House of Commons
Wednesday 21 June 2006
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
The visitor books belong to the Dorneywood trust and are not Government documents. I believe that they include the details of visitors going back many years, who are mostly personal guests. Successive Ministers of various Governments have used Dorneywood mostly for that purpose rather than for official visitors.
I do not understand the Deputy Prime Minister’s reluctance to give us the information. Even the Prime Minister, who is not known for being straight with answers, tells us who has been to Chequers. I should have thought that the Deputy Prime Minister would want to tell us about the heads of state and important people whom he has been entertaining—or are all the visitors working-class mates whom he invited over for croquet?
That was a particularly cheap question. This House’s concern is public expenditure, and no public expenditure was involved with any of those who have been visitors at Dorneywood during my time—particularly where there have been personal visitors, I have paid the bill, and properly so. I do not think that such matters are accountable to this House, which has been the position with all previous Cabinet Ministers who have used Dorneywood. I reiterate the point that the visitors book is the property of the trust. The hon. Gentleman has confirmed his reputation in this House for being famously boring, as The Times has said.
Ministerial attendance at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing has not been finalised. I can, however, give my hon. Friend the assurance that I will not compete in any of the events. He may be aware that I visited the site of the Beijing Olympics in February this year, which included a meeting with Premier Wen and the mayor of Beijing, to discuss how to improve the links between our capital cities, and how to ensure a truly sustainable legacy for the Olympic games in both cities. I have since written to the mayor of Beijing setting out some proposals on that “sustainability bridge”, and I have also discussed the ideas with the Mayor of London, who visited Beijing himself in April for further discussions on Olympic links between London and Beijing.
That was a very good answer. My friend carries a heavy responsibility for the UK’s relationship with China, and I know that he met a high-level delegation from the National People’s Congress last week. Will he tell the House what was the most significant thing that came out of his discussions with the representatives of the National People’s Congress?
The significant thing about my visits to China, of which there have been nine since we have been in government, is that they have been about relations between China and the United Kingdom, which have improved considerably—I am prepared to accept that that was not solely due to my actions. I discussed those relationships and other matters, such as human rights, with the delegation mentioned by my hon. Friend. I think that those discussions have led to an improvement, and I look forward to further visits to China for further discussions.
The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he will remain in his position as long as the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) remains Prime Minister. If he is going to attend the Beijing Olympics in an official capacity, does it mean the Prime Minister will still be there? And if so, has anyone told the current Chancellor of the Exchequer?
I did not say that.
If my right hon. Friend gets to China for the Olympics, and I hope that he does, even if he is not competing, I hope that he will speak to the Chinese authorities about building sustainability into planning for the Olympics. We must learn how to make major international events truly sustainable to mitigate the impact on climate change, a subject in which he is clearly well versed.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. In the discussions with Premier Wen and the mayor of Beijing, we considered establishing principles for the Olympic villages in London and Beijing to reflect sustainability and environmental targets. We have reached an agreement, and I hope that the two Olympic sites will show the Olympic movement that it is possible to build villages that meet the highest levels of sustainability and environmental objectives.
If the right hon. Gentleman gets to the Olympics, will he convey the message from all parties that we are proud to have the 2012 Olympics in this country? Will he respond to the deep disappointment on both sides of the House that he will not take part in either the boxing or the croquet, which used to be an Olympic sport, particularly bearing in mind law 1(c) of the rules of Oxford croquet—when a player has scored enough points, he is officially described as “pegged out” and has to be removed from the game? Would it not be fairer to the British taxpayer if he were now removed from the game?
I will obviously leave others to make judgments about that. With regard to the croquet, the set was provided by the ex-Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Members of my Department wished to play croquet, and I think that we enjoyed the game, quite frankly. I know that a lot was made of it being during working hours, but I notice that there are not many people here today during working hours. Perhaps some are at Ascot, and the Daily Mail will be there photographing them—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr. Skinner, you must be quiet. You must allow—[Interruption.] Order.
Tell the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) to shut his mouth.
No, I will tell no one—[Interruption.] Order. I tell the hon. Gentleman to be quiet. I will put it much more politely than he is putting it. He has got to be quiet. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is getting very childish. He has got to allow the Deputy Prime Minister to answer the question. Is the Deputy Prime Minister fine with his answer?
Good. I call Andrew Gwynne.
CHANCELLOR OF THE DUCHY OF LANCASTER
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
The new office of the third sector will build on steps taken since 1997, including significantly increased resources and the compact on joint working, to ensure that we can support the third sector’s role in all aspects of our national life, whether it is helping to deliver public services, running social enterprises, or campaigning for social justice.
I welcome that answer, not least because we have some very good and active third sector and community organisations in Tameside and Stockport. However, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that in working with the third sector, Government and councils make it clear that they will not abdicate their responsibilities to fund those services adequately, but, as in my constituency, work in partnership with the third sector to deliver those improved public services?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The third sector can play an important role in innovating and getting close to the user, which the public sector sometimes cannot. For Labour Members, the fact that we have increased public spending since 1997 to deliver improved public services is absolutely consistent with an increased role for the third sector in delivery. Using the third sector is not about Government abdicating their responsibilities to fund public services adequately.
Will the Minister look at the situation concerning voluntary and charitable organisations whereby a person who serves in different categories has to be checked with the Criminal Records Bureau on every single occasion? Is not that over-bureaucratic and unnecessary?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about the operation of the Criminal Records Bureau in relation to volunteers. One of the important things about the CRB is that volunteers do not get charged for having the check done. She is right that there is a balance to be struck between the necessary protections that we need and ensuring that it is not done in a bureaucratic way. We are working with the CRB on streamlining the process for the voluntary sector and will continue to work on that in the coming months.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to listen to campaigning bodies such as Make Poverty History? Does he further agree that it was an absolute disgrace that last week, when we supported the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) on the practical application of making poverty history, the Scottish National party was not represented?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the role that campaigning organisations play. I hope that there can be consensus about this in the House. I was concerned to see the remarks by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who is not in the House today, and who said of Make Poverty History:
“My concern is that if everybody comes together for one movement you get only one concept prevailing and it locks out alternative thinking.”
In my view, Make Poverty History, as an umbrella group for the development movement, was incredibly effective and led to the massive strides that have been made in the past couple of years on debt and development.
I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that the Conservatives are very supportive of Make Poverty History. Will he acknowledge the role of social enterprise in tackling social exclusion, creating jobs, and delivering public services? Does he agree that there is a strong case for increasing the scale and scope of social enterprise by creating social enterprise zones? Will he look at ways of removing barriers to the expansion of the sector by simplifying often complex and fragmented funding flows by offering longer-term contracts and creating a more level playing field at the community level? How can any of that be achieved when eight Departments—according to research by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner)—do not monitor and refuse to keep central records of their contracts with the third sector?
That was a long and complicated question. [Hon. Members: “Answer it.”] I will. The hon. Gentleman says that the Conservative party is united behind Make Poverty History, but the man appointed to be in charge of social justice for the party said that it locked out alternative voices. That does not sound like unity behind Make Poverty History.
There has been a big growth in social enterprise in the past eight or nine years, partly because of what has been done. That includes the Phoenix fund, the support for community development finance institutions and the work of regional development agencies. Part of the role of the new office of the third sector is to bring together the work on social enterprise in one Department so that there is a further increase in social enterprise in the coming years.
The Government’s drive to end child poverty by 2020 is based on work for those who can, financial support for families, excellent public services and support for parents in their parenting role. That strategy has lifted 800,000 children out of poverty since 1997.
However, the Government will never be satisfied until we have eliminated child poverty and we are now refocusing our efforts on those who have yet to benefit.
We always rightly argue that the best pathway out of poverty is work. Yet, in South Tyneside, four out of 10 children have no parent in work. What will the Minister do to create special measures for South Tyneside to solve the problem?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the role of worklessness in tackling child poverty. There are specific problems in South Tyneside—as he knows, I know the area well. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform so that we can work with people in South Tyneside—for example, employers and other partners—to get people into work and to sustain them in work, thus enabling them to lift themselves and their children out of poverty. Tackling worklessness and inactivity, especially among those on benefits, remains our top priority and we are determined to work on that so that all children, including those in South Tyneside, get the life chances that they deserve.
I am glad to hear that the Minister is not satisfied with the Government’s record—she has considerable reason not to be. The Government have already missed their target for cutting child poverty and there is not one hon. Member who has not experienced cases in their surgery of poor families who are hit by demands for thousands of pounds because of Government failures in the tax credit system, which place people in extreme poverty. Is it the system that needs changing or the Ministers in charge of it?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. He knows that we are not satisfied and we will continue to strive to do better. I know that he respects the academic John Hills from the London School of Economics, whose recent book states:
“The package of support for low-income working families with children is now one of the most generous in the world.”
That has been critical to tackling the problem. The hon. Gentleman also knows that tax credits benefit 6 million families with 10 million children. In total, 20 million people live in households that benefit from tax credits. Of course we want to do better. I look forward to his working with us to ensure that we can eliminate child poverty.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the provision of adequate and affordable child care is a key issue, and that its absence is a possible barrier to parents moving into work? Although there has been a substantial increase in such child care under this Government, will she work with the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that its provision continues to improve and increase, so that that barrier can be removed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Child care provision under this Government has increased substantially, and we have put in place a framework to enable access to child care for every family throughout the country. The Sure Start programme has played an important part in achieving that. We particularly want to enable lone parents to get back into work, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) highlighted, worklessness is a particular problem for lone parents. So we will continue the drive to increase the opportunities for the children of lone parents, and child care is part of that package.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
The cost will be accounted for in the Department’s annual report and accounts in the usual way, as with previous Governments.
The Minister for Europe is being evicted from Admiralty house. Why is not the Deputy Prime Minister joining him?
That is a choice that has presumably been made by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Europe. I will be staying in that house. It goes with the job that I am doing, and I think that it is effective—[Hon. Members: “What job?”] I would make the point to the hon. Gentleman that the Admiralty hires out rooms in Admiralty house for 200-odd events a year, both public and private. I am aware that none has been hired out to any modelling agencies. I understand that, as the hon. Gentleman looks like the England manager, Sven, he worked for a modelling agency. But I believe that he did not get any bookings. Perhaps after last night’s result, he will get a few more. We congratulate the England team.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister remind us who said:
“It is obscene that priority is given to their second homes over housing the homeless”,
when talking about ministerial residences in 1994? Given that it is now apparently Government policy to re-allocate the homes of the dead after they have been left empty for a time, is it not time to re-allocate the homes of the politically dead? That would involve the whole of Admiralty house. Is it not a bit rich for the taxpayer to have to pay to hold at bay the scramble in the Cabinet to take over the Deputy Prime Minister’s job?
