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Issues around the so-called dodgy dossier might have taken a little longer but they would have been given important gravitas. In both cases, the viewers
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I am certainly not suggesting that such bodies have a crucial role in the solution of this problem. I am merely suggesting an auxiliary way of satisfying both complainants and licence-fee payers simultaneously.
Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: My Lords, this is a vital debate on the governance of the BBC which allows the BBC family in Parliament to come together, as evidenced from these Benches, and the commercial Members likewise.
I declare interests as a delighted pensioner of the BBC and, probably more importantly, as the former head of public affairs and parliamentary affairs at the BBC for eight years between 1995 and 2003. Reflecting on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that this is a post-Murdoch era, one of my roles was to fight in this House on behalf of the BBC, then as a lobbyist for the BBC, to protect listed sports events. It was this House which stood up to the Government of the time and voted in favour of protecting listed events for public viewing.
Over the years, I have also managed to bring the issues of parliamentarians-both Members of the House of Commons and of this House-in front of my colleagues at the BBC. It is that experience of having to take the complaints of Members-who would frequently come to my office over the road in Millbank, not in tears but often in fury, and speak to me about what they felt, what they thought and how they had been misrepresented-that is informing what I want to reflect on today. I also want to say that, in recognition of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, the existing Select Committee-I was previously a member for two years under his chairmanship-should in every sense be enhanced and protected. As a recommendation to the Government, I say "Fiddle with it at your peril".
This report, rather grandly titled as The governance and regulation of the BBC, too easily falls into the general trap that the BBC used to encourage-continual conversation among itself about very little change. I heartily recommend some of the points put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on the future management and governance of the BBC as being entirely appropriate.
We all want the BBC to energise and engage us; we want it to surprise and thrill us. We have heard about the wonderful 10 years of children's programming and, of course, it is also 80 years-recognised at a party tonight-of the BBC World Service, which we also celebrate.
However, I wish to reflect on the "grisly experience" that the noble Lord, Lord Grade, explained to the committee in attempting, when no longer chairman of the BBC, to complain to his former organisation about what he did not like. What is wrong with the grisly experience? You get treated like the public after you have left an exalted position.
I, too, had an annus horribilis in 2004, if I recall correctly, when still as an executive in the BBC I took a complaint directly to the director-general. It was to have a conversation about what I can only describe as a tacky, slapstick, dreadful programme-it was a ridiculous attempt to ridicule faith-"Jerry Springer: the Opera". The public had made very clear their views in preparation for that programme's broadcast late on BBC 2. More than 85,000 members of the public had said that they were disdained if not irritated at its potential. During the course of the conversation I found myself with only one last recourse, which was to phone up a senior executive at BBC 2. I shall not state the gender of that person because it would give away their name. At the time I spoke to that executive within the close confines of BBC confidence. They said to me, "The problem here is this: there is a culture of 'intransigent self-righteousness' at the core of editorial policy, complaints and, ultimately, editorial decision-making". I have never forgotten that hardened phrase. What is contained within this report about the complaints procedure-its exceptional muddle and unacceptability to the public-just raises those issues to the very core of our conversation.
So what is to be done about it? When we have an organisation that we all want to preserve and strengthen and that we all thrill at, none of us wishes to engage in crazy conversations about the further reduction of the licence fee, the unnecessary eradication of the royal charter or becoming purely a commercially driven broadcast nation. However, we do want a BBC that genuinely feels it has returned to-or enhanced-its position as the citizen's duty provider; that it stands up for the complaints, concerns and issues of the public. They are not just the payers but the customers. I quote no greater figure than the Deputy Prime Minister, who called for a John Lewis culture in business: the advantage of a John Lewis or Marks & Spencer culture is that the customer starts with knowing they are right. My experience-and that of many others-with the complaints procedures of the BBC is that the customer is instinctively treated as though they are wrong. That position needs to change.
I recall that the interim director-general, Mark Byford, established a journalism school at the BBC as part of a very bold and appropriate methodology to attempt to reinvigorate courage in the journalism of the BBC post-Hutton. Of course it was right for presenters and journalists to spend time being re-energised and rethinking how they saw their position in the world and how they reflected on matters of great controversy and interest. However, I do not recall-and I may well be wrong-those responsible for policy or complaints procedures having to go through the same criteria for re-evaluation, re-energising and getting their minds back on the right track of courage and responsibility.
There are many recommendations in this report about what to do. Maybe we will hear shortly that we are to see a split in the responsibilities of the next director-general. That is one possible way forward but it is only to hint at change. What is ultimately needed is a sensitisation within BBC policy-making among those responsible for the editorial process and for those who must, rightly, handle complaints within the
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I believe that the BBC, as long as it retains its public resourcing and good governance, is always going to be a great organisation. In the light of that, let us make sure it has great people who make right decisions.
Baroness Fookes: My Lords, we have heard some very distinguished professional contributors. I, by way of contrast, am a mere amateur among the professionals. However, I have always enjoyed BBC programmes, starting from childhood. Alas, I must say to my noble friend Lady Benjamin that I go back way beyond the programmes she has mentioned. I recall fondly Uncle Mac, "Toytown", and Larry the Lamb, who went, "Baa" very plaintively on every possible occasion. I grew up admiring the BBC greatly. Indeed, I thought its standards so high that they were almost an immutable law of nature.
However, I did subsequently have occasion to revise my views somewhat. One small incident, in the great scheme of things, occurred when I was chairman of the RSPCA council. A national newspaper had engaged in what I came to regard as a witch hunt of allegations against the organisation, which was taken up by "Panorama". As result of that, I found myself grilled-there could be no other expression-to the point of third degree for about 40 minutes. I thought that I had given some very strong answers to the allegations, so imagine my fury when the edited recorded version came out and my strong answers had disappeared altogether. I was perhaps naive enough not to make complaints but I was very angry and it made me realise that there are ways in which a BBC programme can be, as I thought, slanted. Maybe I was quite mistaken, and I should have swallowed it all; but I did not. I was angry. I vowed then that if ever "Panorama" wanted to interview me again, I would do it only live. I am sure that they do not do it live these days-but that was my vow.
That experience slightly informed my approach to the work that we did on the BBC Trust regarding complaints about impartiality and accuracy. It is right as a last court of appeal that it should go to an independent body. I know that other views have been expressed today but I believe that at least as a final court of appeal that should be the case. I am perfectly happy that complaints should be taken by the BBC in the first instance. Like others on the committee, I was startled beyond measure by the complexity of what one had to do to make a complaint. My noble friend the chairman of the committee suggested that we had finally made it clear to ourselves after a great deal of effort. I am not too sure that I am clear even now if it came to making an actual complaint. There is very
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I turn to another matter about which I am concerned-the BBC World Service, which has now been brought under the general umbrella. I have no complaint about that as a decision, but I am concerned that it will continue to get the funding that it needs in the light of the stringent restrictions on funding that have to be made throughout the BBC as a whole. We as a committee suggested that one trustee of the trust should be what was described as international. I am not sure whether that has taken place, but I regard that as extremely important. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Patten, will make this clear in his own contribution later on.
There has been a great deal of comment already about the role of the Communications Committee and whether, in fact, it has a role as a proper Select Committee and will not be downgraded to an ad hoc one. We know that the Government have in mind a new communications Bill in the next year or two. In the light of that alone, apart from any other consideration, it is extremely important that we have a proper Select Committee. After all, we gather information-a kind of folk memory, if you like-by having a continuous thread running through all our proceedings. I can well see that we might want to come back to certain issues over and over again. If we have a small ad hoc committee, as is being suggested in certain quarters, we would lose that altogether. If the Government are ill advised enough to pursue that, they cannot rely on my support-and I hope that many others in the Chamber would feel the same. I can hardly say "over my dead body", as I do not want to die for it-but that is how I feel.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Before the noble Baroness sits down, I fully support what she says about the work of this committee but it is of course for your Lordships' House to decide the committee structure in this place, not for the Government. I very much hope that the House will support the continuance of this committee especially, if your Lordships will forgive me, when we have a number of European committees whose deliberations are completely ignored in Brussels.
