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BBC: Royal Charter

Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government to what form of parliamentary scrutiny they intend to submit the draft Royal Charter of the BBC.

My Lords, the Government are engaged in constructive discussions with the BBC about the draft charter and framework agreement. Our current plan is for debates on the draft charter and agreement to be held in both Houses in October, subject to other business. We plan to publish the draft charter and agreement in September, well in advance of these debates.

I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment and look forward to working with him. Following the biggest consultation response ever received, the Government can be in no doubt that the people of this country want the BBC to be independent and its freedom to inform, educate and entertain across all its services to be protected. The Minister will recall that 10 years ago the then Secretary of State, my noble friend Lady Jowell, offered both Houses the chance to debate the final draft BBC charter and agreement on a divisible Motion. Can we expect a similar arrangement this time round?

My Lords, the Government will hold take-note debates in both Houses, in line with what was done for the last charter review, which reflects the importance of the BBC’s independence. The current plan is to hold a debate in this House in October, subject to other parliamentary business. If Members of the House wish to vote on the charter, they are free to do so on their own initiative, following the usual procedures.

My Lords, I wonder whether I can persuade the Minister and the Government to accelerate the programme slightly. I believe the Digital Economy Bill, which is before the other place, is due to have its Second Reading in September. It is impossible to understand Clauses 75 and 76 of that Bill unless one sees the draft charter and the framework agreement, as the Explanatory Notes make pretty clear. Although it is not in this House but in the other place, like many I am concerned that it is important for Members of both Houses to be able to understand what those clauses mean. In particular, there is a rather threatening clause about Ofcom. According to the Explanatory Notes, Ofcom, “in its new role”, will be able to,

“regulate all of the BBC’s activities”.

If that is right, and that includes content, it is chilling. That is why it is very important to see the draft charter—if possible on its own, although I would prefer it with the framework agreement—sooner rather than later.

My Lords, I apologise: I should have thanked the noble Lord for his kind words. As far as the timing is concerned, the draft charter will be published with the framework agreement in September. That is the current plan. I doubt very much that it will be before September. There is still work to be done. I understand the implications and the linkage with the Digital Economy Bill. We aim to allow ample time after the draft framework and charter have been published to allow the noble Lord and others to look at it carefully. My department is happy to have individual discussions with noble Lords.

My Lords, I speak as chairman of the Communications Committee of your Lordships’ House. The committee was very keen that the new charter be for a period of 11 years to take it out of politics and to give real freedom to the BBC. Can the Minister confirm that the five-year interim review of the charter will not reopen the Pandora’s box of all the things that we hope are put to bed but will concern itself exclusively with regulation and governance matters and will not be—to mix my metaphors—a sword of Damocles hanging over the BBC for the next five years?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the work he does on this subject—he has done a bit more than I have at the moment. As far as the mid-term review is concerned, I think he will be reassured when he sees the draft framework. The plan that has been announced is that it will not affect the mission, public purposes or financing of the BBC. It will be a health check, principally on the governance of the BBC.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the building of religious literacy and the understanding of diverse communities within our nation should be a foundational part of the statutory duty of the BBC, mindful of the need for global and domestic cohesion?

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that that is of crucial importance. We have not seen the draft charter framework agreement yet, and I hope that the right reverend Prelate will be happy when that happens. I agree that that is an important matter for the BBC to consider, but I would also say that we are very concerned not to get involved with the editorial independence of the BBC.

Can the Minister confirm that the DIS, the MoD, the FCO, the JIC and the NCA are all happy with the plans for BBC monitoring?

My Lords, I do not know all those acronyms, but I am sure that they will be reassured when the charter is published.

My Lords, in view of the importance of the BBC in the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in view of the structure of the BBC, can it be facilitated that there be debates in the devolved Assemblies and Parliament on these matters before final decisions are taken?

My Lords, I am happy to say that debates will take place in all the devolved Assemblies before the debates in this House and the other place.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a BBC producer. In the White Paper, the Government asked the BBC to put all non-news programming out to competitive tender. At the same time, BBC programme-making has been hived off to become an independent commercial entity. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government intend the BBC, outside news, to become a broadcast publisher on the lines of Channel 4?

My Lords, I am afraid I am not going to pre-empt what is in the draft charter. The noble Viscount will see what is in the draft charter and framework agreement, but I feel sure that he will be reassured.