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Lord Wigoder: My Lords, given the nature of the debate to which we have all listened with great interest; given the noble and learned Lord's reminders that the Jellicoe Report referred to uncontentious Law Commission Bills being suited to the new procedure; and given that the most recent view of the committee of your Lordships' House was that such a step should be taken only in relation to a few Bills of a technical nature and largely devoid of party political controversy--and I accept that the controversy that has arisen is not party political--does the noble and learned Lord believe that in the light of the major matters that have been debated
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I think not. The nature of the controversy is of a party political kind which goes beyond the type of consideration raised here. I accept that these questions are important but they are of a technical kind and I suspect that not all Members of your Lordships' House will feel inclined fully to participate in a debate on them. I may be wrong--there may be a tremendous desire to participate in the debates--but I think not. I believe that in order to make progress this is the only way open.
I suggest that my Motion that the Bill be committed to a Special Public Bill Committee is wise. The matters can then be discussed and perhaps when the Bill returns to your Lordships' House they will have been settled. I must then consider carefully what to do in the light of my general anxiety, as far as is possible and practicable, to get reformed law on the statute book. I move the Motion in the belief that it is wise and suitable if we are to be able satisfactorily to implement proposals of this kind.
The noble Viscount said: My Lords, on 6th July the Government published their White Paper on the future of the BBC. In drawing up the proposals in that White Paper we have taken account of the results of a consultation exercise, following the publication of a Green Paper in November 1992. We have also had the benefit of a report on this subject by the National Heritage Select Committee in another place.
The main proposal in the White Paper is that the BBC should continue as this country's main public service broadcaster. That should remain its primary role, and it should be spelled out in its new Royal Charter.
The White Paper identifies a number of objectives for the BBC's public services. Those include providing programmes of information, education and entertainment; giving priority to the interests of the public, and being open and responsive to their views; providing diversity and choice in its services; and enriching the cultural heritage of this country through support for the arts. We have proposed that those obligations on the BBC's public services should be stated more clearly and explicitly in the BBC's new Royal Charter and Agreement.
The White Paper also proposed that the BBC should take steps to exploit the commercial opportunities represented by its experience and reputation around the world, in partnership with the private sector, and that it should develop into an international multi-media enterprise.
I believe that it is fair to say that the White Paper received a good measure of support on all sides of this House, in another place, and in the country at large. The Government invited views on the White Paper by 31st October. By the end of November, some 109 members of the public and 93 organisations had sent in their comments. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has today placed a list in the Libraries of both Houses of organisations responding to the White Paper. The vast majority of responses that we have received have welcomed the continuation of the BBC as a public service broadcaster. There has also been broad support for our proposals for the BBC's commercial activities.
There have, of course, been concerns raised about certain aspects of the White Paper. The Government welcome all the comments received and we will take those into account very carefully before reaching final decisions.
I would in particular like to thank the multi-party broadcasting group of this House, which is chaired by my noble friend Lord Caldecote, for its considered response to the White Paper, and would like to spend a little time addressing its main anxieties. Your Lordships were mainly concerned to ensure the accountability of the BBC to Parliament and to the public. The Government share those concerns, and the White Paper makes a number of proposals to achieve that.
We have proposed that there should be clearer objectives for the BBC's programmes and services and that the basic obligations on programme standards, including the obligation of due impartiality, should be stated clearly in the new Agreement between the Government and the BBC.
The BBC should publish a statement of promises to its audiences, which should include undertakings on programme standards. The BBC should also consult audiences on its services, and publish information about its performance against its objectives and promises.
I know that the multi-party group is concerned about who will ensure that the BBC meets all its obligations. The White Paper makes it clear that this is the primary responsibility of the BBC's board of governors. The board's role is not to manage the BBC, but to represent the interests of the BBC's audiences and the general public. The Government do not favour interposing a separate, outside regulatory body between the BBC and its audiences. That would undermine the close, direct links with audiences which we see as essential if the BBC is to fulfil its duties as a public service broadcaster.
