[Relevant document: The draft of the BBC’s new Charter for the continuance of the British Broadcasting Corporation.]
I beg to move,
That this House approves the Agreement (Cm 6872) dated 30th June 2006, between the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was laid before this House on 3rd July 2006.
As the House well knows, the BBC is founded on its royal charter. The current charter expires in December this year, to be replaced by a new charter that will run until the end of 2016. I shall set out how we intend to achieve three objectives in relation to the BBC: first, sustaining a strong BBC that is independent of Government and responsive to the needs of licence fee payers; secondly, ensuring that the BBC is able to adapt to the rapidly changing media environment; and thirdly, within that context, reassuring the BBC’s competitors that the BBC will avoid undue impact on a thriving and creative marketplace.
Last year, we said in our manifesto:
“We support a strong, independent and world-class BBC with clearly defined public purposes at the heart of a healthy public broadcasting system”.
We know that the public agree with that commitment because we have consulted them on it, as we have consulted them on the whole charter review process—the first time that that has been done so extensively by any Government. There is a view, which we have explored at some length, that as the amount of choice available to consumers continues to explode, the need for a BBC diminishes, and the market and new technology alone will provide. That view is comprehensively rejected by the public and by the Government. At first glance, that might seem surprising. After all, we have moved in just a few years from a four-channel nation to a 500-channel nation. The mass-market water cooler moments of the past, with audiences of 30 million for a single programme, are being replaced by niche TV. In 1995, 225 programmes had audiences of 15 million or more; in 2004, only 10 did. More money is now spent on multi-channel TV subscriptions than on paying the licence fee.
How can the Secretary of State defend a poll tax on the poor and the not very well-off to pay huge salary increases to top BBC staff, to pay very large fees to certain performers, and to undermine private sector competition, which would otherwise be much stronger?
Clearly, the issue of BBC management salaries is a public relations gaffe at a very sensitive time, and it gives succour to people who want to treat the BBC as a political football. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC is so important to the fabric of this nation, and provides such valuable services, that it should not be used as a political football by Conservative Members such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)?
The BBC, and the BBC alone, has the important responsibility of deciding what to pay its staff and its performers.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) drew an analogy with the poll tax, about which he knows a great deal. The profound distinction between Labour Members and Conservative Members is our commitment to universal, free-to-view broadcasting funded by the licence fee. That is the basis of the settlement that I am setting out to the House.
No, I must make progress because many Back Benchers want to speak.
Just as we are all absorbing the impact of the BlackBerry and the internet, other changes in new technology, such as high definition television, are approaching fast and will transform picture quality for ever. Yet, throughout all the change and choice, the public remain firm in their affection and respect for the BBC and the services that it delivers. They know instinctively that the bigger the change, the greater the need for a benchmark of quality—a brand that they can trust and a guiding hand through the thickets of the digital age.
The agreement answers the concerns of those who responded in their thousands to our consultations. For the first time, the review of the charter and the agreement that will give it effect have been grounded in comprehensive public and industry consultation and engagement.
Earlier, the Secretary of State mentioned quality. She knows that, under section 5.1 of the licensing agreement, the BBC is required to ensure that all programmes broadcast
“do not include anything which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling”.
Will that continue to apply under the new arrangements? Does the right hon. Lady think that Jonathan Ross’s performance the other day was typical of something that fulfils those standards? If that is acceptable, what is unacceptable in modern BBC parlance?
I am not the Leader of the Opposition’s media manager. My job as Secretary of State is to set the framework for the BBC, which is—and will be even more—directly accountable to licence fee payers for the interpretation of that framework.
The agreement reflects the public’s affection for the BBC and its special role in our democracy. For most people, the BBC provides the
“best news and current affairs about Britain and the world of any broadcaster”.
The BBC retains a level of public trust that would be the envy of any institution in the world.
The agreement reflects the reform needed to reconnect the BBC with the public while ensuring appropriate scrutiny by the National Audit Office, Ofcom and other relevant agencies. The issue before the House today is to approve the agreement between the Department and the BBC that gives effect to the charter.
If the BBC is to be accountable—after all, we must try to hold it to account—how is it possible to pay a presenter such as Jonathan Ross, never mind his appalling taste, £6 million a year for three years? Hundreds of thousands of people, who are just as funny, would do it for a tenth of the sum.
Rather than directing his question to me, the hon. Gentleman should refer it to the relevant controller of the BBC, who, I am sure, will be delighted to have a discussion with him. It is a good thing that the Secretary of State does not determine what is shown on the BBC.
The extensive changes to the BBC’s accountability, which are embodied in the new charter and the agreement, ensure that the new trust will be a powerful voice and also an advocate, at the heart of the BBC, for the licence fee payer. New accountability arrangements also reflect the overwhelming calls for clarity and certainty from the BBC’s commercial competitors. The new service licences, the public value test and ex ante competition rules will deliver that. That all reflects the public’s continuing acceptance of the licence fee as the only realistic option for paying for the BBC.
However, the BBC cannot remain unchanged and immune from all that surrounds it. To keep the public’s confidence, it must also adapt. It must remain true to its values—reliability, honesty, balance, fairness, quality, innovation and universal reach.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that regional accents make a major contribution to quality broadcasting? Does she know Big Bob Wylie, the charismatic, witty, intelligent yet modest reporter for BBC Scotland, the strength of whose Glasgow accent is matched only by the breadth of his swagger?
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. I am sure that she will want to join me in condemning the appalling “Newsnight” piece that was broadcast last week in which, in a vain attempt to try to find anti-English sentiment in Scotland, it set up a form of entrapment in Gallowgate in Glasgow. That piece is now going to be the subject of a police inquiry into incitement to racial hatred. Does the Secretary of State agree that that kind of sloppy, dumbed-down journalism does the BBC no credit whatever, and that it is not what viewers in Scotland or elsewhere expect?
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) has also raised this matter, and it is now the subject of a police inquiry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will therefore understand if I make no further comment on it.
The BBC is valued for many reasons. It is internationally respected as a news, entertainment and information organisation that tries to get it right, that tries to tell the truth, and that will avoid exaggeration, distortion or misrepresentation. For that reason, as it takes its place among an increasingly wide range of news and current affairs providers, its commitment to accuracy and impartiality is of enormous importance to the licence fee payer.
I agree that it is important that the BBC should be seen to be impartial. Does the Secretary of State agree with the report of the Wilson committee, which the BBC itself established some time ago to examine pro-EU bias in BBC broadcasts? Is she aware that that committee found that there was indeed institutional bias and an unwillingness to criticise? Does she believe that that situation has in any way improved? The BBC’s pro-EU bias undermines support for it in certain sections of the community.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Wherever bias is suspected on any issue in the BBC, it should be properly and openly investigated. The conclusions should then be published and the BBC should act accordingly. The new system of governance to which the BBC will be subject will, for the first time, give the licence fee payer that authority—an authority that has, in the Government’s view, been denied for far too long.
In a rapidly changing media environment, the BBC’s Reithian values provide an enduring anchor. We turn to the BBC for high quality, home-produced music, drama and entertainment, and we know that it takes fun seriously. Without the ability to entertain, the BBC would not have the ability to inform and educate.
The BBC’s role has historically been about more than simply providing programmes. Since the introduction of radio in the 1920s, it has led the way with technological developments, ensuring that new opportunities are made available to the widest possible audience. As a result, it has played a major role in creating the world-class broadcasting and technology market that now exists in this country. The new charter will ensure that this role is continued for the next 10 years. In the past few years, we have seen again how the BBC’s adoption of new technology can drive the market for the benefit of consumers and for the wider industry.
The example par excellence of that is digital switchover. Digital terrestrial television and digital radio have both developed rapidly because of the BBC’s commitment and investment. Commercial companies have also innovated and invested, but it is the BBC that has the reach and the duty to ensure that new technology does not lead to a new divide. The BBC’s enormous contribution to digital take-up through Freeview has led to increased competition, choice for the viewer and innovation. The BBC also has the trust of people, who are more prepared to get interested in new technologies if they know that the BBC is their guide.
One of the issues that bothers some of us is that the BBC is taking a great deal of licence payers’ money and a lot of money out of some of its programming to finance its new digital platforms, particularly its website. It is doing that in competition with people in the private sector who have to compete for their revenues and raise their own capital. At some point, that can become really unfair competition and a misuse of licence fee payers’ money. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State clarified where she believes the dividing line is in that respect. Is she in a position to give any direction at all in the new agreement with the BBC as to what is proper use and what is misuse of licence fee payers’ money?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it is one that we have taken very seriously. It is a matter of enormous concern to the wider market and it is important to note that the BBC Trust has an overriding duty of responsibility to the interests of the licence fee payer. It is quite possible that, where the BBC chooses to innovate and that same innovation is under way in the private sector, the BBC’s proceeding with that innovation may have the effect of constraining the choice available to the wider consumer. That is why there is a new competition regime that will be applied by the BBC Trust in partnership with Ofcom and also why we are insisting that the public value test that the BBC has to conduct in relation to any new service or substantial change to an existing service must include a market impact assessment. That will happen for precisely the sort of reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
With respect, I want to make some progress and I know that many other Back Benchers wish to speak.
