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Bbc Monitoring (Reading)

Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2003

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11 am

We now move to the second debate, which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who is already in the Chamber having been present for the previous debate. The subject is funding for BBC Monitoring. I was not sure whether it was reading or Reading, but I am advised that it is Reading.

It does seem rather greedy of me to have a slot in two different debates, but I am delighted to have the opportunity, and thank you for calling me to initiate the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The debate is intended to raise the issue of funding of BBC Monitoring, which is in Caversham on the edges of Reading. I raise the matter not least in relation to whether that funding will be sufficient for the salaries of the BBC staff working in the south-east outside London, particularly those working for BBC Monitoring, given the high cost of living in our area.

The issue affects a number of my constituents who work for BBC Monitoring, but it also affects the constituents of a number of other hon. Members in the region. They will be as aware as I am of the concerns of BBC staff and the campaign being run by the National Union of Journalists for a regional salary weighting. The Minister will be aware that those concerns were set out in early-day motion 502, tabled by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), which has the support of Members on both sides of the House. Sadly the hon. Lady is unable to be with us today as she is away on Council of Europe business. However I know that she supports wholeheartedly the remarks that I shall be making and she very much regrets not being able to be here in person.

I am however happy to see the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) in his place, and I know that he has asked permission to make a few remarks on behalf of his constituents—unusual in a half-hour Adjournment debate—when I have finished speaking. I shall try to leave him the three minutes that he has requested before the Minister replies, and I hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The first point that I want to make is that BBC Monitoring, which operates out of Caversham Park in Reading, provides a very valuable public service. Indeed, that is generally true of the BBC World Service, of which BBC Monitoring is a part. The Minister will be aware of the role played by this service in covering the war against Iraq, to take just one highly prominent and topical example.

The BBC Monitoring website states:
"We operate around the clock to monitor more than 3,000 radio, TV, press, Internet and news agency sources, translating from up to 100 languages."
As someone who struggles sometimes with English, let alone with so many different foreign languages, I can only gasp in awe at the thought of so much linguistic skill gathered together in one organisation. Something of that internationalism comes across when we consider that the organisation operates out of six main regional centres: Moscow, Tashkent, Baku, Kiev, Nairobi and its head office in Caversham Park, Reading. In-house language teams in Reading include Arabic, Kurdish, and Persian. The importance of such a service hardly requires emphasis given the foreign policy challenges that we face in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The crisis in the middle east highlights the importance of accurate, up-to-date information and of cross-cultural, trans-national communications for the future peace of the world. If we aspire to a world of mutual understanding and accommodation between different peoples, institutions such as the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring are surely worthy of political and public support. Accurate, impartial information is also critical to democracy, both here and abroad, because it provides the basis on which the public as well as Governments can make informed judgments and decisions about world affairs.

It follows that we should value and support the high quality, professional staff who work for BBC Monitoring and make the service the invaluable foreign news and information service that it is. Moreover, we should not forget that the operation runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the employees work plenty of antisocial hours.

The Minister is no doubt already aware of the problems that we face in recruiting and retaining public service workers such as police officers, teachers, nurses and local government officers to work in the south-east, where the cost of living, particularly housing, is so high. In fact, house prices in our part of the country are similar to, if not higher than, those in parts of outer London.

The same point applies to the staff at BBC Monitoring in Reading just as much as it does to those working in other public service jobs. However, it seems that financial discrimination is occurring between BBC World Service staff who work outside Greater London and those who work inside Greater London. That discrimination is based not on the cost of living—the two groups may live in the same place—but solely on where they happen to work.

Whereas BBC World Service staff based in London and all other BBC staff working in the capital receive a weighting of £3,250 if their basic salary is below £22,000—they receive a weighting of £2,912 if their salary is greater than £22,000—the same does not apply to their colleagues in Reading, who receive no such allowance. It should be noted that basic starting salaries for staff at BBC Monitoring, most of whom are graduates with previous professional experience, are well below the £22,000 threshold. Indeed, starting salaries for researchers are less than £17,000, those for assistant researchers are less than £15,000 and those for language monitors are less than £19,000.

How can it be justified for two sets of employees, who face equivalent costs of living and who work in the same publicly funded organisation, to be treated so differently when it comes to pay? It seems to be a gross injustice, and the case becomes even stronger when one considers that many other public sector employees are paid an allowance if they have to work in the south-east outside London. For example, policemen may not get the full London allowance in the Thames valley if they work in areas around London, but at least they are paid a special allowance over and above their basic, nationally agreed pay scales to make up for the higher cost of living and, as I have said, the higher cost of housing.

