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Rightly or wrongly, the Government chose not to include the future of the BBC generally in the Bill. They limited the Bill to certain specific areas. In its considerations, the Joint Committee wisely did the same. We decided not to have a general review of the position of the BBC and certainly not to endorse whatever the Government might decide about the relationship.
What is critical about the Bill is that the agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC, when it comes, should be fitted in alongside the Bill in a way that will work. Also critical is that the charter itself, when it comes to be reviewed, can be fitted in alongside the provisions of the Bill so that the relationships between Ofcom and the governors of the BBC are workable and maintain the undoubted strengths of British broadcasting that have been so eloquently and passionately defended over the past few minutes.
The noble Lord who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench in fact misunderstood the purpose of the amendment spoken to by my noble friend on the Front Bench. It incorporates the charter into the Bill to ensure that, when the charter comes to be rewritten, it will relate to this Bill and the provisions will apply to whatever is then put into the charter. I understand the amendment to be a piece of future-proofing. It did not seek to make a judgment about what should happen when we come to charter review. On that, I am pretty confident that passionate debates will take place on charter review. We have had a form of Second Reading preview of those debates over the past few minutes.
Along with the amendment spoken to by my noble friend on the Front Bench, I wish to speak in particular to the first amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and to that spoken to by my noble friend Lord Astor. I have to say that the first amendment has serious weaknesses. It suggests that Ofcom should be able to do things that are in fact beyond the powers of Ofcom as they are applied to the other organisations regulated by the Bill. To say that Ofcom should be able to amend and rewrite BBC programme documents is to go rather too far. Although I may be mistaken, I also think it would be a mistake if Ofcom became the body to decide whether the BBC spends its money properly. That, too, probably goes beyond Ofcom's remit.
I have a great deal more sympathy for the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Astor. It deals with matters that are spelt out in great detail in Clause 260 of the Bill as they apply to other bodies that are to be regulated. I believe that my noble friend is seeking to ensure that the relationships between those who produce
A common misunderstanding often propagated outside is that only the BBC produces public sector broadcasting. We know that that is not true and now, for the first time, we have a detailed definition of public sector broadcasting which applies to the BBC and the others.
We are not presently dealing with the exact contents of the charter, or even of the agreement. At this point I want to say that the amendments to the agreement produced for Parliament in January seemed to have as many shortcomings as the previous draft amendments that we saw sometime last year. It is clear that what eventually is put into the agreement is of absolutely crucial importance. Indeed, the whole relationship will break down if the agreement is not drafted so that it conforms with the Bill. We should concentrate on ensuring that the Bill is future-proofed, that it can relate effectively to the charter when eventually it is agreed, andthis is of equal importancethat the Government, in negotiating or agreeing the charter with the BBC, should make absolutely certain that it dovetails with the provisions included in this Bill.
Rather curiously, we have received more information from the BBC about the process of amending the charter than we have had from the Government. Over recent months, we have had more declarations by the BBC of some of the things it will agree to than from the Government. Perhaps one of the key reasons why we should be holding this debate at the present time is not to produce the agreement, not to produce the charter, but to emphasise, in every way we can, that when we come to consider it in due course, we will be judging whether it fits in alongside the Bill and the Bill could be made to work.
I have had an interesting little correspondence in recent weeks with the chairman of the BBC about the relationship with Ofcom. He was upset because on Second Reading, when I talked about it not always being comfortable to have your elbow nudged, he seemed to think that I was accusing him of not wanting to co-operate with Ofcom. Nothing was further from my thoughts. I entirely accept his assurance that he wants to co-operate in every way possible with Ofcom. But he has now written me a letter in which he concedes that the elbow-nudging process can sometimes be quite uncomfortable. My wife occasionally nudges my elbow in a way that I do not always welcome, but our relationship is extremely happy, I am glad to say.
It needs to be emphasised that if this whole thing is to work properly, it will work because the BBC, as it is eventually constituted, and Ofcom, as it grows with experience, develop a workable relationship. We are at the beginning of a process. Therefore, we are not talking tonightI do not believe we canabout trying to reform the entire arrangements with the BBC in this Bill. It would mean rewriting the Bill in a completely fundamental way that I simply do not believe is practical in parliamentary terms at this stage.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: There are two points on which we can all agree. First, everybody who has spoken tonight wants to do their very best for the BBC. Everybody has said, and I believe them, that they are very proud of it; it has been the creatorthe inventorof public service broadcasting, and we should never forget that, whatever we decide to do.
Secondly, this group of amendments raises the question of the extent of Ofcom's power or duty to oversee the BBC's performance at level 3 of the tier. In that process, it will, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, pre-empt the whole process of charter review and renewal. I also think it will second-guess the governors' responsibilities before that has been discussed. It is also going well beyond the specific intrusions on BBC independence that are implicit in the work of the content board which, in my view, will do no moreand perhaps rather lessthan is already done by the BSC.
However, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, the pre-legislative scrutiny committee has considered all that very carefully. It pointedindeed, I dug out the same paragraphto the likelihood of an unstructured debate. How right they were, albeit an unstructured debate of very high quality.
I also believe that the Government, in paragraph 141 of their response to the Scrutiny Committee, gave a sufficient answer to that point. If one considers that paragraph, one sees that as early as next year there will be a wide-ranging review of the BBC which will,
In my judgment, that process, conducted on top of and at the end of the many debates that we have had on the Bill, both inside and outside Parliament, surely should more than ensure that the BBC, with all its workings and plans, will have been scrutinised almost into the ground. I ask myselfand Members of the Committeehow much further we need to go in piling regulatory watchdog on regulatory watchdog.
I am reminded forcefully of the message that was so well spelt out by my noble friend Lady O'Neill, ironically enough on the BBC, in her distinguished Reith lectures last year. Your Lordships will remember that her central message was about trustthe extent to which we trust or, more probably today, do not trust each other. The apposite reference is to,
I would urge Members of the Committee to accept the Government's advice in their response to the Scrutiny Committee. Surely, that is far better than loading on my noble friend Lord Currie a huge range of superficially reassuring statutory duties, which he will have to tackle almost before he gets his feet under the table and which, frankly, he has not a snowball's chance of finalising before we are all engaged in the charter renewal debate.
I have one last ironic thought, which will not surprise Members of the Committee. Even with all this welter of legislation, in which we impose new regulatory burdens on the industry and each other, how far can we have any confidence that the citizenthe consumerwill have any clear idea about how to seek and secure redress in respect of the grievances that really concern him or her? Those may include the unfairness or infringement of privacy that can occur and the affront to taste and decency.
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