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The BBC's evolution has been a remarkable achievement. It has gone through vicissitudes, like any other organisation, but the overall results, whether internationally or domestically, are deeply impressive and speak for themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, spoke of our public broadcasting reputation in the world at large. I have always thought that the two greatest contributions that this country has made to the world were, first, political maturity and, secondly, lyric poetry, which come together in the game of cricket, whose political maturity is demonstrated by the fact that it has laws rather than rules. If I may put the thought of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, another way, the BBC itself is a good index of that political maturity at work.
A charter renewal and examination of the licence fee lie ahead of us, as the Scrutiny Committee stated. The case has been made by those speaking in favour of the amendments, that the BBC will be assisted in that process by the changes proposed. I have previously cited CS Lewis in the Chamber as saying that if you hear someone going around doing good to others, you can always tell the others by their hunted look. In citing that, I allude to the claim that the changes will assist the BBC.
If the BBC is subject to the general changes listed in the amendmentsthe BBC has been engaged in consultation and making considerable concessions alreadyit will face the renewal process with an organisation and ambience not of its own choosing, which is not an entirely fair test. I am entirely content for the BBC to be rigorously examined during the charter and licence fee renewal process, but that process is not assisted by churning up the BBC at this juncture.
I understand the motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and my noble friends, and I do not remotely discount it, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that this issue is finely balanced. Finally, I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. If I may play the CS Lewis card again, good will not be done to Ofcom if the young, strapping horse is overloaded too early in its journey.
I vividly recall seeking to put together what was then the DNH, but is now the DCMS, from six different prior departments and what those first two years were like. I shall be surprised if Ofcom's experience is different. I share the view of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that the Government's position would be more tenable if they shared with us how the Bill will mesh with the charter renewal in a way that they did not follow in their response to the recommendations of the pre-legislative scrutiny committee. Like my noble friend, I take comfort from the work that the BBC is carrying out in this same regard. My noble friend Lady Buscombe has given the argument a useful shove with her BBC Charter suggestion.
Baroness Blackstone: The debate has been extremely interesting. Different views were expressed from all sides of the Committee; indeed, the expressions of commitment to the BBC, and some of the criticisms of the Bill as it stands, came from all parts of the Chamber.
In responding to the debate, which was certainly brought alive by the passionate conviction with which my noble friend Lord Sheldon argued his case for the BBC, I shall be strict with myself. I shall simply respond to the amendments. I shall not allow myself to get into wider issues about the history of the BBC, about its contribution to civilisation, or, indeed, issues regarding entertainment, politics, or anything else, over the past 50 or 60 years.
However, it is important for us to sort out where we stand on this question. I shall take the amendments in turn, but not quite in the order to which they were spoken. It will be helpful for me to begin with Amendment No. 145. The Government resisted the amendment in another place on the basis that the agreement seemed the most appropriate place in which to set out the functions that Ofcom is to have in relation to the BBC. It is the agreement, not the charter, that will contain the substance of the new obligations on the BBC in relation to which Ofcom will have functions. Often, it makes sense to weave the Ofcom's role seamlessly into these substantive provisions. It could be unhelpful and confusing to insert them into a different document.
I have taken very much to heart the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, about the Bill being future proof. I am also interested in the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Puttnam. I have carefully considered the arguments put forward in favour of Amendment No. 145, and I am prepared to accept it in principle. Although I cannot pre-empt the outcome of charter review, the Government agree on reflection that it would not be right to close off the possibility that one outcome might be for Ofcom to have functions conferred upon it through the charter. I hope that that response will help in taking us a little further in the direction that some noble Lords desire.
I very much welcome the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, but the question is how much detail we can reasonably set out at this stage, and how helpful that would be. We shall obviously be as helpful as we can. However, it may not take us a great deal beyond our response to the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, because the thinking has not yet been completed. Nevertheless, in the context of what I have already said about Amendment No. 145, I shall take away my noble friend's suggestion for consideration to see whether we can take it just a little further.
I should like to consider further the precise wording of Amendment No. 145. In particular, a more technically correct way of referring to the BBC charter may be appropriate. If that is the case, I will return with a government amendment on Report.
Amendment No. 148 would place a duty on the BBC to provide any information that Ofcom may reasonably require for the purposes of carrying out its functions relating to the BBC. We already intend to insert a provision into the revised BBC Agreement to deal with that very point. The provision is contained in Clause 13B of the proposed amendments to the agreement, which have been made available to Committee Members. Clause 13B will place on the BBC a general duty to co-operate with Ofcom and to furnish it with any information that it may reasonably require in connection with its functions under that clause. The proposed provision recognises the need for Ofcom to have all the information that it requires for carrying out its functions in relation to the BBC.
I am not, therefore, persuaded that it is necessary for the proposition to be included in the Bill. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that. Our general approach is for the BBC's obligations to be imposed by way of the agreement, leaving Clause 195 simply to lay the foundations for Ofcom's own functions, and to address the obligations on the BBC that, in their nature, require legislation.
On Amendment No. 153, our proposals for amending the BBC Agreement include an obligation on the BBC to prepare and publish annually a statement of programme policy. The relevant proposed clause is Clause 5C. It will require the BBC to consider Ofcom's guidance and reports issued under Clauses 260 and 351 before preparing its statements of programme policy.
