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Not only is the process of appointment of concern to the committee, but also the lack of clarity in the role of the chairman, as has been mentioned by many noble Lords today. Previously the independence of the BBC from government was safeguarded as a team effort by the chairman of the governors, together with the director-general. The committee heard evidence to this effect from the former chairman, Gavyn Davies.

The chairman now has regulatory responsibilities and has a specific remit to represent the interests of licence fee payers. The Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review rightly raised concern over potential confusion. Of course, in a sense, the Communications Committee is very much the successor of the BBC Charter Review Committee and shares the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. But the Government have failed to address these concerns, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out. Now the committee has reiterated the need for clarification as to whose job it is to represent the BBC itself as distinct from the licence fee payer. I wonder also as to the impact on the BBC’s long-term independence from government of the new structure.

In the recent faked phone-in scandal and the inaccurate trailer about the documentary “The Queen”, the chairman and the BBC Trust acted as regulator. I agree with the committee that the question arises, with this role being taken by the trust, whether it is consistent that it should be management, headed by the director-general, that is responsible, as the trust puts it, for,

with the trust representing the interests of the licence fee payer.

There seems to be confusion here. I raised concerns when we debated these issues in December 2005 and June 2006 about the role to be taken by the trust in the different elements. I pointed out then that there were three different areas that needed addressing—regulation, governance and management roles. I do not think we have yet teased out a satisfactory way of dealing with those three areas. We can now see in

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practice the downside of having the chairman of the trust involved in regulation. It would be gratifying if the Government had the courage to acknowledge the deficits in the present arrangements and to rethink them.

A further matter considered by the committee is that of the conditions of service of the chairman. My honourable friend Don Foster made the point in giving evidence to the committee that it is staggering that there is no written confidentiality clause governing the position when a chairman resigns. It is not good enough that the BBC obtained written assurances from Michael Grade on his departure. The position should be clear from the outset. It is certainly no reflection on Michael Grade. I support the committee’s recommendation that the chairman of the trust should be subject to a six months’ notice period and in the interim the non-compete clause in the trust code of practice should be amended so that the chairman cannot take up a position with a competitor for at least six months.

I referred to the Government’s response to the committee’s report. In looking through it, I tried to find a ray of sunshine. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was extremely gracious in picking out the one element of it that was of any benefit at all to posterity. It seems to be a stonewalling exercise. It is as though none of the committee’s recommendations was invented here—that is, within the DCMS—and therefore found absolutely no favour with Ministers at all. I recommend that the Minister and his colleagues look again at the committee’s report. I have rarely seen a more negative and stonewalling response and I hope that they will act eventually on the recommendations made by the committee.

It will be up to others in this House and elsewhere to keep up the pressure on the Government to make them rethink. It is crucial to get it right and to learn from experience. This is an extremely experienced committee and it has not made frivolous recommendations. It is crucial that we ensure the BBC’s independence and that it retains public confidence and respect. I believe these recommendations will go a long way towards securing that.

8.50 pm

Lord Luke: My Lords, like all other speakers this evening, I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for moving this Motion and for his excellent work in chairing the Communications Committee for some years. I thank also the members of the committee for the hard work that has gone into producing their report, which we on these Benches broadly welcome.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, I shall divert slightly from the subject and say that I approve of what he said about the announcement of a review of the news services, which, in the BBC, too often major on the trivial.

The BBC is one of the great British public services, as we all know, and scrutiny of how it is led is thus of considerable importance to all of us. It is not just because of its history as the gold standard of British broadcasting that it can make claims of importance

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to this House; it is also because it is the recipient of huge amounts of public funds. A number of noble Lords have already mentioned the figure of £3 billion, which is an enormous amount of money. It is therefore extremely important that we can be assured that the BBC is being led apolitically, with clarity of purpose and a commitment to safeguarding the standards that the public have come to expect. We must be able to have confidence in the BBC.