The Government are committed to full switchover by 2012 because we want the benefits of digital, including increased choice, to be available to everyone and to enable the British economy to benefit from a more efficient use of spectrum. The process is well under way with 72.5 per cent. of households already receiving digital TV. However, we recognise that many may remain unconvinced and there is no organisation better placed than the BBC to demonstrate the advantages of digital and to ensure its availability on a universal basis.
The market has had, and will continue to have, a very large role to play, but in the end it is the BBC, with its reputation and its reach, that will bring everyone into the digital future. That is a perfect illustration of how the market and the BBC working together can do something that neither could do alone. We have developed a unique broadcasting landscape in this country, with purely publicly funded broadcasters offering their wares alongside purely commercial ones. In many cases, they are united by public service broadcasting obligations.
My hon. Friend is right. As we stated in the White Paper, it is certainly the Government’s intention to maintain plurality in public service broadcasting. It is reasonable for the BBC to seek to help Channel 4 with its build-up costs as part of the switch to digital. The BBC Trust will be expected to look into other costs further down the line, once we are closer to the act of digital switchover.
Important though it is to get the switchover to digital television right, does the Secretary of State also accept that it is important to do the same for digital radio? In particular, we need to ensure that local radio is not disadvantaged within the BBC family. Will she give an assurance that that is part of the strategy and that the BBC will devote sufficient resources to guarantee that local radio will have not only a continuing, but an enhanced role?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. It is an extraordinarily important part of the BBC’s remit, as is encouraging more people to buy digital radios in order to benefit from the wide range of BBC and other digital radio services.
We are already at a point where more than 72 per cent. of households are receiving digital TV, but we recognise the risk of a minority, particularly of older people, being left behind. The market has a huge role to play, but in the end it is the BBC that will bring everyone into the digital future. The partnership between the BBC as the major public broadcaster and the commercial sector is what makes the broadcasting landscape in this country unique. I believe, as does the vast majority of public and industry analysts, that that balance has served us well and can continue to do so; but it can do so only if it is examined and adjusted constantly to reflect changes in technology and consumer demand. Because the BBC must always be strong enough to reach every part of the community and every part of the country, it must be the benchmark of quality in every medium.
It must not, however, be over-mighty. It must not crowd out competitors and must not simply reach for the cheque book to beat the opposition. That is the tightrope that the BBC must walk. That is the price that it pays for public subsidy. Will it sometimes lose its footing; will the balance always be perfect? Probably not, but the vigorous health of the commercial sector, the BBC and the new media sector in combination is proof that over the years we have got the balance about right. The BBC keeps the commercial sector’s feet to the fire; the commercial sector keeps the BBC honest: that is the best kind of creative tension, and we have institutionalised it in the new governance arrangements.
In making the new arrangements, we are giving the BBC stronger, clearer objectives, obligations to be distinctive and innovative, and a requirement to consider market impact before developing new services. The existing board of governors will be replaced by a trust to hold the BBC to account. It will be closer to the public and further from the executive than the existing system, and, for the first time, there will be a separate, formally constituted executive board—[Interruption.]
BBC services will have clear service licences, thereby helping to safeguard the health of the wider market. They will define how they contribute to achieving the BBC’s objectives and the trust will hold the BBC executive to account to make sure that those licence conditions are met. The new BBC Trust must weigh up the value to the public of new services and balance them against the impact on the market. We will shortly publish the willingness-to-pay research as part of the consultation on the level of the licence fee. That sort of contribution is a vital part of the trust defining itself as the licence fee payers’ advocate. The market impact assessment will be provided by Ofcom and, for the first time, there will be vigorous public assessments of the value of each new development.
Public value—the driving concept behind the new BBC charter—is about much more than simply asking people whether they like a particular idea or proposed new service. It is much more related to gaining an in-depth, sustained understanding of public preferences and how they change in response to the services provided with their money. That should be a continuing two-way process of mutual education between the public and the BBC about its public values and how BBC services will benefit the wider market.
The principles of responding to the public, achieving greater efficiency and investing in Britain’s digital future will also underlie the forthcoming licence fee settlement. We are in discussion with the National Audit Office about how we examine the BBC’s future efficiency, as part of the licence fee settlement, so that we can get an established baseline against which to judge the BBC’s future efficiency programme.
All sides are keen to know what the settlement will contain, but this is a sum that is greater than its parts. The future of the complex ecology of the media industry depends on getting that right, and we will announce the outcome later this year and in good time for the new licence fee to be in place by April 2007.
The BBC is more than just another broadcaster. By its very constitution, it exists to serve everyone in the United Kingdom, wherever they live, whatever their income and whatever their views. It is a place where the whole nation meets as equals. Its owners are the British people—the people who pay the licence fee. It must not be beholden to shareholders, ratings or Governments. Alongside the NHS, it is part of the fabric of our lives, and is unlike any other institution.
The new charter and the agreement before the House today are the result of the widest consultation on the future of the BBC ever undertaken. I am therefore confident that our proposals embody the public’s wish for the BBC to continue to serve the nation in the next 10 years, as it has done for the past 80, and I commend them to the House.
I beg to move, in line 3, at end add
‘but regrets that the proposed BBC Trust will not be sufficiently independent as a regulator for the BBC; believes that the National Audit Office should have full access to the BBC’s accounts; is concerned that the announcement of the licence fee has been delayed without adequate explanation; further regrets the fact that the Charter Renewal process has been separated from the final licence fee decision; and further believes that the BBC’s bid for an increase in the licence fee of 2.3 per cent. on top of the Retail Price Index is excessive.’.
I welcome the debate today. I am grateful to the BBC for agreeing to publish its annual report early, and the House can now have a full debate on the charter and the state of the BBC. I am particularly pleased that the Secretary of State has been able to join us today. We are fortunate that the debate was not scheduled over the lunch hour.
I am also grateful to the BBC for giving me the opportunity to see some of its recent technological advances: podcasting, on-demand viewing and mobile downloads show that the BBC is embracing the future, and I know that millions of viewers across the country will be looking forward to the day when the House can be seen on high-definition TV, although that creates nervousness among some Members on both sides of the House.
The report reaffirms that we in this country are uniquely fortunate to have such a highly regarded public service broadcaster. We welcome the decision to renew the BCC’s charter, but we have a duty to ensure that the BBC is fit for purpose. We cannot shy away from the uncomfortable trends revealed in the BBC’s annual report. Audience share is down. Audience reach is down. Ratings among younger viewers are down. Pension liabilities are up. Executive pay is up. Presenters’ salaries are up.
We must all be concerned at the decline in audience figures. The future of broadcasting will see a revolution in viewing habits, as the Secretary of State has said, as we complete the move from a five-channel era to one of almost limitless choice. Audiences will become increasingly fragmented. We will see a huge increase in specialised on-demand viewing. Broadcasting will increasingly be more about narrowcasting.
My hon. Friend is making some very telling points, unlike the Secretary of State, who quite wrongly conjures a vision of the people’s BBC out of the air. Does my hon. Friend agree that the way to have a people’s BBC is to give everyone a share in it in return for our licence fee, so that we can then settle its future and do something better with it?
That is a little bit too radical for me, but my right hon. Friend makes an extremely intriguing point, and I hope that he will agree with most of what I have to say this evening, even if I stop short of his suggestion.
Like most major broadcasters, the BBC’s audience share is already steadily declining, yet unlike many other broadcasters, which are dependent on falling advertising revenue, its income is steadily increasing. For that reason, the BBC must maintain broad public support if it is to continue to be funded in that unique way.
I am pleased that measures outlined by the BBC show that it will continue to put the emphasis on quality programming. I am confident that it can look forward to a strong future in that respect, but it is our responsibility to ensure that the BBC is independent, well regulated and appropriately funded. That is where the charter renewal process fails.
The new regulatory framework proposed in the charter is flawed. The new BBC Trust does not differ sufficiently from the old BBC board of governors—a system that we all agree was untenable. The new trust threatens to be insufficiently detached from BBC management to be a truly independent regulator—it will be made up of the same people, just based in a different building. The BBC will still effectively act as its own judge and jury, especially in the absence of any adequate appeals system against the trust’s decisions.
I still see no reason why Ofcom, which already has some regulatory powers over the BBC, could not be a truly impartial and rigorous regulator for the whole BBC. It is particularly important to have strong independent regulation, as the BBC continues to expand into new technologies and new media. There are instances of its breaching its requirement to provide services that are both distinctive and complementary to those already provided by the commercial sector.
