Skip to main content


Volume 454: debated on Monday 18 December 2006

The new arrangements for BBC governance take full effect on 1 January. The separation of the trust from the executive board will strengthen the BBC's independence from Government and its accountability to its licence fee payers will be its principal responsibility. Chitra Bharucha, vice-chairman of the BBC Trust, is acting chairman until a new chairman is appointed next year.

Technological innovation and the internet are transforming the broadcast media. Big top-down broadcasting is giving way to user-driven media. Will the Minister consider a future governance model for the BBC that relies less on technocrats and remote governors, and allows more direct accountability to the actual users?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the case for the BBC Trust and the new governance for the BBC, because that is precisely the purpose of the BBC Trust. No longer are the governors of the BBC principally accountable through a rather confused relationship with the BBC itself, but they face outward to the licence fee payer who funds everything that the BBC does—more or less everything that it does.

No matter how the BBC is governed, it is clear that the preferred way of paying for the BBC is through the licence fee. What advances have there been in the licence fee settlement this year to ensure that the BBC has the money to provide the quality and breadth of service required and to fulfil its important role in the digital switchover in the year to come?

Discussions are continuing in government about the level of the licence fee settlement. It is worth recording that the last licence fee settlement was not concluded until the middle of February. The BBC licence fee settlement has to achieve the following objectives: first, that the BBC has enough money to lead on digital switchover; secondly that it has enough money in order to be a broadcaster of scale in an increasingly competitive global marketplace; and, most important of all, that it has enough money for the high quality programming that licence fee payers over the last two years have time and again said is what they want. But against the background of those three needs, the BBC must be an efficient organisation that spends its money well and wisely in the interests of the licence fee payer.

Does the Secretary of State agree that under the new governance arrangements the BBC Trust is to be independent of the Executive and will oversee the BBC’s work and adjudicate on any possible complaints? Will she join me in wishing Michael Grade every success in his new job, which will certainly be challenging? Does she accept, however, that if the trust is to remain credible, its next chairman should be a critical judge of the BBC, not a cheerleader for it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome the opportunity to place on record my thanks to Michael Grade and my appreciation of all the work that he has done for the BBC over the past two and a half years during a difficult time of change. He has provided exemplary leadership, and I think that when the time comes he will also do an extremely good job for ITV. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the role of the chairman of the trust is different from the role of the chairman of the BBC, because it is to ensure that accountability to the licence fee payer is absolutely clear and is honoured in every penny of licence fee money that is spent.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while we want to get the governance of the BBC right—it was long overdue for a shake-up and a renewal—it is also important to give proper funding to the BBC given the role that it plays in preserving a democracy that desperately needs some independent and objective media? Does she agree that if we do not give sufficient funding for pushing out some of its activities to places such as Manchester and Leeds, there will be some very unpopular Ministers sitting on the Front Bench?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to recognise the BBC’s role as more than just a broadcaster. At the same time, the BBC must spend public money carefully and in the public interest. He is right to underline the importance of the BBC’s independent and impartial news coverage, because fundamental to the level of trust in the BBC is the confidence that people have in the veracity and objectivity of its news reporting. That is a tradition that the BBC must attend to every single day.

The BBC is widely acknowledged as being the best and most impartial public service broadcaster in the world, and it must be kept that way. What steps, then, will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the appointment of a new chair of the BBC Trust is not only transparent, but beyond all criticism, so that it is not viewed with the same understandable suspicion as the appointment of five out of 12 Big Lottery Fund board members who are members of the Labour party or the nominations of Labour party donors and creditors for peerages and honours by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor?

That is an unworthy smear by the hon. Gentleman. Anyone can allege anything without substance. The members of the Big Lottery Fund board were appointed entirely consistently with the rules of public appointment. The Ministers who made the appointments were, as is right and proper, completely unaware of their political affiliations. Of course it is important that there is public confidence in the appointment of the chairman of the BBC: that is why it will be conducted in full accordance with the rules of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

In looking at the future governance of the BBC, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that she will resist any attempt to break it up, as suggested by some Opposition parties? Does she agree that that would dilute its service not only for people in this country but its service worldwide, for which it is well respected?

It is now three years since the charter review process started but the BBC is entering the Christmas period with no chairman and no licence fee settlement. At a crucial time of preparing for digital switchover, and with the BBC’s trust yet to begin formally operating, the Government's mishandling of the situation has left the corporation in limbo, unable to plan ahead effectively. The Opposition are gravely concerned that at such a crucial time for the BBC there is no one at the BBC’s helm with any broadcasting experience, which could be the case for many months. What would happen should another Hutton-type situation arise? Can the Secretary of State tell the House when the licence fee announcement will be made, and crucially, whether a new chairman of the trust will be in place when it is finally decided?

The Opposition can be reassured. The BBC is completely relaxed about the timing of the licence fee settlement and it is fully aware that arrangements are now in train to recruit a new chairman for the BBC. Those negotiations on the licence fee will continue and I hope that they will be concluded very soon, within the terms that I set out to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg).

On the day after Michael Grade stepped down as chairman of the BBC, I put in train the arrangements for his replacement. The advertisements will go out early in the new year—[Hon. Members: “The Guardian.”]—in a very wide range of newspapers, as is consistent with the guidance of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and we hope for an appointment in the spring. The difference between being in opposition and in government is that the Opposition panic but the Government get on with the job.