I am afraid that this confidence has recently been shaken, as has been mentioned by other noble Lords. The recent revelations of fake phone-ins have meant that the public are likely to have doubts regarding the BBC, as well as other channels. They have certainly damaged the corporation’s reputation as the gold standard in public service broadcasting. On 9 July, the BBC was fined £50,000 by Ofcom following a revelation concerning a faked competition on “Blue Peter”. On 18 July, following the aforesaid exposure of industry-wide fakery, the BBC revealed the details of six shows in which the public had been misled or deceived. The shows included “Children in Need” and “Comic Relief”. As has already been mentioned, the BBC was also forced to apologise after it showed misleading footage of the Queen to journalists in July. This is simply unacceptable. Does the Minister think that the new governance arrangements are robust enough to restore confidence and prevent future deceptions?

These revelations came to light while the Lords Communications Committee was sitting. The committee rightly notes that the actions taken by the BBC Trust during the faked phone-in scandal underline how much the role of the chairman has changed. As has been said earlier, the problem is that the chairman of the BBC Trust no longer stands shoulder to shoulder with the director-general, as his position now carries regulatory responsibilities and is much further removed from executive broadcasting decisions than that of his predecessor governors. According to Gavyn Davies, the former chairman of the BBC whom we have previously mentioned, this division may eventually threaten the independence of the BBC, which I am sure noble Lords on all Benches would wish to safeguard most ardently. The chairman and the director-general might not be able to stand together against government pressure at a time of crisis, such as in 2003. In this respect, the new executive configuration of the BBC has not yet been tested. It is vital that the BBC always makes decisions in the interest of the public and not of Ministers and the Government. What assurances can the Minister give that the current executive organisation of the BBC will allow for complete independence, especially if something as serious as the Hutton inquiry happens again?

I also draw particular attention to the committee’s criticism of the way in which BBC chairmen are appointed. Its concern focused on the lack of parliamentary oversight of the selection and appointment procedure, and it mentioned too much ministerial influence. The committee argued that during the recent appointment of Sir Michael Lyons, Ministers were given considerable influence over the selection process. It said:



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This, of course, contributes further to the concern regarding lack of independence. As my noble friend mentioned, his committee argued that there is a democratic deficit in the management of the BBC. How does the Minister respond to this assessment?

The committee recommended that, while the Minister would still be answerable for appointments,

That sounds logical to me. Can the Minister explain why this suggestion to ensure greater independence has been ignored by the Government? Our position on these Benches is that we want to ensure greater transparency, not only in the appointment of the new executives, but also in the way the BBC is run. Of course, we welcome the drive to make the BBC more efficient.

Noble Lords will remember that the BBC Trust issued a public statement setting out its new role as regulator, in which it said:

What happened when it became clear that editors and producers might have been contravening the regulatory code? Does the Minister think that the regulatory code itself could be flawed? As the broadcasting code was clearly breached during the summer, with the quiz shows and competitions, what action are the Government taking to strengthen it? If, as the BBC Trust has outlined above, the responsibility for compliance rests at the most senior levels, I would like to conclude by asking, can we trust the trust to do the right thing?

8.57 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this important debate, but particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who chairs the committee and introduced the topic with his usual style—which is, of course, particularly difficult for the Minister responding to the debate because not only does he accurately identify the committee’s arguments and stress his own strong views on several points, but he anticipates what the Government’s reply might be. After all, the Government have given a reply to the Select Committee. So he identifies that and then demolishes it in part of his opening speech. Therefore, I find myself with most of the positions that I would have adopted already demolished by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, as he has already indicated why he will disagree with pretty well everything that I am going to say.

Let me get to the heart of the matter. The debate provides an opportunity for noble Lords to range widely over BBC matters, but it is chiefly about the chairman and the governance arrangements for the

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BBC. The most significant point that emerges from nearly every speaker who addressed themselves to it—as the noble Lords, Lord Fowler, Lord Luke and Lord Clement-Jones, did—is the democratic deficit. It was contended that the BBC had a democratic deficit under its old governance arrangements. There was great concern about the way in which the BBC was responding to several significant political crises, and about problems with its reporting. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned the Hutton report.

