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BBC: Chairman

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 30 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What procedures will be followed for the selection of the next chairman of the BBC.

My Lords, we will hold an open competition to select the next chairman of the BBC. The process will follow the Nolan principles, and the Commissioner for Public Appointments code of practice. After advertising in the national press, a selection panel will shortlist and interview candidates and make recommendations to Ministers. The appointment will be made by the Queen by Order in Council on the recommendation of DCMS Ministers through the Prime Minister.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I think we all hope that in future the process will be placed under the chairmanship of the independent Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Is the Minister as astonished as the rest of us that Michael Grade, as commander of the British flagship of public service broadcasting, is apparently free immediately to transfer his loyalty—if loyalty is the appropriate word—to the BBC’s principal competitor and, indeed, that he feels free to do so, in the apparent absence of any non-compete clause? What do the Government propose to do to prevent a similar situation arising with any future BBC chairman?

My Lords, it is a free country. Michael Grade has made it absolutely clear that he left the BBC because he saw a career opportunity in ITV. I think there would be a fair amount of criticism from many parts of this House if that had been prevented.

My Lords, what was the cost of the recruitment process for engaging the last chairman? If the figure is not available, why not? Will my noble friend ensure that the cost of this recruitment process is calculated and reported to the House? Furthermore, will he ensure that a clause is written into the next chairperson’s contract stipulating that in the event of failure to keep to that contract, they will pay the cost of the recruitment process for the subsequent chairman?

My Lords, I do not have the figure for the cost of the recruitment process because I did not think that it was of major interest to the House. I respect the fact that my noble friend has raised the issue, and I will write to him with the cost, but in an appointment of such importance the cost is of limited significance. It is now right to get the best person equipped to lead the BBC through a very significant period over the next decade. There was widespread approval of the appointment of Michael Grade through the processes adopted, but nobody foresaw his abrupt departure.

My Lords, do I understand it correctly that Michael Grade was appointed by a government department without a contract, without any requirement to give notice or a non-compete clause, and that only three weeks ago this arrangement was confirmed so that he could take charge of the new trustee board which, against much advice, he personally had invented for the BBC? Given that the Government have now lost two BBC chairmen in the past three years, does the Minister not think that the appointment process should be radically reformed?

My Lords, the two chairmen have been lost in very different circumstances, and neither departure was foreseeable. I must point out that we are not talking about the director-general of the BBC, who has a contract, but about the chairman of a public body. The chairman of the BBC is appointed in the same way as are our other major appointees of this kind. What is clear, however, is that when someone takes up an appointment of this significance, he agrees to abide by the Cabinet Office rules for public appointments, and that means not making public or revealing to anyone else the confidential information he acquired in his role as chairman of the BBC.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that Mr Grade’s precipitate departure will not mean further delay in the licence fee settlement and that that settlement will be sufficient to cover the BBC’s many commitments under the new charter?

My Lords, we need to have in place the process for the licence fee settlement by 1 April and we are on course to do so. The House will recognise that the chairman of the BBC has played a significant part over the past year in the discussions about the licence fee, but we are now in the concluding stages of those decisions, therefore his departure will have no impact on the timing.

My Lords, is it possible that disappointment with the impending outcome of the negotiations could have hastened Mr Grade’s departure? Can the Minister guarantee that the new chairman will not be a politician?

My Lords, I cannot guarantee the latter point. On the first point, Michael Grade made this statement on his departure:

“I would like everyone to understand this is a career decision. What it is NOT is a reaction to anything, internal or external. I was faced with the choice of getting back into programming or ‘governing’ the BBC from a distance”.

My Lords, as I indicated earlier, in public appointments of this kind we do not have a contract; the appointee has very clear obligations in regard to conduct. The appointment is for a considerable number of years and it is anticipated that the chairman of the trust will serve for a number of years—as has been the case with chairmen of the BBC in the past, with the exception of the two most recent appointments, where there were rather particular features.