HC Deb 13 March 2000 vol 346 cc94-5
Mr. Mike O'Brien

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 6, line 45, leave out from "broadcasts," to end of line 5 on page 7.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 109.

Mr. O'Brien

During consideration in Committee of part I, which was taken on the Floor of the House, we had a useful debate on two amendments to clause 9 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton). My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said that we would reflect on the views that were being expressed from both sides of the House. Since then, we have had an opportunity to discuss the matter further with the BBC. Amendment No. 8, which has the support of both the BBC and S4C, is the result of those discussions.

The effect of amendment No. 8 is to remove subsection 3(b) from clause 9. In doing so, it brings the relationship between the Electoral Commission and the BBC more closely into line with the relationship between the Electoral Commission and both the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority. In all cases, the broadcasting authorities will have to have regard to the views of the Electoral Commission when determining their policy or rules, as the case may be, on party political broadcasts. Any such views will be non-binding, but the broadcasting authorities will be bound to give them proper consideration.

The Electoral Commission will no doubt have views on the criteria for determining which political parties qualify for party political broadcasts and on the length and the frequency of such broadcasts. The amendment will not in any way prevent the commission from commenting on those important aspects of the BBC's overall policy on party political broadcasts, but the Government agree that it is inappropriate to single out those aspects of the BBC's policies in subsection (3) when they are not singled out in subsections (1) and (2) as they relate to the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority.

Amendment No. 109 is a parallel amendment to the provisions on referendum broadcasts in schedule 11. I hope that the House will accept the amendments.

Mr. Grieve

I welcome the Minister's remarks and the amendments. There was never any criticism of the Government's intention to involve the Electoral Commission, but Opposition Members and some Labour Members were concerned that the detail was likely to expose the commission to a degree of involvement in the minutiae of editorial policy that was undesirable for both the BBC and the commission. The likely consequence would be that any aggrieved person would take the commission to judicial review proceedings in the same way as occasionally happens to the BBC when it starts to allocate party political broadcasts at election times and the courts are called on to resolve the matter.

Editorial policy should be left to the editors, and I am grateful that the Minister has taken that point on board while in no way detracting from the proper involvement of the Electoral Commission in stimulating debate and putting forward ideas and proposals to all broadcasters on the way in which broadcasts should properly be handled. On that basis, Conservative Members welcome the amendments and we are grateful to the Minister for responding to the representations that were made from both sides of the House.

Mr. Linton

I do not wish to detain the House except to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being as good as the word of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who said in Committee that he would take a fresh look at the wording. They have done that and they have adopted the amendment that I moved in Committee. That is the best course of action because it will preserve the unwritten, voluntary and informal parts of the constitution.

Amendment agreed to.

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