I welcome the window of creative competition, changes to the BBC’s fair trading policy and Ofcom’s increased role in conducting market impact assessments, but more should be done, which is why the charter represents a missed opportunity to establish once and for all a more settled relationship between the state-funded BBC and its commercial competitors. For example, Conservative Members have long believed that the BBC should have only a very narrow role in publishing books and magazines.
Although I accept that UK plc gains from the BBC’s involvement in technological advances, 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 more profitable in newly emerging markets. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether she has heard as much concern as I have from other media organisations that the charter does not do enough to prevent predatory competition?
Let me focus for a moment on the BBC’s online dominance. The Secretary of State must be aware of the strong arguments against a single service licence for online content. Can she give an undertaking today that the BBC will be subjected to a transparent approval process for new online services? What guarantees are there to ensure that it will not unfairly crowd out its competitors?
I mentioned earlier the importance of appropriate funding for the BBC if it is to maintain full public confidence over the next 10 years—something that, I am sure, hon. Members on both sides of the House would like. We now know that it has submitted a bid for an eye-wateringly large increase based on the retail prices index plus 2.3 per cent., under which the licence fee would go up from about £130 to £180 by 2013. At that rate a £200 licence fee is not much further away. Does the Secretary of State not realise that such a high licence fee risks damaging the BBC’s public support?
The Secretary of State will have seen in the coverage of the BBC’s annual report that one senior executive is reported to have accumulated a pension pot of £3.85 million. That comes at a time when the corporation is to close its final salary pension scheme to new employees and raise the retirement age to 65. Does the Secretary of State realise the danger of having, on the one hand, seemingly huge benefits for top executives, and on the other, a bid for unprecedented licence fee increases?
The wider debate about executives’ salaries is also important. At a time when the BBC is cutting staff and asking for more money from the licence fee payer, the public will be concerned by the news not only of the pay increases for senior executives, but of multi-million pound deals for presenters. There has already been an intervention on that point. Surely it is hard for the BBC to argue that that will not lead to super-inflation when, rather than
“catching up with the market”
in respect of pay, as has been suggested, it is increasingly the market leader. Indeed, the PKF report states that the
“BBC’s average cost per employee is towards the higher end of average earnings”,
“it is questionable that the BBC needs to pay higher rates than average”.
PKF also shows that between 2002 and 2004 the wage rates of Sky, ITV and the average top 100 radio and TV companies were lower than those of the BBC. The licence fee should not be a blank cheque to outbid and outprice everyone in the marketplace.
The divorce in this debate between the licence fee and the charter has become increasingly unsustainable.
I agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. The commercial broadcasters are concerned about the fall in advertising revenues and the looming triumph of the nanny state in banning the advertising on television of Maltesers and other such things. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is another reason why an above-inflation increase in the licence fee would be completely unacceptable, as it would lead to commercial broadcasters being crowded out?
My hon. Friend, as is customary, makes a good point. There are a number of reasons why we feel that there should not be an increase of RPI plus 2.3 per cent. in the licence fee—and the Secretary of State probably shares our view. My hon. Friends will no doubt want to articulate why they agree with their Front-Bench spokespeople that such an increase would be too much, and that the new figure would be too high.
The divorce between the two areas of the debate that I referred to is a flaw that the Secretary of State has built into the process. By delaying the announcement of the licence fee until the end of the year, we are further separating the two elements of the debate. I am pleased—I genuinely would like the Secretary of State to listen to this—that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport charter review website has at last woken up to the fact that the announcement has been delayed. The website manager cannot have been at the drinks party at which the Secretary of State announced that—and the Secretary of State, or her officials, clearly forgot to inform the new Minister in her team, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), about it at all.
Today, we will be setting in stone what we want the BBC to do for the next 10 years, but we will not be saying how much we are prepared to pay for that. In the fast changing world of broadcasting, how can we say, “This is what we want,” while not at the same time agreeing how much it is going to cost?
According to reports, the Secretary of State has already agreed that the BBC’s licence fee proposal is too high. That raises the following question: which, if any, of the things that the BBC is proposing to do does she think is unimportant? Ultra-local television? The move to Salford? High-definition television? Or does she, like many of us, have concerns about the figures that the BBC have used to come to the conclusion that RPI plus 2.3 per cent. is the magic number? It is ludicrous for us to be ordering from the menu without knowing whether we can afford to settle up when the bill arrives.
The Secretary of State may be coy about revealing the reasons for the delay in the licence fee settlement—as the other Minister was when we debated the same subject a few weeks ago—but it seems that between them, the BBC and the Government have somehow got their figures wrong. Two reports, one commissioned by DCMS and the other by ITV, have pointed to anomalies in the BBC’s bid. Both PKF and Indepen have undermined the BBC’s submission to the Government; PKF considers that the BBC does not necessarily need the extra funds that it has requested. Also, it seems that the cost of the move to Salford has suddenly been reduced by £200 million. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that an overfunded BBC could lead to super-inflation in the industry? Will she today agree to make available the full current figures on which the level of the licence fee will be agreed?
There is another reason why the licence fee bid is so high: the Government’s digital switchover policy. We are now just two years away from the start of analogue switch-off, but we still have no idea about the costs of targeted help schemes, which the licence fee payer will have to bear. The director-general of the BBC thinks that they could cost on
“the far side of a billion”
pounds. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that she can provide the House and the BBC with a final figure for targeted help? If not, will she at least guarantee that we will know those figures before any licence fee settlement is announced?
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is an additional unnecessary cost in the switchover to digital broadcasting? In some areas, including mine, the local service provider—Wrights Radio in my area—has found a way to pipe digital network provision to houses that still have analogue television. Unfortunately however, some of the Government-sponsored materials that advise on digital switchover suggest that all that will be switched off. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with me on the specific point that the Government must recognise that in areas where there is no barrier in principle to making a simple change on a central basis for digital switchover, they should save a lot of time and money, and prevent those businesses from going bankrupt, by giving accurate information to the local public?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I hope that the Secretary of State has listened to his concerns. There is also concern, as a result of the delay in the licence fee announcement, that Digital UK will have to order equipment without knowing whether the BBC can pay for it. All such matters need to be discussed in the round. The hon. Gentleman has made a good point, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made a similar point in the debate that we had a couple of weeks ago. I hope that Ministers listen to such special pleas.
Such confusion over the BBC’s licence fee bid shows how important it is for the National Audit Office to play a greater role in setting the fee. I have maintained throughout the renewal process that a Conservative Government would bring in the NAO to examine the BBC’s figures. The case for that is overwhelming. The NAO could assure licence fee payers that they were getting value for money and could assure this House that the licence fee had been properly scrutinised. Also, given that there is no longer any distinction between a mandatory licence fee and taxation, I further believe that this House should have a full debate, and vote, on any future increase. But in this case we have, to borrow a phrase, taxation without representation. Why do the Government continue to resist repeated calls both from within this House and across the industry for there to be further scrutiny of the licence fee settlement?
As I am mindful that others wish to contribute to this incredibly important debate, I have focused on only some of our concerns about the new charter. Other Members will want to discuss that in greater detail. We come to this debate as strong supporters of an independent and properly funded BBC, but also as champions of the licence fee payer and the commercial sector.
I should declare an interest of a kind: as a former employee of the BBC, I will receive a pension of £508 when I reach whatever is the appropriate pensionable age. I spent several happy years there, until I helped to organise the first ever strike by BBC journalists some 30 years ago, and that was the end of my BBC career. But I have gone on to other—lesser—things.
I am unsure whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to watch the last episode of “Doctor Who” on Saturday night. I say—with the affection that she knows that I have for her—that she could be very well-placed to audition for the role of the next Rose, to replace Billie Piper, because that young lady is an expert in the concept of the parallel universe, which, having watched “Doctor Who”, I am beginning to understand. I have to say to my right hon. Friend, with affection and respect, that I am not sure that my Rotherham constituents are prepared to be quite as enthusiastic about the BBC as she is.
I deeply regret the rather trivial speech made by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). The Conservative party’s game-plan is of course to weaken the BBC and to bring about the introduction of Fox News and the utterly biased reporting that we now see in the United States. Some of the main people lobbying against the licence fee increase include Associated Newspapers—as if anybody would want the objectivity of the Daily Mail to determine how the BBC should broadcast—and Johnston Press, which is facing a strike because of the appallingly low wages paid to the employees of a very small newspaper in Doncaster. One of the scandals of the British media outside London is not the forcing up of wages, but their continual forcing down. The hon. Gentleman would be well advised to find out just how much the private media sector bosses, barons and chief executives pay themselves. He has no better adviser on that issue than the former public relations “flack” for Carlton Television, who is now, I think, occupying a post on the Opposition Front Bench.
The problem with the BBC is very serious.
Surely the crucial difference between the BBC and the private sector is that businesses in the latter have to compete for their revenue. Entirely voluntary transactions earn them that revenue, but that is not so with the BBC. If it misuses its revenue in the way that it competes or pays its staff, that is a matter of public concern.
