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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, if the noble Lord has not drawn this issue to the attention of the senior management of BT, as I advise him to do, he has taken my advice very rapidly indeed through his Question. I am sure that we all sympathise with the difficulties that he faced, which I imagine are not a unique experience in this House. However, BT has been a privatised company for a considerable period of time. Its senior management must answer for the ineffective service that he has identified on this occasion.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, could the explanation for the noble Lord's terrible experience be that the call centre operative who said he was in Cardiff was really in Bombay?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that then presumes that the call centre in Bombay would have understood Forfar rather better than Cardiff. That may not be the case.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I suggest to the Minister that there is a public issue here; namely, the mental health of the nation, given the number of

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people ringing up and getting totally frustrated. This is seriously deleterious to the mental health—not to speak of the spiritual health—of the nation. Best practice is for the caller to be told where he is in the queue and how long he has to wait. It is a simple procedure. I do not know whether BT does that, but it helps to lower the aggression level a little.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the whole House clearly appreciates the right reverend Prelate's constructive suggestion. Let us hope that more companies involve themselves in relieving this pressure—although I would counsel the right reverend Prelate against suggesting that our mental health is too fiercely damaged by these trials and terrors, because I fear that we have probably all experienced them.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that I was a director of British Telecom for some years. I also carried through the provisions of its denationalisation, which led to better services and lower prices and included a provision for competition. Surely the Minister should have reminded the noble Lord that in a competitive, free-market situation, which there is in telephony in this country, there are enormous choices for consumers. Perhaps he will also intervene on my behalf with the right reverend Prelate to see whether I may be informed as to where I shall be in the queue in having my prayers answered next Sunday when I am on my knees in one of his churches.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, with regard to the first part of the question, the noble Lord is right that there is competition in the provision of such services. But I believe that most of us who have trouble with a company believe that it should be for that company to improve its procedures, not only on our own behalf but on behalf of all its customers, rather than go through the sometimes laborious exercise of transferring our custom elsewhere.

As to the competition between the efficacy of British Telecom management and higher powers, I give way to the noble Lord and his experience in that matter.

BBC Charter Renewal

2.51 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they will ensure that both Parliament and public are fully involved and consulted during the process of BBC charter renewal.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My Lords, the Government will announce how they intend to conduct the charter review before the end of the year. I can give a commitment now, however, that the process will be

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both wide-ranging and thorough, that public debate will form a critical element of the review and that there will be opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I welcome that reply and hope that the statement of how the Government intend to conduct the review will be made in the form of a parliamentary Statement so that it may be scrutinised in both Houses. Is the Minister aware that there is considerable public concern that charter review in the hands of this Government needs to be fully transparent? There are grave public concerns that it may well be a combination of payback time by politicians with a grievance and "pay-for" time for commercial interests. Therefore, the BBC and its integrity need to be fully protected during the process.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord was good enough to write to me on this subject at the end of July and to issue his letter to the press. Therefore, I assume that he can take some credit for fomenting public concern. But the basis on which he wrote to me and the concerns that he expressed are entirely inappropriate. There is no question of there being a payback time. The Secretary of State has at all times made it entirely clear that she rejects any attempt to confuse our desire to correct any statements made by the BBC with the charter review process. We shall maintain the BBC's independence and we shall not be influenced by matters taking place now. In answer to the noble Lord's other questions, our process, of course, will be entirely transparent.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I appreciate what my noble friend has just said about the crucial importance of the independence of the BBC. However, assuming that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not asking for a referendum to obtain public support for any renewal of the charter, is there not a danger that the renewal may occur during the course of a general election, which at present is supposed to take place in about 2006? In those circumstances, will the Government consider bringing forward the date of the charter renewal rather than risk it being involved in the type of party-political conversation that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord McNally?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I know even less than my noble friend Lord Barnett about when the next general election will be. However, the last charter was granted in 1996 for a period of 10 years. We have made commitments, particularly in relation to the licence fee, for that period until the end of the charter review. I do not believe that any strong reasons exist for changing that period now.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, when the charter is renewed, would it be possible to slip into it a little piece requesting the BBC to return the main news bulletin to nine o'clock every evening?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, there are two documents: the charter, which is about eight pages

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long; and the agreement, which is about 16 pages long. I do not believe that either of them goes into the type of detail to which the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, refers; nor do I believe that they should.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, that leads beautifully to my question. Granted the overwhelming importance of the charter in constitutional terms, the agreement is none the less the document that deals with the nitty-gritty of day-to-day broadcasting. Can the Minister give us any assurance about parliamentary discussion of the BBC agreement?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords. I can certainly say that there will be parliamentary discussion of the BBC agreement. It is a constitutional oddity that, although there is no requirement for the BBC charter to be considered by Parliament, there is a requirement for the agreement to be considered by the House of Commons because their Standing Orders require anything which affects communications across the sea—that is, the BBC World Service—to be considered by Parliament. But, of course, we intend to go very much further than that.

The detail of parliamentary scrutiny is at least in part a matter for Parliament. However, we certainly recall that in 1996 the previous government said that there would be an opportunity for each House to debate the document. They undertook that if either House were to demonstrate that it found the charter or the agreement unacceptable as drafted, the government would consider whether changes were necessary and, if so, would withdraw the documents and prepare new drafts.

Earl Russell: My Lords, in his first reply to my noble friend, the Minister—I believe that I quote him correctly—made a reference, first, to correcting mistakes by the BBC and, secondly, to preserving the independence of the BBC. Does he agree that there is, if not a contradiction, a certain potential tension between those two remarks? Does he also agree that the Government are not an impartial judge of impartiality?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my remarks about correcting mis-statements were a direct response to an accusation made publicly by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I made it clear that they have nothing to do with the charter review process or the independence of the BBC.

Lord Elton: My Lords, will the charter or the agreement define the balance of power and authority between the governors and the executive of the BBC, and can we be assured that that matter will be a subject of discussion in this House?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the question of what detail is a matter for discussion in this House is, at least in part, as I said, a matter for this House—a matter for Parliament. My understanding—I could

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be wrong on this; I have not read the documents recently—is that the issue of the role of the governors is a matter for the charter and not the agreement. However, I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, if I am wrong about that.

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