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Urgent Question: The BBC Board

March 14, 2017

9 speeches by…

  • Elin Jones
  • Alun Davies
  • Lee Waters
  • Suzy Davies
  • Bethan Jenkins

Alun Davies

The BBC board member for Wales must be fully able to champion the diverse needs of the Welsh people. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport did not agree and we could not support her recommendation. Strong candidates were available. The Secretary of State refused to discuss them with me.

Lee Waters

Thank you, Minister. The BBC, in their reporting of Dr Carol Bell as the preferred candidate of the UK Government, has quoted a UK Government source as saying that the Welsh Government had ‘seen fit to veto the secretary of state’s choice of candidate’. Could you explain to the National Assembly the Welsh Government’s role in the process of having a BBC board member for Wales? Was it simply as a rubber stamp or was it meant to have a substantive role? Did it, in fact, have a substantive role? Would he also tell us where he thinks this leaves us now? What is the timeline for the appointment of a Welsh board member? The rest of the board is now in place and is beginning its work. Finally, the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee strongly recommended that any Welsh representative of the BBC board should be subject to a pre-confirmation hearing by the National Assembly. That did not happen in this case. As I understand, that’s because of the timeline being hurried. Now that there’s less time pressure on the appointment of a BBC board member for Wales, would he agree with the cross-party committee that it should have a chance to talk to and question the person who is appointed, before you give the consent of the Welsh Government to that appointment?

Alun Davies

Presiding Officer, I’m sure you will agree with me and Members across the whole of the Chamber that the deliberate, I assume, leaking of the name of any individual who applied for this post, as happened yesterday, is to be regretted and is entirely contrary to the standards we expect of the public appointments process. It is a gross infringement of their personal privacy. At the same time, it is clear from media reports that the United Kingdom Government and their sources have sought to undermine this Government, undermine me as a Minister, and to brief against decisions that we have taken, all done unanimously. Let me say this: however we seek to conduct inter-governmental relationships within the United Kingdom, this is a textbook example of how not do it. The Welsh Government reached an agreement with the United Kingdom Government on the appointment of this person to represent Wales on the board. The Welsh Government was represented on the recruitment panel. Interviews for the post took place in Cardiff on 14 February. It was clear from those interviews that there were a number of very well thought of candidates and a number of appointable candidates. Not all of these were unanimously agreed upon, and some were judged to be stronger than others. Their relative merits were set out very clearly in the panel report, which was seen by both the Secretary of State and me. I was confident of being able to make a good appointment. I was therefore shocked to receive a letter from the Secretary of State on 27 February, where she said she was minded to recommend a candidate who was not one of those unanimously agreed stronger candidates. I was also shocked that I was given 24 hours to respond to this letter. I was even more shocked to discover that the Secretary of State was unwilling to even discuss the other candidates with me. She insisted that we either accept her choice or, in her words, we veto it, forcing a rerun of the competition. This, Presiding Office, despite her own Permanent Secretary accepting via e-mail that there were other stronger candidates, and despite my assurance that we would be happy to agree a choice from those other stronger candidates. Presiding Officer, at no point have I expressed an opinion as to who I believe the strongest candidate for this post would be. What I’ve said very clearly is that Wales deserves the best, and the candidate that the appointment panel believes is the best candidate. And I will not be told by any Secretary of State that I have no choice in this matter, and I will not be told then by anonymous UK Government sources that I have the temerity to exercise the power available to me. I have the right to exercise that power available to me, and whenever the UK Government behaves in this way, we will exercise that right. Presiding Officer, I am profoundly disappointed with where we are. I am profoundly disappointed with the actions, the attitude and the tone of the Secretary of State, and I am profoundly disappointed that the United Kingdom Government is not willing to act in the best interests of Wales in this matter.

