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Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am not aware of what the deputy director of the BBC said last night. I do not believe that there is a yes or no answer on this. It is important that we put the BBC in a position where it is able to take advantage of and have the money to finance
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, asked whether the new Agreement would contain an obligation to provide a daily report of Parliament. Yes: that is an important part of the BBC's obligation as a public service broadcaster and the requirement will be carried into the new Agreement.
The noble Lord made the interesting point of why world service television should not be funded from public funds in a similar way to world service radio. World service radio has a wide reach and provides news coverage and other programmes in many countries and languages. To build up that network required a large input of public funds. But world service television is different. We do not see it as replacing radio or matching its wide coverage in the near future. It is an attractive commercial product for the people around the world who value the BBC's reputation for high quality programmes and fair coverage of events. People are willing to pay for these new services, and it is right that the BBC should be able to take advantage of that interest to generate a return for the licence fee payers at home. That is why we do not propose that world service television should be paid for from public funds.
The noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing were concerned about the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council. They offered the alternative of a merger with the ITC to bring forward a consumer council for broadcasting. The main responsibility for considering complaints rests properly with the broadcasters themselves and the broadcasting regulators. The BBC is subject to both the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and their procedures. A consumer council would weaken the links that we believe should exist between the BBC and its audiences. It is essential that broadcasters stay closely in touch with public opinion and it is preferable for audiences to speak directly with broadcasters. The role of the governors is absolutely crucial in that respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, asked whether the two merged bodies would have statutory powers. The answer is yes. The new body will continue to produce statutory codes of programme standards. All broadcasters, including the BBC, are subject to these codes. If the BSC finds that a broadcaster has failed to keep within the codes, it can require it to broadcast its findings and prevent it from repeating the offence. That will continue to be the case for the new merged body.
The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, suggested that the BBC governors should have a complaints unit and should discipline producers who break the rules. The Government are very keen that the BBC should listen carefully to the views and complaints of its audiences. As my noble friend Lord Caldecote said, the BBC has already set up a programme complaints unit and a complaints committee to give independent consideration to serious complaints. Where the governors discover that the BBC's own rules have been breached, they will
My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing was concerned whether the BBC governors could realistically carry out the onerous responsibilities that we are putting on them. We believe that the duties we are placing on the governors are reasonable and realistic and similar to those on directors of other major organisations. The governors will have primary responsibility for all the BBC's activities and will be accountable to Parliament and the public for them. That does not mean, of course, that the governors have to have direct control over these activities. Their main duty is to ensure that the necessary framework and rules are in place to enable the BBC to meet its obligations and objectives and to ensure that the BBC employees work within that framework and those rules. That is no more onerous than the very broad responsibilities borne by boards of many major companies.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who told me that, unfortunately, he had to leave at 7.30 p.m., referred to the importance of religious programming. The BBC has committed itself in Extending Choice ensuring that religious programmes retain a prominent place in the schedules. We support that commitment and the BBC's wider responsibilities to serve all parts of the community. I listened with great care to the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, on religious programming.
Three distinguished former governors of the BBC shared their experiences with us: the noble Lords, Lord Greenhill and Lord Barnett, and the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. We also had the opposite view. My noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls, and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, spoke from the other end of the spectrum, from the point of view of the viewer, and referred to the effect of the BBC on this country. My noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls spoke while wearing what one would describe as his political hat. He explained why his career of standing in elections is over. In his speech he probably persuaded your Lordships' House why his career of standing in elections should be far from over. He made a campaigning speech which I am sure would win him any election now.
The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, outlined the role of the governors and the director general in giving guidelines to producers on programme standards, including impartiality. I very much agree with the noble Lord that the governors and the director-general have responsibility for setting the framework of standards for the BBC's programmes. The Producers' Guidelines, to which the noble Lord referred, provides that framework. Ultimately, it is the governors' responsibility to ensure that producers abide by the rules set out in that document.
The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, was also concerned about sport and listed events. We believe that viewers and listeners should have the best possible range of choice. Choice is being enhanced by the introduction of specialist sports channels, increasing the extent and variety of sports coverage on television services generally. The sale of rights to broadcast sporting events
My noble friend Lord Caldecote asked whether we would debate the Charter and Agreement in draft. As I said, we shall ensure that there will be a debate. The Charter will be laid for debate in draft. The Agreement will also be capable of change if that is regarded by the Government as necessary because of what is said in debate in either place.
The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, talked about the new responsibilities of BBC Wales and how they would be spelt out in the new Charter and Agreement. The Charter will include a clearer definition of the role of the national councils. The Agreement will include an obligation on the BBC to make a reasonable proportion of its network production in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Together, the two documents will make it clear that all parts of the UK should contribute fully to the BBC's activities. The BBC's commercial activities will largely be built on the vast archive of quality programmes which the BBC holds. Those will include programmes made in Wales and other parts of the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, asked about an accounting officer and whether the BBC should be answerable to the Public Accounts Committee. The BBC is different from most of our public bodies. Its very establishment by means of Royal Charter helps to ensure that the BBC remains properly at arm's length from the political process. In this country we have a long tradition of ensuring that there is no undue control over broadcasters by all of us who are closely involved in the political process. That must continue. The functions of accounting officers provide a direct link of accountability to the PAC in another place. For the BBC to be put in a position of such direct accountability to Parliament could place the principle of separation in some jeopardy. The BBC reports to Parliament in laying its audited annual report and accounts before both Houses. The National Heritage Select Committee in another place can, and does, probe the activities of the BBC. I believe that these are appropriate means of holding the BBC to account.
In the second part of his Motion the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asks, in effect, why the licence fee should not continue for longer than five years and whether the review is only about the level of that fee. We may well conclude in five years' time that the licence fee is still the best way of paying for the BBC. That is our conclusion at the moment. We looked at the other options, as your Lordships know, and we have concluded that at present the licence fee is by far the best way of paying for the BBC. But who can tell what will happen in five years' time?
We have heard tonight of some of the changes that may happen in broadcasting. The broadcasting picture is changing very rapidly and so we cannot be sure. That is why it is important that we keep it under review, at the five-year point, before the end of the new Charter. I do not think we should prejudge this and I do not think that the Government are prejudging it. All we are saying is that we need a point to look at in five years' time in order to review the position and make sure that we are still doing the right thing.
The Government welcome the responses to the White Paper and the contributions which your Lordships have made to that process in the debate today. I can give your Lordships the assurance that the Government will consider carefully all the points made in this debate before reaching any final conclusions. I reiterate that your Lordships will have the opportunity to debate these issues again before the BBC's new Charter comes into force. It is important that I should point out that it is not only the Government who should pay careful attention to this debate but also the BBC itself--the chairman of the BBC, the governors of the BBC and the management of the BBC. I am sure that they will pay close attention to this debate. I hope that they pay particularly close attention to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner.
I hope that the assurances I have given this evening will have gone all the way to satisfying the very valid point made by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. I have said that I agree entirely in principle with what he is trying to do. I hope I have explained why we believe that the Agreement is the best place to put these important elements of impartiality. I also hope that I have persuaded the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, who has a similar intent to the noble Lord, Lord Annan. I trust that I have satisfied his concerns.
I hope that following what I have said about the review it will be felt that in no way are the Government prejudging any debate on the licence fee. To keep that option open is not a detriment but could be an advantage. It could easily be an advantage to the BBC. With that assurance I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, will feel able to withdraw his amendment to my Motion.
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