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Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Orr-Ewing: I have here a book containing some of the regulations that provide for them. The guidelines are 276 pages long, so I cannot summarise them. What has been issued is for guidance only. In no sense are these BBC rules or undertakings. This is a serious matter which should be discussed.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, my noble friend will forgive me if I do not start the debate on the BBC at this moment. In answer to his question that the BBC, in common with other broadcasters, is required to observe due impartiality when dealing with issues of public controversy, we intend to include specific and clear obligations along those lines in the new BBC Agreement. We have taken full account of the genuine and understandable anxieties expressed in your Lordships' House and, indeed, elsewhere.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, is the Minister aware that three times this week the Scottish courts have held that there is a prima facie case that the BBC is in breach of its duties in relation to due impartiality concerning the Scottish local elections? In those circumstances, if the BBC complains about political parties going to the courts, would it not be wise for the BBC to set up its own panel of governors to adjudicate in advance of a programme on any responsible complaints made by political parties in relation to due impartiality? Does that not underline the

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case made by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, that the BBC Charter and Agreement should be subject to the same detailed scrutiny, including the right to amend, in both Houses of Parliament as are the commercial television stations under the broadcasting Acts?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, refers to the recent actions in the courts in Scotland. I understand that those matters may be subject to further action in the courts and therefore it would be wrong for me to comment on the facts of the case. In relation to the points made about the Charter and the Agreement, I must emphasise again that there will be a debate in both Houses of Parliament. We will take any anxieties expressed by your Lordships, as we always do, very seriously. If the Charter or the Agreement were not felt to be doing the job properly, we would have to withdraw them and have new versions prepared.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, the action in the Scottish courts in the past week has opened wide the whole question of BBC impartiality and whether the Royal Charter is the proper instrument for this purpose. That needs to be thoroughly investigated and Parliament must have the right to propose changes if necessary.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, Parliament has the right to propose any changes it thinks fit to the BBC Agreement or Charter. Indeed, we had a recent debate in your Lordships' House and the Government gave the commitment that there would be a further debate once the Charter and Agreement are published. But the BBC is there by Royal Charter which is granted under Royal Prerogative. It establishes the BBC as a public corporation and sets out its powers. It is not, as such, subject to parliamentary approval, but Parliament has an important role to play in the management and the role of the BBC.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that many of us on these Benches are broadly in agreement with what he said in his first two answers? Is he further aware that although we may differ from the Government, perhaps quite strongly, about how governors of the BBC should be appointed and how the Charter should clearly specify the powers of the board of governors and the board of management, we agree with the Government that the governors must be trusted to govern without meddlesome interference from any outside body?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. I hope that when we publish the Charter and the Agreement we shall address the noble Lord's concerns so that it is entirely clear what the role of the governors and the role of the board of management should be.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, has the noble Viscount noticed that under "No day named" I tabled a Motion to resolve the matter by saying that we should not have a Charter at all? It should be an Act of Parliament.

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Viscount Astor: My Lords, if the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, achieves a debate, and if I am asked, I shall certainly reply to his proposal and we can discuss the issue then.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when it was first decided that the BBC should have a Royal Charter, sound broadcasting was in its experimental infancy? Television was not introduced until 30 years later. Is my noble friend aware that the BBC is now an influential and vital part of national life? Should not Parliament therefore have the right to decide in detail how it should operate and be governed?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the current Royal Charter, Licence and Agreement were dealt with in exactly the same way in 1981. The Government agree with the Select Committee in another place that the BBC should continue to be established by Royal Charter.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is it not the case that while the Charter is not amendable and the Government can do no more than take it back if the opposition is sufficiently vociferous—which seems unlikely—the Agreement is amendable? Will the noble Viscount confirm that?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the Agreement is not amendable. The Government would have to take back the Agreement and the Charter. I should point out to your Lordships that Parliament has an important role to play with regard to the BBC. The BBC submits its annual report and accounts to Parliament and Parliament sets the licence fee. The BBC's activities can be scrutinised by a Select Committee.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, do we not have too many interminable debates in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading by way of amendment? Do we want to add a new class of them?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, my noble and learned friend makes an important point. I am sure that when we come to discuss the Charter and the Agreement your Lordships will see the benefit of both.

Jewish Settlements in Arab Territory

2.49 p.m.

Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they are taking in the United Nations Security Council and in the European Union to prevent the establishment and maintenance of illegal Jewish settlements in Arab territory.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, we and our European Union partners have recently reaffirmed to both the Israeli Government and the United Nations Security Council our view that settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Lord Mayhew: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that unless something is done soon about the settlements there will be no chance of the peace process going ahead? I acknowledge, as the noble Lord said, that the

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Government have protested to the Israeli Government that the settlements are illegal and a major obstacle to peace, but why do they decline to exert pressure on Israel? For instance, why do they not with their partners in Europe press Israel to stop building these settlements?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, it was only last month when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was visiting Israel that he expressly said that the declaration of principles signed by Israel and the PLO made it clear that there should be no more settlement activity. We are committed to trying to bring the peace process forward. Throughout, our emphasis is on constructive involvement to try to bring about a successful outcome.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the issue of settlements is one of the very important issues which has to be resolved and which will, we hope, be resolved through negotiation between the parties concerned? Does he further agree that to raise matters of this kind externally on one side of the argument or another is no contribution to the peace process but rather the reverse?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as I said in my reply to the previous question, it is our role to support the peace process. We shall do everything we can to try to bring about a successful conclusion.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Israel is a democracy and that Prime Minister Rabin cannot just give instructions to dismantle the settlements? Is he further aware that Prime Minister Rabin issued a statement after his meeting with Chairman Arafat on 19th January 1995 in which he stated that, as he had promised when he became Prime Minister, no new authorisation had been given regarding buildings in the settlements, expansion of the settlements or the acquisition of land?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, it is the case that the programme of settlement has been curtailed. However, there is great anxiety on this point both about possible private developments and also about ideas that are being floated for the expansion of these settlements. As the House will be aware, the matter of resolving these problems was set on one side in the declaration of principles to be dealt with in the permanent status negotiations which are due to start by May next year. It is important, as was stated in the declaration of principles, that no unilateral action is taken on either side to prejudice the final outcome.

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