Lord Bragg: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on securing this debate and on steering the Communications Committee so ably. I declare an interest: I work for the BBC and for
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Political discussion in the Palace of Westminster has changed a great deal, and often for the better, over the centuries. Still there was, once upon a time, a knowledge consensus which provided a useful form of shorthand and could make a point without drawing blood. If someone in those classical days had called up the ghost of the Latin poet Virgil and referred to his extended metaphor in the Aeneid on the murky, dangerous and powerful force of rumour, then no more would need to have been said. Now, however, we must speak a little more plainly. There are strong rumours, as has been referred to already, that the Liaison Committee is contemplating the abolition of the Communications Committee and its substitution by an ad hoc arrangement. This basically means, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, intimated, an end to continuity, consistency and the benefit of a constant torch being shown on the darker doings and the positive advances of the media.
If it is to be done ad hoc, then it would be ad hoc when, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, pointed out, there is an historic inquiry into the press-more dramatically gripping and concerning by the day-when so many committees are about to report, and when a new communications Bill is in prospect. It would be ad hoc when the world of Google, Amazon and the whole invasion of the internet from outer space threatens a reordering of the public information which has taken years to organise for the benefit of a democratic society in this country. Ad hoc is like pulling out the fire brigade when there is a smell of Rome burning. Perhaps those from whom these schemes emanate might do what it is almost always best to do with rumours-scotch them as soon as possible.
I want to concentrate on radio, especially BBC radio-although other stations have great success, as the BBC acknowledges more and more nowadays. There is a BBC celebration of radio at Bush House this evening. It is for 80 years of the World Service, and it deserves our congratulations. It has spoken and continues to speak for this country in the highest terms. It strives to tell the truth, with nation speaking truth honestly and openly to nation, in wars and in peace. Many of your Lordships will have memories of its riches, as I do. I began my career there in 1961 and remember still the thrill of working in the European service, broadcasting to 40 countries, with Konrad Syrop, Tosco Fyvel, Ludwig Gottlieb and others, all intent on broadcasting across Europe in a voice that had been a north star throughout the Second World War. The intelligence and diligence of those in Bush House and their belief in the best that we have to give
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I want to spend a few minutes talking about BBC domestic radio. BBC radio in this country has a reach of 47 million listeners. There have been over a billion worldwide downloads of BBC content since the launch of the podcast offer in 2007. BBC radio makes an essential contribution to our creative economy, which per capita is the biggest in the world. It employs about 2 million people in areas that we need most-that is to say, areas of niche skills. Radio 4, for instance, is the largest commissioner of radio drama in the world, while Radio 3 is the largest and most significant commissioner of new music in the world.
There is no evidence of a falling away. Total audiences are about the same as they were 12 years ago, despite a hurricane of new media, extended media and the 360-degree wrap-around-the-clock media. The high quality watermark is still there. A few of my recent favourites have been the Reith lecture given by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller; the masterclasses at Abbey Road and Maida Vale; as always, "From Our Own Correspondent" and the "Today" programme; the "News at One" and the "News at Ten"; "The News Quiz"-and the list goes on. BBC radio knows what it is doing, and it is doing it very well.
Even Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC and therefore a man who has had to develop a bullet-proof mind and the caution of a wildebeest among lions, was almost content the other day when he addressed parliamentarians with an interest in democracy and said that,
He said that unequivocally and no one heckled. That, though, arouses in a pessimistic person like myself the fear that a storm might be gathering just beyond the horizon. I wonder if it may just be waiting for us. The BBC charter renewal comes up in 2016. That means that the sharpening of knives and the lubrication of special interests begins in about 2014, and that is quite soon.
The BBC is a unique institution, as most of us in this House think-priceless in our culture, our democracy and our national character. We in the Palace of Westminster have to look over it very carefully. The overall problem, in my view, rests in what I have been saying: the BBC's success, its reach and its influence. Some other stations and organisations, most notably Classic FM, have found and developed strong profiles and are digging in on the dial. Others want to emulate that.
BBC radio today manages to deliver massively across the spectrum-I have not even mentioned Radios 1, 2, 5 and 6, each one of which at the moment is rather eerily thriving simultaneously. It delivers so well, I think, that that very reach and strength might well become the object of attack-too big, too hegemonic; let the private sector have a greater chance to grow; regulate; cut back; mutterings of "monopoly"; dismantle. This is not happening today-the cloud is not even as big as a man's hand-but those of us who
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Lord Birt: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, an old and much esteemed colleague. I applaud, as others have done, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and his colleagues for a careful and insightful assessment of the often tangled regulatory issues affecting the BBC, whose director-general I once was. I particularly congratulate them on the graphic and very telling clarity of the complaints charter, of which the noble Lord was justifiably proud.
The new system of governance for the BBC is an improvement on the old. Oversight and scrutiny are more arm's-length, and the trust has clearly demonstrated its independence and its willingness to insist. Under its new chairman, who long ago proved that he is in no one's pocket, I anticipate that the trust will be still more robust.
In due course, though, the governance of the BBC will need to be considered afresh, a common note that has been struck throughout this debate. We can all see that the media landscape is changing fundamentally-tumultuous, in the word of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler-and the imminence of a communications Bill and the proximity of charter review will, I hope, oblige us to redefine comprehensively our policy goals for UK media.
I expect this will be common ground among us: over the best part of a century, no country has regulated broadcast media more effectively than the UK. However, I observe with deep regret that we have somewhat lost our touch in recent times. In the past decade the UK was slow to adopt broadband. Moreover, as new media began to have a fundamental and adverse financial impact on mature media, the previous Government failed to deal with the inevitable consequences of the decline of ITV and the medium-term threat to Channel 4 as public service broadcasters.
At the time-some of us will remember this-the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and a very distinguished panel were invited to address these issues. Their report was acute and their recommendations radical but they were comprehensively ignored at the time. Thank goodness we still have a strong BBC, which is currently in fine creative form-as good as, perhaps better than, it has ever been. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, who reminded us of the current director-general saying, "Things are indeed going quite well". However, we should not welcome the BBC's re-emergence after half a century as a near-monopoly provider of public service broadcasting in the UK.
The second failure was the current Government's. Eighteen months ago, in what felt like a covert midnight raid, they handed responsibility to the BBC and the licence-fee payer for funding the World Service and S4C. Most amazing of all, the licence fee was raided for a £150 million contribution to broadband rollout-in all, a regulatory nightmare. At the same time, the Government froze the licence fee in nominal terms. This was a double whammy. There was no Green
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No one here would dispute the notion that, as the nation experiences the most hostile economic climate in many generations, the BBC, too, must share some of the pain. However, in the aftermath of that raid on the BBC, we should have debated the fact that, as far as I can gauge, for the first time in its history the BBC will see its core income fall well below the expected growth rate of GDP. Thus, for the very first time ever, the BBC's role will almost certainly diminish.
Other mighty challenges are ahead elsewhere in our media, as other noble Lords have mentioned. We will need a careful and measured response to the wholesale lawlessness that we now know existed in parts of our print media. Secondly-here I declare another interest as chairman of PayPal Europe-in the virtually unpoliced and unregulated online world, crime is rife and insidious practices abound. Last week's example was a Twitter application that, unbeknown to the downloader, extracts your personal phone directory from your mobile device. Even today, Google has announced its determination to amass, process and exploit across all its services the mountain of personal information that it holds about each of its billions of users.
Thirdly, we see Sky emerge as a leviathan, dwarfing all other broadcasters, including other commercial players. I have long admired Sky's track record of bold innovation. I have welcomed, again and again, the manifest benefits that it has brought. However, its dominance and increasing integration down the value chain is not healthy and requires attention.
All told, this is not a comfortable picture. The UK media are not at present in a condition of which we can all be proud. The coalition Government should consider all these challenges comprehensively and strategically and institute a proper and full public debate. Only then can we address the questions raised so ably in the committee's truly excellent report of what kind of regulatory architecture we will need over the next decade to oversee UK media in general and the BBC in particular.
