Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made on the discussions surrounding the renewal of the BBC Charter.
My Lords, I have waited a long time for this date with the noble Baroness—and not just today—but the timing, if not the timing for noble Lords’ speeches, has turned out to be perfect, as last week saw the Government publish no fewer than three responses to discussions about renewal of the BBC Charter.
Although it is no surprise to me or my colleagues to discover that the British public overwhelmingly support the BBC, I suspect that it is for the Government. More than 80% of people responding to the Green Paper believe that the BBC is effectively serving audiences, about 75% support the licence fee as the best method of funding the BBC and almost three-quarters believe that the BBC’s services are truly distinctive and that it has a positive wider impact on the market.
As the summary of responses document states, the response to the consultation,
“was one of the largest ever received to a government consultation, highlighting that the future of the BBC is an important issue to a great many people”.
Despite the fact that the Secretary of State paid tribute in his speech last week to,
“the hours the public put into writing”,
he struck a sour note by implying that the involvement of the organisation 38 Degrees had somehow distorted the responses. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government do not believe that 192,000 people have been nobbled?
It is vital that John Whittingdale, the Government and Parliament remember, as this process of charter renewal gathers pace, that the BBC belongs to the licence fee payer—the public, not politicians—and that the Secretary of State honours his pledge to the chair of the BBC Trust that,
“all the responses will be properly considered in their decision-making”.
What is clear is that the BBC, despite what we read in so many editorials and so many opinion pieces, is not under attack from the public. Quite the contrary: across Britain, people use the BBC services every day and very happily because it serves them well. So where do the attacks come from? To quote the much-quoted Armando Iannucci:
“We seem to be in some artificially-concocted zone of outrage”.
As I said, 75% of the respondents support the licence fee, as do we. At 40p per day, the BBC is tremendous value for the consumer. It is also great for the UK economy, generating the equivalent of £2 for every £1 of licence fee—in other words, it doubles its money. As Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England, said when giving evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee, on which I sit:
“One of the justifications for the intervention in the marketplace that is the BBC is the value of the creative industries democratically, culturally, socially and economically”.
By the way, Sir Peter was appointed chair of ITV last month, and I am reliably informed that he has not changed his views.
We do not, however, support the way in which the licence fee is set. The covert way in which the Chancellor negotiated the BBC taking on the cost of funding free TV licences for the over-75s, effectively making the BBC a vehicle to deliver elements of the welfare state—blocked by the Lib Dems when we were in coalition—was inappropriate, to say the least. Can the Minister assure us that this is the end of the process and that this is the licence fee settlement, as the BBC believed when taking on the £700 million cost of the free licences? Does she not agree that the process should, in the future, be transparent, and that the level should be recommended by the new regulatory body?
With the BBC being asked to take this financial hit, it is important that other sources of income are not undermined. Does the Minister not agree that BBC Worldwide is a crucial element to the BBC’s ability to continue to fund UK content?
A second report was Sir David Clementi’s A Review of the Governance and Regulation of the BBC. We welcome its recommendation that the BBC should have a unitary board. We on these Benches argued when the BBC Trust was established that that arrangement would only perpetuate the muddle between regulation and governance, and it has. However, it is vital that the Government ensure the appointment of a genuinely independent chair and genuinely independent non-executive directors. We should note the warning from the noble Lord, Lord Hall, that under Sir David’s proposal,
“half the board … could be appointed by the DCMS”.
Does the Minister agree that there should be an independent appointment panel, with the majority of its members drawn from outside politics and outside the Civil Service?
The third report is An Assessment of Market Impact and Distinctiveness. The call in it—repeated by the Secretary of State—for BBC1 to be more distinctive is odd, considering that the channel comes out top of independent Ofcom’s distinctiveness measures.
On the matter of market impact—“crowding out”—there seems to be particular concern in the area of online news. BBC news has higher levels of trust than any newspaper, and in the digital age it is surely more important than ever. As Sir Peter said,
“yes, it does compete and it is a market intervention, but if it is to have an impartial and independent news and information service for the country—if we believe in that—it has to have an online iteration”.