I would be persuaded by the hon. Gentleman if he had witnessed at close hand, as I have, the effective monopolisation and control of much of this country’s regional media and broadcasting. In fact, I agree in part with his general point, in that the BBC is seeking to do too much. It is an amoeba that is spreading out and occupying far too much of our country’s media space. I do not share in the rather adulatory remarks that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made about the BBC, perhaps because I spend some of my time in Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), who is no longer in the Chamber, would advise the House that I spend perhaps too much of my time in Europe. I see other broadcasters on the continent that are every bit as good as, if not better than, the BBC, not least in the provision of news, current affairs and political discussion. The BBC has been lamentably lacking in that regard in recent years.
The BBC is a self-referring, self-regulating body and frankly, it is in self-denial. The new media world will not be dominated by any single organisation. I want the BBC to be a “British” broadcasting corporation, showing what it can do to provide news, entertainment and current affairs to every corner of this country. It does not have to become an American broadcasting corporation. I do not know why it runs mammoth offices in Washington and New York and is seeking to compete directly in the American market. Americans of all ilks at the top of that great nation refer to the BBC. Alan Greenspan told me that the first thing that he read was the BBC news summary on the internet, followed by the Financial Times and then The Economist. So, when Members in all parts of the House complain about American policy, they should remember that the British media are often influencing such people the most.
My principal concern is the enormous pressure put on many of the poorest of my constituents by an unavoidable impost over which they have no say and no vote, and on which this House does not even have any right to comment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly compared the BBC to the NHS, but the latter is making serious efforts to find new sources of revenue, to introduce choice and to link up to private markets, so the comparison is not quite right. Even today, poor people in my constituency have immense difficulty in making ends meet and in finding £113 to give to a BBC whose programmes they rarely watch, whose radio they rarely listen to and whose many magazines and books they do not buy, despite the huge publicity for them. So serious questions have to be asked about whether it should not itself be finding sources of finance other than this deeply regressive licence fee.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s view, which he is arguing cogently, but does he not accept that there is a different way of looking at this issue? The BBC underpins much of the very high standard of broadcasting in this country, and in effect, the licence fee does not just buy it the space to work in collaboration with local and regional organisations; I could list examples such as the Shropshire Star and Trinity Mirror newspapers, which all have letters of intent in that regard. The licence fee also means that the BBC is accountable, which is why we are having this debate today, and it is acutely aware of the importance of not irritating those in this Chamber or disrespecting their political wishes. So that is one way in which the BBC can be regarded as being more accountable than just about any comparable organisation on the planet.
The hon. Gentleman is an expert on Estonia and I am not really up to speed on Estonian public broadcasting, but there are other countries part of whose broadcasting is supported by a public licence fee—I am not arguing against that for one second—and who encourage the equivalents of BBC 1, Radio 1 and Radio 2 to seek other sources of revenue.
The taxpayer is rightly paying out billions of pounds to the anti-poverty programme that we now call tax credits, which the Conservative party has always been so scornful of. But it does seem to be illogical for the taxpayer, having given that money to poorer people in my constituency, to then insist, without any alternative being provided, that a good chunk of the money be paid back to the BBC. I am not going to enter into the debate about pay and whether Jonathan Ross should receive x or y salary, which is rather trivial. There are David Beckhams who receive lots of money to lose the World cup for England, and Jonathan Ross is going to be paid lots of money to do possibly quite considerable damage to the BBC’s future status.
That is a fair point. I remember that, when I worked in local radio, it was impossible to get anybody in BBC television to even mention the fact that local radio existed. Perhaps some of those imperial divisions have broken down.
I am disappointed that the Government have been unable to find other mechanisms for bringing revenue into the BBC. I am not convinced—despite the many fine journalists to whom I pay tribute, especially those covering events in some of the most dangerous parts of the world—that the BBC is helping to shape a new journalism. Frankly, I find deplorable its Project Phoenix, through which it wants to start a weekly political or current affairs magazine. Britain has the weakest weekly political press in Europe, and it is weaker than that in north America. I am talking not about the marvellous articles written in The Spectator, Tribune, the New Statesman, The Week and The Economist, but about the circulation, reach and influence of the British weekly political press, which is far below that of its equivalents across the channel or across the Atlantic. It is quite deplorable that the BBC is even contemplating entering that market.
I also find it deplorable that the BBC’s coverage of Parliament has been seriously downgraded under this Government. I am not suggesting that this is a case of cause and effect, but there was a time when one could listen to “Yesterday in Parliament”. One cannot do so any more without twiddling on to something called “long wave”, which I cannot find on my digital radio. I am sure that it is there somewhere, but I cannot find it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I agree that the BBC broadcasts too little coverage of Parliament nowadays, but is that not because the Executive have so much power over this Chamber that our debates are not as interesting as they used to be?
Well, they are certainly a lot more interesting since the hon. Gentleman won his seat, and I am sure that he will contribute to making Parliament once again the focal point of the nation. When I first entered this place, the odd word would occasionally dribble on to the BBC; now, alas, he will be lucky if that happens.
Again, unlike many continental public and private broadcasting systems, which have a serious discursive approach to democratic politics, we have the objectivity of the Daily Mail, the approach to Europe of The Spectator and, as we saw in an interview with the Deputy Prime Minister last week, higher standards with regard to prurience in Hello and Heat than on the “Today” programme.
While I do not object to the odd high salary for some ladies and gentlemen who amuse us, I am far from convinced that the licence fee should be used for generally upping a huge number of the salaries and pensions paid in what is, after all, a public service profession. Everybody employed by the BBC is paid from that regressive tax. I have been told by the director-general that if he does not pay such salaries, everyone will go off to the private sector. Let them do so. An auction should be held, and the controller of BBC 1 should be paid, let us say, a bit more than the Prime Minister—£200,000 a year. Then we will see young men and women transform the BBC, instead of those friends, colleagues and associates of mine from 35 years ago who have been polishing seats ever since on their way to huge salaries and high pensions.
The BBC needs to link up internationally. It should connect with EuroNews, for example, bringing together BBC World and News 24, to create an effective, impartial international news television channel, which the world needs. The best part of the BBC, of course, is the World Service, which is also paid for by the taxpayer, but directly from the Foreign Office grant. I am proud that the Foreign Office has cut back on other vital diplomatic and overseas work to protect the BBC and the British Council.
When I hear the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, representing National Audit Office inquiries, making partisan and often trivial points on the radio, I do not agree that the NAO is necessarily the right body to examine the BBC’s accounts. However, because the BBC is funded by the taxpayer, we do have the right to as much transparency in its accounts as there should be in Government or local council accounts. BBC employees are public servants. We have the right to know each and every one of their salaries, and there should be a register of those employees’ interests so that we know which companies are paying some stars for appearances and how much. When those ladies and gentlemen pump out lines to take, we will therefore know who is influencing them.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), who will reply to the debate, are working hard on this issue. They are right to seek to defend the BBC against the Conservative party and all the other right-wing attempts to Fox-ise it and reduce its role. I am just not convinced, however, by the arguments, which seem—if I may finish on a “Doctor Who” analogy—to come from a parallel universe not inhabited by my constituents. The BBC has done important work for the last 80 years, but Britain has one of the weakest media sectors of any modern democratic country. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have much more local television and radio spreading the news about products, services, local ideas and problems in a way that helps to generate economic activity. I am concerned that the BBC’s spread into what it calls local television will crowd out independent companies trying to get going.
I cannot possibly vote for the wholly opportunistic amendment tabled by the Conservative party. It is a great regret that the Opposition tabled it because we could have had a much better debate were it not for their rather cheap attempt to exploit the issue. I must announce to my right hon. and hon. Friends, however, that, for the first time under a Labour Government, I will not be able to go into the Lobby with them tonight. Unless we have a new approach to the BBC, I cannot support the huge amounts of money that my constituents have to pay, its lack of transparency, or the way in which it is spreading into every nook and cranny of the media instead of allowing a new media to flourish, create jobs and show that Britain can again lead the world in media development in the 21st century.
Almost every Member of the House would agree that the BBC has led the field over the past 80 years. It is the best public sector broadcaster in the world, with a record of quality and innovation and an unassailable record of public trust, both here and abroad. That public trust, for example, makes the new BBC middle east television service so important. Regrettably, however, that service will only be on for 12 hours a day because of the lack of £6 million a year. That is in the context of BBC income of between £3 billion and £4 billion, and of a BBC presenter such as Jonathan Ross being paid £6 million a year for three years, as part of his contract. I say that as an admirer of Jonathan Ross, his Radio 2 programme and his wit and humour. He may have gone a little too far on a chat show with some politician recently, but in general, he is an excellent presenter. None the less, I wonder whether at least part of a £6 million a year salary might be better spent on other things, such as the BBC’s middle east television service.
