New Clause 4 — Investigation of the BBC by the National Audit Office
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)
I wish to say a few words to thank all those hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. In particular, I wish to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and the hon. Members for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) and all those hon. Members who have spoken in favour of new clause 4. I am very grateful to them for their support.
Some people say that debates in the House do not matter. I am a parliamentarian; I believe that they do matter, and this debate has made a difference. Debates make a difference when strong and independent-minded Ministers are prepared to listen and respond to them, not to take refuge in the conceptual bullshit of their brief. The Minister has done precisely the opposite of that today. He has given a very important commitment on behalf of the Government. After all, Ministers speak on behalf of the whole Government; there is such a thing as collective responsibility, and therefore what a Minister says at the Dispatch Box must be considered with great care.
The Minister has said today that, hitherto, there was an objection to Parliament, in the shape of the NAO, having a statutory right of access to investigate the BBC's finances because of the concern about its editorial independence. One assumes that the Government accepted that concern. In reply to what I have said today, the Minister has said that he accepts our reassurances. He accepts my reassurance, as Chairman of the PAC, that in no way do we want to interfere with the BBC's editorial independence, and he did so speaking for the Government.
I believe that the debate has taken matters a great deal further. It is true that the Minister did not say that he accepts new clause 4. I did not expect him to do that—it is not the way the House operates—but he went almost as far as he possibly could in saying that, like every other hon. Member who has spoken, he accepts the inevitable logic of statutory access. Voluntary access is simply not good enough.
My right hon. Friend David Davis made an important intervention in saying that we simply cannot have a situation where an organisation's auditors have to request access to examine what may be a very difficult issue. That is not acceptable, but the Minister has given some important reassurances. I have listened to his speech very carefully, and I am grateful to him for what he said.