Finally, we all here appear to agree with the strongly expressed views of the noble Lords, Lord Bragg, Lord Fowler, Lord Macdonald and Lord Hastings, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, about retaining a Select Committee on Communications in this House. We are entering a period where its cool deliberations will never be more necessary and valuable.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, I too was a member of the Select Committee which produced this report. I join my colleagues who have already spoken in congratulating and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on and for the skill and courtesy with which he chaired the committee and enabled us to reach our conclusions.
I am conscious that I am speaking immediately after a very distinguished former director-general of the BBC, and that the speaker immediately after me is the current chairman of the BBC, and the one after
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At the moment, Ofcom is the final arbiter of taste and decency, not the BBC Trust, yet, frankly, taste and decency is a much more difficult issue on which to arbitrate than impartiality. I did political programmes for 10 years. Impartiality, frankly, is easy as regards current affairs but is difficult as regards drama, comedy, the time of day you screen something and what is made available to children, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said. Therefore, I do not think that this situation takes anything away from the trust. Indeed, it rather strengthens the trust because instead of putting more and more Chinese walls between itself and the BBC in an effort to show that it is not judge and jury in this area, the trust can get closer to the BBC and be its champion, as it should be. It is in the BBC's own interests: this problem does not go away as it has become totemic. The only reason it is totemic is because we made an exception of impartiality. I think the then Secretary of State more or less admitted to the committee that the Government felt it might be a step too far to put the BBC under Ofcom during the passage of the Communications Act 2003.
In talking about the licence fee, I simply echo what the noble Lord, Lord Birt, has said. I think we all recognise that the circumstances in which the previous settlement was arrived at were exceptional given that that occurred in the midst of a comprehensive spending review. However, that is certainly not the way that the licence fee should be determined. There is inconsistency in this area. Many people in this House-indeed, I have been one at times-say that the BBC is trying to do too much. Sometimes there has been an element of truth in that. The BBC should concentrate on broadcasting, which it does superbly well. Its subsidiary should not be taking over Lonely Planet and things like that. However, the corollary of that is that the Government should regard the licence fee as providing public funding for BBC programmes, not for doing other things with which should be met out of general taxation. Although it might have been a clever move by the Secretary of State at least to ensure that the money clawed back by the Treasury stayed within the broadcasting system and did some useful things, dangerous precedents could be created if the Government of the
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My other point about the licence fee is worrying. I worry about the future rate of collection. At the moment, if someone buys a new television they must show that they have a licence. That is a good tracker of who might be viewing. However, now you can watch television without having a television set. You can watch it on a mobile phone or a computer. It will be tricky to ensure that we have total compliance, and I am slightly nervous that the licence fee might not prove to be future-proof in that regard.
My final, and in a way most important, point-far more important than Ofcom regulating impartiality-is to echo some of the things that the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was saying. My concern is not so much the taste and decency aspects of the compliance culture but its effect on areas such as comedy. Comedy is in many ways the touchstone of whether there is good public service broadcasting, because you have to rely on people to deliver the goods. You can ask someone to make a current affairs documentary and budget as to how long it will take and roughly how much it might cost; a reasonable guess can be made. However, you cannot guess how long it will take to come up with an idea such as "Fawlty Towers" or "Yes Minister". You must have producers who are indulgent enough to give rein to people who have not come up with an idea for six weeks or even six months, but then come up with the goods. You must know the difference between those and the slackers who, frankly, should be got rid of after one month because they will never come up with an idea. You cannot do that by ticking boxes.
I am well aware that the BBC is now receiving £3.5 billion of public money; and for that you need proper accountability, systems and everything else. However, there is a grave danger that we end up with systems that require compliance, compliance by committees, and people who get promoted to making decisions about programmes who are not creative, or do not even have an eye or ear for creativity, but are good managers and balance books properly. That is an important skill, but in the order of things it is far less a skill than creativity. It is not a major problem at the moment, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Birt, that the BBC's output is of absolutely first-class quality. However, we must be constantly on guard that we do not have box-ticking and programme ideas being judged by a remote computer somewhere.
Apart from all that, it is the 80th birthday of the BBC World Service and an occasion for congratulation. I echo what others have said: I cannot think of a moment in history when it would be more stupid to tinker with our Communications Committee than now.
Lord Patten of Barnes: I should straight away declare an interest. As noble Lords cannot but be aware, I am chairman of the BBC Trust. This is a fairly rare intervention for which the House should be grateful. I shall make it fairly brief, but perhaps I may say at the outset how grateful I am to noble Lords on the Cross Benches for giving me a perch and a haven for the duration of my chairmanship of the BBC.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on the report before us. It is a high-quality document; and that quality suggests that the life of the committee should extend not only up to but well beyond the crack of doom. I imagine that the House authorities will have taken account of all the voices raised in support of that proposition. The report was a considerable help to me when I arrived at the trust. I had said that I wanted to have a quick look at governance and make a few changes. As the noble Lord pointed out, we have responded very positively to most of the points in the report, to which I shall come back in a moment.
I should mention three of my prejudices about governance. First, it may be a consequence of the fact that I spent five years of my life working for the European Commission in Brussels that I have rather limited patience with institutional navel-gazing; I prefer to get on and try to make things work rather than engaging endlessly in institutional Lego.
Secondly, we have a national tendency to fiddle around with and reorganise the things we do best. The BBC has its faults. It can be both smug and complacent; it is not always as distinctive as it should be; it is, after all, created from the crooked timber of humanity. However, over the years, it has established a reputation as probably the best public broadcaster in the world-perhaps the best broadcaster in the world-year in, year out. We should be aware of what others have referred to as the gold standard.
Thirdly, it is not long since we shaped the governance of the BBC in the charter review. In due course, we will be debating the next charter review. If you were one of my colleagues in the executive of the BBC, you could be excused for thinking that governance had been debated to death, but doubtless it will come back for a resurrection before too long. We need to remember that the BBC's institutions have often been shaped by rude politics rather than the wisdom of philosopher kings. The noble Lord-actually, let us be clear, my noble friend-Lord Fowler was pretty right earlier when he intimated that the present structure of the BBC owes quite a lot to events surrounding the one fact that the Government got right and the BBC got wrong in the run-up to the latest Iraq war. There are quite a lot of lessons in that.
Nevertheless, despite all the debate, the BBC remains a national rather than a state broadcaster and one of the most trusted institutions in the country. If you read all the polls of which media organisations people trust, the figures are so good for the BBC that they are almost impossible to use.
I want to refer to just four points in the report. They are changes that we have made. First, we accepted much of the criticism of the complaints system in the report-that it is too complicated and often too slow-and
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Thirdly, the trust and the executive board have agreed changes which will, I think, produce more clarity about the role of non-executive members of the executive board. We noted what the committee said about the expertise of non-executive members, which is one reason for the appointment of Dame Fiona Reynolds as a non-executive member of the board, which I am sure the House will welcome. Fourthly, I refer to the improvements we are making in in-service licences, which have worked pretty well in the past and should work even better.
I mention one other thing we have done. The issue of executive as well as talent pay was pretty toxic in the BBC. We have dealt with that pretty rapidly by implementing one of the central findings of the Hutton report and putting a cap on senior executive pay in relation to median earnings. I hope that what we have done other public bodies will do as well. I have every intention of reducing the cap steadily over the next few years.
It is a privilege to work with the BBC and with such a distinguished director-general. He and his successors will have the job of continuing to provide quality programmes with a tighter budget at a time of turbulent technological change and when, as the noble Lords, Lord Macdonald, Lord Bragg and Lord Fowler, and my noble friend Lord Birt said, the broadcasting economy is changing substantially.
At the time of the coronation, the BBC had a monopoly of the broadcast economy in this country. At the time of the Diamond Jubilee, commercial revenues are twice the size of the licence-fee revenue of the BBC. There has been a fundamental change over the years, partly because of the commercial success of Sky, and people should recognise that.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and others have said, we are tonight celebrating the 80th birthday of the World Service. We will take financial responsibility for it, on the shoulders of the licence-fee payer, in 2014. I have given an undertaking that we will continue to fund it as well as we possibly can, and there has been appointed by the Privy Council an international trustee who sits on these Benches: the noble Lord, Lord Williams, who has considerable experience in the Foreign Office, the World Service, the academic field and the UN, where he was most recently the UN special representative in Lebanon. He will be a splendid guardian of the interests of the World Service. I hope that all of us in the BBC can live up to the extraordinary standards which the World Service has established over the years and which have made us even more respected than we would otherwise have been around the world.