The respect felt for the BBC across the world is the reason why even the independent sector’s recent lobbying of us, in advance of this debate, started by saying how much it, too, values the BBC, before expressing concerns about its spending power getting out of hand. That admiration for the BBC and its track record is the reason we must never go down the USA route of an almost purely commercial market, with a grossly underfunded public sector broadcast element. That almost exclusively advertiser-driven market is the reason Bruce Springsteen can justifiably sing that there are 57 channels but nothing is on—that is on the “Human Touch” album, should hon. Members wish to follow up the reference—and a satirical comic genius like Bill Hicks was censored off the David Letterman show more than once because the advertisers and sponsors would not have approved.
Things change, and the new charter and licence fee settlement are about managing the next decade of change. Things have changed in the past. I can just remember, as a young boy, the pirate radio battle led by Radio Caroline, from which Radio 1 developed, then the independents, and then the network of localised stations such as the excellent Peak 107 or Peak FM based in Chesterfield. Some now argue that the BBC should not still deliver Radio 1 and 2, in competition with the popular music-based commercial sector, while the BBC argues in return that those two stations carry more live and recorded interview and concert time for new and old bands than any rival. Sky argued that the BBC should not develop 24-hour news. Others oppose internet provision. However, can a trusted brand such as the BBC really be excluded from such major developments in media platforms? I would say that it cannot; otherwise it will become a completely irrelevant and outdated fossil.
The trick in shaping the BBC’s new charter, its funding for the next 10 years and its purpose as a pre-eminent public sector broadcaster is to allow it to continue to innovate and provide quality—as it has done in its famed documentary series, in the cutting-edge “Doctor Who” episodes that concluded last Saturday, or even in its more controversial 1 million free Beethoven downloads—but without making it so cash-rich that it monopolises any market that it chooses, stifling all its rivals in the process. Providing BBC computers to schools in the 1980s, when I was teaching in the classroom, was not really appropriate for the BBC and soon came to an end. I fought battles on behalf of the Derbyshire branch of the Federation of Small Businesses over the perceived danger of the BBC dominating the educational software and online educational television market. I have been lobbied by my local papers, the Derbyshire Times and The Star in Sheffield, over BBC web content, and by ITV Yorkshire and Central about the potential dangers from a cash-rich and too dominant BBC.
Do the Government’s proposals for the new charter succeed in squaring the circle, reconciling quality and innovation with the danger that the BBC will become too cash-rich and dominant? Do they tackle the four perceived problems identified by Michael Grade himself at a seminar in Millbank Tower on 30 March? The first was elephantiasis: the BBC was seen by many as being too big, too fat and too careless of the independents who were trampled along the road. The second was inefficiency: the BBC was seen as a public service with too much money. The third was management capture of the governors, and the fourth was a lack of accountability. Of course, Michael Grade went on to try to refute all those perceptions, but the fact that he could so quickly and easily identify the four main criticisms of the BBC speaks for itself.
What of the BBC Trust? The Secretary of State said that the Government had consulted widely, but they ignored most of the consultation responses that called repeatedly for a truly independent regulator. The House of Lords Select Committee said that
“proposals for reforming the governance…of the BBC are confusing, misguided and unworkable.”
The White Paper described the BBC Trust as a
“sovereign body within the BBC.”
The chairman of the BBC Trust would still be called the chairman of the BBC.
While the trust is an improvement on what has gone before, it does not go far enough. The BBC remains ultimately its own judge and jury; who will trust the BBC—who will trust its trust, indeed—to make the right judgments on whether it is dominating a marketplace unfairly? As ITN has pointed out, the BBC Trust remains the
“only enforcer of the Fair Trading rules”
in some areas, such as the relationship between BBC Worldwide and the BBC licence fee-funded arm. Yet that is exactly the area about which ITN complains most often.
We would prefer a completely independent regulator to cover all public service broadcasters, not just the BBC. Michael Grade’s own answer to one of the problems he had identified—lack of accountability—was that
“the trust has a duty to take account of licence payers’ views”.
That simply is not good enough: there must be a more independent regulator.
As has often been said, the National Audit Office—mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire)—could play a much greater role, to everyone’s benefit. There is disagreement and there are conflicting claims over the figures used in the BBC’s licence fee application. The NAO could provide an objective and expert assessment of the conflicting figures in the Indepen and PKF reports, and the dispute over how the increase in the number of single households and thence the increase in licence fee income is accounted for, before the setting of the licence fee, rather than just scrutinising finances retrospectively. The whole process could take place in a much more open and transparent way.
Much has been said today about the digital switchover. Part of the licence fee debate relates to its costs, and the costs of targeted assistance to help vulnerable people cope with it. Those are matters of Government policy, and the costs should not be borne by the BBC licence fee payer through a form of stealth tax based on flat-rate poll tax principles. Like free television licences for those over 75, such Government policy costs should be borne directly by the Treasury, not factored into the licence fee increase. The money that the Government will raise from the sale of the freed-up spectrum is one obvious source of funding, which could also preclude a spectrum tax on public service broadcasters.
As the Secretary of State said, another aspect of digital switchover involves the relationship between the BBC and Channel 4 as PSBs. That extends to the relationship with S4C in Wales. We are delighted that the negotiations between the BBC and S4C are progressing so well, and we hope that an agreement between them will give S4C more control over production and programming. A clearer understanding of the financial relationship between the BBC and S4C will benefit Welsh viewers and licence fee payers alike.
I have already mentioned a number of issues that affect calculations of the licence fee, and the disputed costings presented by the BBC. The licence fee is the “least worst” of the available funding options.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a licence fee means it is absolutely essential that the BBC is not biased? If he has something liberal in him, does he not accept that there is systematic bias in the BBC—in all its news output—against anyone who believes in less government, less law, less tax, less regulation and less interference?
If the right hon. Gentleman means that there is institutional bias in the BBC simply because it exists, I cannot agree. I said at the outset that most Members, although not all, would recognise the integrity, quality and impartiality of the BBC’s work over the past 80 years. If the right hon. Gentleman means that there is bias in the presentation of BBC programmes and BBC news, I can tell him that many independent studies do not confirm that. The Government or Opposition of the day, if they feel disgruntled at any time, tend to blame the BBC—to shoot the messenger—but independent studies, including academic university studies, have never confirmed that any such bias is apparent.
Strangely enough, I was about to add that the only apparent bias I have discerned in 20 or 30 years of BBC-watching is the BBC’s all too common tendency to ignore the third party in British politics, which regularly receives 20 per cent. of the vote of the population.
Does the hon. Gentleman not find it slightly worrying, however, that both the independent reports commissioned by the BBC governors—the first on the BBC’s coverage of Europe, the second on its coverage of the middle east—concluded that the coverage was biased?
It would be interesting to enter into a debate on the nature of that perceived bias. Certainly, others reading those reports would not take the approach suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
Although the licence fee is the “least worst” of the available options, it should be the subject of a full debate in the Chamber, rather than an announcement by the Government at the appropriate time later this year.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Obviously in 10 years’ time, at the end of the next phase of the charter and the licence fee, we shall be in a very different world. Developments such as the fragmentation of television and the introduction of viewing on demand will alter the environment far more than the changes mentioned at the beginning of the debate. It may well be that in 10 years we shall have to consider other options. It is difficult to imagine what options would be better than the licence fee, but we will be in a different world.
Funding by means of advertisements and subscriptions involves various problems. I mentioned reliance on advertising earlier, when I drew attention to the fairly appalling state of American television and American so-called news production in particular. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) mentioned the quality of such services as Fox News, which do not deserve to be described as news services. Sky News, which operates in a robust market in the UK with PSB deliverers, is far better than its American counterparts. I shudder to think what alternatives might be forced on us in years to come, but for the moment we are looking at the next 10 years of the BBC’s operation.
The BBC’s proposed fee of RPI plus 2.3 per cent. is too high, partly because of stealth-tax factors in digital takeover and targeted assistance, partly because of disputed calculations of future income such as that resulting from the growth in single households which may or may not have been double-counted—different people are producing different arguments—and partly because we must not create an excessively cash-rich BBC. The BBC already receives more per year than advertising revenue brings to the independent sector.
As ITV has argued,
“There needs to be a transparent process to set the licence fee. The BBC’s figures need to be analysed fully and openly… so that all interested parties have confidence that the BBC is funded proportionately and fairly.”
There is not much confidence that that is the conclusion that will be arrived at.
However, some political sceptics need to be a little more consistent in their views on the BBC. In the 1980s, as a teacher of history, politics and PSE—it is called citizenship today; they have simply renamed it—and as someone who was interested in politics in general, I followed carefully some of the comments from members of the then governing party, who criticised the BBC, first, on the ground that its programme output was too elitist and, secondly, on the ground that it should raise more commercial money and not rely purely on the licence fee. Twenty years later, it is interesting to note the turnaround in the comments of those people, who now criticise the BBC for chasing the ratings too much, exactly what they suggested it should do 20 years ago, and for raising too much from commercial sales of spin-off products and from overseas sales of programmes and the back catalogue.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to respond positively to all the concerns expressed during the earlier consultations, during earlier debates in this place and during today's debate.
