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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I agree but I cannot come up with any suggestions. There is no argument about the process by which councillors are lawfully suspended. Those who have been lawfully suspended, although they are going to court to appeal, are excluded, I understand, from all public office, whether they are a councillor for one or more levels of councils; they are also excluded from being a candidate for a council. There has been evidence in the past that people who were not qualified to stand stood for election, were elected and then got suspended in order to draw attention to an issue. In fact, that sounds like the way in which life Peers came about.
I am not suggesting that the councillor does that, but these issues are worth raising. Ours is a democratic system and, by and large, if major issues are caused by people who have been elected, the answer is with the people through the ballot box. On the other hand, we must have a system of raising standards and improving probity.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I understand that my noble friend does not want to get into individual cases, and so I shall not pursue him about Westminster City Council, but would he agree in general terms that public interest should exonerate a local councillor who has raised an issue from the disciplinary effect of the Standards Board? In fact, public interest ought to be a key test of whether conduct has been proper.
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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot comment on Westminster Council. I understand that, surprisingly, there is no public interest defence for councillors in this situation. Notwithstanding that, the Freedom of Information Act is now law, which it was not when this first started. A review of the Standards Board is being conducted and people can express their views about it until this summer.
I understand that one of the key criticisms from councillorsquite fortuitously it was raised with me yesterday in a completely different contextrelated to a case that was ongoing for three years. It is unacceptable conduct of public administration for an issue to take three years. It does not matter whether it is in the health service or in local government; issues should not take that long to resolve.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am sure that the House will welcome the approach of the Minister on this issue. Does he think that the statutory framework is too highly centralised?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not understand that question. The Standards Board exists, and we fund it. There is a small number of staff doing a job, and they have the code of conduct to implement. Their only role is to police the code of conduct. I cannot comment on individual operations. The board is up for review this summer.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in many places reference to making a complaint to the Standards Board is becoming a totally unjustified political tactic to attempt to smear political opponents? The person complained against is not informed by the Standards Board that the complaint has been made until it starts to look at it, and that might not be for several months. Meanwhile, the whole matter might have been dragged through the local press in a totally unfair and unacceptable way.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I deplore that, and I would have hoped that steps would have been taken early on to ensure that that is not happening. The board is a new body but with two or three years of operation we ought to be able to snuff out that kind of misuse and abuse of the system, because that is what it is.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath asked Her Majesty's Government:
What representations they have made to the BBC with regard to the future of "Yesterday in Parliament".
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, no representations have been made. The agreement between the Government and the BBC requires the corporation to transmit an impartial day-by-day account, prepared by
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professional reporters, of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament. The BBC's editorial independence means that it is entirely up to the corporation as to how that requirement is being fulfilled.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that response. Is he aware of media speculation this week that as part of the BBC's review of services it has been looking at a cutback in staff and in the "Yesterday in Parliament" programme? Does he agree that that would fly in the face of the BBC's public service responsibilities, and will he make the necessary representations?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend referred to media speculation. I think that the speculation was fairly limited. On the whole, I would prefer to believe the BBC's position, rather than speculation in other parts of the media. I understand that the BBC wrote to the Evening Standard, where the story first surfaced, and said that there was no truth in it.
Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some years ago the BBC sought to change the timing of its parliamentary broadcasting and strong representations were made for it not to do so? On behalf of the Commons, I made some representations, and I saw the chairman of the BBC at the time. However, in its wisdom, the BBC changed the timing of its parliamentary broadcasting, with the result that the audience took a nosedive, and it had to produce evidence to that effect. I believe that it changed some programmes back as a result of its experience. Does the Minister not think that, having had its fingers burnt on one occasion, the BBC may leave things well alone?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is clearly the right of parliamentarians to make representations in this respect. As the noble Baroness indicated, she did so to a certain extent in the past. It would be odd if the BBC did not take note of such representations, but the House will recognise that that is different from asking the Government to make representations about a particular programme.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the issues clearly need to be set in the context of the BBC's public service obligations, but we are awaiting a Green Paper on the renewal of the BBC's charter. Why has it not been published this week? Is the Secretary of State still seeking further inspiration from a Member on our Cross Benches?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am sure that the Secretary of State would benefit from inspiration from any quarter. Let me reassure the House that the Green Paper is imminent, and therefore the noble Lord will not have to contain his impatience too long.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, is the House aware that BBC Parliament started broadband live broadcasting of the House of Lords last night? Does the
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Minister agree that, in the light of the fact that BBC Parliament shows live coverage of your Lordships' House only when the House of Commons is not sitting, we should look for other ways to raise the profile of the brilliant work that is undertaken in this House?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am second to none in applauding the excellent work done by this House, but the noble Baroness perhaps underestimates the extent to which video recording is now available in households in the United Kingdom. The actual timing of programmes is not as important as it was in the past. I am sure that the BBC will recognise the strength of opinion expressed from the Opposition Front Bench.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as newspapers give less and less space to politics, it is essential that other media, particularly radio, give good coverage to parliamentary proceedings and news?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is right, and that will be seen when the Green Paper emerges. I cannot presume too much, but it will be recognised that we continue to regard the public service obligation of the BBC as including the proper coverage of developments in Parliament.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, is it altogether wise to publish the Green Paper in advance of the general election? Could not its contents be interpreted as an attempt by the Government to influence the independence and impartiality of the BBC?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord will find that to be the public response to the Green Paper. As the noble Lord will recognise, a timetable was set out for the consultation that the BBC has carried out on the renewal of the charter and the report on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It is timely for the Government to respond. There is probably no time when a report on, and discussion about, the BBC would not generate a fair degree of political controversy.
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