I own one house—that has always been the case—and one car, not two. But we just have to live with the image presented by the press and put forward in this House from time to time. The right hon. Gentleman made a point about taking over homes, and the Department has just made an announcement on that issue. It involves houses that have been empty for years. We are attempting to improve the streets, but in some cases we do not know who owns the house in question. In other cases, the owners have refused to improve the property. We have now decided to take over the management of such houses, improve them and bring them up to the standards that we want for those homes. They will then become available to the owners if they wish to take them back. The payment for the improvements will come from the rents that we will impose on them. This is about the management of those properties, not their takeover, and it will improve the areas that we are talking about.
As for the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the politically dead, perhaps now that he has been confirmed as the senior member of the shadow Cabinet, he will remove from his website the statement that he is still the leader of the Conservative party. Perhaps he will also tell us how successful he will be in getting an agreement for his party to come out of the European People’s party, a job that he has been given but has so far failed to achieve.
I have begun to implement a new way of working for the Cabinet Committees that I chair, with the express purpose of improving the cross-working between Government Departments, as the Prime Minister has asked me to do. As the House will be aware, the Prime Minister has written to the Secretaries of State asking them to identify the key challenges ahead and how they propose to deliver the necessary results. Tackling these challenges will clearly require cross-departmental agreement on how to drive forward change, and I will be closely involved in that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I am also aware that he is the lead negotiator on Kyoto, so what is he doing to ensure that Government Departments are complying with the Kyoto agreement and doing all they can to address issues of climate change?
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out Britain’s contribution to the Kyoto agreement. I am pleased to see that former Vice-President Gore is in the UK and I am looking forward to meeting him tomorrow so that I can proudly tell him how the Government have not only met the Kyoto target established then, but at twice the level, which is quite an achievement. We need to talk more about the post-Kyoto agreements and I believe that every Government Department has more to do in order to achieve the target that we set for ourselves—a 60 per cent. reduction on 1990 levels by 2050. I shall be calling the Departments together and we have already had our first meeting with the Secretaries of State to see how Departments can do more to achieve those targets. Also on the agenda is reaching agreement on the EU emissions trading scheme, which has to be decided by next week.
Since the Deputy Prime Minister’s role was reduced, the Government seem to have been in increasing trouble. Does he believe that his new policy role has helped or hindered the Government?
Governments go through difficulties from time to time and the hon. Gentleman must have had some experience of that with Tory Administrations. I would point out that we have won three general elections, and with policies that will deliver, we are on our way to winning the fourth.
The House will be aware that it was a Labour Government who introduced the landmark Equal Pay Act 1970 and the minimum wage, opposed by Conservative Members, which led to pay increases for over 1 million women. Since 1997, we have introduced further measures to combat discrimination: the Civil Partnership Act 2004, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and the Equality Act 2006, all of which set down new rights for many people.
There remains more to do to tackle the problem that women who work full time still earn 13 per cent. less than men who work full-time.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. Does he agree that, although at least Labour Members are committed to equal pay and equality in general, a lot more needs to be done, as he said, to address the inequalities that unfortunately still exist?
I agree absolutely that more needs to be done, as was made clear in Margaret Prosser’s Women and Work Commission report. An awful lot needs to be done, which is why we are paying careful attention to her recommendations. My hon. Friend will be aware that the European Court is due to rule on an important case—the Cadman case—relating to the issue of whether the length of service in pay scales discriminates against women. The judgment will have significant consequences for Departments and we recently held discussions in the Cabinet Committee to find the best way forward. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, but much remains to be done and the Cabinet Committee is working to achieve it.
Given the Government’s laudable commitment to equal pay for work of equal value, why is the gender pay gap among part-time employees higher in the public sector than in the private?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Since the 1970 Act was passed, Government Departments have not done as much as they could to close the gap. It is necessary to act now because each Department has different pay negotiations and different ways of dealing with the problem. We need to make some changes to achieve a more common policy. More cross-government activity is needed and it is my job to try to achieve it.
Duchy of Lancaster
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
The Government’s goal, as set out in their national digital strategy published in April last year, is to be the first nation to close the digital divide. A specific commitment of the strategy is to improve accessibility for digitally excluded groups such as the elderly. We have also made Government funding available for various digital inclusion initiatives, including significant funding through the new deal for communities for the Shoreditch Digital Bridge initiative in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I had the pleasure of visiting last week.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend had the opportunity to visit the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project last week. What lessons can be learned from that about rolling out the best parts of that practice to other constituencies where there is a big digital divide, as there is in Hackney, South and Shoreditch?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This agenda is about not just technology, but power. That is why initiatives such as the Digital Bridge are important; why the Government have 6,000 UK online centres around the country, giving access to new technology; and why we have an important digital challenge project, which has shortlisted 10 projects to increase the use of new technology in the community, and we will name an overall winner early next year.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
Would the Prime Minister add to his engagements a prison visit to respond to the criticism of Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, who said that for the Prime Minister to demand more and longer custodial sentences is incoherent when prisons are chronically overcrowded and prisoners are being released prematurely, and to heed Lord Ramsbotham’s advice that the best contribution that the Prime Minister can make to the sentencing process is, in his words, to shut up?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation, but it will not surprise him when I say that I do not agree with that. It is worth pointing out, however, that there are more people in prison, and there are more prison places. The amount of time that people are spending in prison is longer, but when there is justifiable concern about sentencing, it would be very odd if we as politicians did not raise it.
We are doing a number of things. First, obviously, we have introduced family-friendly policy that has allowed paternity leave for the first time, that has expanded maternity pay and that has expanded maternity leave. There are, of course, also extra places in nursery provision and in child care. And, of course, there are the Sure Start places. I want to make it clear that Labour Members are fully in favour of Sure Start—we believe that it does an excellent job—and I hope very much that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will withdraw his criticism of the Wythenshawe Sure Start, which I also believe is doing a superb job for its local community.
Two weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would back Conservative proposals for tougher sentences for knife crime. He said that there were difficult issues. This week, the Home Secretary announced that he would work with us to strengthen the law. Will the Prime Minister confirm that that will be done before the Violent Crime Reduction Bill completes its passage through Parliament?
In fairness, I think that what I said was that I would consider that, but that there were difficulties with it. Those difficulties can be overcome, and we are perfectly happy to work with the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to get the legislation through the House as quickly as possible.
I am delighted that we are going to work together on knife crime.[Interruption.]
In January, I asked the Prime Minister—this is another area where we can perhaps work together—to think again on Government proposals to force police forces to merge. That huge distraction has already wasted police time and taxpayers’ money. On Monday, the Home Secretary—who is now keeping up a running commentary, I am pleased to see—accepted our arguments for a review. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at the very least, no forced amalgamations will take place until after that review is complete?
No. It is important, obviously, that we listen to the concerns that are expressed by people, and we said that we would. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has not got a complaint about that, but my understanding is that his shadow spokesman on law and order has said that we should not proceed with any such merger at all. I do not agree with that. As the Home Secretary says, we should take greater time to consider the representations that have been made to us; but for all the reasons that were given, not least by the inspector of constabulary, there is a good case for considering this proposal, and that is why it would be wrong for us as a Government to rule it out.
Incidentally, while we are talking about how we can work together on law and order, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now withdraw what he said last week in the House, which was that the person in the Sweeney case would be released earlier as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. That is completely wrong. As a result of that Act, he can be given an indeterminate sentence, which is why he will now not be automatically paroled.
I think the Prime Minister should concentrate on his own Ministers, who have been giving a completely conflicting version of events.
I am glad that the Prime Minister is being flexible, and is prepared to back down. We read today of a review of the entire Home Office. Will the Prime Minister ensure that it includes consideration of suggestions for long-term improvements in security, including our proposal for a single border police force? Unlike forced mergers, which are opposed by police chiefs, that proposal is now backed by the Metropolitan police, by the former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and by the Labour-controlled Select Committee on Home Affairs. Will the Prime Minister join the growing consensus?
Of course it is important for all the long-term issues involving the Home Office to be considered very carefully. The reason why we have opposed a single border agency force is simple: having put in an immense amount of money and extra staff, we believe that the best way of dealing with such matters is through intelligence-led operations, which have proved extremely successful. It is true that we need to do much more, and we are looking at that, but if we want to protect our borders properly, the electronic border system that we are introducing will be important. I should also say that if we want to keep track of people in this country, in the end we will have to face up to the difficult decision on identity cards. If the right hon. Gentleman is still against that, he cannot be serious about ensuring that we know exactly who is and who should be in our country.
If the Prime Minister wants to know who is still here, he should not have abolished embarkation controls. In a week when a senior chief constable has said that policy is being made on the hoof—[Interruption.]
Order. The Leader of the Opposition must be allowed to speak.
In a week when a senior chief constable has said—[Interruption.]
Order. [Hon. Members: “He is wrong.”] Being wrong does not deny a Member the right to speak in the House. If that were so, very few Members would be able to speak.
There are now so many former Home Secretaries shouting that it is quite difficult to keep track.
In a week when a senior chief constable has said that policy is being made on the hoof, real strategy has been abandoned and professionals are in despair, it is clear that real change is needed at the Home Office. The Prime Minister has had nine years and countless initiatives. Can he honestly blame people for concluding that he has taken his eye off the ball, that he is out of touch, and that he cannot be the right person to sort things out?
While we are on the subject of former Home Secretaries, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman—and I think this is why my right hon. Friends were shouting at him—that the Home Secretary who began the process of removing embarkation controls was his predecessor as leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I do not think that that was a very wise point to make.
As for the Home Office, as a result of the changes that have been made crime is down, there are record numbers of police, asylum claims are now processed far more quickly, and we have reduced the number of asylum claims dramatically over the past few years. I agree that it is important to establish whether we can go further. I merely say to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that I hope he will not do what he has done before, which is to attack us in public for not being toff—tough enough—[Laughter]—or even toff enough! Whether toff or tough, the fact is—[Interruption.] I do not think we should get involved in a competition in that regard.
Whatever the right hon. Gentleman says in public about our policy on law and order—when he tries to suggest that we have not been tough enough—what he actually does in the House and, in particular, with his colleagues in the other place is vote against each and every measure that is necessary.
Incidentally, while we are on that subject, the right hon. Gentleman should correct something else that he did last week. He tried to suggest that the Sentencing Guidelines Council was the reason why he voted against the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Actually, he was in favour of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and his party’s spokesman at the time said that it was “admirable”. The reason why Conservative Members voted against the 2003 Act was the issue of withdrawal of trial by jury—on which, incidentally, they were also wrong. It was not because the measures were too soft; it was because they were too tough.
After nine years, three huge majorities and 54 pieces of criminal justice legislation, is it not the case that the Prime Minister has no one to blame but himself?
And it is as a result of those measures that crime is down, after doubling under the Tories. They cut police numbers, whereas we have raised them. It is as a result of the antisocial behaviour legislation that we have a chance to deal with antisocial behaviour, but the right hon. Gentleman voted against that legislation. The next time we bring forward measures in this House, the test will be whether he and his colleagues are prepared to vote on the basis of what they say. Given his past record, they will not do so.