Lord Grade of Yarmouth: My Lords, in the limited time available, perhaps I may offer some recent historical context before commenting briefly on some
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The midwife in attendance, then Secretary of State Tessa Jowell, was not short of advice, but all were in agreement that the governors structure was no longer fit for purpose. Most took the fallout from the Hutton inquiry as a sign of governance failure. In my clear view, it was not, but that is another story.
The fault lay elsewhere. The traditional governance had failed to keep pace with the structural changes in the sector, which the noble Lord, Lord Birt, has so ably referred to. There was a failure to police the border with the private sector. The BBC regarded its licence fee payers as somehow not the same people as those who consumed and enjoyed a wide choice of media, public and private. It failed, therefore, to understand that if the publicly funded BBC expanded in any way that damaged the private sector, it risked depriving its own licence fee payers of the wider choice that they valued.
Additionally, and perhaps most damaging to the status quo then, the information and data on which governors had to rely for their decision-making were carefully prepared for them by the executive management, who naturally put the most weight on those arguments and facts which best suited the outcome that they desired-usually expansion. The same applied when there were complaints. This was always a recipe for mistrust, both inside and outside the BBC. That is the headline background.
Finding a new model for this sui generis institution was more contentious but throughout the wide debate I was always clear that the governance of the BBC had to remain inside the corporation. Only by being inside could a sovereign board effectively take the ultimate responsibility for the public's money-£2.5 billion of it in those days. You cannot effect and direct value for money after the money has been spent. I was mighty relieved when this argument eventually won the day and the required separation between management and the lay board was enshrined as the BBC Trust, operating from within the corporation.
Is it perfect? Absolutely not, as the excellent report we are debating today suggests. However, that is the wrong question. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Birt, put it better: is it an improvement on what went before? I agree with him that it is, absolutely. The evidence clearly shows that the border skirmishes with the private sector have diminished in their number and intensity, and the trust has never flinched from criticising and directing management publicly when merited on the basis of its own gathered information.
The third vital role of any sovereign body with responsibility for the BBC is to guard its independence. I see no sign that the present arrangements have done anything but strengthen the BBC's ability to defend its independence.
So, to my noble friend's report and his committee. I agree wholeheartedly that the BBC's complaints procedures are deficient, and we have heard plenty of evidence to that effect today. Since leaving the BBC, as I told the committee, I have had two reasons to complain.
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I believe that central to any new complaints procedure is that BBC executive involvement in it has to be removed from the complaints process-other than obviously providing evidence-as it has singularly failed to demonstrate that it understands that it is a sign of strength to concede fault, not a sign of weakness.
The report suggests giving all complaints to Ofcom. Others suggest an ombudsmen solution. However, if Ofcom is the answer, we need to remember that it is a statutory body, open to judicial review. Its processes are therefore necessarily legally meticulous and necessarily protracted. With most complaints, people are looking for speedy redress. It took Ofcom many months to reach its conclusion on the infamous Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross horror. The trust was able to summon the director-general in the week after the incident became public and it issued its condemnation and the actions to be taken as a result within a couple of weeks. If complaints move outside the BBC, the trust must not be constrained from intervening in the event of widespread public disquiet.
Should complaints about journalistic impartiality and accuracy be left with the trust? I would much prefer that they remained in that domain. One must understand that impartiality is usually a matter of subjectivity, and it is not difficult to imagine a situation where Ofcom could come to one conclusion and the BBC Trust, in defending the independence of the BBC, might come to another. I think that that would lead to further confusion.
I shall not detain your Lordships with further comments on the recommendations in the report, as they do not seem to me to undermine the principles for good governance of the BBC that I have described. However, I cannot let this opportunity pass without placing on record my undying admiration for the corporation. It is easy to criticise the BBC-and sometimes it makes it easier for you to do so-but it is a very great British institution and one of the defining and positive components that makes Great Britain somehow different. One must also not forget that, in among all the wonderful programmes and wonderful journalism, the BBC was-thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Birt-the first to spot the communications revolution and set off on its own down the digital highway. It was truly a visionary legacy on which his successors as director-general have all built, giving us Freeview-the first effective competition to Sky-then the iPlayer, and then YouView, the clever successor to the Freeview box.
BBC journalism holds an ever more important role in our democracy, at a time when our newspapers are, as we have heard, in intensive care in more senses than just the economic one. It is not hard to imagine that, in years to come, the BBC will find itself as the last bastion of fully funded, independent and impartial news. It needs to ensure that its journalism always measures up to that responsibility, to remain trustworthy and trusted. It means resisting any temptation to follow the glib, lazy and often partisan narratives that develop in other media. To take one example, in the coverage of the BP Gulf oil spill the BBC piled in with the rest of the world's media, pronouncing ecological catastrophe, long-term damage et cetera. A few months ago, however, Steve Hewlett presented a most refreshing programme on BBC Radio 4 which revisited the media coverage of that incident and concluded that that conclusion was not justified by the facts. The damage was much more contained than reported; the clean up was very efficient; and the fishermen were back in the Gulf waters finding plentiful stocks in months rather than the years that the media predicted. This was BBC journalism of the highest standard. One might have wished that the original coverage had been so evenhanded and less a slave to the general doom-laden narrative of other media.
Let me conclude by formally congratulating my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes on his appointment as chairman of the BBC Trust. I wish him well and know that he will lead this great institution to further success and esteem while being a champion of the interests of the licence fee payers. I also commend my noble friend Lord Inglewood and his important committee on a marvellous report. The debate may be late, but the report remains very relevant. In the light of the agenda which the noble Lord, Lord Birt, laid out in his speech for the regulatory issues facing this country, the idea that this committee should become ad hoc would seem to me to be a retrograde step.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I am not nor have I ever been a member of the Communications Committee, which may add a little force when I add my voice to those who have congratulated the authors of the report and insisted that any attempt by the House fuddy-duddies to kill it off must be resisted to the last. To single me out even more in this debate, I have never been a member of the staff of the BBC. I have tried a few times but was not good enough, which may be part of the reason why the BBC remains a world-class institution-and, as many speakers in the debate have said, a world-class institution it is.
One of the characteristics of most such institutions is that they tend to a certain small "c" conservatism. Your Lordships may reflect on that sentiment in view of the difficulty of getting even the smallest change in the workings of this place-which I happen to believe also does a pretty good job for the country. It can at times make the BBC appear almost comical.
I have to reflect on the great tale of the National Audit Office, as it now emerges from the report. Those of us who are veterans of the Communications Act debates will remember the frightful struggle to get any
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This leads me to my central point. If one looks for logic-certainly if one looks for perfect logic-in the governance arrangements of the BBC, one will not find it. When the current arrangements were first advanced by the Government, I was one of the few people who were reasonably sympathetic toward them. However, I never claimed that they were logical. In a logical world, we would go down the road recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and have a clear-cut system of that sort. The trouble would come with the collateral damage that we would do in getting there. If the BBC considered the NAO poking about in its accounts a threat to its fundamental independence, what would it think of a reorganisation of that kind? Instead of getting on with its main job of making programmes, and its secondary job of making sure that the public are properly represented and consulted, the BBC would be involved in lengthy trench warfare with the Government, Parliament and the independent television sector. We would miss the main point. As has been said, the governance of the BBC is not perfect-but it is not bad. It can be made to work, and that is a virtue not to be swiftly cast aside.
I will make a further point on this matter. Governance arrangements exist on pieces of paper, but the workings of the arrangements depend very much on something quite other-namely, the people involved. Anyone who thinks, say, that the Davies/Dyke duarchy was the same in its workings as the Patten/Thompson duarchy-whatever might be written on bits of paper about governance-is out of touch with what went on. We could reconstruct a wonderful system of governance only to find that changes in personnel or in their personalities would render all the effort wholly redundant.