Apart from the discrimination between employees in different public services in calculating remuneration packages, there is also a discrepancy between the public and private sectors. Several major companies in the Reading and west Berkshire area, for example, pay some form of cost-of-living allowance to their staff. On those grounds, there is a strong case for paying a regional cost of-living allowance to BBC staff working in the south-east, including those at BBC Monitoring in Reading. The pay for those staff is, of course, a matter for the BBC, but staff at BBC Monitoring and the BBC World Service are in a slightly different position from other BBC staff in that they are funded not by the licence fee, which we all pay for our televisions, but by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. BBC Monitoring also receives some money from the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office and subscriptions. The question of Government support and funding for BBC Monitoring is therefore highly relevant to whether the BBC can afford to pay regional allowances of the sort that I am requesting.

Before I finish, may I give just one example, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the kind of problem to which the lack of funding of regional allowances leads? One of the employees at BBC Monitoring is a 40-year-old man who has not just one but two degrees. He joined the service towards the end of the last century and his salary is just under the £22,000 threshold. He lives, as he has always done since he joined the service, in a single room in a hostel on BBC premises. That man has an 11-year-old daughter, who normally lives with her mother about 100 miles from Reading, but she cannot visit him at the weekend because there is nowhere for her to stay. He has struggled to get a mortgage so that he can see his daughter regularly again, but on his current salary, he comes nowhere near being able to afford a mortgage of the size that he would need. Normal parental contact with his daughter is, for him, quite impossible, although had he been working in the same job, for the same organisation, in London, that vital family contact might have been maintained.

Given the events of the last two months, which we have been so keenly following on the television and radio and in the press, I am sure that we are all acutely aware of the value of the monitoring service to our country. The men and women involved might not have put their lives at risk in the same way as armed forces personnel, but they nevertheless deserve our heartfelt gratitude for all their efforts. We should not be treating them as we are treating that man and his daughter.

I hope that the Minister can assure us not only that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to fund this vital public service, but that it is concerned for the staff who make that service what it is and for the welfare of their families. I am sure that he agrees that the continued success of BBC Monitoring depends on its ability to recruit and retain highly qualified and professional staff. I hope that he will also agree that the high cost of living in the south-east is currently an obstacle to recruitment and retention, and that he will take this opportunity to pledge the Government's support for a pay structure that takes that into account.

Before I call the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), I should tell the House that he has obtained the permission of the Minister, the initiator of the debate and the Chair to participate in this half-hour debate.

11.12 am

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This must be the first time in my short parliamentary career that I have followed protocol to the letter to such an extent, and I thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and the Minister for being so flexible as to allow me to pinch a few moments of their time allocations.

This is a truly cross-party campaign. The hon. Member for Newbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) have met extensively with staff from BBC Monitoring in Caversham and I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Newbury and the tribute that he paid to the excellent work of the staff there. We thank them for the valuable briefing material that they have provided individually and through their trade union, the National Union of Journalists. That is in stark contrast to some of the nonsense that we have received from BBC management as a helpful guide to the debate.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the debate is part of a wider issue of regional pay. We need to examine how we can sustain recruitment and retention in our key public services, and we all agree that BBC Monitoring is a key public service. I, too, wish briefly to highlight for the Minister's attention the insanity in other public services. Teachers receive an outer London and an inner London weighting allowance. It is a supreme irony that outer London is more expensive than inner London, but the outer London allowance is lower. The Thames Valley police in Reading receive a supplement of £2,000 compared with one of £6,000 inside London. Even though house prices are actually higher in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newbury, the police there receive a supplement of only £1,000. There is no logic at all to that. Officers in the fire services in Bracknell, which apparently is now part of London, receive a London weighting allowance, but not those in Reading. Again, that is completely inconsistent. In the national health service, qualified staff receive a cost-of living supplement in Reading, but apparently London weighting does not apply to Reading unless one is in the NHS.

Governments of all political persuasions have prevaricated far too long on regional pay supplements. There is a serious recruitment and retention crisis in some key public services, not least in BBC Monitoring. This debate is about funding for BBC Monitoring. It will send a signal to the Minister, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments that provide funding for BBC Monitoring that, if they want its invaluable service to continue, they must ensure that the staff are able to live and work in the Reading area.