Our concerns on these Benches about BBC news are different. They are about the downward trend in investment in current affairs, noted by Ofcom in its latest review of PSB. It is vital that the BBC maintains both quality and quantity in this genre, for the reasons I have just mentioned.
There are other areas, of course, where the BBC’s choices and behaviour have been far from perfect. These include Savile, money wasted on a digital media initiative, and unacceptable pay and pay-offs for senior executives. Members of the “officer class”, as the noble Lord, Lord Hall, refers to them, have been out of step, and there are still too many layers of them. We therefore welcome the very plain pledge this week by the newly appointed head of TV channels, Charlotte Moore, that,
“Life’s going to be simpler”.
We on these Benches believe that training and skills development should be made one of the BBC’s core public purposes. It must learn the true definition of partnership: that a partner is someone you collaborate with, rather than impose on. Furthermore, if the BBC is properly to reflect the country, it has to address the problem of a lack of diversity. We need diversity at production and management level, as well as on screen. The last two issues were addressed by Charlotte Moore and must all be delivered upon.
The BBC, as well as being so popular with the British public, plays a hugely important role in promoting the UK around the world. At home, it plays a crucial part in our democracy and wider society. It is vital that it maintains its independence, its ability to inform, educate and entertain, and—we believe—its licence fee. To quote the chair of the BBC Trust:
“Charter review hangs over the BBC: a cloud of uncertainty and unease”.
Can the Minister reassure the House that we will not have to wait long for the White Paper, since the new royal charter needs to be in place by the end of the year? Does she not agree that, in future, the charter review process should be,
“decoupled from the general election cycle”,
and that charters should be set to last 10 years in order to provide stability for the BBC?
Finally, my first job at the BBC was working for a great man and a greatly missed man: Terry Wogan. He certainly knew how to entertain, but also to inform and educate. I wonder whether he would have been distinct enough if he had sought a BBC job under the world of Whittingdale? This is what he had to say about the BBC:
“The BBC is the greatest broadcaster in the world. It’s the standard that everyone measures themselves against. If we lose the BBC, it won’t be quite as bad as losing the royal family, but an integral part of this country will have gone”.
That is so right: the BBC is unique, a glorious aberration. Once it is gone, it is never coming back.
I remind noble Lords that they have just a minute for their speeches. There is a joke somewhere about hesitation, et cetera. I will not interrupt the debate, but I will ask noble Lords to sit down once they have reached one minute.
My Lords, at a conference in London earlier this week, Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment—an American—talking about the current state of television said:
“Britain sits at the very core of this creative renaissance in television. Britain is punching far above its weight in terms of the number of writers and actors and directors who are engaged in this endeavor. And most of this talent would not exist if it were not for the BBC. The creative ecosystem that exists here in Britain is unique and would evaporate in the absence of the BBC and that absence would not only be felt here but throughout the world…We have no idea whether this renaissance is sustainable from a talent perspective. Nor do we know whether the new platforms and technologies that permitted it are economically viable in the long term. I am convinced that there is an important place for a strong and well-funded BBC in the television landscape”.
While, as many of your Lordships will know, there are a number of significant changes that I would like to see relating to the way in which the BBC is organised, this particular proverbial baby must not be thrown out with the bath-water at the same time.
My Lords, as a member of the Communications Committee, I want to emphasise that the main conclusions of our report on charter renewal echo those of the Government’s own consultation.
First, the Government received no compelling evidence for reducing the scale and scope of the BBC. Of the nearly 200,000 people responding to the consultation, 81% said that the BBC served them well.
Secondly, the committee underlined the corporation’s independence and recommended a longer term for a new charter, which would divorce renewal from the electoral cycle. Again, this is reflected in the consultation report, where nearly three-quarters of the public wanted the BBC to be totally independent. I have just visited America, watching the frenetic media coverage of the election there. It has reinforced my respect for BBC news, for its neutrality and depth. The majority of audiences here say that the BBC is their most trusted news source.