That is not for a moment to say that the arrangements should remain untouched. I have already given one example where I would like to see change: that is, in the NAO reporting to Parliament. Others are contained in the report, and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has been putting many of them into practice. That is great. However, perhaps I might finish on a cliché and recommend to the House the old adage that evolution is better than revolution, and suggest that this is the safest way to preserve the BBC as a world-class institution in the media world of the future.
Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for his able chairmanship of the committee and for his stewardship of this important report. Like all noble Lords who have spoken,
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Much of the report concerns the complaints process, which has been a common theme of noble Lords who have spoken. It is clear from the evidence that we received that the system of complaints lodged about BBC content is not just complicated and cumbersome, but in many cases far too protracted. I agree that all complaints should be dealt with in a clear and transparent manner, and that there should be a one-stop shop in the BBC where complaints are either dealt with directly or, in the case of more complicated matters, passed on to the relevant department.
I also agree with the proposal that the BBC should consider publishing a document on a single page on its website to explain where people should go to complain about BBC content or services. However, often complaints are made not about a mistake of fact in the programme but about omissions from the programme. This effectively results in the complaints procedure not being decided on a matter of factual accuracy but on editorial opinion. In many cases this is used by lobbyists for publicity. For example, the Palestinian lobby issued over 50 complaints about the "Panorama" programme, "The Death of Gaza". Only three complaints were upheld by the BBC Trust and the rest were rejected, but that allowed the lobbyists to claim victory and trumpet the three small victories while the BBC did not respond with an announcement on the nearly 50 defeats.
I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Hall of Birkenhead that the BBC is committed to ensuring impartiality. It is not perfect. There is certainly scope for improvement. I certainly feel that the BBC Trust must act as a body of appeal and not another arena to restart the complaint.
I also believe that the BBC needs to be more robust in standing up to the increased use of lawyers and political lobbying, and it needs to be stricter about taking on board numerous complaints of omissions of information. Editorial weight should be given, especially in science programmes, to peer-reviewed scientific information. The climate change debate is a classic example. There is overwhelming peer-reviewed scientific evidence of the existence of manmade global warming but the BBC's need for balance means that those who deny the existence of climate change-and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, is not in his seat-are given huge, disproportionate amounts of airtime without any scientific basis for their arguments.
"We urge the BBC Trust to consider whether there are any ways of minimising the compliance culture within the BBC to reduce bureaucracy in programme making in so far as that is possible to ensure that the BBC's creativity is not compromised".
I was delighted by the strong support expressed by my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes for the BBC World Service. How appropriate it is that we should be debating this on its 80th anniversary. Certainly, as the world's largest international broadcaster, broadcasting in 27 languages and through internet streaming and other multimedia platforms, everything has to be done to protect this great legacy and the hugely important role that the BBC World Service plays in disseminating impartial global news.
My concern is that once the World Service becomes part of the licence fee, and money for it is not ring-fenced, it will be under constant pressure because many will claim that it will not directly benefit the people who pay the licence fee. On Radio 4 yesterday there was a poll held in which 75 per cent believed that the BBC World Service played an invaluable role and would not object to part of their licence fee going to ring-fence the great work of the World Service. I appreciate that a special trustee has been set up to look after the funding of the World Service, but I would appreciate assurances from the Minister in her winding-up speech as to the sustainability and longevity of this treasured service.
I join those many noble Lords who have voiced their derision and disdain as to why the Liaison Committee of your Lordships' House should be considering converting the Select Committee on Communications into an ad hoc committee. Your Lordships' House, with its multidisciplinary skill sets, have particular expertise on legal, financial, medical, defence and, in particular, communication issues. Ahead of the communications Bill, and with the impact of the digital revolution affecting all our lives, it seems lunacy to be taking such a draconian step with no clear logical argument.
Lord Hollick: My Lords, I commend the committee on this most helpful and excellent report. The quality of this report and the quality of the committee's most recent report on investigative journalism provide ample evidence as to why this committee should continue, particularly at a time of great turmoil in the communications industry. The report sets out with great clarity the governance structure and regulatory regime at the BBC. That is no easy task, given the BBC's high level of complexity and occasional opaqueness. There are some nice literary touches in the report, which I enjoyed. The description of the BBC Trust as a trust but not a trust and as part of the BBC but separate from it seems to come straight out of Alice in Wonderland, whereas the heroic and brilliantly successful chart, to which reference has already been made, entitled "Where to go to complain about a BBC service" would certainly be very familiar to Josef K.
Complexity can be a barrier to providing a good service to the public and can impose a quite unnecessary bureaucratic burden on the creative process. A bafflingly complex organisation, which defies easy explanation,
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However, there is no need for this degree of complexity. Corporate governance models for large diverse organisations have evolved over the past two decades in response to stakeholder and government pressures to improve performance, accountability and transparency. As a result, the unitary board structure in the UK has developed to deliver a clear set of responsibilities for executive and non-executive directors and a committee structure which provides for transparent and effective oversight of regulation, risk and remuneration. The overall strategy and operational performance is the collective responsibility of the entire board.
The report tells us that the BBC Trust was created in 2007 in response to tensions between the governors and the executive management, and the chaos arising from the Gilligan affair. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, asked, were these problems to do more with culture and leadership than organisational structure? The combination of robust, experienced leadership and effective processes can cope with tensions like this, which arise in all organisations from time to time.
The experience of Thames Television's handling of the "Death on the Rock" crisis in 1988 is most instructive. Experienced leadership at Thames, the due process of an internal inquiry, the robust support of the independent regulator which conducted its own inquiry and a fully independent inquiry after transmission enabled Thames Television to stand firm against the onslaught from the Government and sections of the media.
I contend that the creation of the BBC Trust was the wrong answer to the wrong question. The unitary board structure, which I favour, provides for clarity of purpose and message, and clear lines of responsibility to the benefit of the public, employees, suppliers, external regulators and policy-makers. The BBC needs that clarity and simplicity. Its varied activities embrace broadcasting in the UK and worldwide, programme-making and, of course, BBC Worldwide itself-its fast-growing commercial arm which occupies an increasingly pivotal role in the UK's creative economy.
The strategy, performance, allocation of capital and interrelationship of these activities has to be the overall responsibility of the BBC's senior board-the trust. Any confusion over that clear line of responsibility and direction can compromise the BBC's performance. Subsidiary activities with outside directors like BBC Executive and BBC Worldwide have the potential to confuse and compromise strategy, and lead to the question, "Who is really responsible for what?".
As we have heard and as the report sets out, the BBC complaints and compliance processes appear to lack support both within and without the BBC: too slow, too complex and too bureaucratic. The trust has responded positively to these concerns. The position of Chief Complaints Editor has been created and the complaints process itself will be simplified, as will the compliance procedure. But self-regulation can go only so far. The report's recommendation that complaints which cannot be resolved by programme-makers then go to the trust and then, if still unresolved, go to Ofcom, mirrors the process that a number of us have experienced as working well in commercial television.
I also support the committee's recommendation that Ofcom should be given final responsibility for regulating impartiality and accuracy so that the BBC is no longer in the unenviable position of being its own judge and jury. The BBC structure is fixed by the charter until 2016, and it has endured substantial review since 2003. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, the time for navel gazing has come to an end and it is now time to move on. Over the next four years, the BBC must focus on its core role as the country's leading broadcaster and creative powerhouse, and how to maintain that position in a world where broadband and mobile technology and globalisation pose enormous challenges, but also offer great opportunities. It is therefore most refreshing to note that the BBC Trust, in its governance review published shortly after the committee's report, acknowledges many of its concerns and has proposed to implement measures to address them. Simplicity and clarity are embraced by the trust's review and there is a clear sense that the trust will drive for efficiency and effectiveness while guaranteeing quality and independence. The success of the measures taken by the trust will provide valuable evidence for the more wide-ranging review of structures in 2016.
