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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 25th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord Maxton Lord Maxton Labour 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, it is with pleasure that I rise to make my first speech in your Lordships' House. I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the staff of the House for the courteous, efficient and friendly way in which they have eased my entry to this place. I would also like to thank my noble friends Lord Clark of Windermere and Lady Ramsay of Cartvale for acting as my sponsors, and for their support before and since my introduction. Lastly, I thank my noble friend Lord Hogg for his advice as my mentor, and all the old and new friends from all sides of the House who have given me such a warm welcome.

I am the first Maxton to have been elevated to the peerage, and there are those who will say that some of my ancestors will be turning in their graves or, in fact, probably swirling in their urns as I stand here. But I suppose if the Labour movement, particularly in Scotland, has an aristocracy, then I am a minor part of it.

Jimmy Maxton, the Red Clydesider, was my uncle. His sister, my aunt Annie, was a national chairman of the Independent Labour Party. My own father preferred to practise his socialist principles as an academic, being one of the founding fathers of the science of agricultural economics. My mother's father, James Alston, was an ILP Member of the Glasgow Corporation from before 1900 and up to the First World War, and my mother could remember Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie staying in their home when she was a small girl. Indeed, she always described Ramsay as the most beautiful man she had ever met. I never knew what my father thought of that. One of my mother's sisters was married to another ILP Member of Parliament, Bob Nicol.

I served in the House of Commons for 22 years, moving during those years from being described as "a humourless man of the hard left" by Private Eye to a fully paid-up member of new Labour, but believing that in a rapidly changing world this Government's policies are very largely right and effective. During those 22 years I served on various Select Committees, was an Opposition Whip and a Front-Bench spokesman on Scottish affairs, working with my friend, the late, much lamented, Donald Dewar.

After the defeat in 1992—some noble Lords may not consider it a defeat—I resigned from the Front Bench and joined the National Heritage Select Committee. I was a member of that committee and its successor, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee under the chairmanship of Gerald Kaufman, until my retirement at the last election. Gerald was an excellent leader of the committee but he and I did not always see eye to eye. In particular we did not agree on the future of the BBC, and it is to that issue that I wish to address my remaining remarks today.

The Government have done much to improve the cultural and sporting life of this country, both with increased direct funding and through the lottery. But the future of the BBC is their next big task in this area and, although it is not mentioned in the Queen's Speech, during the next year the Government will begin the process of renewing the BBC charter by issuing first a Green Paper and then a White Paper. I hope and expect that they will give the BBC a charter for a further 10 years; that they will keep the present form of governance; and that they will retain the licence fee as its major form of financing. Those of you who know Gerald will know now why I disagree with him.

In saying this, I make it clear that I do not believe the BBC is perfect—very far from it—but for many, particularly the older sections of our society, it remains the major source of both entertainment and information. It is still probably the best broadcaster in the world, producing high standard television and radio programmes.

Nor do I say that as someone who believes that the BBC should continue to do the things it has done in the past or even what it does now. During my lifetime, technology and science have transformed the world in which we in developed countries live. Almost all of it has been for the better. We live a more varied and comfortable life than our parents, let alone our grandparents. It has been a massive revolution the like of which the world has never seen before, and it continues to accelerate at an ever increasing rate.

Nowhere is this truer than in the world of information technology, of which broadcasting is a very important part. Rapid changes in delivery methods mean that we are quickly reaching the point where we will watch whatever we want to watch, when we want to watch it and where. It has long been my view that broadband Internet will be the main vehicle for the delivery of news and entertainment within the next 10 years.

Can the BBC in its present form continue in this brave new world? I believe that it can and must. In this world of infinite choice and variety there will be an enormous demand for high quality, well produced and innovative entertainment; for balanced, unprejudiced news reporting and documentaries; and for education programmes that can be trusted to tell the truth. This demand will not be limited to this country; it will be world wide—particularly as English becomes increasingly the international language. As my noble friend Lord Davies, the Minister, said, this country must sell what it is best at producing—and high quality television and radio is exactly that. The BBC will be uniquely placed to meet this demand.

So why continue in its present structure rather than change it? First, the BBC must have a 10-year period of proper planning if change and innovation are to be successful. Secondly, the licence fee gives the BBC funding that is almost unique in the world in being independent of both political and commercial pressures. This allows it to experiment and to criticise without fear of loss of funding.

I have some sympathy for those who wish to transfer the regulation of the BBC's content to Ofcom but, on balance, I believe that if that were to happen the regulators would view the BBC as a commercial operation alongside other commercial companies.

The BBC is at its best when it produces programmes which are innovative and are not designed to compete with the commercial companies for viewers. Few of the great comedy series it has produced were made with the expectation of commercial success. No commercial company fixated on viewing figures would have ever given Dennis Potter air time or produced the great costume dramas based on our wonderful literary heritage.

In the new technologies, however, the BBC has also been in the forefront. Its website is recognised for its excellence and inventiveness. It has led the way in putting programmes live on the Internet and I personally enjoy the ability to listen to Humphrey Lyttelton's "Best of Jazz" when and where I want for a whole week after it has been broadcast.

Soon the wonderful archive of all the TV and radio broadcasts that have been recorded over the past 75 years and more will be available on the Internet. Perhaps being able to watch again and again football, rugby and cricket matches that you have seen before may pall eventually but, for those who come from Scotland, the thought of watching Scotland beating England again and again may be welcome. It is something that we do not do very often these days.

The BBC has moved successfully into the digital world and can and must continue to do so with new channels and new programmes. Eventually, in the Internet world I have forecast, the BBC may become a producer of programmes rather than a broadcaster as we know the term today, but I believe that that is still a role the BBC should play.

However, I should like to finish by outlining some criticisms of the BBC. First, it is at its best when it does not look constantly over its shoulders for viewers; it is at its worst when it does. This sometimes creeps into its news coverage. Some of us do not believe that it has been as balanced as it ought to have been in its reporting on the Iraq war.

I am more concerned, however, about the cynical view of politics that the BBC sometimes presents to the world—a cynicism that not only damages those of us who are active in politics but the democratic process itself. The BBC does this not because it thinks it is the right thing to do but because it thinks it is the popular thing to do and that it is meeting a populist demand. This is damaging the BBC as well as damaging politics.

I have criticisms of the BBC but I believe that it will have a very important role to play, in this country and throughout the world, in the next decade. As a result, I urge my noble friends to ensure that the licence continues as it has in the past.