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House of Lords Hansard
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19 April 2016
Volume 771

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ensure that the details of the forthcoming Royal Charter for the BBC are subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament.

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For nearly 90 years a royal charter has been the constitutional basis of the BBC, underlying the independence of the BBC from political interference. The Government intend to hold debates in both Houses on the draft charter to provide the opportunity for Members to make their views known. The format of these debates has not been decided.

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Is not the trouble with what my noble friend has just set out that it is not the case? The decisions on the BBC charter review rest entirely and exclusively with the Government. No parliamentary legislation follows—there is no check. The Executive decide what the future of the BBC is going to be. Is the Minister aware that many of us feel that this is not the way to decide the future of one of the most important institutions in Britain today?

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I am of course aware of strong feelings among colleagues in this House and I look forward to the debate that we have planned on this subject on Thursday. We have consulted on the way the BBC is enshrined and no strong argument is coming through to change the basis of a charter that has served us so well for 90 years.

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My Lords, what do the Government think of the suggestion that the members of the BBC’s next ruling body—or perhaps a majority of them—should be elected by licence-fee payers and that that body should have the power to appoint and remove the chairman and the director-general?

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My Lords, to help us to get the right answer we appointed the Clementi review, which reported, as the noble Lord will know, on 1 March. It has made a number of recommendations on how appointments should be made in future and we will be coming forward with our plans in May when we plan to publish the White Paper.

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My Lords, is it not the case that the only people who represent the licence-fee payers are in fact elected to the other House along the corridor? Should they not therefore have the right to decide what is in the royal charter for the BBC and the power to amend it if they think fit to do so?

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My Lords, I am sure these points will again be discussed on Thursday. We believe that a royal charter system, which lasts for a good period of time and allows an independent and impartial BBC to move forward, seems to be the right approach. We will come back to all these issues in our debates.

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Will the Minister kindly confirm that when the final draft of the charter is settled, the position of the Welsh language will be fully considered and protected by way of an entrenched measure in the charter to the effect that the independence of S4C, the Welsh channel, is completely maintained, thus honouring a solemn undertaking given when the public utilities Bill passed through this House some years ago?

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My Lords, S4C and the Welsh language are important and I think we have talked before about “Pobol y Cwm”, which I used to watch on maternity leave. We have protected the funding at nearly £7 million and the BBC has confirmed that it will continue to protect its funding. Of course, there is a great creative operation in Cardiff, which I have visited, embracing both the Welsh BBC and S4C.

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My Lords, the Minister talked about the charter lasting for a good period of time. To guarantee security for both planning and investment, will she ensure that the charter lasts for at least 10 years and that there is no attempt during any mid-term review to change it?

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The length of time that the charter lasts will be one of the key issues that we address in the White Paper in May.

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My Lords, may I press the Minister on two points? First, she did not specifically answer the Question originally posed by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, about whether the debates that she has promised will allow both Houses to approve the proposal to be made by the Government. Can she say yes or no to that, bearing in mind that when the debates were held the last time round an approval Motion was put down in the Commons? Secondly, on the timing, we heard last week in a debate in the other place that a draft White Paper had been sighted, and indeed may even have been read. Does that mean that we will in fact receive this in May, as promised?

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Our plan and hope is that we will publish it in May, which was the original timing. In relation to votes, the Government will of course want to listen to the debate on the draft charter and respond accordingly, but I do not think that I can promise a vote.

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My Lords, can my noble friend explain the Government’s policy to the House? Why does the BBC not fall under the same regulatory regime of Ofcom as other media outlets do?

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One recommendation from the Clementi review, which I mentioned earlier, is that in fact Ofcom might take responsibility for the BBC. That is obviously one of the recommendations that we are looking at and will be commenting on in May.

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My Lords, it may surprise many noble Lords to hear that, having spent most of my professional career competing directly with the corporation, I am a great fan, and I absolutely do not support this market failure approach that many are promulgating. The BBC and many of its programmes are genuinely the envy of the world. What it needs is to be properly governed, properly regulated, with a very clear remit and licence for its services, and appropriately funded. The highly respected Communications Committee and the Select Committee in the House of Commons have made very significant contributions in their reports. I would urge the Minister to consider whether the debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords might make a valuable contribution to the future success of the BBC.

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I agree with the noble Lord that these debates are incredibly important. The BBC is part of the fabric of this country, and a source of great pride—and great support—for our creative industries.