I would like to make a few points almost at random, rather than reading out any of the briefings that have been sent around. To show it is at random, I shall start with the notes I made when my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) was speaking. Thank goodness he left the BBC a long time ago, because he said that not many of his constituents watch the BBC, or did he say that none of them did so? I think that the reason he gave was that it does not present Parliament very well. At least two Opposition Members shouted something out that I took to mean that they wanted more of Parliament on the BBC. I think that we have damaged our credibility already, before we have even started the debate.
A few years ago, the issue came before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, when the BBC wanted to switch “Yesterday in Parliament” from 8.45 am on Radio 4 FM to long wave. There were many complaints in the House. Hundreds of Members signed an early-day motion. I was probably the only one who said that I would not sign it. I asked Members whether they had really thought about it. I said that, if we could not persuade more than 30 of us to walk 25 yd down the Corridor to listen to us, why should we make 3 million people listen to “Yesterday in Parliament” on the radio? The reason the BBC wanted to switch it to long wave was, of course, that it did not want to lose 3 million listeners in one fell swoop. Therefore, if we really believe that it is the poor presentation of Parliament on the BBC that reduces the number of viewers, we will struggle to persuade people about anything.
I support the new charter and will discuss one small aspect of it. I was an admirer of the previous chair and the director-general of the BBC. I was particularly saddened when they were both forced to resign by the then board. I recognised the problem pretty quickly. The strength of the then chair, acting as an executive chairman along with the director-general, was an Achilles heel when it came to realising that something had gone wrong.
We had an early meeting with the all-party group on the BBC. The then acting director-general came along. I asked him immediately whether he agreed that there should be two chairs, one chairing the board itself and one acting as an executive chairman. I asked the same question in the Select Committee on a number of occasions. No one agreed with me that that would be a good idea, but I see that it is going to happen, so it is possible to have a chair working with the executive proactively within the BBC, as well as a chairman or chairwoman of the trust itself. That is a great step forward.
It took people longer than it took me—I am giving myself some praise—to realise that. I would like to make a personal appeal to the current chair of the BBC that he use his vast experience, skill and knowledge of the industry to work on the proactive side of the divide, rather than be chair of the trust. We need his experience alongside the director-general, pushing the BBC forward.
A separate issue is democracy. I was delighted to read the report of the previous debate, which unfortunately I could not attend after the first 10 minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) mentioned democracy and said:
“There is hardly a television programme on the BBC these days that does not involve people voting for somebody or something.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1338.]
Why cannot the public therefore be allowed to vote in some way for the members of the trust who will represent them? Those people will control where their money goes each year. It is something we should look at. It is a very difficult issue. The House is probably the last place in the world that will condemn representative democracy, but we have the technology nowadays. It is not easy but we should look at the possibility of at least some of the members of that trust being elected directly through the increasingly efficient method that the various television companies employ, usually on a Saturday night.
I would like to talk quite personally for a few moments. It is easy to criticise the licence fee as being regressive. By strict definition, it probably is, but if you do not mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will speak about my own experience. When I was brought up I did not know what a university was. My grammar school head teacher could do nothing to persuade me to stay on at school for two more years or to go to university—to disappear somewhere, when I was not sure where or what it was. After that, what job would I do? I could not be convinced. I have regretted it many times since, but, apart from sport on the BBC, I do not watch anything unless it enhances my knowledge of the world, whether it be science, astronomy or whatever. All my education has probably come from the BBC. We have to be careful. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham may be right that not enough of his constituents watch the BBC, but he must not say that none of them does. I have spent a lot of my life watching it and the benefits to me have been immense.
We are discussing a difficult problem today. We must realise that it is sometimes difficult for hard-up people to pay the licence fee. The value they get from it is immense but the very people who would stop paying it if it became a subscription would be those whose children would most benefit from it, so we must be careful.
I shall give an example of value for money. Again, I am repeating something that the Select Committee came across during its proceedings. A while ago, we had the chairman of Artsworld in front of us. He was complaining about the BBC stepping into areas from which the commercial world was attempting to make profits. I said to him that I would love to have Artsworld, which is free on Sky. Perhaps in a BBC debate, we should not advertise Sky, but Artsworld is a wonderful channel. That gentleman is a respected and skilled television executive. His company was charging £6 a month, or £72 a year for one arts channel, good as it is, compared with, at that time, £121 for the whole of the BBC’s output. That is why it is not a straightforward problem. We tend to see things in black and white in here, especially when we face each other across the Chamber. We need to give entrepreneurs and the people in the media who are proactive in the creative industries the opportunity to produce the sort of viewing that we want people to see, but it is expensive. It is a difficult problem to manage. I wish I knew all the answers. That is an example of the wonderful value of the BBC, even if the licence fee goes up to £180 a year.
I agree with almost everything that my hon. Friend says. He mentioned the argument that the BBC crowds out entrepreneurs such as those involved with Artsworld, but does he agree that that argument becomes less valid the more platforms there are for broadcasting? The BBC still sets a standard of quality against which all the new commercial offerings can be judged.
I agree very much. We want the BBC to meet its minimum target of 25 per cent. of output from independents, which gives them the chance to flourish within the BBC’s orbit and receive support from it.
Accountability has been mentioned a few times already and it is a difficult problem. People have asked how the BBC is accountable, and I have pointed out that there is no strictly democratic system for the public to have a say, although they have to pay the licence fee. However, it is not true to say that the BBC has billions of pounds to do with what it wants. It is also important to note that the decision on the licence fee is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government, and they will not lightly take any decision that would damage the BBC. We all know that if the licence fee increases steeply, people blame the Government, not the BBC. I hope that people will accept that the Government have to follow a more stringent procedure before the decision is made. The Government will certainly care whether the voters agree with their decision.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), whose contributions in the Committee and in the Chamber are always interesting. I do not agree with everything he says, but he always makes some interesting points.
I welcome this debate, which is the second that we have had on the BBC in only a couple of weeks. I said in the last debate that I regretted the fact that it had taken so long to get a debate on the BBC: it was the first since the general election. Like buses, they come along in twos.
I am glad that the Secretary of State was successful in her attempts to persuade the BBC to move the publication date of the report. It was slightly a case of the mountain coming to Mohammed rather than the other way round, because the BBC had to tear up all its plans for publication instead of our moving the date of the debate, but it was obviously sensible that the debate should come after publication.
The charter that we are debating will last for 10 years and take us up to the end of 2016. It is difficult to envisage what the broadcasting world will look like by then. Even during the 10 years of the last charter, we saw huge changes taking place. The charter began in 1996. On 1 June 1997, Five launched, so we had four terrestrial broadcasters. Shortly after that, Sky went digital and offered far more channels. In July 1998, ONdigital was launched, which soon became ITV Digital. Then it collapsed and eventually became Freeview. There has been a steady increase in digital penetration, and we have also seen the launch of digital audio broadcasting—digital radio.
In the next 10 years, the pace will get even faster. We are beginning to see what that world will look like. For example, later this year BT Vision will launch internet protocol television—IPTV—a serious option that will allow video on demand for hundreds if not thousands of movies and seven-day catch-up, as well as the digital channels through Freeview, and HomeChoice already offers that service to some extent. But that is just the beginning. Most broadband providers will move into television, with the consequence that we will have widespread video on demand, so scheduling will become a thing of the past. The viewer will become far more powerful—able to decide what he wants to watch and when, from a huge choice. Nor will he necessarily watch it on a television in the living room, but perhaps on a mobile device or an iPod.
The whole of broadcasting will look very different. Given that, it is strange that the BBC’s charter is to be renewed for 10 years and set in stone for that time. I agree with the Secretary of State that there will still be a role for the BBC, although it will be a different role.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s great experience in these matters, but we often hear that changes in technology will make scheduling a thing of the past. That has not been true with all the new technologies and radio: people still listen to radio even though they are able to programme their own music any way that they want. Why will the new world of audiovisual broadcasting be different?
Well, to an extent I am crystal-ball gazing, but I think that the new technology will make a difference. For the first time, the viewer will have access to thousands of different programmes and films that can be summoned up with the press of a button. We have not had anything like that before, and it is bound to change people’s habits. Scheduling will continue to some extent, and the Secretary of State was right to talk about the importance of water cooler moments. People will still want to all watch the same programme and then gather the next day to talk about it, but broadcasting will be hugely different in the future. In fact, that will make it harder to enforce public service obligations on commercial channels, so to that extent the BBC will have a stronger role in providing real public service broadcasting. My criticism of the BBC in the past is that it has strayed too far from that core responsibility of the provision of public service broadcasting.