If it is all going so well, why has the Home Secretary said that his Department is not fit for purpose? Today, he is trying to revamp the whole of his failing Department.
Of course, as the Home Secretary rightly said, there are huge challenges, such as organised crime and illegal immigration. If we are to tackle them, we need measures such as the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which toughened up the sentences for violent and sexual offences. However, what did the right hon. Gentleman do when that was before the House of Commons? He voted against it. So when we bring forward the new measures, he will be on test, as will his leadership and his party.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome last week’s introduction of environmental performance certificates for domestic dwellings? They will ensure, for the first time, that people buying a home will have the same information about its environmental performance as they would have about a fridge that they wanted to buy. Does he regret the opposition to the introduction of home information packs, of which the certificates will form a key part, because that opposition ignores the packs’ impact on the environment and because the HIP will be the most efficient way to get EPCs in front of consumers?
My hon. Friend is right, and HIPs have been welcomed by the National Consumer Council. Denmark is one of the countries that have introduced the packs, where they have been immensely successful. We are giving them a dry run this year, and they will be introduced fully next year. He is absolutely right as well about the energy saving requirements that will be part of the pack. This country is introducing that information some two years earlier than the European directive stipulates.
Can the Prime Minister recall a time when there was as much acrimony as there is now between the Home Office on the one hand, and the police and judiciary on the other? How is that to be resolved?
It is to be resolved, I hope, by meeting the public’s genuine concerns about the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks a general question about the Home Office and judges, but if the public knew the Liberal Democrats’ voting record in this House on law and order policies, they would not give him or his colleagues the time of day on the issue.
I am happy to defend my voting record, and the Prime Minister should defend his, given what he said when he was in opposition. As a result of the events of the past few weeks, is not it clear that we need wholesale reform of the Home Office, including the creation of a separate ministry of justice?
No, I do not agree with that at all. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he and his colleagues are proud of their voting record, but I should like to see the leaflets that the Liberal Democrats put around during the recent local elections saying how proud they were that they voted against the antisocial behaviour legislation. Let him show me the leaflets saying how they voted against the powers to close crack houses, and against antisocial behaviour orders and the drunk and disorderly provisions. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman shows me those leaflets, I will pay some attention to what he says.
As I think I said before, there should be the fullest possible debate on the issue. I am sure that there will be and that, yes, the decision will have to be taken in this Parliament.
Of course, as a result of devolution those decisions will be taken in accordance with the legislation that outlines the respective powers of the Scottish Executive, the UK Parliament and the UK Executive. I point out to the hon. Lady that Scotland has nuclear power stations now, and a large part of the whole country’s electricity depends on them.
Actually, I did not have the chance to meet them, but it is unwise of Opposition Members to shout and bawl, since those are their new partners in the European Union.
Liveability is the ability of local communities to be free from crime and fear, which is precisely why we introduced legislation. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues voted against that one, but it would not surprise me if they did—[Interruption.]
What can my right hon. Friend say to sufferers of mesothelioma and their families in my constituency and elsewhere, in view of the devastating message that they received from the Lords recently?
We are well aware of the serious concern about that matter and, as a result, there will be an amendment to the Compensation Bill, which will, in effect, reverse the ruling in that recent case. That is extremely important because otherwise many thousands of people would suffer unnecessarily. Along with what we have done for miners’ compensation over many years, that is an indication that we recognise that there are people in this country who have worked very hard and suffered grave and debilitating illnesses as a result. It is right that we stand by them and protect them.
No, I am still trying to catch up with his wages.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Liberal and Tory-controlled Luton council is ending school uniform grants, thus hitting the poorest families hardest? Will he consider making school uniform grants compulsory and does he agree that, while the Government are getting on with tackling child poverty, the Opposition just pose?
It is important that we continue to support some of the poorest families; as a result of the policies, for example, in relation to child tax credit, hundreds of thousands of the poorest families receive that help and protection. I very much hope that we continue to give support through the children’s tax credit. I think that I am right in saying that something like 3 million of the 7 million poorest families actually pay no income tax at all as a result of the help that we are giving them. In our judgment, that is the right way to help some of the poorest families to cope with their difficulties. What my hon. Friend says in relation to the Conservative and Lib Dem-controlled council does not surprise me at all; they do that in many other places.
Order. The hon. Gentleman should get to the point.
I will, and it is this: what sort of tabloid campaign would it take for the Government to put in place key recommendations before further tragedies, instead of expressing regret afterwards?
We are actually implementing those recommendations, but let me just explain to the hon. Gentleman—since he gives me a chance to say this again—some of the measures that the Liberal Democrats have voted against. [Interruption.] He cannot complain that we are not being tough enough and then object when I point out that when we introduced measures that, for example, allow us to give indeterminate sentences to violent and sexual offenders, he and his colleagues voted against that legislation. I am very sorry, but if he wants to raise these issues, he will get that reply.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right both in what she says and the tone in which she says it. I am sure that everybody condemns what was an appalling and totally unjustifiable attack. In fairness to the football fans from England, as well, the vast majority of them behave extremely well. The way in which the present World cup is being conducted is absolutely excellent and it is a great tribute not just to the German authorities, who are conducting it and in charge of it, but to the English fans who have travelled there. I pay tribute to all those who lawfully and properly are football supporters. She is absolutely right in what she says about that particular case.
No, it is not, and I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that, because I know that he supported the presence of British troops, and I say this in no disrespect to him at all. The fact is, at long last, we have for the first time ever in Iraq a fully elected democratic Government bringing together the Sunni, the Shi’a and the Kurds. They are the people who are the democratic representatives of the Iraqis today. Their view—all of them, incidentally, said this to me when I was in Baghdad recently—is that they want us to stay and see the job done, because there is difficulty in Iraq today not because the British authorities have fallen down on the job, or even, frankly, the Iraqi authorities, but because there are people there who want to terrorise and to stop democracy taking root for some of the same sorts of reasons that see those people engaged in criminal or terrorist acts the world over. We have to understand that the fight there, as in Afghanistan, is part of the wider struggle against that type of global terrorism. The worst message that we could send—I say this with respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—is that we are going to walk away when the people who are democratically elected want us to stay. We stay and get the job done, and I believe that that is the British way.
When the law in the Barker case has been reversed, will my right hon. Friend consider introducing a fast-track scheme to make speedy payments to mesothelioma sufferers and their families?
I will certainly look very carefully at my hon. Friend’s suggestion, because I know that he has worked very hard, both on those cases and on the miners’ compensations cases. I will not give him a reply straight away, but I will look at the matter carefully and get back in touch with him.
I can only look into that particular case, because obviously I do not know about it. There can be reasons why people are not immediately deported that are to do with the country to which they are being returned. It is quite important that before we take it as read that a person immediately goes once there is a deportation order, we realise that there can sometimes be reasons why they are not returned immediately that have nothing to do with the immigration authorities or the Home Office. The important thing is that such people should be in custody until the moment at which they can be returned.
In Berlin, 80 per cent. of the new buildings that are going up are generating their own energy. In the Netherlands, energy is generated from motorways, schools, health centres and even car parks. A whole eco city is being built in China, but in the UK, not one of our major spending Departments, with the exception of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is investing in energy self-generation. Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to the climate change issue, will he get his civil servants to look at generating some energy about generating their own energy?
Actually, the Chancellor announced that we are putting significant sums into microgeneration. I cannot remember the exact amount, but we are spending somewhere in the region of several hundred million pounds on research into renewable energy. My hon. Friend is quite right about the interesting things that are happening in other countries, as is the case here. When the energy review is published, he will see that as well as dealing with the difficult issue of nuclear power, there will be a great emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable energy. The frank and brutal truth is that we will have to act through a whole range of measures to ensure that we can both guarantee energy supplies and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
First, I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about what was obviously a shocking crime. I agree that we are providing more prison places precisely because those who need to be in prison should be in prison. However, I point out that as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, such people can now be given indeterminate sentences, in which case they are not automatically paroled, but released only when they are no longer a danger to the community. It was precisely because of cases such as the one that he mentioned that we introduced the provision, and I think that I am right in saying that almost 1,000 people have been subject to it.
Yes—uncontroversially. I think that yes is the only safe answer to that.
It is not as if an immense amount has not been done already, for the reasons that I gave earlier. For example, there has been a lot of criticism about the immigration and nationality directorate for perfectly understandable reasons, but let us be clear about the situation that we inherited and what now happens. It used to be the case that the average asylum application—[Interruption.] I am explaining what we have done in nine years, so the right hon. Gentleman should listen.
An asylum application used to take 20 months, but the average time in the vast majority of cases is now two months. We used to remove only one in five failed asylum seekers, but we now remove more than the number of unfounded applications that come in. Unlike the previous Government, who were about to sack people from the immigration department, we have increased the numbers to deal with the situation. That is what we have done in nine years, and we will do more over the next nine.
On Monday last week, my right hon. Friend met the leaders of big corporations such as Tesco and Sainsbury to encourage them to join the boards of foundation hospitals. When is he going to call to No. 10 Downing street some of the representatives of the people who know something about the national health service—I would suggest representatives of the Royal College of Nursing and the trade unions involved in the health service? When is my right hon. Friend going to stop the privatisation by stealth of the national health service?
Actually, it will not come as any surprise to my hon. Friend to know that the trade unions from the NHS have often been in Downing street in the course of the conversations that we have had over many years. Indeed, “Agenda for Change”, which was welcomed by many of the trade unions, was developed in partnership with them.
My hon. Friend talked about members of the private or independent sector coming into Downing street. They came to a meeting with chief executives of NHS hospital trusts to discuss how, on things like procurement, the NHS sector could learn from the independent sector. The people who spoke up for that type of partnership and engagement were not actually the politicians; it was the people working in the NHS. I think that where we can get the right partnership between the independent and voluntary sector and the public sector, we should have it, but it is all according to one principle, which is NHS care free at the point of use.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps you can give me some guidance. In an answer on 24 May, the Prime Minister told me that
“a new £32 million hospital opened in March 2005—the…Honeybourne specialist rehabilitation and recovery centre.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 1477.]
In a question answered by the Secretary of State for Health—
Order. I am going to stop the hon. Gentleman there. The answer that a Minister gives is nothing to do with the Chair. He will have to table more questions to get the clarification and answers that he wants, as he already knows.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health on 11 May, urging her to review a decision that she had taken on the location of a critical care hospital, in which she had overruled the recommendations of local managers and clinicians in the health community. I have not had even an acknowledgment of that letter.
On the substance of my point of order, the right hon. Lady is now being judicially reviewed, and you will have heard yesterday, Mr. Speaker, the frustrations of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) at not being able to arrange a meeting with Health Ministers. I am proposing to table a named day question to try to find out when I am going to get a reply to my letter and a response to the issue that I raised, but the Department of Health comes up constantly in complaints to you because Members of Parliament cannot get a reply out of it. Is there anything that you can do to get that Department, above all others, to answer our inquiries?