Suzy Davies

I’m profoundly disappointed as well, Minister, because the bottom line here is that there is an empty chair on that board. Wales is not there. The board itself has an incomplete skill set and it’s missing a range of skills, which the Secretary of State clearly believed her preferred candidate had. That decision was made from a shortlist after open competition. They were interviewed by a panel, which included a Welsh Government representative. That panel will have agreed the candidates who were over the line and recommended accordingly. There was, as I say, a Welsh Government representative on that panel. In those circumstances, I think, Minister, you must give your reasons, beyond what you’ve already told us today, about why you disagreed with the Secretary of State’s individual conclusion. There is a skills gap on that board now. What was wrong with the individual candidate who was chosen, and what that individual could have offered? You may not have expressed a preference about who you would have liked to seen appointed. Will you tell this Assembly if there was a candidate you had a preference for, and whether any candidate on that shortlist might have had a closer relationship with your party than the one who was chosen? If not, if you’re not prepared to tell us those reasons today, I will draw my own conclusions on cronyism.

Alun Davies

I will not join the Conservative Party this afternoon in rubbishing individuals who apply for public appointments, and I will not join the Conservative Party in making those allegations against individuals who apply and who have a right. I believe that everybody who applies for public appointments has the right to expect their application to remain confidential. It is a matter of record that the United Kingdom Government sources have placed these names on the record and I regret that. I will not join you in doing so. But let me say this to the Conservative Party: the panel that interviewed the candidates and who made an agreement was very, very clear in who it felt were the stronger candidates and who it did not feel were the stronger candidates. My representative on that panel wrote to the Permanent Secretary of the DCMS the following day on 15 February. He said in that e-mail, ‘That makes this candidate’—and I’m paraphrasing—‘not appointable.’ That e-mail I can read from this afternoon. The Permanent Secretary to the DCMS replied to my official agreeing that the candidate in question was not the strongest candidate. It would not be acceptable for me, as a Minister, in this role to accept any candidate who is not the strongest candidate, whoever they might be. I understand the roles and responsibilities of this place. I recognise that we have to have the very best people on the BBC board. The BBC board needs a wide range of those different responsibilities, experiences and skills. But one of them, one of them, must have the role to be the very best representative that Wales can have on that board and I will not compromise on that.

Bethan Jenkins

I think from hearing the questions so far they exemplify the point made by Lee Waters as to why we do need to have pre-hearings within the parliamentary structures. The UK Parliament does have that condition when they are putting forward names and I think that’s something that we should be able to do. But I didn’t hear you answer the question with regard to whether you think that that is something that, now we’re in this new position, we should be able to do as a communications committee. We have written as a committee to the Scottish Parliament to ask what they’re processes are and whether they had a pre-parliamentary hearing. I would like to hear your views here today because whatever the names that are floating about, whatever the personalities involved, I think it’s important that, as a legislature, we have that view. Considering the fact that under the new charter there will be a new licence for Wales, there will be new conditions placed upon BBC Wales and this, surely, is a new hinterland by which we can have that discussion. I am very concerned to hear that they did not listen to your views as Minister. I would like to be satisfied here today that in any future process you will be able to work with them constructively and that we will not face this issue again, because, of course, it’s important that we do have the Welsh representative there, but we need a Welsh representative there who understands Wales and who can then bring our views forward on a more positive basis in the future. Thank you.

Alun Davies

It’s clear, Presiding Officer, that there’s a great deal of concern across the Chamber. I will, therefore, place my final letter to the Secretary of State, dated 7 March, in the library of the National Assembly for all Members to be able to take a view on that and the process that’s been followed. In terms of the question asked by both Bethan Jenkins and Lee Waters on the role of the communications committee, I see a significant role for that committee and for this legislature in holding to account the BBC and other broadcasters. I believe that this process in its entirety needs to be reviewed, and prior to us moving forward with a rerun of this process, we need prior agreement from the DCMS on the structure and nature of that process. I felt, quite frankly, that we could work on the basis of trust and respect between administrations in this country. It is clear to me that we cannot work on that basis and that we need to review the process. I feel very disappointed that we have not had the opportunity to have the conversation that we needed to have. The Secretary of State refused to discuss any other candidate with me, despite my repeated request to discuss any other candidate. Contrary to the views I hear being expressed opposite, I did not during the process, I have not today and I will not express a preference for any single candidate. I regard the best candidate for appointment as the one who I would want to see appointed to represent Wales, whoever he or she may be. But I certainly do see a significant role for the National Assembly for Wales in the future in holding Governments and broadcasters to account.