My next remarks are relevant to the amendments of my noble friend Lord Gordon as well as those of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. As I explained to the House at Second Reading, the basis of our policy in respect of the BBC is that it should stand within the new regulatory regime on terms consistent with the corporation's distinctive role and constitution. That is exactly what was sought by the noble Lords, Lord Fowler, Lord Thomson of Monifieth and Lord Phillips, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe.
In particular, we attach the highest importance to preserving the BBC's relationship with Parliament, through the charter and the agreement, and the core responsibilities of the governors for delivery of the
Amendment No. 153A seeks to add new provisions to the Bill, bringing the process for approving new BBC services within the statutory framework. Prior to the Secretary of State approving any new BBC service, or changes to an existing service, Ofcom would be required to prepare a report on whether the proposed service or changes satisfied certain objectives. There would also be a duty on Ofcom to review and report periodically on the extent to which new and changed BBC services complied with the relevant approval and the objectives mentioned in the amendment.
The amendment is, once again, in conflict with the general principle underlying our approach to the regulation of the BBC. The BBC is established by Royal Charter and is not generally regulated by statute. The amendment accepts that it would continue to be the charter and agreement under which the Secretary of State would grant approval for new BBC services or changes to existing ones. But it seeks to regulate the process and to police the outcome to some extent by making direct statutory provision. In our view this would be anomalous and inappropriate and we are not persuaded of the need for it. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, spoke very perceptively about this.
I want to reiterate the assurance given by my honourable friend Kim Howells in another place that Ofcom will have an important role in the approval process for new BBC services. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will formally consult Ofcom on any new BBC service proposals and on any reviews of existing BBC services. Indeed, my right honourable friend has already made a commitment to carry out an independent review of the BBC's new digital services in 2004 and we propose that Ofcom should be fully involved in that.
In order to make the process for approving new BBC services more transparent, the department introduced administrative guidelines in 2001 which set out the criteria used by the Secretary of State. Some of the detail in the new clause is based on these guidelines. Having regard to all those points, we are not persuaded that any further formal provision is needed to ensure that Ofcom plays an appropriate role in relation to the approval of new BBC services or changes to existing services.
Amendment No. 153B brings together Amendments Nos. 153 and 153A. I shall not repeat my comments on those amendments. I shall just observe only that Amendment No. 153B goes even further than those amendments in that subsection (5)(b) and (c) would give Ofcom even more intrusive functions than under Amendment No. 153.
Turning now to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, I am not going to engage with him on the BBC's coverage of European Union matters. We have had that engagement on a number of previous occasions, but I shall say to the noble Lord that he never gives up.
Amendment No. 153C seems wholly unnecessary. Under the terms of the BBC's current Royal Charter and agreement, monitoring and reporting to Parliament on the discharge of the corporation's public service remit are already in effect functions of the board of governors as a whole. To be more specific, the charter prescribes it as a function of the governors to satisfy themselves that the corporation's activities are undertaken in accordance with any agreement made with the Secretary of State. The current BBC Agreement sets out the corporation's public service remit, including its obligation to provide comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs. This is reinforced by the requirement in the charter for the governors to approve clear objectives and promises for BBC services and programmes and to monitor how far the corporation has attained such objectives and met its pledges to audiences.
The BBC is further under an obligation under the charter and agreement to produce an annual report for Parliament and to include in that report, among other things, an account, in reasonable detail, of how far the corporation is meeting its published standards and objectives for the main programme services provided as part of the home services. The requirement relating to news would be encompassed by these provisions.
Taken together, these requirements seem more than sufficient to meet the concerns that the noble Lord has in mind. We can see no possible advantage in requiring the establishment of a special committee of the governors to undertake a function which is already clearly allocated to the governors as a whole.
Amendment No. 144A, moved by my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane, essentially tries to set out Ofcom's relationship with the BBC in the Bill rather than in the agreement. As I have already made clear, this conflicts with our basic approach to the BBC which is set out in the corporation's obligations in relation to Ofcom in the agreement, thereby preserving the BBC's special position and accountability to Parliament. I recognise that my noble friend felt that in moving this amendment he was protecting the BBC, but I think every noble Lord who moved an amendment in this group thought that they were protecting the BBC. I am not sure that the BBC would entirely agree with them because I do not believe that it would support the route that some of your Lordships want to go down.
Amendment No. 153D seeks to make available to each BBC governor a full-time, independent personal assistanthow lucky they arefunded by the BBC but chosen by the governors themselves. Apparently the amendment is intended to promote the effectiveness of the governors by ensuring their access to advice and assistance which is independent of the BBC executive.
Of course it is essential that the governors have access to independent and informed advice on which to make decisions. Indeed, the BBC recognised this need when it announced last year a number of important reforms to its internal governance arrangements. The intention behind the reforms was to establish a much clearer delineation of the functions of the governors and the executive and to enhance the role of the governors in monitoring performance and regulatory compliance.
One of the specific changes involved the setting up of a new governance and accountability department, the function of which is to support the governors by providing independent advice and support on compliance, objective setting and accountability. It must be for the BBC governors to determine the nature of the support they need to enable them to carry out their responsibilities properly. They are the people best placed to know what kinds of support would be most useful to them.
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