I hope that the Government will take note of these consistent views from both the public and Parliament, and respond positively as charter renewal progresses.
My Lords, last Friday I gave the Minister notice of five questions that I would like her to answer in this debate.
First, do the Government accept that the charter should be for at least 10 years? Secondly, do they accept that the BBC’s new board members should be appointed without ministerial influence and should include audience and staff representatives? Thirdly, do they accept that the BBC’s service licences should be reviewed and strengthened by the independent regulator as soon as possible? Fourthly, do they accept that the level of the licence fee should be generous and that the process of setting the level of the licence fee must be transparent, with the level to be recommended by the regulatory body? Fifthly, do they accept that there must be no further reduction or diminution in the scale and scope of the BBC’s news coverage on any platform?
The BBC has an exceptional history as a technological innovator. It is one of its core undertakings, yet less than 3% of contributors to the public consultation commented on it and there have been grumblings that, in these days of digital tech, innovation is no longer an appropriate task for the BBC. What we once thought of as broadcast and programming has now been conflated with other forms of communication, both commercial and personal, into a single notion of content delivered on multiple platforms and devices. The purposes and the values that govern the creation and delivery of this content are generally opaque and throw up increasing ethical and practical issues that are never going to diminish. In these times, the BBC has a unique role to play not only as a trusted content provider but by developing and building cutting-edge communication technology of behalf of the licence fee payer.
My Lords, the BBC has three core purposes: to inform, to educate and to entertain. Will the Minister comment on a fourth purpose, which is to interpret? Diversity has been perceived in terms of regional diversity when one could also say that ethnic and religious diversity in the country need to be taken more seriously. Religion is a primary motivator of individuals and communities, inspiring and informing their political, economic, ethical and social behaviour. It needs to be interpreted. What the world looks like when seen through a particular religious lens needs to be taken more seriously. In July 2015, Ofcom expressed concern about the diminution of attention to religion in the BBC. Can the Minister assure us that this will be taken more seriously in the charter renewal?
My Lords, we must find a better way of debating serious issues in this House, such as the future of the BBC. One-minute speeches are frankly ridiculous, but perhaps they illustrate the fundamental defect in the royal charter process. The royal charter may sound very grand, but it means that none of the Government’s proposals come to Parliament for decision. If we are serious about the independence of the BBC, we should scrap the charter, set up the BBC as a statutory corporation and resolve that no Government shall be allowed alone to determine the future of the BBC. In other words, this would be a matter for Parliament after proper debate without the 60-second speaking clock.
My Lords, I rise simply to read into the record the findings of this House’s Communication Committee. After an excellent inquiry, it concluded that it had not heard “a convincing case” for a significant reduction in the scale or scope of the BBC. It believed that:
“The BBC should not be restricted to remedying gaps for which the market does not provide”,
“must continue to be a universal broadcaster”.
For the Government to conclude otherwise would be an act of cultural vandalism for which they would never be forgiven.
My Lords, there are urgent calls for government action on the issue of investment in children’s content, that the BBC should commit 8% of the network original content spend to this and that it should not fall below £100 million per year over the next charter period, but there is strong opposition to a contestable fund for children’s content and to top-slicing of the licence fee to establish it because of the risk of the BBC doing less, the uncertainties about who would administer it, the cost of doing so and where the content will be shown. Reduced BBC budgets should not be used to fund commercial PSB activity. Any ring-fencing or top-slicing would also impede the funding of new initiatives, such as iPlay, and tie the BBC down in ways that do not take into account how children’s viewing habits are evolving. However, new money must be found to boost content for the neglected 12 to 16 year-olds, and it should be given to Channel 4 to provide competition for the BBC. If the decline in original content continues, the UK will no longer be the world leader, which will be a cost to the UK economy.
I declare my interests as stated in the register.
I declare an interest as a producer at BBC London factual.
I am concerned that the charter and its funding seem to have become separated. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, about the BBC taking on the burden of the over-75s licence fee. I fear that that the funds which are supposed to replace it will not be forthcoming.