I shall end my short contribution with a quote from someone who works at BBC Monitoring. Members of the public often sum up a situation better than we can as politicians. The quote is from an e-mail that arrived in my office yesterday. It says:
"The general problems are the same as for teachers, nurses, etc."
—and for police officers.
"It costs as much to live in Reading as it does in London. People have virtually no hope of buying houses or renting houses unless you share"—
for the rest of one's life, presumably.
"With both my husband and myself on 'public sector' wages it is very difficult to live in this area."
This is the key point:
"It is ridiculous to continue paying London weighting to those only working inside of London when the financial boundaries of London have spread!"
It costs less to buy a house in some inner London boroughs than in Reading, Wokingham, Slough or Newbury. If we are to put public services first—I believe that the Labour party and the Government want to do that—it is time that we recognise the reality of the situation and put those who work in such services first. That is why the Chancellor's announcement in the Budget of the need seriously to review regional pay is most welcome. The challenge now to the Government and to Ministers is to turn that into reality so that services such as BBC Monitoring can continue to serve the public and this country.

11.16 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Bill Rammell)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on securing this very important debate. I listened carefully to what he said and noted the concern that he expressed on behalf of his constituents about the absence of a weighting allowance for BBC Monitoring staff, who work in an area of the south-east where property prices are high.

I am also aware of the campaign by local government trade unions for a £2,000 allowance for those who work in the south-east but outside London to compensate for additional living expenses. I know from what I have heard and from personal contacts that my hon. Friends the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) have played a significant part in that campaign and have lobbied extensively on its behalf.

In principle, I understand the concern. As a fellow Member of Parliament from the south-east, I am very conscious of the problems that high house prices and costs of living cause. However, I wish to begin by explaining the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the funding of BBC Monitoring and the extent of its responsibility to BBC Monitoring and its staff.

As the hon. Member for Newbury said, BBC Monitoring is formally part of the BBC World Service. However, there are important differences in their funding regimes. The World Service is funded by grant-in-aid for which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is directly responsible, but BBC Monitoring is funded under a semi-hard charging subscription regime by four stakeholders: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office and the BBC World Service. That quadripartite funding regime has been in place since 1997, following a review that was undertaken by a previous Government in 1994. It replaced the grant-in-aid that was funded jointly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence.

Under the current regime, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contributes approximately £7 million per annum to BBC Monitoring's total annual costs of some £22 million, and BBC Monitoring raises some external income through commercial activity, which is very welcome. As the hon. Member for Newbury outlined, BBC Monitoring supplies news, information and comment from the world's media. It covers a range of topics, including politics, elections, international security, terrorism, human rights, technology, the environment and economic affairs. It is the main open source provider of information for the Government and the BBC World Service. It provides a valuable service to its stakeholders and to others throughout Government. By tracking world events and reactions to them, including, importantly, perceptions of British foreign policy, it assists the Government in their decision-making processes.

The value to the BBC World Service is that BBC Monitoring contributes significantly to its news reporting. In conjunction with its US partner, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, BBC Monitoring works around the clock, very effectively, to provide worldwide coverage of media reports from across the globe. Expert linguists and journalists select major international news reports for translation into English. Altogether, as was noted earlier, BBC Monitoring has access to 3,000 sources from 150 countries, in 100 languages. Based on that track record, it well deserves the reputation that it has built up as a provider of timely and accurate news reports of world events.

The importance of that role has been underlined in recent times. The response of BBC Monitoring to an increased demand for monitoring of the Islamic media post-11 September deserves a special mention. It has been and continues to be of great importance to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Islamic media unit. Recently, BBC Monitoring provided coverage of the crisis in Iraq from the foreign media, reporting developments and regional and international reaction to those developments, and providing the texts of speeches, statements and interviews, as well as press reviews and media round-ups. It has been able to provide a picture of what the media in the region have been saying. At a time of acute crisis throughout the world, that has been a particularly positive contribution.

It is worth relating some of the feedback and comments about the quality of the service. No. 10 Downing street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have found the media behaviour material "extremely useful"; the Ministry of Defence has complimented the "dawn" middle east regional digest and Iraq reports on casualties; and the Cabinet Office finds the digest "very clear". Material from BBC Monitoring has alerted the Foreign Office to key developments and has been judged "critically useful and timely". BBC World Service, one of the other stakeholders, has made record use of the alerts and greatly values the clear reports and information that BBC Monitoring has provided. At a time when users are flooded with material, the BBC World Service values short round-ups and dispatches, such as those now provided by the newsgathering reporters based at Caversham. The Ministry of Defence has also pointed out that while many people are focused on events in Iraq, it also relies on BBC Monitoring for continuing coverage of other developments around the world.