The BBC's position is significantly different from other broadcasters in this country. The BBC is a public body, established solely to serve the public. It has no other object. By contrast, the commercial broadcasters are primarily motivated by the requirement to make a return for their shareholders, subject of course to their licence conditions.
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, has raised an important point, in his amendment to the Motion before the House, concerning the obligation of impartiality. I can say straight away that the Government accept without reservation the noble Lord's point that the concept of impartiality is too important to be left to a reference in the annex to the BBC's current Licence and Agreement. The White Paper itself acknowledges that in agreeing with the purpose of the recommendation to that effect in the report by the Select Committee in another place.
The Government propose that the BBC should be subject to a specific obligation to observe due impartiality in dealing with controversial issues. That obligation will be expressed in the same terms as that which applies to independent broadcasters. We have considered very carefully how that should be framed, and where we should include it in order to ensure that it is effective and enforceable.
It may help the House if I briefly outline the purpose of each of the main documents which will replace the current Charter, Licence and Agreement. First, there will be a new Royal Charter. That will establish the BBC as a public corporation and will set out its constitution and give it its powers. It is, broadly speaking, an instrument of enablement.
Secondly, there will be the Agreement. As I said, that will be a binding legal contract between the Secretary of State and the BBC. It will set out the BBC's obligations and undertakings for the programmes and services which it broadcasts, and for its other activities. Those will include all the current undertakings which are currently found in the annex to the present Licence and Agreement. The annex itself will disappear. The new Agreement will therefore be, broadly, an instrument of control.
The third document which will be required will be a Licence for the BBC to transmit its television and radio signals. That is a licence dealing with technical matters only, under the Wireless Telegraphy Act and the Telecommunications Act. It will be issued on behalf of the President of the Board of Trade, as for other broadcasters. The new Licence will replace the technical parts of the current Licence and Agreement. That will allow the new Agreement to concentrate on programme obligations, rather than technical matters.
Returning to the question of impartiality, we have considered very carefully which of the governing instruments would be the right place for an obligation of this sort in order to ensure that it is effective and enforceable. We have concluded that the reference should be placed in the Agreement. That provides the most effective guarantees. It will mean that the obligation extends explicitly to every programme in each of the BBC's services.
After the recent Question in your Lordships' House, I considered very carefully the alternative approach suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, of placing the reference in the Royal Charter. However, that would not provide such an effective safeguard. The Charter
We could not therefore easily frame a requirement to go into the Charter in the firm and explicit terms that we envisage putting in the Agreement. The Charter and the Agreement have equal weight in law, but do different things. In the case of the obligation on impartiality, the Agreement is the right document for such a reference.
As I said, I accept without reservation the aim of the noble Lord, Lord Annan. The Government will place a specific obligation on the BBC to observe due impartiality, and that will be included in the body of the new Agreement, which replaces the current Licence and Agreement.
On the same question, my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has previously raised the position regarding the role that this House will play in considering the new documents which will regulate the BBC's activities for a further 10 years. I shall try to explain the position clearly to your Lordships. The Royal Charter is issued under the Royal Prerogative. It is not, therefore, subject to the approval of either House. However, we intend that it should be debated in both Houses.
The Agreement will be a contract between the Secretary of State and the BBC. Because it deals in part with communications overseas--and only for that specific reason --it will be subject to the approval of the House of Commons, under Standing Order 55. Your Lordships' House has no equivalent standing order.
The technical Licence, setting the rules for the transmission of the BBC's radio and television signals, will be issued on behalf of the President of the Board of Trade. In common with the technical licences for all other broadcasters, there is no parliamentary process.
As I said, the Government intend, with the agreement of the usual channels, to provide your Lordships with an opportunity to debate both the Royal Charter and the Agreement before either document comes into force.
We have welcomed the responses which we have received to the White Paper and will take them carefully into account. I also look forward to hearing the views that will be expressed in your Lordships' House today. I can assure noble Lords that we shall also take those views into account. By my explanation of the Charter and the Agreement and their nature, I hope that I have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that we have indeed taken the right course. I also hope that we have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, who has also tabled an amendment to the Motion--
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