Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 25th March 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 9:00 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Cohen, I recognise that at this time of night the only chance of a hearing is to be brief. But I cannot resist making one short preliminary remark. It is 31 years this year since I first worked in these Houses of Parliament. For the bulk of that time I watched with alarm as it seemed to me that Parliament was moving from what Bagehot called the efficient part of the constitution to the dignified part of the constitution, counting for less and less.

With the Joint Committee, so magnificently chaired by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, for the first time I feel a genuine hope that that process has been reversed. Here, through the evidence and the report and the debate, we saw Parliament right at the centre of a national debate on these matters. Whatever the outcome, therefore, this is a great victory for Parliament and we should celebrate it today.

The only substantive issue I want to talk to today also concerns Parliament, in particular the relationship between Parliament and the BBC. As a young student of politics, I was taught that the textbook role of Parliament was the scrutiny of supply; that is, the voting and monitoring of public spending. The Public Accounts Committee is the parliamentary committee charged with this task. It is chaired by a leading member of the Opposition—currently, Edward Leigh. It is serviced by the National Audit Office, itself headed up by an officer of Parliament, the Comptroller and Auditor-General.

It is not—and this is crucial—concerned with policy. It is concerned with whether, given the policy, public money is spent efficiently for the purpose for which it has been granted. But it is not concerned with all public money, for the BBC is outside its remit. That anomaly was rejected by the committee on the future of the BBC licence fee, chaired by my good friend, now chairman of the BBC, Gavyn Davies, on which I sat. However, I see that he has now told noble Lords that he was opposed to this particular recommendation in the report which he signed.

It was authoritatively rejected by the committee on the audit of public spending, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Sharman. The whole PAC, irrespective of party, has asked that it be lifted. And now we have a Secretary of State who is not the BBC's messenger girl in this matter. Ministers have made it clear that if Parliament decides the restriction should go, go it will.

I understand the BBC's concerns in this matter. However, I believe that some of them are down to misapprehension. The noble Baroness, Lady Hogg—I am sorry she is not in her place—seemed to believe that the National Audit Office would be auditing the BBC's accounts, appointing its auditors and interfering with her audit committee. It has no such intention. Some people seem to believe that it is a Trojan horse for Ofcom. I backed PAC responsibility towards the BBC for precisely the opposite reasons. I fear that Ofcom will take too large a role too soon in this and that unless the public have some guarantee that the BBC is accountable to someone for the public money it spends, it will speed up that process. That is why I oppose it.

Most seriously—and this is a genuine concern—the BBC worries that the NAO will interfere with the editorial content of programmes. I, too, believe that concern to be misplaced. Every noble Lord will agree that there is no part of the BBC whose independence is more important than that of the World Service. It is a beacon of impartiality throughout the world, particularly at times such as these. Yet by a quirk—it is funded by a grant in aid from the Foreign Office—the World Service is subject to NAO and PAC scrutiny. Needless to say the BBC fought a rearguard action to the last drop of Chablis to persuade Members of both Houses to get it exempted. Fortunately, they failed.

There is no suggestion anywhere, including from the BBC, that this has led to any meddling with its editorial independence. Yesterday I checked with a former distinguished head of the World Service, Sam Younger, who now runs the Electoral Commission. Mr Younger confirms not only that there was no illegitimate interference but also that NAO scrutiny was a spur to the efficiency of the organisation he ran.

But it is a case of belt-and-braces and the BBC needs reassurance. Let us see what we can do. I understand that the NAO is perfectly happy to sit down with the BBC and discuss with it how it would plan to conduct its scrutiny should the rules change. I believe that it will do so—having had some insight into its thinking—in a way that satisfies any legitimate concern that the BBC and its supporters may have.

As the Davies committee found, the BBC licence fee is by far the best way to finance the kind of services that the BBC provides. But it is a particularly onerous tax. It is a poll tax, one that it can take a low paid worker a whole week of labour to earn. Parliament has decided to be generous with the BBC and to increase the fee each year by 1.5 per cent more than inflation. That is why the BBC can achieve so much today. I signed up to that on the Davies committee and I do not resile from it in any way today. I was persuaded by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, that every penny was justified. But I do argue with all the force I can muster in your Lordships' House that we can do that and continue to do that only if we can assure the people that that money is being spent efficiently and not frittered away, as in the pre-Birt days I fear much of it was.

I want a BBC that is independent. I believe in an independent BBC as strongly as any Member of this House. But I also want a BBC which is accountable, and accountable above all to this Parliament. By asserting the rights of the PAC subject to the sound assurances that it is prepared to give, this House will, with the Bill, have an opportunity to strike a blow for an efficient Parliament as well as an efficient BBC.