On top of that, people are failing to pay the licence fee. There is going to be a £150 million shortfall by the end of the year in its payment. The digital licence is supposed to help close the loophole of digital viewers not paying the licence fee, but I fear that that will in no way compensate for the increasing shortfall as a new generation of viewers look elsewhere to get their content. My noble friend Lord Hall has announced 23% cuts by 2022, including a massive £80 million cut to news, on top of the 25% cut since the last charter renewal.
Everywhere I go in the world, people ask me why they cannot watch the BBC live in their country. Maybe it is time for the BBC to start supplying that audience need, thinking about taking on the streaming giants face to face and raising revenues in the process.
My Lords, recent public consultations have raised concerns that the BBC is too London-centric. While MediaCityUK in Salford helps compensate for the decline of ITV production across the north, other English regions could be better served. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland feel that they, too, deserve a better deal. The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality has also expressed concern about low levels of black and minority ethnic employment at the BBC. John Whittingdale has confirmed that DCMS consultations suggest that the BBC needs to do more to increase diversity and to reflect better the experience of people across all our nations and regions.
If we only get one minute each, we will waste 18 minutes of the time for this debate.
My Lords, the BBC is not perfect. I have worked for it as a documentary film-maker and have been the subject of one of its programmes. That programme turned out to be very different from what I had been led to believe, so I know that the BBC is capable of doing things in bad faith.
However, the BBC is an institution admired and trusted throughout the world. One of the reasons it is trusted is because it is independent of government, yet when its charter is up, like now, the Government of the day see their opportunity to influence it. Although the licence fee, the main source of the BBC’s funding, is paid by the British public, the Government control the licence fee and can decide how and where it will be spent and, indeed, whether it will continue to be financed by the licence fee in future. They are in a position to cajole the BBC to make programmes to their taste or to punish it if they perceive its news coverage to have an anti-Government bias. These powers are a threat to the corporation’s independence and many at the BBC today are nervous of the Government’s present intentions. As long as the BBC sticks to its remit, set out in detail in the excellent new charter review, the Government should not be allowed to interfere.
My Lords, it is essential that the BBC remains the keystone of British broadcasting, continues to play a central role in the wider creative industries and retains its reputation for quality and independence throughout the world.
The BBC should make a particular commitment to reflect the nations, regions and diverse communities of the UK. I hope the BBC will continue to meet the challenges of reflecting our modern and ever-changing Britain to ensure it remains pertinent to the concerns of the young, including those with disabilities and the BAME community, as the recent report of our Select Committee recommended, and to preserve its vital role in the life of our nation.
The BBC has a great future and there is no case to reduce its scale or scope. I hope the charter renewal process will prove an opportunity to refresh, not fracture, the BBC.
My Lords, in the past five years we have learned that a royal charter, far from being a powerful symbol and safeguard of the BBC’s independence, on the contrary enables Governments to be less accountable even than medieval kings; to amend the charter through the Privy Council, absent any public or parliamentary consultation; and to inflict unprincipled and material change on the BBC. In the process, around 25% has been abstracted from the BBC’s programme budget with no national debate whatever. We rightly condemn Turkey but this is our constitutional outrage and it simply must be put right. Changes to the BBC’s mandate must now be agreed by Parliament. The setting of the licence fee must now follow a rigorous and considered process. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is right. It is time to place the BBC on a statutory footing.
My Lords, I declare my interest as an ex-governor of the BBC. Given the time limit, I presume that the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, is playing the role of Nicholas Parsons to ensure no hesitation, repetition or deviation.
I want to make a couple of quick points. The new director-general—the noble Lord, Lord Hall, who is in his seat—has presided over a massive transformation programme. Some 90% of what is spent is now focused on content and delivery, and just 8% on actually running the BBC. That is a tough challenge even in the light of the Government saying that they will commit themselves to an above-inflation increase in the licence fee. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no more top-slicing of the licence fee for any situation whatever, as we have experienced in the past, and that this Government will be committing themselves to a 10-year charter renewal?
