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Baroness Buscombe: I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 145 and 148, in my name. I shall not speak to Amendment No. 147. I also support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord AstorAmendments Nos. 153, 153A and 153B. I shall also speak briefly to amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Pearson.
We have now turned to the subject of BBC governance and regulation. Amendment No. 145 is intended to place the BBC under the remit of Ofcom. First, I reiterate the position that I expressed on Second Reading. The BBC belongs to us all. Its future is the responsibility of us all. However, accountable governance is essential to instil public confidence in that publicly funded corporation.
The BBC is the dominant broadcaster in the United Kingdom. It has a market share of about 40 per cent; yet it is destined to remain outside the full remit of the industry regulator. Ofcom will have the power to regulate only certain BBC services, as determined by the agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State.
Our amendment inserts a reference to the BBC charter in Clause 195(1), bringing the BBC under the umbrella of Ofcom. As currently drafted, the Bill presents a glaring anomaly. The BBC is not subject to the same level of external scrutiny as any other public service broadcaster. The largest and most powerful broadcaster will effectively be exempt from external regulation of its public service responsibilitythe purpose for which the corporation was established.
The Bill creates a three-tier broadcasting structure to facilitate regulation by the new Office of Communications. The first tier incorporates basic requirements and standards applicable to broadcasters generally. Tier 2 incorporates specific requirements that will be applicable to all public service broadcasters, including the BBC. Such requirements will be assessed objectively by Ofcom. Tier 3 provides a system of self-regulation for public service broadcasters. Under this
The review of public service broadcasting, as a whole, will include the BBC. However, this is where the disparity in the Government's policy emerges. Each broadcaster will be required to publish an annual statement of programme policy detailing its compliance with its public service obligations. On completion, the statement will be submitted to Ofcom for examination. Ofcom, in turn, will review the extent to which individual broadcasters have satisfied their specific programming responsibilities and then make comments and recommendations. If the broadcasters fail to meet their public service obligations, Ofcom will have the power to act.
The position of the BBC is quite different. The Government's justification for this anomaly is that a divergence in policy is necessary to protect the distinctive role and constitution of the BBC. Each year the BBC Agreement states that the corporation shall,
It is impossible for Ofcom to assess the compliance of public service broadcasters with regulatory requirements when the BBC is not only outside its remit for consideration but the governors also remain the judge and jury of the corporation's self-determinative regime, with no regulatory external scrutiny or sanctions for third tier responsibilities. The only stipulation on the BBC is that it,
I defer to the honourable Member for South Cambridgeshire, Andrew Lansley, who asserted in another place that this deviation in procedure will lead over time to increasing risks of divergence between the BBC's interpretation of its proper role in the broadcasting ecology and Ofcom's view.
The amendments to the BBC Agreement were purportedly drafted to reflect the requirement of the legislation for other public broadcasters. Why does this glaring disparity exist between the responsibilities of the BBC and the obligations of other public service broadcasters? Similarly, the position of the BBC governors is discordanttheir duties encompass a confluence of two distinct roles, despite the amended agreement. The governors should not also be the corporation's regulators.
The shadow Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport raised this important issue at the Report stage of the Communications Bill in another place. He said that the governors are in an impossible position. They represent the overall management and control of the BBC, while at the same time they are expected to act as independent adjudicators when complaints are made. This inconsistent approach can lead only to confusion and uncertainty. The public service obligations must be stated with absolute clarity to enable competition authorities to undertake the necessary scrutiny to ensure compliance with fair trade commitments.
The purpose of the amendment is to "future proof" this Bill, thus facilitating the future incorporation of Ofcom's functions into the Royal Charter. The BBC needs external, independent regulations. Amendment No. 145 paves the way for that to occur. The industry requires a fair system of regulationa genuinely level playing field that will allow the industry as a whole to thrive and develop in this age of continued convergence.
Amendment No. 148 would confer on the BBC a duty to provide Ofcom with any information that it may reasonably require for the purposes of carrying out its functions under the agreement referred to in Clause 195(1)(a). The agreement, as amended, will place on the BBC an obligation to supply information to Ofcom as it may reasonably require. That obligation stems from Clause 195, albeit through the agreement. The amendment, therefore, seeks to clarify the nature of the duty on the BBC in specific terms on the face of the Bill rather than elsewhere in the agreement.
I also support Amendment No. 153, which was tabled by my noble friend Lord Astor. It concerns the annual publication of BBC statements of programme policy. I referred earlier to the tier 3 requirement for licensed public service broadcasters to publish annual statements of programme policy. As the Bill stands, Ofcom has the power to act if the annual statements propose a significant change in programming policy in breach of its public service obligations. However, the BBC is under no formal obligation to produce a statement of programme policy, but it voluntarily published a statement last year. Ofcom possesses a backstop power to sanction licensed public service broadcasters if the content changes substantially from the proposed statement. There is no comparable restriction on the BBC. This clause implements a statutory requirement for provisions in the BBC agreement to reflect the comparable obligation on other public service broadcasters.
This is not an issue that can be effectively regulated through an internal mechanism such as the governors of the BBC. External regulation of programme policy statements would help to clarify the already ambiguous role of the governors by allowing Ofcom to determine whether the BBC had complied with its public service obligations. That would facilitate uniformity across the public service broadcasting spectrum by ensuring protection both internally and externally, and allowing the BBC to remain at arm's length from the Government.
I support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane. It would be otiose to repeat all that he has said, but we are extremely supportive. As the noble Lord has said, the amendment introduces important elements; for example, it would subject the provision of BBC services to Ofcom's remit by requiring it to advise on BBC television and radio services. We entirely support a number of other issues relating to the amendment. We support the amendments of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. I have spoken in particular to Amendment No. 153, but we also support the noble Viscount's remaining amendments.
My remaining concern relates to the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Although we have great sympathy with the principles behind the amendment, there is one concern to which I hope the noble Lord will respond. As we understand it, the amendment would impose on the BBC a level of direct accountability to Parliament. As we see it, the advantage would be a degree of external, non-BBC scrutiny, and a requirement of political impartiality. But we question whether the corporation would then be accountable to Parliament and, therefore, the Government. We want to ensure that that would not happen. It is tremendously important that the BBC remains entirely independent from the Government.
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