The Leader of the House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I am sure that he will act on it.
I have a bit of good news. Since the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the hon. Member for Chorley not being able to get his meeting, I am sure he will be very pleased to know that because the hon. Member for Chorley raised the matter on the Floor of the House, he has been able to get his meeting.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A young girl in Shrewsbury in my constituency has been raped by a failed African asylum seeker. I have been trying hard to find out the person’s immigration status by repeatedly asking questions of the Home Office through the Table Office, but to no avail. Will you advise me on how I can find out that information?
I am very sorry that that terrible incident happened in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I repeat that perseverance is the most important weapon that a Back Bencher has. The hon. Gentleman must keep asking the questions, seek Adjournment debates and ask the Ministers concerned for a meeting; he is entitled to do that. It is important that he, as a representative of his constituency, ensures that he leaves no stone unturned in such matters.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Deputy Prime Minister said that local authorities could repossess houses if they had been empty for years. I may be wrong, but I think that he inadvertently misled the House, because it is, indeed, six months. What advice can you give on how I can go about correcting that error in Hansard, if indeed it was an error?
There are lots of senior Members around the hon. Gentleman. He should go to them in the Tea Room and have a word on how to go about such matters. They will be able to help him.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard the Deputy Prime Minister answer my question earlier and state that he was not obliged to give information about who had visited Dorneywood because no public money was involved. On 21 January 2002, he gave a similar answer about why he would not give information on that matter, but subsequently in a written answer he had to correct it, stating:
“I regret that my answer was incorrect since there are some costs to the public purse in the Government’s use of…Dorneywood”.—[Official Report, 28 January 2002; Vol. 379, c. 92W.]
Under those circumstances, the Deputy Prime Minister would appear to have inadvertently misled the House again today in giving a reason for not answering my question. Can you help, Mr. Speaker, to secure a proper answer and to have the Deputy Prime Minister correct that?
The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot enter into the substance of the matter that he raises. I observe, however, that the resolution of the House on page 74 of “Erskine May” requires that if a Minister gives incorrect information to the House it should be corrected at the first opportunity. The hon. Gentleman can of course also pursue the matter through parliamentary questions.
St George’s Day
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to designate St George’s day as an annual public holiday in England; and for connected purposes.
If 23 April were to fall on a weekend, the following Monday or the preceding Friday would be a public holiday.
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity once again to introduce a Bill on an issue that I sincerely believe to be dear to the hearts of so many in this country. The date of 23 April as the day of the patron saint of England means a great deal to the people of our country throughout our green and pleasant land. Sadly, it has become undervalued in recent times. When I introduced a similar Bill in autumn 2004, it was unfortunately defeated after an impassioned speech by the then Labour Member of Parliament for Hornchurch. Unfortunately for him, his constituents disagreed, remembering that to be born an Englishman is to have won the first prize in the lottery of life. I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the new Conservative Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) fully supports the Bill before the House.
Some were also concerned that the previous Bill sought to remove May day as a public holiday. Although I am still personally in favour of that idea, hon. Members will notice that in the interests of gaining cross-party support such a clause is not included in the Bill before us. I should further make it clear that I am also in favour of extending the same rights for St Andrew’s day in Scotland and St David’s day in Wales, but I shall leave that to other hon. Members, although I am sure that some of the reasoning that I shall put forward today is valid for all parts of the United Kingdom.
It is not just I who wish formally to recognise the day. Many people and organisations are clamouring for St George’s day to be given adequate recognition. Indeed, St George’s day is fast becoming a national event. Last year, a third of members of the Trades Union Congress voted in favour of reclaiming the day for public enjoyment and celebration; unsurprisingly, the Royal Society of St George is also doing an enormous amount to promote St George’s day; and if anyone was lucky enough to have visited Romford market on 23 April this year, as I was, they will have noticed that every stall displayed the cross of St George flag, as market traders proclaimed pride in their country.
In Romford, red roses were handed out in the town centre by my local St George’s committee. Flags were given away to children and live music and entertainment were provided. As you might expect, Mr. Speaker, my loyal Staffordshire bull terrier, Buster, did a walkabout dressed in the flag of St George, proving once again that he is Romford’s most patriotic dog. Indeed, there was a genuine belief that people of all backgrounds wanted to celebrate the day. My local council, the London borough of Havering, ensures that the flag of St George is displayed alongside the Union flag, not only on 23 April but throughout the year. Many hon. Members will have experienced the same sense of celebration in their constituencies, as businesses, shops, schools, scout groups, charities, sports clubs and churches joined in the commemoration of England’s own day.
Many people choose to celebrate St George’s day, because it represents the true spirit of England. Making it a public holiday would give all the people of England a wonderful opportunity to participate in events and parties celebrating our country. A fine example of such a practice is to be found in Ireland, where St Patrick’s day—17 March—is famously celebrated. Gibraltar’s national day—10 September—is a magnificent celebration not only of Gibraltarians’ pride in being British but of their love of their homeland. On the Isle of Man, Tynwald day is a public holiday, with celebrations throughout the island, and the Falkland islands mark Liberation day and Battle day with public holidays and celebrations. British people everywhere else are proud to participate in the celebration of our culture, history and heritage, so why not in England? Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and scores of countries, particularly in Scandinavia, celebrate their national day in style, with great pageantry as well as great parties. In Switzerland, 1 August is a wonderful day in the calendar of that proud independent nation at the heart of Europe, with the sound of alpine horns and cow bells echoing throughout the land as the distinctive Swiss flag flies from every building and, indeed, every home. It is no accident that all those nations have a strong sense of pride in their national identity, which is a source of strength and unity in any country. I hope that England follows their example and gives our country an annual day to remember and cherish.
There are economic advantages in celebrating St George’s day. A recent study by the “Value of St George” campaign, which aims to make companies aware of the benefits of making our patron saint’s day a national celebration, said that while celebrations had increased, much more could be done. It concluded that businesses across England were missing out on nearly £40 million a year by failing to celebrate their national day as much as their Irish counterparts. During the World cup, there has been a resurgence in English pride. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition have shown their pride in St George by displaying the flag on their homes and bicycles. What better way to show our support, thanks and pride in our rugby team, who won the World cup, our cricket team, who won the Ashes, our Olympic team, who have won many gold medals, and our football team, who will win the football World cup, than by making St George’s day a public holiday in England?
St George’s day is a day when we can celebrate Englishness, represented not only by sporting achievement but, at best, by great English heroes such as Churchill, Nelson, Wellington, Shakespeare and Margaret Thatcher, who all believed in the values of St George. Ours is a country that believes in tolerance and understanding, welcoming everyone who wants to celebrate our English way of life under the red and white banner of St George. Let us not allow our pride and enjoyment in taking part in the World cup to be forgotten in a month’s time. It is time that we celebrated pride in our country, our flag and our English way of life and allowed all English men and women to celebrate their heritage and culture each and every year. Therefore, I call on all Members—of all parties, and from all regions and countries in the United Kingdom—to join me and to celebrate 23 April in order to allow England to come together and its people to celebrate the country of which we are all so proud. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Andrew Rosindell, Angela Browning, Mr. Peter Lilley, Bob Spink, Mr. Andrew Turner, James Brokenshire, Mr. Simon Burns, Angela Watkinson, Mr. Shahid Malik, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Geraldine Smith, Bob Russell.
St George’s Day
Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented a Bill to designate St George’s Day as an annual public holiday in England; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 20 October 2006, and to be printed [Bill 199].
[17th Allotted Day]
[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 650-1, on Analogue Switch-off; the Government response thereto, Cm 6850; and the uncorrected transcript of evidence taken before the Committee on 13 June 2006, HC 1091-iv, on new media and the creative industries.]
We now come to the main business. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that the BBC is renowned throughout the world for its quality programming; further recognises the high regard in which it is held by the British public; expresses concern that the final decision over the new licence fee settlement has been delayed without adequate explanation by the Secretary of State; believes that greater transparency of the process is required to deliver value for money for the licence fee payer; expresses concern that a larger than necessary increase will undermine public confidence in the licence fee and will hit low income families the hardest; further expresses concern at the continued uncertainty over the costs of digital switchover; believes that the National Audit Office should be allowed a greater role in scrutinising the BBC’s accounts; and calls for a debate on the floor of the House on a substantive Motion to approve any new licence fee settlement.
The subject of this debate is the future of the BBC, and that is precisely what we seek to ensure—a future for the BBC that allows it to continue to fulfil its public service role to educate, inform and entertain the British public long into the future, while, crucially, also offering value for money to the taxpayer.
It is a considerable disappointment that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is not present, not least because of events that we witnessed two weeks ago. Many Members of this House—and many in the other place—have taken a keen interest in the debate on charter renewal and in the negotiations on the BBC licence fee. However, we learned that the licence fee announcement had been postponed from the expected date in late July until some time at the end of this year not from the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House, or anywhere else in the House, but from comments she made at a recent drinks party, which The Guardian reported.
Can the Minister tell us why the decision was announced in that way? Can he also tell us the reason for the delay, because as yet we have received no official explanation? Indeed, it does not even warrant a statement on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website. Is the reason for the delay, as some suggest, that the recent reports by PKF and Indepen have undermined the submission made by the BBC, or has the Secretary of State simply kicked the decision into the long grass?
All that adds to a sense that there has been a lack of transparency in how the negotiations have so far been conducted. The process has been dogged by delays and uncertainty, to the point where many of the figures submitted in the initial document are now very out of date. For example, the estimate of the cost of the move to Salford has now been reduced by £200 million.
The recent PKF report, which was commissioned by the DCMS, was very critical of the figures used by the BBC in its submission, citing the “changing numbers” involved in the negotiations, and concluding that
“there are areas which point towards a significant need for discussion in regard to the BBC’s red book bid for the licence fee settlement.”
Given that we are talking about a settlement of £4 billion, surely the Minister will accept that the new figures must be made public, and that arguments about commercial sensitivities just will not wash.
The BBC spends more than £3 billion-worth of taxpayers’ money; effectively, it is paid for by a poll tax. Does my hon. Friend not think it ridiculous that there is no proper parliamentary scrutiny of the BBC through the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee? After years of campaigning we have achieved a voluntary agreement. Will my hon. Friend commit a future Conservative Government to ensuring that we get full scrutiny of the BBC, like any other spending Government Department, through the NAO?
I am very glad that my hon. Friend is here this afternoon and can take part in our deliberations; he performs a magnificent role for this House—and, indeed, for the country. I think that he will be happy with what I am about to say, because I very much agree with his sentiments.
We have long made the case that the decision to have the debate on charter renewal and the level of the licence fee in isolation made no sense. The arguments about what we want the BBC to do and what it will cost the taxpayer are inextricably linked. Thanks to the decision to delay, we now have much more time between the two decisions. It is therefore all the more important that we have a clear picture of what the costs submitted by the BBC are, if we are to have confidence in the decision reached.