My Lords, the BBC is the best broadcaster in the world, and a great gift from us to the rest of the world. To ensure effective planning and investment, the new charter should last significantly longer than the five years that some have proposed. The proposals to top-slice the licence fee for contestable funding and to privatise BBC Worldwide should be rejected. The governance of the BBC should change broadly along the lines recommended in the Clementi review.
I hope that the Government will not be influenced by the Oliver & Ohlbaum and Oxera report into the BBC’s market impact and try to create a “market-failure only” BBC, filling the gaps left by other broadcasters. The report is flawed. A significantly less popular, more distinctive BBC would have an overall negative effect on the wider UK media sector and on UK plc, giving only a small benefit to the BBC’s direct competitors. I hope that the Government will tread with care and protect the jewel in the crown of British broadcasting.
My Lords, we live in a very materialist age where it is increasingly likely that we will know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The BBC, with its distinguished record, is in many ways priceless. Our influence and standing in the world are very much related to the profile that the BBC continues to have in our society, stretching from local communities in our own society to people in North Korea, for example, who are desperate for truth, objectivity and the rest. We risk its future as a standard-setter at our peril.
My Lords, your Lordships’ Select Committee on Communications, which I have the honour to chair, published its report BBC Charter Renewal: Reith not Revolution on 23 February. I am glad to say our report has been well received and I commend it to your Lordships. We reaffirmed the original Reithian principles for the BBC to “inform, educate and entertain”. We saw no convincing case for a significant reduction in the scale or scope of the BBC, nor for it to be restricted to remedying gaps that the market does not provide; and we said the BBC must continue to be a universal broadcaster. I was glad to see the complimentary review of our report by Peter Preston in the Guardian, which concluded:
“Their lordships helpfully chronicle something we don’t hear often enough: how good and important the BBC is to British life”.
My Lords, the BBC’s reputation is built on independence from government, yet during charter renewal it is also dependent on the judgment of government. It has a responsibility to report politics with fairness without fear or favour. Politicians have a duty to take decisions in the same manner, even though the BBC has often infuriated politicians of all parties. Recently, during the Scottish referendum, the SNP railed against the BBC. During last year’s general election, the BBC reportedly incensed the Prime Minister so much that he threatened to close it down. Yet during that same campaign, it also moved the Labour Party to make almost daily complaints. To my mind, far from being a weakness, this shows the strength of the BBC, with its editorial independence from all political parties—an organisation seeking balance even when it is impossible to achieve, and held to higher standards than any other broadcaster.
We now see proposals to allow a greater government say over the running of the BBC, but trust is a valuable and fragile commodity. Once lost, it is extraordinarily difficult to regain. The BBC is more trusted than any other media organisation. I hope that the Minister will agree that no Government should put at risk an impartial and independent BBC.
My Lords, brilliant discipline has given us short speeches but many important points, and I hope the Minister has been listening hard. I would like to make three.
The people have spoken, and such a large and passionate response has surely seen off the original plan to cut the BBC down to size. But the battle is not over. Last week the Culture Secretary’s call for the BBC to become “more distinctive” revealed the strategy: use the charter review to make it so minority-interest and “distinctive” that hardly anyone likes it at all—something that few people would miss—and then privatise it. Really?
The BBC is the keystone of the UK’s broadcasting ecology and the envy of the world. The public want the BBC to inform, educate and entertain, and to survive and thrive. Popular BBC programmes and services inform and educate as well as entertain. The BBC needs reform, but that is something that we should have confidence that it can do itself. It ain’t broke.
My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging debate and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, on her timeliness. As ever, she has spoken eloquently about the positive role the BBC plays in the creative industries and in UK society as a whole. That has been echoed by my noble friend Lord Inglewood and others. I have to say that I share the concern that has been expressed about the limits of the House of Lords equivalent of speed dating—but in my comments I shall try to address the key areas.
