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BBC: Charter 2017

Volume 764: debated on Thursday 17 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made towards renewal of the BBC’s Charter in 2017.

My Lords, the Government’s charter review public consultation runs from 16 July to 8 October, but the process does not end there. Over the autumn, the Government will develop proposals, taking into account responses to the consultation. We are also commissioning reviews and research. This includes an independent review of governance and regulation, led by David Clementi and announced yesterday. The Government intend to publish proposals for the future of the BBC in spring 2016.

When Chancellor George Osborne defines the BBC as “imperial in its ambitions”, with an intention to crowd out national newspapers, and the Green Paper suggests that BBC online might impede the profitable business model, can the Minister explain how, with such constraint in the marketplace, the local, national and global—one might even say “imperial”—dominance of the paywall-free Daily Mail online is possible?

My Lords, there are a number of questions there. I make the general point that the BBC is funded with public money, paid through the licence fee, and that we should expect it to observe the same efficiencies as others in the public sector. Local news is very important. We welcome the proposals that the BBC has put forward, but we are looking at the potential effect on competitors; I think that that is what the noble Baroness is referring to. We need to find the right balance in this area so that strong, creative content and excellent news continue to be produced.

During the debate last week led by my noble friend Lady Bakewell, the Minister was at pains to stress that the BBC charter review was focused on the people. Indeed, the hashtag “yourBBC” has been applied to the charter documents for those who are trendily following it. As the Minister said, the Government announced yesterday that David Clementi would be leading the independent review. How, precisely, does that square with the idea that the people should lead, given that the consultation does not finish until 8 October? Can she tell the House whether the independent review and its evidence will be published, and confirm that it will be debated in the House?

As I see it, all these various pieces of work fit in and feed in to the charter review. The consultation is important and, as noble Lords know, we are making good progress with it. But we saw a need to have some new, independent advice on governance and regulation, which is why Sir David has been appointed, and his review will indeed be published.

The Minister has not yet mentioned the advisory panel but, in answers to Written Questions, she has said that it will meet frequently and contribute significantly to the Government’s charter review—yet it has no terms of reference, it will not take its evidence in public, and its advisers are not subject to appointment by reference to the Nolan principles. Is it not totally unacceptable in the light of the influence that those advisers will have to have those circumstances prevailing, since they will have a great influence on the charter review? It is no surprise that even one of her noble friends described them as “assistant gravediggers” —and they clank with special interests.

My Lords, as I have said before, the group is not a decision-making body; it is just one part of the process. It has no legal status. As the noble Lord said, it is not set up under Cabinet Office guidelines for public appointments. It operates on a voluntary basis. We feel that it would be impossible to find a group of this kind without a significant overlap with the industry. I think that noble Lords can see that the way things are going we have several bits of work coming together. This advisory group is an important part of that work.

My Lords, the Secretary of State was reported yesterday as saying that it was important to investigate the impact of the BBC on the commercial sector. Does the Minister agree that it is equally important to investigate the impact of the commercial sector on the BBC?

I thank the noble Lord for his comment. I hope that he has now got the reader that he was missing, for which I apologise. We are also looking at the impact of the BBC on its rivals. An analysis of that sector will inevitably look at the flows both ways. It is very important as part of the charter review that we understand the market and where the competitors are going because we have a shared interest in having a strong creative, independent sector in this country, and the key thing is to make sure that BBC arrangements help and encourage that.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm whether there are any plans to separate the setting of the licence fee from the renewal of the BBC charter?

The licence fee is one of the issues that we will be looking at as part of the charter review, so I think that the answer is no.

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Low, will the Minister explain why, by implication, it is all right for competitors to compete but not all right for the BBC to compete? I come from a sector—the theatre—where public funding substantially adds to its diversity and creativity and the commercial competitors, as it were, of funded theatres are very well aware of how much they owe to their colleagues in the funded sector. Is that not also true of the BBC and the independent sector?

I agree with a lot of what the noble Baroness says. Both public service broadcasters and commercial operators contribute to the creativity and greatness of the UK industry. The BBC has an arm worldwide which sends programmes such as “Sherlock” to China, which is incredibly important. It is a misapprehension to think that we are not looking at the BBC’s commercial arm as a positive, but we need to make sure that there is no unfairness or bad competition.

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, what possible justification is there for the advisory panel not taking its evidence in public?

I can only repeat that it is not a decision-making body. It is meeting six times. In these matters, you can either take evidence in public or not. It gives it a whole new status—

I am glad noble Lords are amused. It gives it a whole new status if you start to have lengthy hearings, and that is not the way we are going about it. But I hope I have reassured the House that we are having a lot of different inputs.