It is important that everyone concerned—broadcasters, Parliament and licence fee payers—have a clear understanding of the negotiations. Will the Minister therefore confirm that he will make public the current figures that his Department is working with?
Does my hon. Friend also understand that a substantial proportion of the licence fee increase includes an element for a spectrum tax? The Government have not made it clear precisely how much that stealth tax will be. Should that not be an important part of our considerations today, and the debate on the total licence fee package?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, the Secretary of State and her Department are in denial about the existence of that spectrum tax, which we know is very likely to feature rather large.
Given that PKF made clear its belief that the savings made by the BBC could be significantly improved, can the Minister assure us that he will ensure that those efficiencies are maximised, in order to reduce the settlement?
Another issue raised in the Indepen report was super-inflation and an over-funded BBC, leading to a spiralling of salary costs. Surely the Minister must accept that recent leaks about the pay levels of presenters only add to the argument that too generous a settlement will damage the broadcasting sector, and could lead to the BBC outspending or outgunning the opposition in a hunt to bag star names.
On payments for presenters, in what universe does my hon. Friend think that Jonathan Ross is worth £18 million? Is that not the kind of absurd and inflated contractual arrangement that really gets up the noses of our licence fee paying constituents and brings the existing system into disrepute?
A parallel universe. The Secretary of State is reported in the newspapers as saying that she thinks—my hon. Friend, and neighbour, will probably agree with her—that
“high wage costs across the corporation need to be addressed”.
It is clearly not up to Ministers to interfere in the pay of presenters, but it is essential that the BBC management justify to licence fee payers the money that they spend. If the Minister believes, as his Secretary of State clearly does, that there should now be transparency in what the BBC pays its presenters, he will get cross-party support. So will he confirm the briefings to the newspapers, and get on with putting them into practice?
There is huge support among the public for the BBC, but an unacceptably high licence fee will surely undermine that support. Does the Minister not accept that a settlement in excess of £180 will simply be too high for many families on low incomes? We must ensure that we get the best deal possible for the licence-fee payer.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on the fact that although many people think the licence fee a good thing, they are not convinced of that when they are unable to get the same deal from the BBC as those in many other parts of the country? In my constituency, one can get the full range of BBC services only by paying Rupert Murdoch some money for a Sky box. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is time the BBC pressed ahead with its Freesat option, which was promised a year ago but still seems not to be on the cards?
The hon. Gentleman makes his customary point, and it is a very good one. The BBC is striving to achieve universal coverage, and although it is doing a good job in that regard, it can never achieve it. It is important not only that people have a fair and transparent licence fee, but that there is as much parity as possible between what they can access—so on the whole, I tend to agree with the hon. Gentleman.
Can the Minister not see the good sense in allowing the NAO to provide full and transparent scrutiny of the spending of licence fee payers’ money? As I said, it plays an important role in bringing about a culture of efficiency and value for money. Should it not have a role in safeguarding the use of £4 billion-worth of public money?
It is important to recognise the BBC’s impact in the media world—
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the NAO can play another crucial role at this very difficult time? As has been pointed out, there are conflicting claims about the BBC’s proposed licence fee increase. If the NAO could look at those figures and the various independent reports, that would help all Members of this House to come to a conclusion.
That is precisely right: if the NAO had been involved at an earlier stage, I suspect that we would not have needed this debate today.
That is an important point. It will be said that we must preserve the BBC’s editorial independence, which is absolutely right. It has also been said that the public do not want politicians interfering with the BBC, but that is not what we are talking about with regard to NAO involvement. The World Service has had the NAO looking at its books since its inception, and no one has ever suggested that the NAO has any impact on editorial independence. That is a red herring.
Again, my hon. Friend is entirely right. The NAO has examined the World Service’s books for many years, and it is increasingly able, almost by invitation, to examine some of the BBC’s books. But the 30 per cent. of people questioned who expressed dissatisfaction with the BBC might be more inclined to express some satisfaction if they knew that there was full and transparent accounting of where the money is going and what, at the end of the day, they are being invited to pay for.
The BBC has established a worldwide reputation for excellence, but that does not mean that it should be involved in every possible area of media activity.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If I may, I will make some progress.
I accept that the public gain a benefit from the BBC’s involvement in the promotion of new technology, but we cannot ignore the possibility that, given its almighty spending power and commercial weight, it will stifle competitors and make it untenable for others to be profitable in newly emerging markets. If the licence fee is excessive and the measures put in place by the BBC Trust are insufficient, the potential for markets to be distorted and innovation prevented is obvious.
The recent Beethoven downloads exercise saw the BBC make available 1 million free downloads, with a value of £8 million in the marketplace. If repeated, that could severely damage the commercial market. The BBC has already outlined ambitions to establish online communities, blogs and open access, and to become
“the premier destination for unsigned bands and to seize the opportunities of broadband, podcasting and mobile”.
We are told that the trust and the advisory powers of Ofcom are sufficient to prevent the BBC from crowding out competition, yet the Ofcom role is purely advisory and can be ignored. We hope that that will not happen, but it is none the less concerning to hear Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, say:
“The BBC is the only European brand that could take on Google and AOL”.
He is clearly a man with ambition, but should that be the ambition of Britain’s public service broadcaster? What message does that send to all the little guys in the world of technology—let alone the big ones—about the BBC’s intentions?
Does my hon. Friend agree with the proprietor of the Kent Messenger Group? He wrote to me saying the following about web services:
“The danger is that instead of a robust local market developing with a number of local content providers, or facilitators, the BBC will be one of a very few UK players, funded as it is by the licence fee…None of the commercial media companies are against competition, if it is fair competition…However, it seems unfair if the opposition is funded by statute to the tune of approximately £89 million a year from Kent alone.”
That sentiment is echoed throughout the country, as hon. Members are only too aware. That is why we are suggesting that Ofcom should have a beefed-up role, and that the task should not be left to the trust, with Ofcom in an almost advisory capacity.
Has my hon. Friend had time to look at the online streamed regional news coverage from the BBC, and to compare that with what ITV offers? If he does so, he will see that the ITV offering is vastly superior, and that the BBC regional news broadcast online is primitive—despite the fact that many millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are going into the BBC product. Does that not exemplify the need for caution in agreeing to greater sums for digital services?
Caution would be a good watchword, with the ever-changing technology and the pace at which that technology is coming on stream. We need to ensure that we do not allow the BBC to spend tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on technology which is not competitive, not innovative or out of date by the time it is introduced.
With that in mind, I raise the issue of the sole service licence for the wide range of content and services made available through the bbc.co.uk domain. Everything from news online, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) mentioned, to podcasting, video on demand, the BBC’s new i-player, the proposed Ultra local television, and even plans to broadcast news to mobile phones, is subject to one single licence, although each will have to undergo the public value test. Does the Minister agree that the scale of the BBC’s online services is now so considerable that it is increasingly absurd to group them together under one service licence?
Returning to the subject of public service broadcasting, does the Minister agree with his colleague Lord Bragg, who said in the debate in the other place last week that ITV had been “hung out to dry”? Why are we currently debating the public service broadcasting role of the BBC and the public service requirement for Channel 4 in 2007, but not looking at the role of ITV, another key PSB provider, until 2012? Why, when we all agree about the need for plurality in the provision of PSB, have the Government singularly failed to consider PSB in the round?
That brings me to the topic of digital switchover. On the plus side, we have a Minister whose knowledge of switching over is second to none, yet on the minus side we are still in the dark about the final costs of switchover.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) is very poor. He is not. If that is poverty, bring on poverty.
We are two years away from turning off the analogue spectrum, yet we still have no idea about the costs of targeted help for the vulnerable, which the director-general of the BBC thinks could cost
“the far side of a billion”.
Can the Minister confirm that we will have a final figure for this assistance before any licence fee settlement is announced? If not, we will be writing a blank cheque.
I have touched on only a few of our concerns about the BBC’s demands for a £4 billion a year settlement. We remain concerned about the process, the impact of an over-generous settlement on the media industry, the problems of an over-funded BBC crowding out the little guy, and the desire of the BBC to enter every new market. We are unconvinced by the submissions, and we believe that we must have clarity about the figures. The debate will show the desire in Parliament to ensure that we have a strong and innovative BBC fit to meet its unique responsibilities in a rapidly changing and competitive environment. I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from “public” in line 3 to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“notes that the decision on the next licence fee settlement will represent best value and be announced in good time to take effect before the current settlement expires in April 2007; further notes that the decision-making process has been one of unprecedented public consultation and transparency and that the settlement should ensure a strong and independent BBC; further notes that the costs of switchover will be one of the considerations in setting the level of the licence fee; welcomes the strengthening of the arrangements for the National Audit Office’s involvement with the BBC; and recognises that changes to the level of the licence fee are subject to Parliamentary scrutiny by the negative resolution procedure.”.
The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) is right. I am a switcher, but just as we are switching off analogue in 2012, I hope that we will by then have switched off the Conservative party, too.
I was extremely pleased to hear one thing from the hon. Gentleman—that he was glad to be able to support the future of the BBC. However, like a child picking a daisy and proceeding to pull every petal off until there was nothing left, he and his hon. Friends proceeded to attack it, describing it in terms of poll taxes and stealth taxes and as being over-funded. He asked us not to interfere, then asked us to interfere in the pay of presenters. As always, one contradiction followed another.
It may be helpful if I bring some appropriate clarity to what is really happening, as opposed to the caricature presented by the hon. Gentleman, and by the leader of his party in a recent speech to the Newspaper Society, with regard to what the BBC is doing and what we are doing in the review of the charter and the settlement of the licence fee.
The review of the BBC charter has been conducted against a background of unprecedented public consultation. From the beginning of the review at the end of 2003, we were determined that it would be the most comprehensive and open process in the history of the BBC. For the benefit of hon. Members, and to help the hon. Member for East Devon, I remind him that we have so far held three major public consultations, with more than 10,000 respondents. We have run a comprehensive research programme, inviting further responses from the public. We have held regional tours, seminars, webcasts and public meetings. During the review there have been four Select Committee reports and several parliamentary debates in both Houses. In addition, we have produced a Green Paper, a White Paper and two draft charters and agreements.
The purpose was clear from the beginning and it remains our guiding principle to deliver the strong and independent BBC that the public want. We recognise that the BBC has a unique place in the esteem and affection of the nation. It is one of the most trusted public institutions in the country, and it is an institution with which we have all grown up. In today’s debate, let us try not to play politics with the BBC. Let us recognise the role that we believe the public want the BBC to play for the future. If we get that right, we will do the right thing not just for ourselves and our respective parties, but for the public.
The BBC is the largest employer in my constituency. The representations that I receive from staff show that although they are appreciative of the consultation process, they are looking for a decision and for clarity with respect to oversight and funding. Why have those key decisions been postponed? That is not good for morale in the BBC. The Minister would have the support of key staff in the BBC if he brought about some accelerated decision making.
