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House of Lords

Thursday, 27th June 1996.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

BBC Charter and Agreement

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

    On what date the new BBC Charter and Agreement will come into effect; and on what date the up-dated producer codes will come into effect.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood): My Lords, the new BBC Charter and Agreement came into effect on 1st May. The new impartiality code is due to be produced in July and the updated producers' guidelines are expected to be published in the autumn.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, that is rather late. If we can bring in the new Charter and Agreement on 1st May, it is a pity that we cannot also bring in the new codes which will react on the BBC and the new functions and responsibilities of the governors to see how they are working. Can the Minister assure us that the code will be published and both read and put into action by the new structure of the BBC?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the new obligations on the BBC have been in place since 1st May. I can confirm that the new arrangements impose a much more rigid regime and the new requirements will be vigorously enforced by the BBC, as the new Chairman of the Governors, Sir Christopher Bland, made clear.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, is the Minister aware that under the new management structure announced to conduct the BBC under its new Charter and Agreement, the World Service is to be absorbed into a single unit? Given that the great reputation of the World Service is based particularly on its unique and separate identity, can the Minister assure the House that its distinctive values and news priorities will be maintained within that uniform structure?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, it is for the BBC to decide how best to make its arrangements. It is early days, but I can confirm that the characteristics and quality of the World Service, which are so well regarded both in this country and abroad, will be maintained.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, may I ask whether the Minister is aware that in the new Agreement there is a new clause--Clause 4--which specifically calls for public consultation before the BBC makes any material change to the nature of its services? The radical change in the structure that has been put

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forward has major implications for the service to which the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, referred. That took place with no public consultation, either outside or inside Parliament, and indeed with no consultation with the most senior management in the BBC. Is that not a breach of the spirit of the Agreement?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I want to make clear that the clause to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, refers relates to objectives for the Home Service. We are talking about the way in which the BBC internally organises itself. What is being done therefore falls outwith the scope of the matters to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, refers.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I am sure that everyone shares our admiration for the World Service, which is held in high esteem worldwide. As I understand it, it is to be quite separate from the domestic services. Can the Minister confirm that the cuts being made by the Foreign Office amount to £4.8 million from the capital budget this year and another £4.1 million in the operating budget in the following year, leaving a shortfall of £8 million? Are there any plans to do anything about that?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I understand that the BBC is confident that by the application of greater efficiency it can retain the level of services it is currently able to deliver.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the BBC World Service will be maintained to the same high level of quality it has enjoyed over the years and that there will be no changes?

Lord Inglewood: Yes, my Lords.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, does the Minister recall that when certain amendments were tabled and withdrawn during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill through this House and through Parliament, it was on the understanding that the Charter and Agreement would give the governors not just the right, but the obligation to exercise control over some of the more idiosyncratic and radical elements of the producers and presenters in the BBC? Can he give us an assurance that those producers and presenters who put on programmes in the BBC will be required to obey the new codes of practice and not just use them as an interesting basis for discussion?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, is correct. The powers of the governors were defined and further identified in the new charter. Adherence to the producers' guidelines is an essential part of the job of those working for the BBC. A failure to adhere to those guidelines is a serious disciplinary matter.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is not a single individual in the whole of Bush House who agrees--

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Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords--

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I am sure it will be helpful if we take one question at a time.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the undertaking that he has just given to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, does not agree with the Minister's own undertaking that this great and memorable broadcasting service will be maintained in the manner in which it has been maintained? On the one hand, one cannot introduce government control at second hand and, on the other, say that everything will be the same as before.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, seems to have misunderstood. There is no question of government control being imposed at second hand. The Government, legislating through the Charter and Agreement, laid down certain general guidelines as to the modus operandi of this independent organisation. It is within those guidelines that the BBC will function independently.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is not a single individual in Bush House who agrees with the proposals made by Mr. John Birt? What provision is there in the Charter for safeguarding the World Service from being destroyed, thus cancelling out an asset which is not only of value to the people of Britain, but to the whole world?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, over-reaches himself. What he has said is not the case, but merely a generalisation. It is part of the terms of reference of the BBC to have a world service. There is no question of it being dismembered or anything else.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he has any hope that we shall in future, under the new producer code, see soap operas which represent the more orthodox views of family and society, which I believe will be generally favoured in this House, as opposed to some of the rather strange values which are put forward in soap operas? Does he have any further hope that one day we might also see a play about the Falklands War which represented it as a justifiable war, which was well managed, successful and in which honourable men fought bravely and overcame their opponents in an honourable manner?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the manner in which the BBC operates is within the constraints of the proper rules of impartiality, good taste and decency. Subject to editorial decisions to broadcast these matters, I have not only the hope but the expectation that we shall see such programmes.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware--

Baroness David: My Lords--

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Noble Lords: Stoddart!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us believe that it is simply not good enough to say that the BBC should decide how to maintain this service? This is a matter for the country and for Parliament. Does the Minister agree that Parliament has a great interest in what goes out over the airwaves to the world which gives an impression of Britain? Is the Minister further aware that many of us are getting fed up with the bad publicity that this country so often gets and that the World Service is the medium through which that can be corrected? I should like to have an assurance from the Government that not only will the revenue for the service be maintained but will be improved.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as I have already said, the qualities of the World Service are recognised not only by the Government but, clearly, by your Lordships' House as well. The way in which the BBC was established was recommended by the Select Committee of another place. The Government agreed that that was right in their White Paper The Future of the BBC. The matter was debated in both Houses of Parliament. Although there were a number of dissenting voices the general consensus clearly was that this was the right way to proceed. Against that background the World Service will be operated in that way.

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