The new governance arrangements are there to address the issue of democratic deficit. The problem is that noble Lords are interpreting that the only solution to the democratic deficit is increased participation in Parliament either in the lower House or this House. However, after substantial consultation and three years’ work, debate and analysis on creating the arrangements for the BBC, the problems all along were that the public thought that the previous arrangements were complicated and difficult to understand. They were not trusted by the BBC's commercial rivals or widely understood by licence fee payers, but there was no call for the BBC to come under closer parliamentary control—quite the opposite.

Of course there is the issue of the licence fee payers—the vast majority of the British public—being concerned that the BBC should be robust but also responsive and that new arrangements were necessary. But not, except in Parliament, was it strongly articulated that the solution lay in greater parliamentary control and supervision. Why should that be? Because the public value the independence of the BBC. Noble Lords cannot easily argue for the role of Parliament to be enhanced without great anxieties being created about the independence of the BBC.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the Minister is taking his argument extremely wide from the outset. We are talking about the appointment of the chairman of the BBC, and parliamentary oversight and scrutiny in relation to that, not some Aunt Sally of parliamentary interference in the BBC.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I recognise that, but what has been proposed in the new arrangements is the separation of the trust from the executive of the BBC and the role of the chairman within that. Within that framework, there is a clear illustration of how the democratic deficit is meant to be overcome. The role of the trust and the chairman in particular is to represent the licence fee payer; to supervise the actions of the executive board of the BBC. If one wants an illustration, the BBC moved with some dispatch to deal with the problem of the broadcast involving Her Majesty the Queen. The trust is looking at the broader—

Lord Maxton: My Lords, will my noble friend answer a simple question? The chairman and the trust are to represent the licence fee payer, but representation would normally mean that they had been elected by licence fee payers. That is simply not the case, so they do not in that sense represent licence fee payers.



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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, one can use the concept of representation of interest on a different basis from a purely elected basis, although I recognise the purity of the elected basis in the broader issues of government: that goes without saying. However, my noble friend and, I hope, the House will recognise that, in order to meet the democratic deficit, the trust is there to hold the executive board responsible to the wider public—the licence fee payer. Its role in those terms is illustrated by the example that I was about to give. The executive moved with some dispatch to deal with the broadcast that was the offensive with regard to Her Majesty the Queen, and apologised for it. The trust is looking at the guidelines that may need to be put in place to ensure that such a deleterious result does not occur again. It is the trust’s role to ensure that the executive is able to respond to the broad guidelines which it lays down. The trust is working hard in these areas.

The trust has existed only for a matter of months. I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that this debate is concerned largely with the chairmanship of the BBC. However, he will recognise that it has ranged widely and that there has been condemnation of the structure which has existed only for a short period. It ought to be given time to bed down. So far it has a good record in responding to the crises that have arisen. Within that framework, the Government are bound to differ with the committee, as they did through the whole debate on the charter—the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, played an important part in that regard through his chairmanship of the relevant committee—on the fundamental point of whether the democratic deficit can be solved through the adoption of a greater role for Parliament in relation to the BBC. The Government argue that that cannot be the solution because the public take the view that it is important that the BBC’s independence should be guaranteed through maintaining distance between it and Parliament. We had that debate when we discussed the charter and it underpins the debate about the chairmanship.

The chairmanship of the trust is not quite the same as the chairmanship of other public bodies because other public bodies can be subject potentially to parliamentary vetting. If the chairman of the BBC Trust became subject to parliamentary vetting, the independence issue would be brought sharply to the public’s attention and the Government’s judgment is that the public would not support that position. What the public do support, and what the committee should recognise, is that the process by which the chairman is appointed should be fully in accord with the guidelines and requirements of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. She endorsed the way in which the process had been carried out. I believe that my noble friend Lord Maxton suggested that the process should be open. However, there is a problem with appointments that have to be open and subject to freedom of information requirements. It is not as if it is easy to fill some public positions. The House will recall—this occurred only the other day—an appointment in the nuclear industry which has had to

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be readvertised several weeks later at many times the original salary. Such a difficult post in the public service is not easy to fill.

