The Charter review should take steps to enable the BBC to work independently and without government interference

Jack_Sheldon

With the BBC’s Royal Charter up for renewal Lord Fowler, who chaired the Lords committee scrutinising the last review, came to The Constitution Unit to talk about the future of the BBC. He argued that the Royal Charter affords too much power to the government and that the BBC should therefore be established as a statutory corporation, enabling it to work independently and without government interference. Jack Sheldon reports.

Four days after the general election it was widely reported that the new government was ‘at war’ with the BBC ahead of the renewal of its Royal Charter, due by 2017. Downing Street sources were quoted as saying that the new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, intended to ‘sort out ’ the national broadcaster and some media outlets indicated that the future of the licence fee was in doubt. Whilst David Cameron has since dismissed these suggestions much uncertainty continues to surround the BBC’s future governance structure, funding and programming.

As Robert Hazell has explained on this blog the formal responsibility for Charter renewal lies with the Privy Council, which can be expected to approve without discussion an Order in Council drafted by the government. It is not necessary for the Charter to be taken through any formal parliamentary process, though select committees in both Houses have embarked on inquiries (to be undertaken by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the Commons and the Communications Committee in the Lords). On 14 July Lord Fowler, who chaired the Lords committee last time the Charter was up for renewal in 2005-06, led a debate in the upper house titled ‘Future of the BBC’ in which he warned that the corporation ‘is under unprecedented attack’. Fowler came to The Constitution Unit on 19 October to talk about the renewal process and his hopes for the current review.

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Video: In the thick of It: What do special advisers do – and does it make government better or worse?

Duncan Brack and Michael Jacobs

Venue: Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6, Gordon House

Special Advisers are now an established feature of British government: there are currently over 80 of them in Whitehall. But what do they actually do? What relations do they have with ministers and civil servants? Are they – as some have claimed – a threat to the impartiality of the civil service? Or are they essential to make democratic government work well?

Michael Jacobs is Visiting Professor in the School of Public Policy at University College London and in the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE.  He was a Special Adviser to Gordon Brown at the Treasury (2004-07) and at 10 Downing St (2007-10).  His major field of responsibility was energy, climate change and environment policy, but he also worked at the Treasury on health, public service reform and the third sector.  Beginning his career as a community worker and adult educator Michael has variously been an economic and environment consultant, an academic environmental economist at Lancaster University and the LSE and (from 1997-2003) General Secretary of the Fabian Society.  His books include The Green Economy: Environment, Sustainable Development and the Politics of the Future (Pluto Press, 1991), Greening the Millennium? The New Politics of the Environment (ed, Blackwell, 1997), The Politics of the Real World (Earthscan 1996) and Paying for Progress: A New Politics of Tax for Public Spending (Fabian Society 2000).

Duncan Brack is a freelance environmental policy researcher. He is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) and an Associate of Green Alliance. From 2010 to 2012 he was special adviser to Chris Huhne at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, focusing mainly on UK, European and global climate policy and low-carbon investment. Before that he worked for Chatham House, and from 1998 to 2003 was head of its Sustainable Development Programme; his work included international environmental regimes and institutions, the interaction between environmental regulation and international trade rules, and international environmental crime, particularly illegal logging and the trade in illegal timber. He was also a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Environment Select Committee and Environmental Audit Committee. From 1988 to 1994 he was Director of Policy for the Liberal Democrats.

Find out more about the Constitution Unit’s special advisers project or the SPP seminars 

Video: The Euro Crisis and its Implications for European Institutions (Charles Grant)

Charles Grant (Centre for European Reform)

Date and Time: Wednesday 13 June, 6.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The euro crisis has led not only to new EU treaties, but also to profound power shifts among various member-states and the EU institutions. The European Commission has never been so weak, while Germany has never been so strong.

Co-founder and director of the Centre for European Reform Charles Grant will discuss the implications of the ongoing crisis for the way European institutions operate. He is a former Brussels correspondent for the Economist and the author of many publications on the EU, as well as a former director of the British Council.

Video: Elected Mayors

Date and Time: Tuesday 22 May, 6pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

Jules Pipe

The London borough of Hackney has had an elected Mayor since 2002, when Jules Pipe was elected into office.  Mr Pipe argued that Hackney faced series issues at the time; crime rates were high, the council’s finances were in a poor state, and educational attainment was low.

