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions.

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The annual report should record progress against production targets in each area. We have included those as requirements in the new agreement. That will ensure that the economic and cultural benefits of the BBC's activities will be shared throughout the United Kingdom.

The English regions also need a direct voice, as I made clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson). The charter provides for the continuation of the BBC's regional advisory councils. That is underpinned by a new requirement for public consultation in advance of any material changes for home services. Services meeting the public interest should not be changed without reference to the public. While we have increased the governors' discretion about how they obtain regular advice, we fully recognise the essential contribution made by the BBC's advisory bodies.

Only this week, I met members of the English National Forum. It brings together the chairmen of all the 10 regional advisory councils. Marmaduke Hussey has told me of the tremendous start that has been made in bringing together the voices of the English regions. He has given the strongest public assurance of the governors' support for the forum and its work. Excellent work by the local radio advisory committees represents the views of listeners and viewers at grass roots. I look forward to hearing more about their work directly when I meet them individually later in the year. The chairman and the governors must continue to listen to local voices. The structure of the advisory bodies currently in place is invaluable in providing that input.

Direct accountability to the listening and viewing public will be underpinned by the new "Statement of Pledges". The full statement will detail what the BBC is promising to deliver. The pledges will be a contract between it and its audiences. The House will already be aware of a preliminary version, but the BBC will wish to make headway on those pledges in the light of debate in another place and, indeed, the comments made today.

I know from my postbag the sort of promises that people want--targets on subtitling for deaf viewers, commitments to Gaelic broadcasting for the community in Scotland, pledges on funding for the arts and new music. In developing the statement, the BBC will be taking into account those views and those of Parliament and its advisory bodies.

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