I shall come to the reasons for that in a moment.
The Minister rightly claims credit for the wide consultation that has taken place. Consultation is all very well, but what matters is whether the Government listen. Does he acknowledge that the vast majority of respondents have expressed grave concern about the proposals for the governance of the BBC? Is it not the case that the Government have so far refused to listen to any of them?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgement that we have undertaken a large-scale consultation exercise, but I do not agree with his conclusions. I will deal later with the governors and the trust.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend that we need a strong BBC and that we should not fetter it so much that it is unable to flourish in future generations. Britain would sadly miss the BBC. However, in some areas, particularly in commercial radio, there are legitimate concerns about the overweening power of the BBC, as reflected in Radio 1 and Radio 2, both of which I enjoy listening to. I wonder whether the BBC sometimes crowds others out of the marketplace.
The BBC, of course, engages in new media and new technology. People who are being asked to pay a licence fee would expect that. The questions that my hon. Friend raises are dealt with in the finalised version of the charter, which we will very shortly publish for the House. None the less, I take on board the points that he makes.
Does the Minister agree that if the BBC is to continue to have national support, it is essential that it should not be too concentrated in London and the south? Will he use his good offices to try to ensure that the planned move of production to Manchester goes ahead as quickly, as smoothly and as comprehensively as possible?
I fully recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point. He is an excellent constituency MP in the north-west, and I know how strongly he has lobbied. I am sure that he will have been pleased by last week’s announcement by the governors. In the course of my remarks, I will discuss the proposed move to Greater Manchester—specifically, Salford media city.
Whatever partisan view we may take in the course of a parliamentary debate, we should put on the record the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House think that the BBC epitomises the best of what the nation has to offer in service industries. It commands respect around the world—indeed, it sells its programmes around the world—and has endured and evolved in the context of a vibrant, dynamic commercial sector. We should pay close attention to the charter review and involve the public because we are, after all, setting the direction of the BBC, which will inform the direction of the market for the next 10 years. We must get it right, and that includes the licence fee.
Will my hon. Friend directly address the crowding-out argument? The BBC crowds out the bad, the inferior and the second rate, which is exactly the kind of crowding out that we want.
If my hon. Friend means the excellent programmes that the BBC makes, I agree absolutely. If he means the way in which the BBC appropriately gets involved in innovation so that it can compete in the global media market, that is right, too.
The hon. Member for East Devon suggested that the Government somehow made known the date for the announcement at The Guardian cocktail party. However, he chose to forget the fact that a specific date has never been set for the announcement of the date for settlement of the licence. There is a date by which the announcement must be made, which is early next year, but I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that, despite the jokes and caricatures, he is simply wrong. Throughout the process, we have made it clear that the figure will be produced by the beginning of next year. We have always said that, although if we can produce the figure more quickly, we will.
What matters is that we get the fee right. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. One cannot say that one wants absolute certainty that value for money has been obtained, that the bid has been taken to pieces and that the figure is right, but then say that it would be far better to publish the figure tomorrow. What matters is getting it right for the BBC and for the licence fee payer. The settlement will not be driven by inappropriate pressure or haste. Trying to play politics with settling the licence fee by arguing for an early settlement is not in the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents or of viewers throughout the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) raised specific questions about BBC funding, particularly in relation to the licence fee, and the heart of the matter is the cost of the spectrum charge. One reason why we called the debate is that the figures used to calculate the licence fee are ambiguous. Will the Minister take the opportunity to discuss who will pay the spectrum charge and how it will relate to the taxpayer and the BBC?
The spectrum charge is not the biggest component of the bid, and, if the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, I shall discuss it later, because it is better dealt with in context.
There are legitimate concerns among commercial broadcasters about advertising revenue, and an excessive licence fee settlement would distort the market and prevent some commercial broadcasters from spending money on quality productions, such as dramas. It would not be good for the viewing public if the BBC were to produce all such content and end productions by commercial broadcasters.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the commercial sector and advertising. However, it may be worth reminding him that the problems faced by the commercial sector in television and advertising are not unique. Some regional newspapers, for example, face a crisis generated by advertising spend. Advertising and the commercial media is a huge issue, and the danger is that it is viewed as a problem created by the BBC, which is not the case. The last licence fee was settled seven years ago, when there was unprecedented growth in advertising for commercial television. Since then, the market has changed dramatically, which has created a whole new set of pressures.
We must examine the impact of the settlement on not only commercial ITV, but regional newspapers. There is a problem, but there is also an opportunity. Most people who run regional newspapers agree that they have been slightly late in recognising the advantages offered by online facilities. Innovation and competition will probably allow regional newspapers to sort out some of their problems, but there is no simple solution for the commercial problems faced by ITV in a market in which overall advertising has decreased in the past few years. It is a mistake to caricature the matter by saying that the problem is the fault of the BBC and that it can be fixed by removing the BBC from certain areas. That is not the right solution, and it would be dangerous to go down that road.
The Minister has rightly said that regional newspapers must look to alternative methods of distribution, such as online content, in order to preserve their market position. Does he recognise that that will be made much more difficult if the BBC moves into that market and makes local television available for nothing? The BBC should work with local newspapers rather than competing against them.
The hon. Gentleman has made a fair comment. The new charter and the agreement contain measures to mitigate the impact of some of the points about which he is worried.
I want to make some progress, although I regard interventions as an essential part of having a constructive debate in the House.
I take the Minister’s point about putting terms in the contract. Does he accept that if the BBC has an increase in its budget over the next few years of nearly £6 billion, which would be 6.6 per cent. above the retail prices index, it will be bound to compete unfairly with other sources of media, which, as he has said, face declining revenues because of changing advertising budgets?
The hon. Gentleman has a great ability to look into the future—I am sure that he sees a bright future for his party and its leader in late November this year. On speculation about the settlement, I urge a little caution, for reasons that I shall later adumbrate.
The Government are committed to getting the settlement of the licence fee right and ensuring that it provides value for money for licence fee payers. Conservative Members have asked us to allow Parliament to approve the settlement of the licence fee, but they never wanted to introduce such a provision when they were in government.
They also say that the process is not transparent enough. I would say in all honesty to the hon. Member for East Devon, who reminded the House that I have a little experience of his party, that I was not aware of a great rush for more transparency on any subject during the two years when I sat on his side of the House. Looking back on the way in which Conservative Members conducted themselves in relation to the BBC and the licence fee review, let alone the charter, I do not recall that transparency was up front. That compares significantly with the process in which we have been engaging.
The hon. Member for East Devon completely ignored the levels of public consultation that we have engaged in relentlessly for three years. He completely ignored the work of the independent advisers commissioned to scrutinise the bid of the BBC and the fact that we have published, and will continue to publish, the advice that we receive. He ignored the research we have conducted into the public’s willingness to pay, which we have said we will publish, as we will. That research is helping to inform us in the Department in getting the right figure rather than the hasty figure that he would like. He ignored the work that has been done by Lord Burns in the course of advising us on the settlement, and he ignored the advice that we have invited and received from the industry.
If it is transparency and robust scrutiny that inform the demand for debate, I urge hon. Members to reflect on the sheer scale and volume of consultation and the transparency in which it has been conducted. It is of course open to Parliament to express its views on such matters in such debates, as it is to Select Committees. In fact, Select Committees have been looking at this issue for some time, not only in this House but in another place. It is right that they offer clear advice and conclusions about the level of the licence fee and the process that produces that settlement. Parliament has the right to object to changes to the level of the licence fee. Under the negative resolution procedure, it remains open to the House to debate the statutory instrument that sets that level.
Before we lose sight of the real argument, let us remember that in the course of the consultation we went directly to those people whom we represent here in this House, as we have relentlessly for three years. One of the documents produced more than two years ago on the review of the charter said that when the public were asked who they wanted to have a greater say in running the BBC, Parliament did not do very well. I suggest that hon. Members who want more and more say should go back to what the public said to us about whether they wanted us to have more involvement or less. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot say, “Let’s have less interference,” and then demand more.
The crucial matter at the heart of this is that the licence fee is now called a licence tax. That means that we have a right to debate it here in Parliament, regardless of what other views there are. Does the Minister agree that from now on we should have a debate in the Chamber, not in some Committee on a statutory instrument?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that there is a debate happening now, and we will offer the House a debate on the BBC later this month. It is always interesting to see changes made inside the Conservative party, and it is stunning to see them being made at the speed that they are the moment. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends are offering a prospectus for how they will deal with this in future, we would be delighted to see it, but he would have to cap a process of consultation, openness and transparency that has never happened before in the history of settling the charter or the licence fee.
Of course it is a tax; that is why the Government should be at the heart of setting it and should not abdicate the responsibility to the National Audit Office. The NAO should be involved in advising us, but at the end of the day it is rightly a decision for Government.
Let me offer further reassurance to Conservative Members who say that they are concerned that the BBC might have a larger than necessary licence fee settlement. It is very simple: it will not. That is why we are not proceeding with the hasty and pressured response that the hon. Member for East Devon would like. The settlement will give the BBC the funds that it needs to deliver its work for the public—in the words of an author slung out of the Conservative party, “not a penny more, not a penny less”. The licence fee is not flawless. We recognise that for those on lower incomes a greater proportion of their disposable income will be spent on their licence fee—that is common sense. However, as a percentage of household income, it has declined since 1982. In survey after survey, the licence fee still emerges as the best way to continue funding the BBC. We may call it the least worst option, because nobody much enjoys paying tax, but nobody has come up with a better way of doing it that commands the same incredibly high level of public support.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the licence fee settlement takes us only as far as 2017. The press has reported his thoughts about the future funding of the BBC after 2017, which seem to indicate that the Government are thinking along the lines of a sort of digital tax on personal computers and the like. Will he expand on those remarks?
It would be tempting to talk about our plans for Government in 2017, but I think that that might be a little premature. However, I would be happy to do so on another occasion if the hon. Gentleman invites me.
We have a very clear view on the way ahead to benefit the licence fee payer. The vision that we have expressed in the White Paper is for a strong BBC independent of Government—a BBC that delivers the quality of programme making that the public expects, has expected and continues to expect, with the highest quality broadcasting, efficiently produced, and with the creation of a trust to serve as guardian of quality and efficiency that is able to prioritise on that basis.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said about the licence fee, but does he agree that the BBC’s enforcement of it could sometimes be done a little more tactfully and sensitively?
Yes. Brevity is sometimes one of the noblest things in this House.
There is hardly a television programme on the BBC these days that does not involve people voting for somebody or something. Is there any reason why licence fee payers should not be able to vote for somebody or some people and thereby gain direct representation on the new governing arrangements for the BBC?