Mr Pipe recognised that before changes could be made in the borough, changes would have to be made to the council itself.  His first priorities were to reintroduce good governance and financial competence.  In practice this meant improving the lines of communication within the council, developing a shared vision, and pursuing the best value for money for the borough.

The new Mayor set high standards for his team, bringing in experienced people and fostering a performance management culture.  Their aim was to improve the services that would benefit the whole community, focussing on projects such as building new schools, resurfacing roads and improving public amenities.

In his view, it remains vitally important to work with other bodies, such as the Police and the London Mayor, to achieve the best results for Hackney.  Mr Pipe’s long-term goal is to improve the reputation of Hackney, so as to encourage commercial investment.

Lord Adonis

Lord Adonis explained how he first became involved in the campaign for elected Mayors after being invited to speak at the Lunar Society in Birmingham last year.  In his view, the city lacked a coherent vision for the future; what it needed was a Mayor to fight for Birmingham’s interests.

According to Lord Adonis, a recent study has shown that only 16% of people think they know who the leader of their local council is – and half of those get it wrong.  In his view, having directly elected Mayors would raise the profile of local politics, and improve local council accountability.

Despite the largely negative response to elected Mayors in the recent referendums, Lord Adonis believes that all major cities could have elected Mayors within 15 to 20 years.  He argues that the introduction of elected Police Commissioners in November will help the case for elected Mayors, as they will have some of the powers of elected Mayors.

Note prepared by Jeremy Swan, intern on the Unit’s Special Advisers project.

Video: Scrutinising Administrative Justice

Richard Thomas

Date and Time: Thursday 26 April, 1.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

Chair of the Administrative Justice & Tribunals Council (AJTC) Richard Thomas CBE spoke in detail about the functions of administrative justice and the implications of its (possible) demise.

1. Administrative Law & Wider Justice

Mr Thomas defined administrative justice as how well the State makes decisions about people – affecting their benefits, taxes, immigration status, education, housing and (in the case of mental health patients) their liberty.

Over one million appeals and complaints against the decisions of public bodies are made each year to various Ombudsmen, tribunals and other institutions. These appeals have a success rate of approximately 35-50%, suggesting widespread failure to make correct decisions in the first instance. An aim of the AJTC is to encourage tribunals etc. to ‘get it right first time’.

The AJTC was established by the Tribunals & Courts Act 2007 (s44) and is an advisory non-departmental government body with statutory responsibility observe tribunals etc. in action and to scrutinise (from the user’s viewpoint) administrative justice on behalf of the Lord Chancellor. However, it is due to be abolished later this year, despite the recent conclusion of the Public Administration Select Committee that its role of providing independent overview is one of “vital national importance”.

2. Why is independent scrutiny and challenge important?

Mr Thomas argued that administrative justice needs external overview as individuals often use the system to challenge monopolistic state power. Therefore, it is fundamentally important to have an independent view of how users could seek redress.

Furthermore, in many areas that the administrative justice system serves, there is no market pressure to improve upon dispute resolution/complaints services. This means that scrutiny bodies like the AJTC are the only way to ensure best practice.

3. Why – unlike most other countries – is administrative justice the Cinderella of the justice system?

Agreeing that administrative justice is not held in particularly high regard by politicians and the executive, Mr Thomas offered several explanations. First, legal aid has always been limited for many tribunals and this will only get worse with the on-going legal aid cuts. Secondly, many tribunals are ‘do it yourself’ forums where parties often represent themselves and this can lower the prestige of the system. Thirdly, many administrative law cases involve issues that cut across several government departments and subject areas – and thus ‘fall into the cracks’.

4. What are the implications of cuts to legal and advice services?

It will be very difficult to pre-judge the effects of the legal aid cuts and it would be best to ‘wait & see’, Mr Thomas argued. He suggested that the administrative justice system could operate less efficiently as many individuals would be appearing before tribunals without any advice whatsoever.

5. Could the Ministry of Justice perform the functions of the AJTC?

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) believes that it can take over scrutiny of the administrative justice system. Whilst not doubting that the MoJ has the competence to perform such a role, Mr Thomas identified the obvious problem: the MoJ is very much a part of the executive and so cannot be an independent arbiter.

Note prepared by Nick Perkins, intern on the Unit’s Judicial Independence project.

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