To make every aspect of applications for such a post as we are discussing open and, under the Freedom of Information Act, available for everybody to see in terms of who had applied, who had failed, what their qualifications were and perhaps even the judgments made on them, would be very deleterious for aspects of public appointments. It is not easy for us to suggest that these issues can be any more guaranteed than they are by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I refer to her excellent record and that of her predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie, who is now a distinguished Member of this House. This role ensures that the process meets the public test of probity for public appointments.

I understand that members of the committee have a deep, abiding and significant commitment to the future of the BBC and a real appreciation of the role that it needs to fulfil. It should be recognised that, in their response, the Government have established consistency on the charter and on the debate on the charter. The public expect the BBC to have the necessary degree of independence from political institutions and from Parliament. Nevertheless, it must be answerable to the public. The way it did so under its old board and arrangements allowed, as was mentioned this evening, the happy advantage of the chairman and chief executive being able to stand side by side. But it was also the case that, in certain circumstances, the chairman and the chief executive stood side by side in somewhat indefensible circumstances. There is now a separation between the trust and the board of the BBC. The arrangements have admittedly worked for only a short period of time, but they have given a clear indication that it can address itself to the issues that arise.

I regret that I did not pay due regard to the generosity of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in mentioning the contribution of the Arabic service and in saying with regard to the appointment that although he and the committee would have preferred a six-month cooling-off period, the BBC and the Government have settled for three months as there were legal difficulties with going as far as six months. The committee has made a proposal, and the BBC and the Government in their response have sought to move some way to meeting the committee's position. However, there is a quite significant difference between the Government's and the committee's positions. All contributions this evening have therefore indicated that the Government's response is not as acceptable to the committee as it might have been, and I fully understand that. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, put me on the spot regarding these issues within 10 minutes of the debate being entered into.

It ought to be recognised, however, that these issues have been argued about for a number of years now. The Government are clearly maintaining consistency in what they expect from the BBC and the BBC ought now to be given the chance to show how the new arrangements will work. There is nothing in

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the evidence of recent months which leads us to any other view than that the BBC will grow in strength from the arrangements that have been put in place or to lead us to think that we should express undue concern about the future of what we all agree is one of our most significant public institutions.

9.13 pm

Lord Fowler: My Lords, this has been a good debate. It gave some evidence of the quality of the Communications Committee. I thank everyone who has taken part. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, rightly underlined the curious position of the chairman of the BBC Trust and the complex position at the top of the BBC. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, pointed to the unsatisfactory position of Michael Grade’s departure from the BBC and the whole appointments process. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, with his substantial experience, set out his view of what the new trust should be doing and the standards that the BBC should be observing, particularly in news programmes. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked, among other questions, who was the champion of the BBC—a question that I do not think has been answered. She, like all other Members—and this is an important point—spoke from a supportive position the BBC and its importance in our national life.

From the Front Benches, my noble friend Lord Luke pointed out some of the serious errors that the BBC has made recently, but he also stressed its independence. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, rightly criticised the fact that Ministers and officials were closely involved in the selection process and he supported greater parliamentary involvement in the oversight of the BBC, including pre-appointment hearings. He described the Government’s response to our report as negative and stonewalling.

Then we came to the great old stonewaller himself, the noble Lord, Lord Davies. He predicted that I

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would disagree with him, and I certainly do. It is frankly a little fanciful to give an illustration of the difficulties of filling public appointments by trying to compare the nuclear appointment with appointment to the chairmanship of the BBC. There is a long queue around Portland Place of people who would like to do the latter job.


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