That is a tempting idea, and I hope that the trust might want to consider it. Applicants are submitting themselves to the selection process, which has a deadline of 26 June. We want to involve the public more. As to whether we end up with an “X Factor” for trust members, we will have to ask Simon Cowell if he can come up with a suitable way of doing it. In the long term, there is no teleological reason why the logic of what we are doing should not be extended to that, but I would have to disappoint my hon. Friend in the short term as regards changing the current arrangements. However, I am open to offers from my hon. Friend, especially if he wants to submit himself.
One of the most important changes in the new charter is the creation of the trust and the executive board. Let me briefly explain what that means. For the first time, there will be an effective separation of the responsibility for challenging, scrutinising and strategic oversight of the BBC. The trust will undertake that responsibility. In a separate structure, the executive board will look after day-to-day management. That separation of powers is critical. That is critically different from what happens with the existing board of governors because we want to ensure that the conflicting roles that governors have been obliged to play in the past are appropriately separated.
The governors were responsible for both the delivery and the oversight of BBC services. Under the new charter, a new executive board will be formally constituted for the first time. It will assume responsibility for delivering the BBC’s services, allowing the trust to maintain the objective distance from the day-to-day running of the BBC that is needed for it to be effective in its oversight role.
Surely the Minister is wrong. Is not it the case that the chairman of the BBC Trust will be called the chairman of the BBC? Does not that show that a conflict will remain?
Only in the hon. Gentleman’s mind, I am afraid. We are clear about the separation. The hon. Gentleman, by interestingly tying himself up in matters of nomenclature, ignores the fundamental strategic difference, which we have been at pains to set out in various papers and the published charter review.
Will my hon. Friend remind hon. Members that the new chairman of the BBC has moved his offices from Broadcasting house and from the television centre to a separate location in Marylebone road to establish the fact that the governance of the BBC will be separate from its running?
My right hon. Friend’s brilliance is that I no longer need to remind hon. Members because he has so eloquently done so for me. He is right and gives a good example of the separation of powers.
The Minister is right that the powers of the public value test will reside with the trust rather than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as currently happens, and that Ofcom will provide the market value impact assessment. However, would not providing for Ofcom, rather than the trust, to make the final decisions about market value impact assessment on a new service be one solution to the uncertainty that the varying roles create?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s acceptance of the clarity and division between the roles of the trust and the executive board. However, I disagree with his interpretation and his conclusions about who ultimately determines the services that the BBC offers. I shall revert to that shortly.
We were concerned about the dual role that the board of governors played as regulator and cheerleader. The old system was not up to the job of providing clarity, which all hon. Members want, of direction and purpose for the BBC, especially in an increasingly complex global communications market.
The charter and agreement will define the responsibilities of the new bodies clearly. That is critical in ensuring that the trust can hold the executive board to rigorous account in the interests of the public, who are the licence fee payers. The trust will have wide-ranging duties to consult the public and publish the reasoning behind decisions.
We and the public believe that the trust represents the most efficient way of protecting both the independence of the BBC and the interests of the licence fee payer. To do that, it needs the expertise to discharge its responsibilities in a professional and businesslike way. To have the best trust, we must ensure that its members are paid an appropriate salary to do their job. I recognise that criticisms have been made from some quarters in the House as well as in the wider press of the remuneration of the trust members.
I stress that the decision on the rate of remuneration reflects the increased responsibilities and the commitment of time needed from trust members. That is entirely in line with the proposals in the White Paper on the charter review, which proposed that rates should be comparable with those for Ofcom board members. We believe that that will attract the widest range of candidates with stronger backgrounds and ensure that new trust members are the best people for the job.
Since we put out the advertisement, we have received many applications and we expect more before 26 June. We want to encourage a diverse range of appropriate applicants. I stress to hon. Members who are present and those who may read the debate in Hansard that we should encourage those who are interested in broadcasting to apply. When hon. Members say that a flood of constituents come to their surgeries every Friday afternoon or Saturday morning to discuss the BBC, a short-term but good solution might be to ask some of them whether they have considered applying. It would be appropriate for more members of the general public, whatever their background, to put themselves forward to represent the public as trust members.
I understand that the selection panel for trust members will include someone from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the current chairman of the BBC. How can we be assured that trust members will be truly independent?
The point is that we are not trying to draw up an A list of candidates—we are trying to invite the public to apply. We should have an appropriate process for bringing the candidates together and interviewing them. We are complying with all the Nolan recommendations and using all the appropriate procedures. It is right to have some expertise on the panel—people who know about the Department with which the candidates will deal. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is helpful when one goes for an interview if someone on the other side of the panel has a vague idea about the job. If he genuinely advocates having nobody there who has a clue about the BBC, the applications procedure will end in chaos.
The Minister has given the game away. Someone who applies for a job is interviewed by the employer. The hon. Gentleman clearly suggests that the Government and the chairman of the BBC will be the trust members’ employers. The trust will, therefore, not be independent.
I have long admired the hon. Gentleman’s logic, but I think that I have lost it this afternoon. I hope that I will encounter it again on a future edition of “Sky at Night”.
We are also inviting the public to describe how they would like trust members to represent them on the trust. In the next few weeks and months, we will continue to invite further consultation with the public on the sort of responsibilities that they would like to be added to the work of trust members. It is an ongoing process of consultation and I believe that it is the best that we have managed to do in any review or appointment of people to the BBC so far. I am sure that, in the future, we can improve on that. We have made significant progress in producing a fairer and better way of running the BBC.
We are aware of questions, especially by some in the local newspaper industry, about the new trust’s effectiveness as a regulator and its ability to hold the executive to account. That seems neither correct nor fair. I remind hon. Members of what we are proposing. The trust will be underpinned by an unprecedented obligation to openness and transparency; a duty to have regard to competition issues; a system of purpose remits, which sets out strategic priorities in each of the public purposes and for how performance will be judged; a system of service licences and the public value test—with market impact assessments by Ofcom.
In addition, there will be new duties on value for money and a strengthened role for the National Audit Office in the existing arrangements. It should be provided with the information about the BBC’s activities that it reasonably needs to make judgments about matters for examination. The trust must and will ensure that that happens. The governors and the NAO have also agreed that it would be helpful for the NAO’s reports to be published as soon as practicable after completion. We welcome the response by the current BBC chairman, Michael Grade, to whom I pay tribute for his work in the past few months, especially as he takes the BBC through a period of change, in not only recognising why we are taking action but acknowledging the spirit in which we are doing that.
He has already made a commitment to invite the NAO to examine the extent to which future self-help targets are met. This potentially powerful new development should not be underestimated.
The DCMS has, however, decided not to give the NAO unfettered access to the BBC’s accounts. If it did so, it would risk encroaching on the editorial independence of the BBC and would conflict with the principle of direct accountability to the licence fee payer. I remind hon. Members of what the public have told us again and again. They do not want greater involvement by outside bodies in the BBC.
The Minister just stated that he believed that the National Audit Office would interfere with the editorial integrity of the BBC. That was the most extraordinary statement. Will he give some examples? What does he fantasise that the National Audit Office might say to the BBC that would affect its independence?
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I do not fantasise about the NAO in any shape or form, and I am not going to indulge him by doing so now. However, if he wants to write to me about this, I will be very happy to write back.
The White Paper puts the BBC firmly in the role of a trusted guide, bringing the benefits of new technologies to audiences. To do this, it must have the flexibility to deliver its content in new ways. We want to see increased competition in this marketplace. However, we do not want to dilute the BBC’s ability to continue to set standards; nor do we want to create a neo-protectionist market in which existing and new competition are unable to thrive. The broadcasting landscape is more complex today than ever before, and one of the most important aims of the new charter is to provide clarity.
That is why we have defined the BBC’s public purposes more clearly than ever before. That is also why, in setting out its priorities, the trust will have to work with the grain of what others have to offer. The new purpose remits will provide a vehicle for ensuring that the trust engages with the world outside the BBC in deciding how the public purposes should be delivered. It is also why, to embed transparency and certainty in its decision making, we have put in place a new triple-lock system, comprising service licences, content characteristics and the public value test. It is important that the BBC’s place in the market is not subject to caricature. Let me assure hon. Members that there will be a new public value test to scrutinise new services, as well as significant changes to existing BBC services, with a market impact assessment provided by Ofcom.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he has been extremely generous. I must take him back to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) put to him, as it is fundamental to the way in which we scrutinise the work of the BBC. Will the Minister please give us an illustration of how the editorial content of the BBC could be challenged by the corporation having its accounts audited by the National Audit Office?
We believe that we have set the appropriate arrangements in place. I shall not fantasise about exercises that I cannot imagine for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman. That would be absurd. We believe that we have set up the appropriate governance arrangements for the BBC, based on consultation with the public and the industry, and on the advice of Ofcom and of others who have given us expert advice over nearly three years. We believe that we have found the right way forward, and in about a week’s time the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to examine for himself the evidence that we have put forward.
We have also put in place a new competition framework. Ofcom will have a powerful role in the new system, in which the trust will set specific rules in areas likely to give rise to competition concerns. Taken together, this is a powerful set of reforms for the BBC. For the public, that will lead to improvements in production and in the quality of the programmes that they see. They want a better BBC, and we intend to help them to have it. One of the mechanisms that we want to use to achieve that is the window of creative competition, which will help to stimulate further competition to produce quality and quantity in the programmes produced and put out by the BBC.
On regional production, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) asked about the proposed move to Salford. I think that we should all welcome such a move. It involves the prospect of several thousand new jobs opening up in the north-west, and several departments of the BBC—not only sport but, appropriately, new media—going to Salford. That will present a very exciting opportunity.
My hon. Friend will know that we have recently seen a 30 per cent. increase in the number of films being made in Manchester. The number of films being made in Merseyside has reached a new peak, and a new Hollywood feature is being filmed in Cumbria. This has all happened since the BBC move was announced. Will my hon. Friend comment on the further potential for investment and production that will result from the move, which will involve a new base not only for the BBC but for independent companies and other production facilities?
We need to understand that last week’s announcement was that Salford is the preferred bidder. This has not been finalised yet, and it is important to consider the matter in that context. The BBC has clearly declared its interest in that area, and it is now conducting firm negotiations for the future there. My hon. Friend asked me about the potential of such a move. I spent 10 years working in the broadcasting industry in the 1980s, when it would have been almost impossible to conceive of the new media and new opportunities that exist now. This is a bit like trying to see round corners. The media city will provide the kind of opportunities that we see when we visit places such as Seoul or Dubai, where media opportunities have been created as a result of extraordinary growth.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for East Devon has taken the time to examine what has happened in Seoul or Dubai. He does not need to spend any money actually visiting them; he can do the research here. If he does, he will see that such development leads to huge growth, massive numbers of new jobs and—in the case of Salford—the opportunity to bring in not only the BBC, independent production houses and commercial competition but the games industry, the software industry, the music industry and the film industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) mentioned some of the activities that are already happening in the north-west. We have to see this development in the context of the fantastic renaissance and regeneration that is happening in the north-west generally. Liverpool will be the European capital of culture in 2008, for example. There is an awful lot happening, and it is absolutely right that the BBC has made this strategic decision, and that it has chosen the Salford bid. Everything that I have heard about the bid tells me that it was very well put together. It was based on a lot of research and, critically, on an understanding not only of the television industry but of the needs of all the creative industries in the north-west.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his support for the devolution of many of the BBC’s functions and personnel. He knows as well as I do, however, that there are factions in the BBC, fuelled by cosmopolitan arrogance, that are fighting hard against the relocation to Salford Quays. Will my hon. Friend do everything in his power to ensure that the BBC does not use the blackmail of a lower licence fee, or any other argument, to prevent the move to the north-west?