The forthcoming retirement of Mark Thompson, the excellent current director-general, provides the opportunity not just to bring in new blood to what is the most attractive job in British media, but also to consider whether the executive structure is best suited to meet the challenges and opportunities that the BBC faces. Since the appointment of its current chairman, the BBC has looked like and sounded like a more coherent, single, effective organisation with a clear message. The commitment to make the current structure work effectively is to be greatly welcomed, and no doubt will continue to be supported across this Chamber and, of course, followed closely by all of us.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, as your Lordships may know, I and others have sponsored an independent analysis of the BBC's coverage of our relationship with the European Union for some 12 years, mostly of the "Today" programme but also more widely. I believe that that monitoring was influential in persuading the BBC in 2005 to set up its first outside inquiry into the scope and balance of the BBC's EU coverage. That inquiry, chaired by the former Cabinet Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, confirmed that
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I regret to say that subsequent analysis carried out by Minotaur Media Tracking, and then the Newswatch organisation, and to be found on the Global Britain website, shows that the BBC has failed entirely in these promises. In the six years since the BBC made those promises, its "Today" programme has devoted only 0.04 per cent of its output to the view that the United Kingdom should withdraw from the European Union. We cannot find where else in its output it has fulfilled these promises either, and the BBC cannot tell us where it has done so.
I appreciate that the view that we should leave the European Union may not find much favour with many of your Lordships, but consistent opinion polls suggest that around 50 per cent of the British people say they want to leave the EU. I therefore remind your Lordships of the BBC's charter and guidelines which require that:
I have today received the statistics of the "Today" programme's output between 3 October and 17 December last year, an important period for events in the EU and the eurozone. There were no interviews at all with supporters of withdrawal, and the contributions which were made were so short that none contained substantive arguments or explanation of the withdrawal perspective, being accorded only seven short soundbite contributions amounting to 1.4 per cent of the 514 individual speakers on EU affairs. In total, only 534 words were spoken by withdrawal-supporting programme guests, which was 0.4 per cent of the 132,735 words of EU coverage-and that after 12 years of complaints from me and others.
So it is not surprising that I welcome this report, particularly its findings on the BBC's complaints procedure, to which several noble Lords have referred. As one of the BBC's most long-suffering and persistent complainers, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who has supported renewed contact between me and my colleagues, Newswatch and the BBC Trust. Those colleagues now include Members of the House of Commons and we so far had one meeting with the trust, which is of doubtful outcome. We are soon to have a meeting with the executive after we have received the full report on the "Today" programme's output between 3 October and 17 December. We live in hope.
I say all this as a lifelong admirer of the BBC, which makes so many brilliant programmes in so many diverse areas. I trust that this report and this debate will help it to fulfil its duty in the important area of our relationship with the European Union. It will enjoy even greater support-
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I am aware of that. I had actually finished. If the noble Baroness will allow me, I will say only that the BBC will enjoy even greater support from the British people if it does fulfil that duty.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara: My Lords, I thank the Communications Select Committee for its excellent report. It was news to me to find out during the debate that its future is in dispute. The weight of argument that we have heard today-and, indeed, the threats of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes-will have scuppered any chances on that side. Surely this report and the debate show how much we need the Communications Select Committee, and long may it last.
As well as several evocative trips down memory lane-as befits any debate about cultural matters, particularly the BBC-we have also had the benefit of the views of the present chair of the BBC Trust, the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, and a former chair, the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, whose direct experiences in the hot seat have greatly illuminated our discussions today. Indeed, the contributions from so many current and former programme makers, broadcasters, senior executives, a former director-general, board members and owners of broadcasting interests outside the BBC have made this one of the brilliant debates for which this House is rightly famous. It has been a privilege to be a part of it.
I was briefly a member of the Communications Select Committee and I recall the discussions which led to this topic being chosen. I also remember thinking that it would be tricky to get the timing right, given the Green Paper on communications which was imminent then and is still imminent-I notice a number of rather shaky nods on the other side of the House-and which we look forward to receiving, the change in the chair of the BBC Trust, the completion of the digital switchover, the channel 3 and channel 5 licence renewals, and of course the forthcoming renewal of the BBC charter. Those were different, more innocent times, before Leveson, phone hacking and police corruption made it imperative that we approached the question of governance and regulation in the broadcasting world with a new focus.
The responses to the Select Committee's report and the debate today prove that the committee got it about right. There are substantial issues to do with governance and regulation of the BBC that have been left partially or completely unresolved since the last charter renewal in 2007, and the changes in the broadcasting ecology since then make it sensible and proportionate to take another look at this problem.
We have had a very wide-ranging debate this afternoon with many expert contributions. As time is getting on, I only intend to cover three points, the first being support for the BBC. The report starts with a ringing endorsement of the values of the BBC both in terms
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it is sad that in his letter to the chair of the committee of August 2011 the Secretary of State at the DCMS, Jeremy Hunt, signally fails to speak up for the BBC. He merely welcomes the report's contribution to the ongoing debate about the governance and regulation of the BBC. Can the Minister put the record straight and reaffirm the Government's commitment to the BBC when she speaks later this evening?
Secondly, there is BBC funding. The last licence-fee settlement, as we have heard, required parts of the licence fee to be used to fund a range of activities outside the BBC's core activities, including the BBC World Service, S4C and Broadband Delivery UK. The report asks how the BBC Trust can ensure that bodies managing these services are properly accountable, which is of course a very proper and appropriate question. However, surely, as we heard earlier in this debate, the deeper question is what impact these additional-and to some extent ring-fenced-commitments will have on the ability of the BBC to perform its core functions.
As the report acknowledges, what is commonly referred to as the BBC licence fee is in fact a tax on television usage, which is set by the Government, collected by an agent on behalf of the BBC, paid to the Treasury and disbursed back to the BBC via the DCMS. It is a rather complex process and raises issues about the relationship of the BBC to its viewers-or more correctly to all licence-fee payers-and to the public interest, which is often expressed in terms of accountability to Parliament.
The BBC currently spends some £3.5 billion each year, so it is right that it should be subject to scrutiny on its budget. The report is critical of the role of the Government in setting the licence fee this time around, pointing out that the speed of the negotiations and the secrecy surrounding them were such that licence-fee payers and Parliament were not even aware of the options being considered until after they had been decided.
Can the Minister comment-as the Secretary of State failed to do-on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee's conclusion, which is strongly supported by the report from the Select Committee on Communications? It says in relation to the licence fee that,
My third point is about what we have spent most of our time in the debate circling around, which is the dichotomy between the role of the trust as champion of the BBC and its duties as the regulator of the BBC and all its services. The key question is of course
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The then new chair of the BBC wrote to say that he was going to ensure that impartiality was a core responsibility of the BBC Trust. As we have heard, Ofcom rather ducked the issue, saying it would require changes to the agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC, so it was not a recommendation that Ofcom could take forward. We therefore do not know what its views would be, should it be given that option.
I have tried to keep a rough running score-card of how people have declared themselves during this debate but I am afraid I got confused, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who blew the whole thing up with a torpedo by saying the whole structure was wrong anyway and we could not possibly decide one way or another on the merits of the questions asked. However, it was broadly balanced, I think, across the House, with some for and some against. Most of those from within the BBC were in favour of retaining the status quo, while quite a lot of those from outside were in favour of the report's recommendations. There will, of course, be many lessons to learn from Leveson and all that brings with it, but surely one of the main lessons, to which some noble Lords referred, is that self-regulation cannot ultimately work in today's world. I can sympathise with the case that has been made for retaining all the functions relating to the BBC within the BBC, but at the moment I agree with my noble friend Lord Hollick that this feels like a 20th-century response to what is now a 21st-century problem. I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said in requesting that the Minister in her response gives some understanding as to why the Government do not wish to move on that matter.
I turn to the question of accountability to Parliament. The issue seems to be partly about the guarantee that can be given by a royal charter and partly how and on what terms Parliament should be involved in monitoring the BBC. The point is made that there is always the possibility of amending the charter, and it is widely understood that the agreement is to be changed regularly on that basis. It would be helpful if the Minister could assure us this evening that, as the report recommends, the Government should commit themselves,
On the question of the accountability of the BBC to Parliament, there is obviously some disagreement on procedures, even if there seems to be a coalescence of views around Sir Christopher Bland's formulation that,
In this context, it is worth noting that our other major public service broadcaster, Channel 4, is accountable to Parliament for the delivery of its remit. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport lays Channel 4's annual report and accounts before Parliament, and the chairman and chief executive of Channel 4 appear annually before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to discuss Channel 4's performance. Perhaps the Minister could comment on whether that is a model which the Government might consider going forward.
