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Lord McNally: My Lords, does not the Minister feel thoroughly ashamed that a Government who came to power committed to freedom of information and ending the culture of secrecy in Whitehall cannot even provide a list of the times and dates when the Prime Minister saw the most powerful media magnate in the world?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord always criticises the progress on the freedom of information legislation, but he will know the enormous gains that are being reaped throughout the country by the extent to which we are able to implement it. From time to time, there are a few reservations when it comes to private interests. We have obligations to others who have certain rights, particularly if they are not British nationals over whom we have direct control. The noble Lord has to give us a little leeway and return to the generosity that we expect from him in such debates.

In her experienced way, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, raised in the most forthright terms the manner in which the Ofcom board could be strengthened and play its part in relation to the BBC. The noble Baroness always expresses that argument forcefully when contributing to debates on broadcasting. She will know how we struggled to reach the judgment that we did in the Communications Act 2003. Of course, we listened carefully, but our judgment is unchanged on that point. That does not alter the fact that there is bound to be constant public debate on that.

The noble Lord, Lord King, introduced the concept of independent validation of the licence fee level. As we indicated in the Green Paper, we are working with independent advisers to help us assess the BBC's proposals. I am aware that the challenge can be made that they are difficult issues and that government resources may not extend totally to an easy and necessarily independent evaluation. That is why we are bringing in outsiders to help us. That is important in justifying the licence fee, particularly when, in the digital switchover age, it is destined to go up by a considerable margin. That was always anticipated. No one who is serious about this has not known that the
 
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resources necessary for the BBC during the switchover will have to be substantially greater than might otherwise have been the case.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, this seems to have got disconnected from the NAO. I said that it was the perfect job for the NAO so that there would be some public credibility. Is the Minister now saying that some separate independent adviser will adjudicate on the licence fee and, if so, will that adjudication be published?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Lord with the details. He has alighted on a point that we recognise as being of considerable significance, and we are addressing ourselves to it.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester identified another area in which the BBC could be expected to engage in additional costs: its regionalisation process. The process is extremely valuable to the credibility of the BBC and its role throughout the nation. There are costs involved in the exercise, but as the right reverend Prelate emphasised—he will not expect me to do anything other than wholeheartedly endorse his point—the move to Manchester of certain BBC facilities is greatly to be welcomed. We are prepared to ensure that the BBC is able to meet those costs.

I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that we were addressing the technological changes and issues. They present great problems. That is why such reports, which emphasise the point, are valuable to us, but it is extremely difficult for us to be definitive at this stage. I am not sure that he was asking for that. Perhaps he was asking us to indicate that our mind is sufficiently open to the potential changes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, emphasised the point about the fairness of the BBC's position and its fair trading commitment. That is another area that is not concrete as far as the Government are concerned, but one at which we want to look more carefully. We are aware of public anxiety about the issue. It needs to be addressed. We regard that as a green part of the Green Paper. I can assure her on that. I thank her for raising the issue today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, asked about the public value test and how one challenged the BBC on these matters. Any significant change to the services that the BBC offers should be subject to the public value test. We intend to ensure that it incorporates a market test assessment. That partly links to the point of noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, as well. A great deal more work needs to be done in those areas too, but the debate has helped identify and highlight them. We are aware of the necessity for progress. We also agree that the WOCC commitment, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, referred, should deliver range and diversity when it is commissioning programmes for the BBC.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, emphasised the regulatory responsibility and presented a balanced judgment on the issues that we need to confront. We
 
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think that we have got the arrangements right, but such issues will always be a real challenge to all those who are concerned with the proper regulation of the BBC.

That brings me back to the most fundamental issue of all, which the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, raised and which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, introduced in opening the debate: the structure of the BBC. We have reached our position on that. I want to end the canard that there is somehow a problem over the issue of two chairmen. We have not made sufficient progress on the matter; that is why it is set out in a Green Paper. It is our responsibility to define the relationship between the trust and the executive board more carefully and analytically. We do not anticipate that there will be a problem about the responsibilities of the two chairmen. I recognise that we have extra work to do in that area. That is why I am defending a Green Paper at this stage, and not legislation or a White Paper. If we get those arrangements right, the respective roles of the chairmen will become clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked me the obvious question of how much of this is set in stone. Perhaps I have set too much in stone in my response today. He would like everything to be flexible, I am sure—that tends to be a besetting sin of his party on occasions—but I must make it clear that the principles are established. I would not underestimate the significant extra work that we have to do in these areas, but there are other areas that the Select Committee identified on which we have an open mind. We are grateful for the great deal of work that the committee has done. I pay tribute to it and its chair for introducing the debate.

2.45 pm

Lord Fowler: My Lords, this has been a good debate. I have listened to virtually every word of it. Typically, I managed to miss the qualified compliment to me from the noble Lord, Lord Maxton—which, as it was the first time in a quarter of a century in either House that he had done that, I very much regret. I thank everyone for their contributions in what has been an outstanding debate. Virtually all the member of the committee spoke, and, from their quality, it can be shown how easy a committee it was to chair.

Some of the speeches have been spirited: my noble friends Lord King, Lady Buscombe and Lord Astor; the noble Baronesses, Lady Bonham-Carter and Lady Gibson, and the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Holme. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Holme, can convert the noble Lord, Lord McNally—and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—to his view that Ofcom is more than an economic regulator.

Some of the speeches have been skilled and thoughtful: the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester; the noble Baronesses, Lady O'Neill and Lady Howe; and the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Judd. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about the World Service needing to ensure, if it goes to television, that the standards are just as
 
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good as radio. Some of the speeches have undoubtedly been independent and expert: the noble Lords, Lord Maxton, Lord Peston, Lord Gordon and Lord Lipsey.

So we have had the spirited, the thoughtful and the independent—and then we have had the Government's response. I do not wish to be unfair, and we realise how personally constrained the Minister is on announcing new policy. The best thing I can say about his speech is that he kept to the departmental line admirably. I am not sure, however, that it takes us much further. On the question of governance, I am sad to say it did not seem that there was much hope of a change of heart. I hope the very least the Minister will do is point out to the Secretary of State the predominant view in this debate, along with the predominant view on the licence fee and its size.

Frankly, though, this position is inherently satisfactory, and it will not be changed until Parliament is involved meaningfully in this process, as my noble friend Lord Astor said. That means no Royal Charter and doing without the wonderfully archaic Privy Council process, which camouflages the fact that it is decided by government: it should be done by statute and by Act of Parliament, with scrutiny by both Houses. That is the democratic and accountable way of doing it.

My noble friend Lady Buscombe said she regretted that we did not look in detail at Channel 4. We were set up to look at the BBC. We would like nothing better than to examine Channel 4, but we cannot do that until a permanent Select Committee has been set up. In that respect, I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, and actually, for the first time, what the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said. I regard that as a pledge on the part of the Government that they are in favour of this.

We go on to the second part of our BBC review, from sport to religious broadcasting. As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said, there are one or two challenges in achieving an agreed report as far as that is concerned. In the mean time, I ask the House to take note of our first report.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


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