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BBC Charter White Paper

Volume 771: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat as a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about the White Paper on the BBC.

“Mr Speaker, I can inform the House that I will be making a Statement tomorrow and laying before the House our White Paper on the BBC.

The BBC’s royal charter expires at the end of December. I launched our public consultation in this House in July last year and in March we published the summary of the responses, along with an independent review into the BBC’s governance led by Sir David Clementi.

Over the last 10 months we have listened to the views of hundreds of organisations and institutions and 190,000 members of the public who responded to our consultation, as well as working very closely with the BBC and the BBC Trust. We have also had the benefit of expert input from parliamentary committees of both Houses in Westminster, as well as from Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont. The proposals in our White Paper are therefore the result of one of the largest and most open consultations ever conducted.

I have always been clear that I would publish our proposals as soon as we were ready to do so and at a time when the House would have the opportunity to debate them. I look forward to doing so tomorrow”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the response to the Urgent Question. As we have heard, the White Paper will be published tomorrow. However, the pre-briefing over the last few weeks has, in my opinion, been extremely unhelpful. It makes me wonder whether the strategy is to make it sound so awful that the not-so-bad outcome becomes acceptable.

The Secretary of State reassured my noble friend in the other place that the White Paper would pass the three key tests that many noble Lords in this House have set for the White Paper’s impact on the BBC: financial independence, editorial independence and maintaining programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain. I hope that the noble Baroness will reassure us that proper time will be set aside for a full debate in addition to the Statement tomorrow. But irrespective of the debate, what opportunity will Parliament have to challenge or remedy proposals if it finds that the White Paper fails to reassure noble Lords on independence?

Does the Minister think that government appointments to a new unitary board, which would have responsibility for editorial decision-making, would pass the test for the BBC’s independence? Also, organisations as big and as broad as the BBC need time to implement change and the independence to do so. Therefore, does the Minister really believe that it is in the interests of the viewing public to conduct a review every five years, which will inevitably mean the BBC focusing resources on that rather than on making popular programmes that we all enjoy? Does the Minister believe that the introduction of this five-year review will enhance or diminish the BBC’s independence?

My Lords, I also dislike pre-briefing. Of course, the last Labour Government did a lot of pre-briefing, and I think that perhaps changed the culture a little. However, I do not always believe what I read in the newspapers. We have to wait until tomorrow for the White Paper and the Statement, which we had planned. I very much look forward to answering some of the detailed questions tomorrow that the noble Lord has set out. What I will say is that proper time will be set aside for a full debate. That is important. Everybody in this House values the BBC and will want to have an input into the Government’s conclusions on all these points. Editorial independence is of course paramount, and I look forward to presenting the proposals tomorrow.

My Lords, I think the whole House understands the Minister’s position, given the proximity of the White Paper. But I want to put to her one question on process, which perhaps she can answer. Will she give an assurance that whatever proposals are put forward, Parliament will not only, as she has now made clear, have the opportunity to debate them but also to vote on them, rather than the decisions being left solely to Ministers?

I thank my noble friend for his kind words. As he says, we will certainly debate it, and the precise arrangements for the debate, voting and so on are matters for the usual channels.

Does the Minister agree that the BBC is a great British success, cherished by the public, admired throughout the world and hugely important to our economy as a cornerstone of the creative industries, and that all this will be threatened if its independence from government is undermined? Will she take the opportunity to agree with her colleague in the House of Commons, Damian Green, that independence is a red line and therefore there is no room for government appointees on a board involved in editorial decisions?

I agree that the BBC is a huge British success story in so many ways, soft power included. We should wait until tomorrow to see the precise terms of the White Paper, but close to our hearts is ensuring independence.

My Lords, there are 24 hours before the White Paper is published and the Minister will have time to ponder the responses in the other place and here. I return her to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Mine is a process question: will we get a vote? The Minister has 24 hours to think about it, but that is the question that we will ask tomorrow, and we will continue to ask it. I suggest that the Minister takes the next 24 hours and, when she returns to the Dispatch Box, has a suitable answer to that question. We are waiting to hear it.

I look forward to making the Statement tomorrow, but I have made it clear that there will be a full debate in this House. I would like to take the opportunity to thank noble Lords for the input they have made into this process, which has been extremely important in developing our thinking.

Can my noble friend confirm that the Government have no plans to change the BBC from being an independent public service broadcaster to a state broadcaster which is the cat’s paw of the Administration of the time?

I am not sure that I understand the subtleties of my noble friend’s question—I know how expert he is. I look forward to talking to him about this point and answering tomorrow, but I can assure him that independence is extremely important and so is the BBC.

My Lords, what consideration have the Government given to contestable funding for UK children’s commercial programming? Will it be done by top-slicing BBC budgets or will new money be found for UK productions?

My Lords, children’s programming is extremely important and the BBC, as the noble Baroness knows, has been fantastic in this respect. I look forward to returning to the detail of all these points tomorrow.

My Lords, if the Minister is really unable to tell the difference between a state broadcaster and an independent broadcaster, we have great reason to be worried. However, will she please return to the point made by my noble friend Lord Alli and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler: that it is not really good enough to refer to the important issue of whether there will be a vote on proposals for the BBC as merely a matter for the usual channels? It is not that kind of vote we are after. Could she please try to answer the question?

My Lords, I have nothing to add except to say again that independence is important. On something of this importance, it is right for wide consideration to be given to what is right for this House. I refer noble Lords to my record in this respect. They have asked for debates on the BBC in recent weeks and months; we have provided them. As I have said, these have been important. Your Lordships may even find that some of the proposals that have been made will be reflected in tomorrow’s White Paper.

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister shares my confusion here. There are many people—I would think, everybody in this House—who support the editorial independence of the BBC yet at the same time they wish to see votes in Parliament on its future. Those two things are entirely incompatible and I wonder whether my noble friend would care to agree with me on that. One of the underpinnings of the independence of the BBC is the fact that there is never a vote on the BBC in either House and that is what has contributed the most to its independence. Let us imagine if the BBC had been the recipient of those data which the Daily Telegraph published on MPs’ expenses and the BBC had been in possession of that the day before a vote in the House of Commons.

I am grateful to my noble friend for his intervention. I think that the BBC charter has stood the test of time very well. The charter is not on a statutory footing because of the importance of the BBC and its independence.

My Lords, despite the slightly partial position taken by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, I have not understood from the Minister whether the Government will allow Parliament to change the White Paper.

The Government are publishing their White Paper in the usual way. There will then be a process through to the end of the year, when the current charter runs out and the new charter will need to take effect. Of course, the Government will take into account points made during that process. I am sorry I cannot cast more light.