It is gratifying that Departments value the work of BBC Monitoring. May I just put a scenario to the Minister? If the work were to tail off, if staff were unable to afford to live in the Reading area and the quality of service started to degenerate as a result, what would be the Government's response to the BBC management, in relation to the quadripartite funding arrangement, in respect of the pay and conditions of staff?

My hon. Friend anticipates some of the comments that I am about to make. There are significant concerns, but there is not yet evidence that there has been an impact on recruitment and retention. I will come on to that important point.

The key point I wanted to get across is that we very strongly value the work that BBC Monitoring undertakes. However, as I explained earlier, BBC Monitoring is funded under a semi-hard charging subscription regime by the four stakeholders. BBC Monitoring staff salaries and allowances are funded from the £22 million provided by the four stakeholders. The key point is that it is the responsibility of the BBC to set the salary scales and allowances, and Government stakeholders, including the Foreign Office, have no say in the matter. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office therefore considers the matter of pay and allowances for staff to be an internal management issue. Indeed, were there to be a change in the regional allowance or London weighting for BBC Monitoring staff, my understanding of the current structure of the BBC is that that would entail similar changes for BBC staff throughout the organisation, which would clearly have implications for the licence fee. We do not have power to intervene directly in the issue of pay. Rates of remuneration and conditions of employment for BBC staff are strictly a matter for the corporation.

I understand the genuine desire for higher pay and the problem of high living costs in London and the south-east, as I made clear at the beginning of my speech. I am not endorsing what the BBC is doing, but the current pay regime does not seem to affect adversely staff recruitment and retention by BBC Monitoring at a time of record low unemployment. In 2002, BBC Monitoring received 890 applications for 13 editorial posts and 274 applications for six IT posts. Turnover relative to other organisations and sectors is not high. I understand that BBC Monitoring is not aware of any staff who have left on the grounds that their salary did not meet the cost of living in the Thames valley. Indeed, I understand from the BBC—this is important to both hon. Members—that no formal representation has been made by the NUJ at Caversham to the BBC about payment of the south-east weighting allowance, although the matter was raised by trade union representatives at a meeting with the former director, Andrew Hills, earlier this year. If the issue is to be taken up, it must be taken up by the relevant trade unions, with the support of the hon. Members, directly with the BBC.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Newbury said about the need for increased pay and I respect his intention in raising the issue, but it is part of a pattern of Liberal Democrat campaigning. When I listen to Liberal Democrat Members, there is a sense that more can always be done for any interest group, whatever it is and wherever it may be. However, if the end is willed, the means must be willed, and that is the problem with some of the arguments from Liberal Democrat Members. The clear implication of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that there should be an increase in Government funding to provide extra money for BBC Monitoring—the hon. Gentleman nods—so that increased finance can be made available on top of the significant increase that has been agreed in the current three-year spending round for the World Service, which is a part-contributor to BBC Monitoring.

It is indicative that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), the Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor, made it clear that, despite the arguments for extra Government spending, the Liberal Democrats are not calling for additional Government spending. In a letter to his colleagues about the alternative Budget in 2003 he said:
"Unlike recent years, the budget proposals cannot simply be based on our past programme of tax increases…We have already agreed at shadow Cabinet to start from the premise that the Government are now putting in vast real terms expenditure increases…simply proposing further spending…rises at this stage of the Parliament is unrealistic."
It is all very well coming forward and arguing for increased spending, but the argument lacks credibility unless they can identify where that money will come from.

I think that it was clear in our alternative Budget that we intend to increase some aspects of Government funding and that some tax increases would go through if the Liberal Democrats were now in power. That would not apply across the board and they would not necessarily be the same tax increases as we suggested in our previous manifesto.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he gives me the opportunity to confirm that within the alternative Liberal Democrat budget no additional funding was identified for BBC Monitoring. He may challenge me on that fact if he wishes.

I hold out one avenue of opportunity for hon. Members to pursue. A review is being undertaken of BBC Monitoring at the request of the Cabinet Office following a realignment of stakeholder contributions in 2001. That review is being carried out by an independent consultant who will report before the end of June. Hon. Members clearly have genuine concerns about the matter and if they make written representations to me, I shall be more than happy to ensure that they are put in front of the consultant. I cannot give a commitment that there will be a change, but I can ensure that their views are put in front of the consultant and considered as part of the review. I am more than happy to conclude on that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.