Having had a number of conversations across the industry, I have not received the impression that the senior managers in the BBC who are making this decision have any intention of wriggling out of it. They genuinely see the advantages of moving to the Greater Manchester area, and of diversification and greater regional production. They also see the advantages of bringing in talent that has been constrained by the perception of the BBC as being so London-centric. My hon. Friend has made an extremely good case for his constituents and for others in the Greater Manchester area in helping to secure this bid.
The people involved in the bid have been smart enough to recognise that, by not going down the protectionist route of saying, “Let’s stay in London,” and by recognising the advantages of opening themselves up to more competition and diversification, they will bring in greater talent and creativity to the BBC. At the end of the era, if it does not have that, it will not have the services to offer. They have also recognised that places such as Dubai, Seoul and other locations in the far east—which offer different services but use a similar model—create opportunities through diversification, which does a huge amount of good to the local, regional and national economy.
One of the big tasks ahead in the UK is to recognise the role of creative industries, as I know my hon. Friend does. The future for Britain lies very much with those industries, which represent nearly 8 per cent. of gross value added for the UK economy. It is a huge mistake to think that we can handle it all out of London. It is absolutely right to see it as regionalised and absolutely right to go to places such as the north-west, when we know that incredible talent can be harnessed to one of the main growth industries for the whole of the UK.
Does the Minister agree that more than just personnel and resources are involved in devolution, as the mindset is also important, along with recognition of the different features and factors of the modern UK? Scotland has its own Government and its own national life, but we still have a news service that is metropolitan based and becoming increasingly irrelevant. Surely as part of devolution, we should start looking into having a Scottish news service that serves the Scottish people. We should be moving towards regional and national news services.
I acknowledge that. Of course we believe in devolution, but the programmes are a matter for the broadcasters. We already have services such as BBC Scotland. Some hon. Members were rather denigrating the BBC’s creation of local news services earlier. I invite them to go and see what the BBC does and the services it offers. In an interactive age, it will get easier for people to make local programmes—exactly what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is asking for. The BBC is moving in the direction of empowering local communities to produce local news services and local programmes. That is why I welcome the innovation that the BBC has embarked upon.
My final point about digital switchover is that we believe that the BBC is uniquely placed to deliver the benefits of digital to every viewer. That is why we put it at the heart of our plans for digital switchover. It is absolutely right that we have designed a scheme of targeted assistance to help elderly and disabled people, who are most vulnerable.
Members understandably ask whether we should do more to help the poorest people in our communities, so one important thing needs to be said about targeted assistance and digital switchover. We have learned from the 70 per cent. of the UK that has gone digital so far that the real barrier is not income. By and large, the barrier to has been age and disability. If targeted assistance is to mean anything and we are to get best value from the money given to the BBC to enable the rest of Britain to complete switchover by 2012, we will have to take some tough decisions.
On the Government Benches—and, increasingly, from what we hear, on the Opposition Benches—we all want to do something to help poorer people, but the fact of the matter is that, when it comes to digital switchover, the biggest impediment to making the switch is not one’s income. I do not deny that it might be in some cases, but the real barrier is the people who are 75 or 80—or even my age of 47—and feel challenged by a remote control. We have to deal with that problem. The Bolton trial helped us to realise that more needs to be done, and the several hundred million pounds of targeted assistance will be used to help the elderly, particularly those on pension credit, the disabled and people who are registered blind or partially sighted.
The Minister has provided us with important information, because vulnerable older people often have contact only with a small number of people. Some of the most significant groups are charities and voluntary organisations, so will the Minister ensure that they are properly involved in the process?
A categorical yes.
We are now about two years from the commencement of digital switchover, so it is critical to know what the licence fee will be before it begins, but there appears to be some dislocation. When we debated the announcement of the licence fee, the Minister stated categorically that at no stage would a date be published. However, I have with me a document, “BBC Charter Review: Your BBC, Your Say”, which was printed five minutes ago from a DCMS website. It states that phase 3 includes
“Mid 2006 Parliamentary debate on Charter and Agreement”,
which we are having now, I concede, but it also refers to
“Mid 2006 Licence Fee level agreed”.
It is now mid-2006 and the Minister says that the licence fee level has not been agreed. One source must be wrong. Is the Minister wrong, or is it the website? If it is the website, I suggest that the Minister urge his civil servants to amend it. If he is wrong, perhaps he will retract his statement.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to our attention. What it reveals is that we said that we were going to have a debate, which we are having. Secondly, it shows that we said that we would make an announcement about the licence fee. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the fact that a document mentions mid-2006, but it does not provide a specific date—[Interruption.] That is what the hon. Gentleman said. Let me tell him that he will get a date when it is right for us to make the announcement. What we will not do, however endearing, charismatic and persistent he is in his demands, is make the announcement before the right time, which will be when we have achieved the right number.
After nearly three years, this process is drawing to a close and the announcement on the fee will be made shortly. It might be made in a few months, but I am afraid that the hon. Member for East Devon will have to wait. We have conducted the debate with extensive public consultation and the issues have been discussed in Parliament through Select Committees and in Green and White Papers. An extensive process of consultation has taken place on the charter and the licence fee settlement. The end product will be a BBC that is right and forward-looking, helping to create the appropriate marketplace for the UK in the digital age.
Whatever our disagreements, at least we all agree that for the last 80 years, the BBC has been the pre-eminent public service broadcaster, making a major contribution to our democracy, to our culture and to our standing in the world. I suspect that we all agree that in the rapidly changing world of broadcasting, we must ensure a future for the BBC that enables it to remain the best in the world and the envy of the world. That means, in my view, that it must be strong, independent—not least from the Government—and well and securely funded. It must be equipped to meet the challenges of the digital multi-channel, multi-platform age.
We believe that much in the White Paper, to which the Minister has already referred, and in the draft charter and agreement will help to achieve those aims. Liberal Democrats certainly welcome the decision to have a 10-year charter, which will provide stability for the BBC through the period of digital switchover. We welcome the increased opportunities for independent television production through the window of creative opportunity, but I hope that the BBC will work harder to provide more opportunities for independent radio producers than they have at present. We welcome the concept of service licences for each BBC service, but like the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), I certainly believe that we need greater differentiation in the services covered by such licences.
Although I have some concerns, which I shall explain in a few moments, we welcome the improvements in the system to assess market impact and public value in respect of new BBC services or the development of existing services. We accept that the licence fee is, as the Minister described it, the least worst option currently available. It is certainly far better than alternatives such as direct Government funding, subscription, advertisements or sponsorship. We also welcome and support the planned move to Salford Quays in Greater Manchester.
As critical friends of the BBC, we have a number of remaining concerns about some of the Government’s proposals—most notably governance, which the Minister dwelt on. He was absolutely right to say that the old system under which the governors were both flag wavers for and regulators of the BBC was simply untenable and had to change.
We propose that a totally independent regulator should be established for all public service broadcasters. We certainly do not believe that what the Government propose will give us what is urgently needed—a genuinely independent regulator. For example, some of the existing governors will transfer to the new trust. That is certainly evidence of continuity, rather than radical overhaul. Perhaps more importantly, the White Paper very clearly describes the BBC Trust as a
“sovereign body within the BBC”,
not separate from the BBC. Whatever the Minister might say about my point about the chairman of the trust being called the chairman of the BBC being pedantic, that too adds to the confusion.
The Minister said that it was right and proper for Select Committees to give clear advice to the Government. Certainly, he will be aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review gave very clear advice on the issue. It said that the
“proposals for reforming the governance…of the BBC are confusing, misguided and unworkable.”
As I said in an intervention earlier—yes, it is surely right that the Government have carried out an extensive consultation exercise, but what matters is that they then listen to what people have said during the consultation.
We are convinced that the trust is an improvement on the current governor arrangements, but it still does not provide an independent regulator, so the BBC will be its own judge and jury. That will certainly give no confidence to people who fear that, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the BBC will use its powers to crowd out others from the marketplace if it does not have an independent regulator to make those decisions.
Indeed, we have already heard from a number of hon. Members that similar concerns have been expressed by a wide range of bodies in the broadcasting and media sector. I have certainly heard such views from local and regional newspapers— including The Bath Chronicle in my constituency, which is excellent—from the commercial radio sector and from other TV and internet companies. Yes, we have a better system now, but if the BBC is ultimately to be its own judge and jury, the system will not give the BBC’s competitors confidence about whether they will be protected from being crowded out.
Just before I turn to the licence fee, I want briefly to mention three other issues relating to the BBC’s future. First, although I acknowledge the advice that Lord Justice Auld gave in 2001, I fail to understand why licence fee evasion should continue to be a criminal offence. I hope that the Government are prepared to reconsider that issue, and find out whether such evasion could become a civil offence—and, incidentally, whether we could introduce a fixed penalty system, like those used for failing to pay parking fines, the congestion charge or whatever.
Secondly, hon. Members have already expressed the view that we want to see a strong BBC, but not an omnipotent BBC. The BBC benefits from competition in public service broadcasting. A monopoly would benefit no one, including the BBC. We need to do more than is currently proposed to protect the other players who deliver public service broadcasting, including some, such as Sky and those in the commercial radio sector, who are not defined as public service broadcasters but make an important contribution to public service broadcasting. I certainly welcome the BBC’s proposals to work in partnership with, for instance, Channel 4, but we also need not only stronger measures to protect the market but a much more urgent review than is currently planned of what the hon. Member for East Devon called PSB in the round.
Thirdly, all hon. Members would accept that the World Service is the jewel in the crown. Many of us are delighted at the World Service’s proposals to introduce a new television service in the middle east, but I simply fail to understand why, for the sake of just £6 million, we cannot ensure that it becomes a 24-hour service, rather than the 12-hour service that is proposed.
Now I come to the crucial issue of the licence fee. Like others, I am concerned by the undoubted delay in the Government’s announcement of the licence fee. It worries me enormously that we will end up with two separate announcements—one about the charter and agreement, and the other about the licence fee. Surely those announcements need to be brought together. In other words, we need a menu with prices.
I, too, applaud the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about the BBC World Service, but does he agree that it is regrettable that the BBC is cutting some radio services to eastern Europe?