The Government are making good progress on our consideration of the BBC’s next royal charter. Last week, as has been said, the Government published a summary of the 192,000 responses we received to our public consultation—they are all important—along with the Clementi review and a consultants’ report into the market impact of the BBC. We have also benefited a great deal from the carefully considered and well-received report from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his noble colleagues on the Communications Committee.
To respond to a number of comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and others, the Government believe that the BBC is a great institution. However, as I think people understand, charter review is a once-in-10-year opportunity to look at the scale and scope of the BBC, and it is right to look at how to help the BBC and the wider media sector to thrive in future.
Sir David Clementi’s review into BBC governance is a well-rounded and thorough report that makes a clear case for a move to a unitary board. I know that many colleagues believe that appointments to the new board should be made independently. The Government, via an OCPA process, currently appoints all the members of the BBC Trust board. We need to examine what the right approach is for the future. What is clear, however, is that the appointment of the director-general, as now, ought not to be made by the Government. Given that Sir David has only just reported, the Secretary of State will be considering the arguments carefully over the next few months.
As important as governance is what the BBC does. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, emphasised, 81% of responses suggested that it served its audience well, and 74% suggested that the BBC’s content was of high quality. But it is important to note that not everyone responded to all 19 questions set out in the consultation. For example, only 5% of respondents commented on the BBC’s mission, purpose and values. Of those, 3% indicated that no change was needed. A comprehensive summary of all the responses received is set out in the report that the Government published last week, which noble Lords may well want to take a look at.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, argued, as she has so eloquently on many occasions, for a better deal for children’s TV. I know that she will pleased to hear that the Secretary of State had a round table last week with children’s TV producers. Obviously, we are conscious of the need to retain the BBC quality and to encourage variety and creativity in this whole area.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds rightly asked about the fourth issue, diversity, which has been raised by a number of people in our various consultations. The Secretary of State recently met Lenny Henry and is considering carefully how we can encourage greater diversity in what the BBC does. I also ought to respond, because I had not planned to cover it in any detail, to the comments made about regional diversity, which has also been an important part of the process and the consultation and which we will look at when we come to make decisions on the White Paper.
The report of the noble Lord, Lord Best, argued for reform of the way the licence fee settlement should be conducted and recommended that this should be set by the independent regulator. This is an interesting proposal that will be given careful consideration. But, ultimately, the licence fee is a tax, and taxation decisions are ones for Ministers. We will reflect carefully on this issue but it is unlikely that the Government will move decision-making powers for setting the licence fee away from Ministers, now or in the future.
Another proposal in the report is the removal of charter review from the electoral cycle by allowing the charter to run for 11 years and reverting to 10 years thereafter. The noble Lord, Lord Young, picked this up, as did my noble friend Lord Fowler. This view is shared by many, including the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who was kind enough to give me notice of his comments—I will write on a couple of them, as I do not think I have time to cover every single one of them—as it is seen as a way of enhancing the BBC’s independence. My noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Birt, proposed going a step further—scrapping the charter completely and setting up the BBC as a statutory body.
I have to say to the Minister that that is not good enough. I gave notice last Friday, asking her to reply to my questions. Will she please do so, not in writing but now?
I will certainly try to do so. I am answering three of them as I go along, but I was conscious that noble Lords raised several points.
This view goes against those of many of the stakeholders—including the BBC—who responded to our consultation. Again, we will reflect carefully on this issue. Our current view is that at present a royal charter remains the most effective way of providing for the BBC.
The Minister may like to comment on this. A clause in the last charter says that the licence fee may not be used to fund the World Service. George Osborne then made his night raid, the BBC was required to fund the World Service through the licence fee and the charter was amended in the Privy Council. Would the Minister like to explain the constitutional rationale for that?
Obviously, there has been a good deal of comment on the agreement that was reached last year on funding. The rationale for it is clear: that economically, the BBC could not be exempted from the pressures on funding that have been imposed on every other public entity. In addition, the director-general agreed the funding package—
I wonder whether the Minister heard the key word. I asked for the constitutional, not the economic, rationale.