This debate has informed, educated and entertained us in equal measure. I call on the Minister to wind up the debate with some wise words that will help us forward in this complicated issue, to which I am sure we will return. Many noble Lords referred to the charter process and other things that will need to be discussed here. Perhaps she could take something from the suggestion of my noble friend Lady Bakewell that how she responds should be in the form of a late-night line-up.
Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Inglewood for securing this debate-albeit somewhat delayed-and for setting out so clearly his committee's report on the governance and regulation of the BBC. We have been truly privileged in the course of this debate to hear from highly distinguished speakers with wide-ranging expertise, including a former and current chair of the BBC Trust and a former director-general.
I add my congratulations to CBeebies and CBBC on their 10th anniversary-although, like my noble friend Lady Fookes I have more fond memories of Larry the Lamb and, indeed, Muffin the Mule-where are they now? I also add congratulations to the BBC World Service on its 80th birthday this week and confirm our support for the invaluable work which it undertakes internationally, support that we have heard from all around the House this evening.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and others, at the outset I would like to reiterate the key point that the Government are fully committed to an independent BBC that forms the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in this country. Nothing this Government do will undermine that. The Government will ensure that the BBC remains a national asset of fundamental importance and that it will continue to bring great benefits to our country's culture, to its democracy and to its creative industries.
Secondly, it is important to put on the record that the BBC's governance and regulation will be fully assessed at the next charter review. Although we have not yet determined the exact remit or the timing of the next charter review, everything that follows should be viewed in that context. I do not want to pre-empt or
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It is fair to say that reservations have been expressed in the past about whether the trust model is as effective as it can be. Its primary role is to champion the cause of licence-fee payers and, as the right reverend Prelate has said, to be the guardian of standards. But it has not always been clear to observers whether its primary role might not be to represent the BBC as an institution. It was very encouraging, therefore, that in building on the work of his predecessors the noble Lord, Lord Patten, recognised governance and regulation as an issue that had to be addressed as a matter of priority on taking up his appointment as chair of the trust. The governance review published by the trust last summer was welcome and we would encourage the trust to monitor the effectiveness of its recommendations. The trust should and does seek continuous improvement in the operation of the BBC's governance system, within the current charter framework.
In relation to salaries at the BBC, the BBC's executive pay strategy, published last summer, is also encouraging. We were pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Patten, announce that the freeze on bonuses for the most senior executives will continue, and his assertion that the public service BBC needs to distance itself in this way from the market. This realistic approach is welcomed. The BBC holds a privileged position and is not simply another broadcaster operating in the market.
The BBC often comes under criticism for a lack of impartiality in its content, particularly in relation to news and current affairs, and matters of impartiality have been raised by noble Lords this evening. This gives rise to the calls for the Government to intervene, but this would not be right. The editorial independence of the BBC is sacrosanct and the Government have no intention of undermining that. Any regulation of the BBC must be at arm's length from government and give everyone confidence that the way the BBC operates is impartial.
There are also calls for the BBC to be regulated by an external regulator, such as Ofcom. Many noble Lords addressed this matter, including my noble friend Lord Fowler. My noble friend Lord Inglewood raised the attraction of Ofcom having the same regulatory powers over the BBC as it has over other broadcasters, particularly on matters of impartiality and accuracy. There could be difficulties for Ofcom in devoting itself fully to upholding the public interest in BBC services and programmes, in defending the independence of the BBC itself and in satisfying the need for direct accountability to licence-fee payers, so the Government are not seeking to make changes at this stage. The appropriate time would be to consider this within the next BBC charter review. It is a long-standing principle, dating from the earliest days of the BBC, that it has responsibility for impartiality in its output. The noble Lord, Lord Hall, illustrated that. The need to provide impartial services has been central to the BBC's development and activities. The principles of due impartiality and accuracy remain at the heart of the BBC's editorial independence, and on that basis regulation has remained with the BBC.
We would encourage the BBC to build on the conclusions of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the BBC's complaints system in his governance review. Certainly, the new chart has won plaudits from all around the House for outlining just how complex the complaints procedure can be. If the BBC wants the existing allocation of regulatory responsibilities to remain, it has a strong incentive to make sure that the existing system can command confidence. The Government maintain that a royal charter remains the most appropriate mechanism of establishing the BBC, as this provides the necessary level of independence from government and Parliament. My noble friend asked about the legal structure of the BBC and whether this should be reviewed before the next charter and agreement. The Government consider that the appropriate time for such a fundamental matter is the next BBC charter review, when the issue can be looked at in the wider context of an examination of the BBC's constitution, role and functions. The Government have no plans to undertake an analysis of the matter before then.
As noble Lords will be aware, and as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, reminded us, the Government have a review of the communications sector in the pipeline. While the role of the BBC cannot be completely excluded from any review of the public service broadcasting landscape, we have made it clear that the communications review is not a review of the BBC-that will be for the BBC charter review-but of course any relevant issues arising from the communications review will be taken into account in the charter review.
My noble friend and others asked about the licence fee settlement. The noble Lords, Lord Birt and Lord Gordon, were among those who raised that issue. The BBC has undertaken considerable work in taking on the funding responsibilities arising from the licence fee settlement, and in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, about lack of consultation on the licence fee settlement, the pace of the licence fee negotiating and the spending review meant that there was not time to consult widely all interested parties. That reflected the Government's need to deal with the desperate state of the national finances.
The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, raised a point about the new funding responsibilities, which are of course related to its public purposes. He raised the question of technological changes allowing the evasion of the licence fee. The Government are certainly aware of changing viewing habits in relation to technological developments, and we shall need to keep that matter under review.
The BBC has supported the Government in developing the local TV initiative. In December 2011 the Government published their final policy position on local TV and announced the first 20 locations that are expected to get local TV licences. We expect to see those rolling out soon.
An amended BBC agreement was laid in Parliament in February 2011 to facilitate the transfer of funding of the World Service to the BBC. In September 2011 a further amended BBC agreement was laid in Parliament to formalise the BBC's new funding responsibilities in relation to S4C, the World Service, BBC Monitoring, local TV and broadband. Various noble Lords have
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The BBC is currently in discussion with government officials, including those from Broadband Delivery UK, about the arrangements for its funding of broadband. The amended BBC agreement of September 2011 provided for the National Audit Office to have full access to the BBC's accounts to ensure greater transparency. The NAO, as has been mentioned in the debate, now has discretion over which areas of BBC expenditure should be subject to value-for-money studies and when. This met a commitment in the coalition programme and was a very positive move. In response to the point about this from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, it is right that the NAO should report to the BBC Trust, given that the trust has responsibility for value for money in the BBC.
My noble friend Lady Benjamin asked whether the Government will consider tax credits for animation. My noble friend's point is noted. Tax credits are of course a matter for the Treasury to consider, but I will ensure that her support is relayed.
There was a point that was made from all around the House. My noble friend Lord Fowler, the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, and my noble friend Lady Fookes-in fact, nearly all noble Lords-expressed disquiet at the thought that the Communications Committee might possibly be discontinued. It is above my remit to give assurances on that, but I assure noble Lords that the strong messages that have come from all sides of the House today will be relayed to the relevant quarters on that point.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed their considerable expertise to this debate. I hope that I have answered the questions that were put to the Government; if not, I aim to reply in writing. The contributions from around the House have been illuminating, stimulating and productive. I thank my noble friend and his committee for their report and for highlighting matters of governance and regulation, which are vital elements in maintaining the role and function of the BBC. I say again that the Government are fully committed to an independent BBC that forms the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in this country. The BBC is a source of immense pride to the UK and the Government will play their part in ensuring that it maintains its position as the world's most respected broadcaster.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the hour is late and the debate has been long and comprehensive. It has been defined by expertise, a breadth of understanding and differing and varying perspectives, which together have made a bubbly cocktail and a good debate. I thank everyone who has taken part. Normally in your Lordships' House we have one respondent to a debate, but today in practice we have had two: the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on behalf of the BBC, and the Minister. Particular thanks go to each of them.