Given that the BBC rightly has ambitions to move into the new areas of technology, it is right for it to say that whichever platform the viewer or listener chooses to access programmes, they will find the BBC there. That means that very strong safeguards need to be built in, as several hon. Members have pointed out. There is a real danger that the BBC, with all its resources and power, will distort the market in those new areas. That is why the charter is so important.
The Secretary of State has talked about the charter being subject to greater consultation and transparency than ever before. It is true that we have had consultation, with lots of seminars, a Green Paper and a White Paper. However, all the feedback from that consultation has been largely ignored. The enormous reports commissioned at vast expense by the commercial broadcasters have all reached conclusions, none of which seems to have been accepted by the Government. The Burns committee, set up by the Government, produced some very good recommendations, including the establishment of a public service broadcasting authority, but that too was rejected by the Government.
The House of Lords Select Committee wrote to the Secretary of State saying:
“Despite so much informed opposition to your plans you have rejected almost every one of our recommendations for improving the model”.
There is not much point in having huge amounts of consultation if the Government give the impression that their mind has been made up before the consultation even started, and nothing will change as a result of it.
The concerns rightly centre on the new structure of governance. I admit that the BBC Trust is an improvement on the board of governors, in that the separation between the board and the executive will be clearer. They will actually be geographically separate, but the trust will still be part of the BBC. According to the charter, the first job of the BBC Trust will be to set the strategic direction for the BBC. It still looks very like a board of governors: the first four appointees to the trust are all existing BBC governors. I have a great deal of respect for some of those individuals, especially one of them, whom I worked alongside for some time and for whom I have a high regard. However, I hope that in future appointments to the BBC Trust we will look a little further than those who have worked inside the BBC or who have a history of working with the BBC.
I hope that the new appointees will bring a degree of scepticism. If the BBC Trust is truly to be a proper external regulator, as the BBC likes to claim and the Government try to claim, its members must be genuinely independent of mind and willing—indeed, positively keen—to criticise the BBC when it is going wrong.
The most important factor will be oversight of the new services. The creative future spelled out by Mark Thompson represents a huge ambition. The Beethoven week experience, when the number of downloads of Beethoven symphonies was far in excess of the BBC’s expectations, shows that even a pilot scheme can have a vast impact on the market. I welcome the BBC’s recognition that the Beethoven week caused the music industry profound concern, so it changed the format for the Bach week so that whole BBC symphonies were not available free for downloading. That was a welcome recognition of the fact that the BBC needs to work with commercial companies, not in competition with them.
Even BBC pilots can have great impact, so I was slightly concerned when Mark Thompson announced recently that the corporation is to extend its podcasting trial
“for some months to come”.
That initiative has not been subject to any of the tests to which the Secretary of State has rightly drawn attention, and there is concern that such trials, which may last for several months, may themselves distort the market. There is a case for their being subject to some kind of assessment before they are launched.
When new services are launched each should have its own service licence and be subject to a market impact assessment. The fact those assessments are to be conducted by Ofcom is a step forward, but even though Ofcom has some role in the process, the eventual decision about the public value test still rests with the BBC, which is unsatisfactory. Furthermore, it is of some concern that although the market impact assessment is carried out by Ofcom, it is subject to the oversight of the joint steering group, half of whose members are from Ofcom and half from the BBC. The BBC will still have considerable power over the assessment.
That situation is unsatisfactory. It bears a depressing similarity to the arrangements for the National Audit Office, which has some access to the BBC’s accounts, but only subject to agreement with the BBC. I fully endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and all the others who have said that the situation must change. The BBC enjoys vast amounts of public money, so it should be subject to the same efficiency scrutiny as every other part of the public sector.
As the chairman says in his annual report, the missing piece of the jigsaw is the licence fee settlement. He told the Select Committee a year ago that the figure for which the BBC has bid—2.3 per cent. above inflation—was a reduction from the original sum proposed in the BBC, and that he had somehow beaten it down to 2.3 per cent. over inflation. The Secretary of State, on the other hand, has said that she regards that figure as an opening bid.
I hope that we shall look carefully at each part of the bid, because each seems somewhat excessive. The BBC says that it needs an extra £1.4 billion just to meet the increase in base costs. It talks about super-inflation in broadcasting costs, but if anybody is responsible for that, the prime culprit is the BBC itself. I shall not get drawn too far down the salaries road, although it seems extremely unwise to award quite such enormous increases at a time when the BBC is asking its staff to suffer painful reductions in the number employed and in their pension entitlements. At the very least, such increases are somewhat insensitive.
On top of the base cost increase, the BBC wants another £1.6 billion for quality content. No new services are being launched in the main broadcasting area, so that £1.6 billion will go straight into programming, which must further increase the inflation. Then there are things such as the spectrum tax, for which the BBC says it needs £300 million. However, Treasury Ministers tell me that currently there are no proposals for such a tax, so the BBC has put in a bid for a precise—and large—sum before any proposals for the tax have even been introduced. I hope that we shall look at all those components, and I look forward to hearing the Government’s announcement, when it finally comes, about the future of the licence fee.
I want to touch on the contribution made by the BBC’s commercial activities to keeping down licence fee costs. It is certainly right that the BBC should exploit the value of its assets to the full. The BBC brand is a powerful one and it is worth money, so it is right that the commercial arm of the BBC—BBC Worldwide—should try to get a return for the licence fee payer from the use of that brand. However, that has resulted in the BBC extending its activities into areas that are a million miles removed from broadcasting.
The BBC is now the third largest consumer magazine publisher in Britain; it has 50 titles, 21 of which are in the children’s market. It recently launched a magazine called Amy for five to eight-year-old girls. Apart from the fact that CBBC was printed across the top of the magazine, it bore no relation to any BBC programme. The BBC decided that it wanted to become the third biggest magazine publisher in Britain, and I am sure that it has ambitions to become the second, if not the first.
BBC Worldwide recently bid for and acquired seven radio licences in India—not the World Service, but BBC Worldwide. The BBC is now a big player in the radio market in India. It also has a joint venture to create one of India’s largest magazine companies. Where does it stop? Would it be right for the BBC to set up a chain of antique shops under an “Antiques Roadshow” brand? Perhaps it could move into car dealerships based on the success of “Top Gear”. There must be a limit to what the BBC does.
The BBC’s original purpose was to provide public service broadcasting—to do things that the market will not provide. That is why I support the BBC, but it worries me when it extends its power and we hear the director-general saying that he wants to build the BBC into a competitor to Microsoft or Google. It is all very well to be ambitious, but the evolution of the BBC into a worldwide conglomerate is not appropriate. It takes us too far away from the corporation’s original remit.
As long as the BBC is capable of providing good-quality public service broadcasting, of which there are plenty of examples, I shall support it, but strong safeguards are needed. I am not sure that the charter proposed by the Government goes far enough in building in safeguards to ensure that the BBC maintains the quality we expect in its public service output while not becoming over-mighty and inflicting real damage on some of its commercial competitors, who are struggling to survive in a difficult broadcasting environment.
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) in his detailed criticisms, many of which were telling. I want to take a more broad-brush approach, because as this is probably our last debate on the BBC before charter renewal we should take the opportunity to look at the institution and its effectiveness overall, in the round, rather than going into the detailed criticisms that we all want to make.
We must accept that the BBC is a great British institution. The BBC is a nursery of talent, a sustainer of quality and a bastion of public service; abroad, it is often a better flag-bearer for Britain than the Foreign Office. We should defend it rather than, as the Opposition seem to be doing, damning it with faint praise, or, as the commercial rivals seem to be doing, praising it with loud damns. That is the approach of Rupert Murdoch, ITV, and Kelvin MacKenzie.
I am a big admirer of Rupert Murdoch—perhaps the only one on the Labour side of the House—but he uses The Times and The Sun to snipe constantly at the BBC and defend the interests of Sky. The commercial rivals praise competition, then blame their own failures on the idea that the BBC is too powerful a competitor. I admit that the BBC can be infuriating, particularly to anybody who has ever worked for it, but it is a magnificent institution, which we should praise and try to improve rather than carp at as opponents outside and inside the House are doing.
I too want to express broad support for the Government’s proposals. My support is, however, not unqualified. Like the previous speaker, I do not see how the trust is going to emerge. These days it is all trusts; we are creating trusts all over the place. Well, I do not necessarily trust the trusts. The original concept of the governors was that there would be a buffer to protect the BBC from attacks from outside, relating to the corporation through the director-general. If there were points of dissatisfaction with the corporation, the governors would not intervene; the director-general would simply be fired. That was the original approach—but it has certainly broken down, and something had to be done. It has broken down because the governors began to interfere far too much, and because many of the appointments, particularly under the Conservative Government, were mediocrities. They were political appointments.