I will certainly consider the question further, but we are acting constitutionally—there is a BBC charter and a charter process, we are undertaking the review and consulting in an appropriate way, and we will come on to debate the proposals in due course. The Government behaved in an appropriate manner in trying to sort out the funding of the BBC, as they did last year. In many ways, as I have said on previous occasions, that has been helpful.
As I was saying, we will of course reflect carefully on these issues, and a proposal for the term of the next charter will also be set out in the upcoming White Paper.
I take it from what my noble friend is saying that in effect, the Government have rejected the idea that the royal charter should be scrapped. If they have, how does she think the royal charter establishes and safeguards the independence of the BBC?
As I have said, we are looking at the whole process at the moment. Independence is an important issue, and when we set out our plans we will come back with our ideas on how we can best ensure an independent and good future for the BBC. I wanted to respond to the points that were made in the report, because it is as well that people understand that the report’s key proposal on this point will not necessarily be accepted. However, having said that, obviously we remain in listening mode at this stage of the process and we will come back with a White Paper.
Although there has not been much comment on it, it is worth mentioning that last week the Government announced a deal with the BBC to close the iPlayer loophole, which, under current regulation, allows viewers to watch catch-up services on iPlayer without paying for a TV licence. Obviously, this will stop those who are essentially freeloading from not paying the licence fee, and the Government will bring forward secondary legislation on this point as soon as is practicable. This responds to the digital change that we have discussed in many of our different debates.
Of course we welcome the decision on BBC iPlayer, but just as important would be a guarantee that there will be no more top-slicing of the licence fee.
We set out our plans for funding and made it clear that there was a way forward, but we said that, in looking at the review of scope and scale, we would make sure that the plans that had been set out and agreed with the BBC made sense. I do not think I can give any commitments in particular on top-slicing, but I understand the concern. We all want a well-funded, well-run BBC—that is agreed territory.
I turn to timing, which I think will be of interest to noble Lords. Our intention is still to publish the White Paper in the first half of this year. As I said in an earlier debate, we can extend the current charter if we have to, although that is not the intention. In response, I hope, to the point made by my noble friend Lord Fowler, we will allow for debates in this House, the other place and the devolved Parliaments before the White Paper goes before the Privy Council for approval.
The most important thing is to get the charter review right, given that it is likely to set the framework for the BBC for years to come. The Government are committed to an open and transparent charter review process—a process which I believe is progressing well. I confirm again that the Government are fully aware of the importance of the BBC and of how much the public and this House value its contribution to society, to the creative industries and to the UK’s standing in the world.
The Clementi review has, I believe, provided a case for reform of the BBC’s governance and regulation, which was certainly a concern in earlier debates. The market impact report has shown that the BBC becoming more distinctive would help both commercial broadcasters and the viewing public by offering more choice. I look forward to a thriving, dynamic BBC which is respected around the world but also provides better value for money in the light of this important review.
Finally, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that I have tried to answer his questions, although I do not think I have entirely succeeded. I will write him a letter and ensure that it is copied to other noble Lords.
I am grateful to the Minister for what she has just said. Having listened very carefully, I think that the answer to each of my five questions is no.
It is very welcome that the Minister suggests that this House, as well as the other place, will have a chance to discuss the White Paper. Does she agree that we will need a debate of sufficient length at that moment?
My Lords, I will pass that good suggestion on to the usual channels.
Will there be an opportunity to debate the excellent report of the noble Lord, Lord Best? The important thing is to have that debate before the White Paper is published. Although I am interested in having the debate on the White Paper afterwards, it is much more important to have it when—theoretically, at any rate—it can have some influence.
As my noble friend Lord Macdonald predicted, we are well ahead on the timing, which is slightly unfortunate given that there were many points which people would have raised had they had two and a half minutes or more to speak. However, I emphasise the point that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has just made. The report of the Select Committee, of which, as I said, I am a member, would provide a very opportune moment for a better and longer discussion, and perhaps that could be arranged as soon as possible.
I note noble Lords’ comments and will pass them on to the usual channels.