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Viscount Astor: My Lords, the BBC is not a creation of statute. Its Royal Charter is granted under the Royal Prerogative and is not subject to parliamentary approval. Obviously, when the Charter and the Agreement are debated, the Government will have to take seriously any comments made by Members of this House or another place.
The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, the present Charter cross-references to the instructions that can be made as regards a licence agreement and so forth by the Minister of State concerned. Will those documents, with the form of statutory instruments, be debatable and "votable" in both Houses of Parliament?
Viscount Astor: My Lords, I do not believe that the Agreement and the Charter are "votable" on by your Lordships' House. Any statutory provisions that come before your Lordships' House as affirmative or negative instruments would be "votable". I understand that the approval of the House of Commons only is required under Standing Order 55 which states:
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, an important issue of principle is involved. Is the Minister aware that it is strange that, as regards the future of the BBC--a matter on which for many years this House has exercised a greater influence than has another place--this House does not have equal rights with the other place in terms of the final approval of the licensing agreement?
Viscount Astor: My Lords, the matter relates to Standing Order 55 as it applies to the overseas arm of the BBC. The current Royal Charter and Agreement were dealt with in exactly the same way in 1981 when they came before both Houses of Parliament for debate. With the agreement of the usual channels, the
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, did my noble friend say that, while the consent of the House of Commons is required to the Agreement, the consent of this House is not required? If that is so, what is the explanation?
Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, the BBC provides good television programmes for sale abroad where they compete with CNN and Sky Television. That is outwith the kind of arrangements which years ago one considered to be the activities of the BBC. Does this House or the House of Commons have no say on the financial aspect, which was not considered in 1926 and subsequently?
Viscount Astor: My Lords, the BBC submits accounts to Parliament and Parliament sets the licence fee. The BBC's activities can be scrutinised by a Select Committee and can be the subject of debate. The Government agree with the National Heritage Select Committee of another place that the BBC should continue to be established by Royal Charter. This underlines the fact that while the BBC is accountable to Parliament, it is largely independent.
Lord Renton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that your Lordships' House is in one important respect much more representative than the Members of another place? Among your Lordships are those who have reached the top in the professions, industry, commerce and the Armed Forces. We also have as Members Bishops and Law Lords, none of whom can be found in another place. Therefore, has not the time come for this House to have the power that the other place has with its less-representative membership?
Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am happy to agree with my noble friend. I am aware of the experience and wisdom of your Lordships' House. I believe also that another place is representative of the country. The part of the Royal Charter that is subject to Standing Order 55 relates to transmissions overseas. The Government intend that both Houses will have an opportunity to make their views known. Although no formal approval of this House will be required, it will have an opportunity to debate the issue before the documents come into force.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I shall not comment on the representativeness of this House because that may change. We too would welcome the opportunity to debate the White Paper and we look forward to doing so. The White Paper deals with the likelihood of the privatisation of the transmission services of the BBC. Is the Minister aware that a recent professional analysis showed that that privatised service would cost the BBC
Viscount Astor: My Lords, we have appointed consultants to consider the options as regards the future of the BBC's transmission services, taking account of the BBC's plans to develop digital television broadcasting. The consultants will report their conclusions by the end of this year.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, in speaking of the representative nature of your Lordships' House the noble Lord forgot to mention a former deputy chairman of the BBC and I therefore declare an interest. Is the Minister aware that I too welcome the opportunity to debate and vote on the White Paper, which I hope will be approved overwhelmingly by all sides of your Lordships' House? Is the Minister further aware of my concern about the appointment of more consultants? I may upset some of my fellow accountants in saying that we all know the cost of appointing more consultants to do for the Government jobs that they should be capable of doing themselves.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. I am aware that he was a distinguished member of the governors of the BBC. It is important that consultants are appointed to look into plans to develop digital television broadcasting. It is an extremely complex area and will take a huge amount of investment. We must look at the matter carefully and if expertise is available to the Government in order to help them to make up their mind we should take note of that expertise.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am not aware that the International Atomic Agency has published any reports about the possibility of accidents which might be worse than Chernobyl. Responsibility for the safety of nuclear installations in Russia lies with the operators of the installations and with the Russian Government. It is for them to take appropriate action on any reports which are made by the Russian safety authority.
Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that, if necessary, I shall acquaint him with exactly what the International Atomic Agency said? From that he will see that the agency shares the anxiety which has been expressed in Russia that the situation there is getting out of hand.
Is the Minister aware that Mr. Eggar, the Minister responsible for energy in another place, has been quoted as saying that he understands the seriousness of the situation and he does not want another Chernobyl? It is all very well to understand the situation and not to want something to happen. But the real question is: what is he doing about it? The situation is urgent. Will the noble Earl tell us that the Government are not content to allow the situation to develop until it is too late but that they are taking an interest in a matter which is of concern to anyone in Europe, and possibly outside it?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, for saying that he will acquaint me with what the International Atomic Agency has said. I believe that he would do that by reading a newspaper and divulging to me what the newspaper said. I have been able to do that for myself.
Of course we are concerned. The noble Lord asks whether the Government will take an interest. I assure him that they do take an interest. However, this matter is the responsibility of Russia. A Western/Russian study into the safety of Chernobyl-type reactors in which 11 countries took part reported in June 1994. The study indicated that, while risks remain, safety improvements that have been carried out make it unlikely that there could be a repeat of Chernobyl. We are making substantial contributions via Europe and elsewhere to Russia to help it to overcome its difficulties.