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BBC Trust

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009


Asked By

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has said that he has concerns about the corporation’s regulatory structure and he is clear that this must be a key issue for the next charter review.

My Lords, does he not have rather more than concerns, given that the BBC Trust was forced through against strong advice that it would provide a fatally divided structure at the top of the BBC? Has not the Secretary of State, Mr Bradshaw, said that the trust is not,

“a sustainable model in the long term”?

So, is it the Government’s policy now that the BBC Trust is not sustainable?

No, it is not, my Lords. The Secretary of State was indicating that the next charter review should look at the regulatory structure, but the trust is the product of a very extensive consultation on the charter and provision for the BBC. Every model of governance had both proponents and opponents, but the trust received greater favour than other possible solutions. After just over two years of the trust, which has a destined life of 10 years, we should give it time to settle in and to prove that it is fit for purpose.

My Lords, is it not the case that the trust is there to champion the views of the licence payer and leaves the BBC management to speak up for itself?

My Lords, the trust certainly has a major obligation to the licence payer. Any other model of supervision of the BBC would either not serve the interests of the licence payer as effectively or would so closely regulate the BBC that it would be subject to political interference, thereby destroying the independence which it has enjoyed for 80 years.

My Lords, as regards the future of the BBC, will the Minister assure the House that the Government do not intend to top-slice the BBC licence fee in order to pay for the independently-funded media consortia once the pilots are over?

My Lords, that is a marginal consideration as far as the future of the BBC is concerned. After all, we are talking about potential savings from the necessary moneys devoted to the transfer to digital. Therefore, it is an absolutely minor amount for the BBC and is not part of its regular budget. However, the Government have not reached a decision on whether this specific part should be devoted to the independent news consortia. We are considering the matter, but that is one possibility.

My Lords, in response to my noble friend Lord Fowler, the Minister explained that the BBC Trust was not sustainable. Yet in his subsequent remarks, he said that it should be allowed to settle in, in order to become fit for purpose. It cannot do both. Which is the Government’s preferred option?

My Lords, it can do both because, as I am sure the noble Lord appreciates, we are not talking about an institution which is subject annually to a change of government, but a structure which has to be created to preserve the crucial independence of the BBC. That is why the charter has a 10-year span and why the licence fee has a number of years attached to its regulation. That is the position of the BBC, which is valued across the world in terms of its independence from government. All that the Secretary of State was indicating was that the trust might be looked at in the fullness of time when it comes to a review of the charter.

My Lords, given the degree of self-regulation built into the Communications Act 2003, can the Minister expand a little on what the trust does that Ofcom or a similar regulator could not do? I am thinking about the future rather than the present.

The noble Baroness is quite right to indicate that in future discussions the role of Ofcom would almost certainly feature as a possible solution to the issue. But of course that position was considered in the review of the charter which we carried out prior to the decisions in 2006 and 2007. There are problems with the position of Ofcom; it might look as if it was, in fact, there solely to look after the structure of the BBC on a day-to-day basis, when the essence of the trust is to give reassurance to the licence fee payer that the BBC will be properly controlled and governed, while preserving a degree of BBC independence from direct political interference.

Is it not true that the threat to the BBC comes not from problems with the trust, which everyone acknowledges can be changed from time to time, but from the threat to hive off bits of it at the request of other self-serving interests? News International and the Daily Mail spring to mind. In fact, the BBC provides one of the great services not just to this country but to the world in terms of the protection and enhancement of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. We should be proud of that and be very wary of those organisations that want to get their hands on little bits of the BBC in order to emasculate it.

I am grateful to my noble friend for emphasising the virtues of the BBC in our debate last Thursday. Every single contributor recognised the value of the BBC as a very significant institution in Britain. Therefore, we ought to look with some care at those who threaten the BBC from a perspective that may be self-serving of their interests, but not in the interests of the wider community.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that for certain bystanders, who cannot remember what the purpose of the BBC World Service Trust is, the mere name of this trust is a further complication and confusion?

My Lords, in all the discussions on the BBC to which I have been a party in recent months and years, I have not identified an issue of confusion. I have identified criticism of the trust. Any BBC governing body is subject to criticism, because the BBC, given the sheer range of its programmes and the service it provides, is bound to attract criticism from time to time. Whoever is responsible for answering questions on those criticisms will themselves be subject to scrutiny. The trust simply fits into that pattern.