If this Chamber were a TV channel, I fear that this debate would not be showing in prime time. Very much the opposite, in fact; late on a Thursday afternoon is a graveyard slot. It is proof positive of the importance of the topic and the interest of the House that so many people have taken part, and I know that a considerable number of others would have liked to have done so, had their diaries permitted.
Finally, as chairman, I feel a responsibility for the integrity, purposes and work of the Communications Committee, and I am very grateful for the support indicated for it on all sides of the House. We have done a good afternoon's work. I beg to move.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 1 and 3. I will not press Amendment 1; I will seek leave to withdraw it in favour of Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and Amendment 3.
In the original Bill, we agreed on Report to adopt an amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, exempting members of the Armed Forces from the new rules on compulsory expulsion from the House after six months' non-attendance. He has since tabled another amendment to add the Diplomatic Service to that. It was my view that moving Amendment 3 and inserting into the Bill,
would cover both military and diplomatic service, and that the two amendments were therefore unnecessary. However, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne feels strongly that they should be included and one of my late missions in life is to keep him happy. Therefore, although I am happy not to press Amendment 1, I beg to move.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I agree with what my noble friend Lord Steel has just said and will speak to Amendment 2. I hope that is the right procedure. May I explain, in just a few seconds, why I am anxious that service both in the Armed Forces and in the Diplomatic Service should be exempt from the provisions on compulsory leave of absence? In both services, service overseas is part of the conditions of service. If you are in the Army and you are told to go to Afghanistan, you go. If you are in the Diplomatic Service and you are told to serve in Afghanistan, off you go, or you will lose your job. You have no choice. In other public
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Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, Amendments 4, 5, 6 and 9, which are grouped together, are drafting amendments as a result of the discussions on Report. I do not think that they are of any great significance. I beg to move.
"(2) If the provisions of this section are met by virtue of a sentence or order given or made outside the United Kingdom, the effect is reversed if the House of Lords resolves that the person found guilty is to be treated as not having been the subject of the sentence or order.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, Amendment 7 was tabled following the discussion we had on Report-notably the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, who was concerned that persons sitting as Members of this House could be subject to sentences in other countries which we did not recognise as being proper sentences. I think that the example of Zimbabwe was given in this context. Therefore, I propose this amendment to make it clear that sentences imposed outside the United Kingdom should not result in automatic expulsion from this House. I beg to move.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for tabling this amendment. I also raised this point. It is perhaps auspicious that we are dealing with the House of Lords (Amendment) Bill in the name of my noble friend on St David's Day.
(a) ceases to be a member of the House of Lords, and
(b) shall have a right of appeal against their expulsion.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, this amendment deals with the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Dobbs many weeks ago, and, on Report, by the noble Lord, Lord True. It concerns persons who are Members of this House who are not sentenced in the courts to a year's imprisonment but who otherwise transgress the rules of this House or bring it into disrepute. The amendment, if accepted, would bring us into line with practice in the House of Commons. There is a widespread feeling in the House that this situation should be catered for. Therefore, this new clause has been drafted to enable the House of Lords authorities to draw up a Standing Order which in specific cases would require a resolution of the House before it could take effect. The measure would give the House the flexibility that we do not have at present to expel Members if we feel that they have brought the House into disrepute. I beg to move.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I have told my noble friend that I am concerned about this matter, although not about the principle of the amendment. However, it was brought to my attention today-I should perhaps have notified my noble friend of this-that we had a big debate on this matter in the 2008-09 Session. The Committee for Privileges looked at the question of expulsion under the present regime. There was at that time a substantial difference of opinion between the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, and my noble and learned friend Lord
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I had a quick talk to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern earlier this afternoon. He looked at this measure and said that the House can override the Writ of Summons, if it wants to. He noted that the proposed new subsection (2) of the amendment contains a right of appeal, but asked to whom the right of appeal could be made. There needs to be much more detail. I wonder whether that detail should be left to Standing Orders or whether my noble friend will consider withdrawing the amendment so that we can discuss the matter when the Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Richard-I am glad to see him in his place-and his committee are looking at comes forward in the next Session, so that we can get the wording right.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I rise briefly to support what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said. It is a difficult question. First, we have had some very complicated debates over the past few years as to power of the House to expel or suspend. I am not sure whether it is right to, in effect, give this House the power to expel a Member by a provision inserted at Third Reading of a Private Member's Bill. Perhaps that is not the way we ought to do it. The principle that the House should have the power to expel may be right. It may even be right that the way to do it is by standing order. I am not sure about that.
Secondly, I strongly support what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, had to say about the right of appeal. I should have thought that the one thing we would wish to do in a situation in which the House decided to expel someone was to keep the courts out of the decision, or have a situation in which there is an appeal to the courts or in which the courts can be appealed to, even if there is not a formal right of appeal. That would be dangerous. These are essentially parliamentary matters; they should be treated as such and the division of responsibility is in our constitution. It leaves the courts looking after judicial matters and Parliament looking after parliamentary matters. I do not want those two to be mixed.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I am afraid that I share the concern expressed by my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The question of the validity of the Writ of Summons was tested at some length when the 1999 Bill was being considered by your Lordships, and the matter went before the Committee of Privileges on that occasion. It was the Association of Conservative Peers that took the matter to the committee-at some considerably expense, I might add. The answer was less than straightforward.
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There are two safeguards built into the wording, and I should have thought that no standing order would be agreed that tried to make this matter external to the House; it must remain within the rights of the House. I entirely agree with the noble Lord on that and it is fairly clear from the wording of the proposed new clause.
As to whether the clause should be there at all, I have to say that I was simply responding to the debates in Committee and on Report. It is not something that has just come up at Third Reading. I was genuinely trying to give effect to what other Members said during those proceedings. I am in the hands of the House. I would prefer to keep this in because the safeguard is there. The House of Lords authorities might decide to do nothing about it, but it is as well to give them the statutory authority to do it. On balance, I prefer to keep this proposed new clause in.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I am conscious that, at the bottom of today's notices, it states, optimistically, that the House is expected to rise at 7 pm. Therefore, I shall not detain the House for more
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We are left with two issues in the Bill. One is to benefit the reputation of this House and bring it into line with the other House in dealing with offenders; the other-and, in my view, more important-is the retirement provision which would, for the first time, enable us, if the House authorities move quickly, to get the numbers in this House down from about 800 to below the level of the House of Commons at 650, something which is greatly to be desired. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, in his place, because it was his committee that recommended that some time ago.
It is very important that, when the Bill goes to the House of Commons, the Government move forward quickly with those plans, because they are both intended to improve our internal workings in the House. They purely concern this House, so I hope that the House of Commons will give the Bill a fair wind. I beg to move.
Lord Cormack: Having been associated with my noble friend and others in another place from the very beginning on the Bill, I briefly express my thanks-I am sure that I speak for many in all parts of the House-to my noble friend for his persistence, assiduity, willingness to seek consensus and infinite patience over a long period. The whole House is in his debt. He has set a real example for others who may have to deal with a more controversial Bill in future. I very much hope that, as this Bill will go without Division to another place, that other place will expedite its progress so that this modest housekeeping measure can go on the statute book.
Lord Trefgarne: I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Steel for his constructive response to some of the points that we have sought to make at various points during the passage of the Bill. On Report, he
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Lord Steel of Aikwood: The answer to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne is that I wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister after Report, but it was obvious when he appeared before the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that he had not seen the letter. I am afraid that it disappeared into the bureaucracy-I have had that confirmed today-so he has yet to consider the points that I was making to him in much greater detail. So my noble friend must stop teasing me and just accept that these matters have yet to be decided and discussed.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: I am happy to send it privately, but, as I mentioned the names of the Ministers concerned, it is not for circulation. I made it quite clear that these were informal conversations; they are not in any way a government commitment. But I put forward the same suggestions as I did in Committee.
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