The breakdown was also caused by what happened when the corporation was attacked. In this case it was my Government who were doing the attacking, led by Alastair Campbell. There was a disgraceful onslaught on the BBC, arising from a 6 am news broadcast—most of which was correct, but some of which was inaccurate. That was followed by the disgraceful whitewash of the Hutton report. When that happened, and the Government attempted to scalp Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies—which they ultimately succeeded in doing—instead of defending the institution and its chief executives, the governors stabbed them in the back and demolished the ground under their feet. In doing that, the governors sealed their own fate.
How is the trust to work? That is still an unknown area. The trust will be the advocate of the people and a watchdog for the people. If it is going to be those things, it needs to be powerful, effective and representative. It needs, for instance, to include a trade union representative, a representative of employees of the BBC, and representatives of the varied interests and regions of this country. It has to have its own roots and tentacles reaching out into society to know what the people think. If it is just a vehicle for pressure from outside by the press, pressure groups and competitors, it will undermine the BBC rather than give it effective leadership. That is still to be worked out, and I have certain anxieties.
I do not agree that the proportion of BBC programmes being put out to competitive tender should be increased to 50 per cent. That is disastrous. The BBC has a reputation and a role as a trainer of staff, a sustainer of quality staff and a developer of new programmes. The independent sector is much more cheap-jack. It does not train people; it employs people trained by the BBC. With one or two exceptions—“Big Brother” is one—it does not innovate. It goes for established personalities and programmes. It does not risk new ideas as a big corporation like the BBC can. The 50 per cent. requirement will be damaging to the BBC.
I do not see, either, why Ofcom has to be given new responsibilities to vet new ventures and new initiatives by the BBC. Those are a matter for the BBC. It is certainly true that the BBC has been too prone to build an empire. I was a strong critic of News 24, which started five years too early. That meant that it was an enormous waste of licence fee payers’ money. It appealed to a very small audience—for years, it had an audience of about 50,000, although its programmes are financed by all of us as licence fee payers. Now that the audience is beginning to build up, there is a case for News 24.
However, now there is also the over-extension to new digital channels on radio and television, and in relation to the internet. There has been boastful and unnecessary talk of challenging AOL and Google. That is a delusion of grandeur, not a necessary development. However, the responsibility for deciding on those new channels should be left to the BBC, with public service issues in mind, rather than censured or controlled by a body outside the BBC that is more concerned with the commercial operations of the market.
My further point of dissent is the issue of the licence fee. We are all ambivalent about the licence fee. We do not like it. Certainly, we do not like the fact that it is an oppressive poll tax, particularly for the less well-off. In the past, the means of enforcement have been fairly brutal. A number of women were sent to jail because they were the ones at home—while their husbands were out having a beer—when the detectives called, and were therefore responsible for using the television set without a licence. That was an absolute disgrace. Fortunately, the numbers have been reduced, but the machinery for enforcement is still brutal.
On the other hand, although we do not like the licence fee, we can see no real alternative. We have to bring public money into the field of production. Advertising cannot support everything. If the pigs are all swilling from the same trough, they are going to produce the same manure. We need a variety of funding, such as the licence fee provides for the BBC. Not to have it would lead to cheap-jack programmes and would cut out public service programmes. We need the licence fee. However, I do not see any reason why the BBC licence fee, which is a precious and fragile instrument—things are getting increasingly difficult as it gets higher—should be required to bear the cost of digital switchover. That benefits all the other competitors in the market. Why should they not pay for it too? It is a Government responsibility, since the Government will derive profit from selling off the channels freed by digital switchover. Why, therefore, should the cost be put on the licence fee?
We have a responsibility to audit the BBC’s claims publicly. I think that a 2.3 per cent. increase is unacceptable. In the last period, the increase followed the retail prices index plus 1.5 per cent. The figure of 2.3 per cent. is too high. The public need confidence that things will be properly controlled. Mercifully, the Government are now assessing the matter, with an outside examination of the BBC’s claims to that licence fee increase—rightly so, because the public need to be reassured that it is acceptable and necessary, and that it has been effectively audited.
We all have our criticisms of the BBC. That is particularly true of anybody who has worked for it, as I have. When I was introducing it, the BBC decided to call “24 Hours” a day and close down the whole programme; that was my main achievement at BBC television. Frankly, working for Rupert Murdoch was a much more pleasurable experience than working for the faceless, bureaucratic, over-administered BBC. That is where the cuts should be made.
As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said, as BBC staff were asked to accept a pay increase of 2.3 per cent., the massive increases given to BBC executives were obscene. The huge payments made to presenters so that the BBC can poach all the available talent in the market of commercial radio or television need to be effectively audited and externally controlled. The reduction of effort on politics and current affairs at prime time and on the main channels is deplorable.
In sum, however, those are minor matters. They are pimples on the bum of the BBC’s body politic, and they should not concern us in such a debate when we need to concentrate on the scale of the BBC’s achievements, the quality of its programmes and its role as a nursery of talent and ideas, and a training ground for skills. It is one of the few British institutions that is not only accepted but respected all around the world. We should ask ourselves how we can best sustain that, rather than how we can join in the chorus of carping criticism from interested outside parties. Sustaining that is our purpose and the Government’s purpose, so I will be supporting the Government tonight—a rare occasion!
There are sometimes advantages to lengthening memories. Some of my first memories are of growing up in a house that was an early adopter of television in a world that was emphatically both monochrome and monolithically BBC. The apogee of the BBC’s national role came at the Queen’s coronation in 1952—
I stand corrected, because the accession and the coronation itself happened in different years.
Interestingly, for the first time ever, more people watched the coronation than listened to it on radio. People gathered together for a shared national experience in a way that is described as a water-cooler experience half a century later. Three years later, there was the revolutionary and highly controversial introduction of the second channel, ITV. How great a contrast with now because, as the Secretary of State said, there are now hundreds of digital channels that cater for, but are not always watched by, extensive private interests.
The most interesting feature of the digital revolution is the way in which the need to consider limitations of time and place is being eroded. For example—this reflects our country’s transmitter history—although I live in the east midlands, I still find it extremely difficult to receive east midlands television. However, I can immediately do so through digital. Perhaps more significantly, it is only recently that I have become aware of the extent to which overseas people, such as those in eastern Europe, listen to BBC radio broadcasts on the web. They listen to not just the World Service, but domestic programmes, so a huge footprint has developed.
Mention of the overseas situation reminds me of the important and central role of the BBC both at home and abroad. Perhaps the World Service exemplifies some of the traditional virtues more clearly than anything else. However, the essential message—the distinctive proposition—of the BBC, which was well and loyally developed by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), is one of quality and objectivity, alongside which marches independence. Those should properly remain the watchwords of the corporation. However, I would not like to turn that into a coded plea for the BBC to be stranded inside a narrow definition of public service broadcasting as a weird minority activity, as if, metaphorically, the set was tuned permanently to Radio 3, not that I mind listening to Radio 3 on occasions. I am not even absolutely sure what the definition of “market failure” is. I am more interested in providing acceptable choices for consumers. If the digital system and the wide range of commercial broadcasters cannot do that, there is a perfectly proper continuing role for public service broadcasting in the BBC.
It is right to offer services that are targeted at a wide range of interests and groups, provided that the three watchwords that I set out are maintained. As a fairly natural and instinctive supporter of the BBC, it would not be sensible—if I may return to my childhood for a moment—to act as the eponymous Mr. Grouser of Toytown on “Children’s Hour”, who was always grumbling and niggling about minor infelicities and errors of taste or presentation. In fact, I would not wish to do so about the commercial sector, either. It is right to consider the range of output as a whole and the fact that the BBC—thank goodness—can still turn out programmes of exceptional quality.
In a month in which many, if not most, of us will have turned our minds towards the World cup—incidentally, hon. Members will have noticed that there has been fairly trenchant criticism of the BBC’s World cup coverage, although I leave that aside—it is right to record that last weekend I watched consecutively on the BBC programmes about the Somme and Italy, both of which were highly educational and informative. One, although perhaps not the other, was certainly entertaining. The best programmes can embrace elements of all that.
I also want to acknowledge the recovery of the BBC under Mark Thompson, the new director-general, and Michael Grade, its chairman, following that dark night of depression and loss of self-confidence that was perhaps wished on it following the Hutton report. I felt that the corporation suffered more than it deserved to, and the situation must have been difficult for staff at all levels of the organisation.
We cannot leave matters in a warm bath of uncritical adulation. When preparing my thoughts for today’s debate, I kept returning to the words in “Measure for Measure”:
“O! it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.”
The way in which the BBC fits into overall provision still leaves me with concerns that temper my natural support for the corporation. Before I move on to the charter, I will thus touch briefly on three matters.
I am still genuinely concerned about the high level of cross-promotion of BBC programmes, which is partly a conceptual issue. I have never quite kept count of whether the advertisements on the BBC for itself are more prevalent than advertisements for other products on the independent sector. However, the number of such advertisements seems excessive from time to time. They are no longer used as fillers. Obviously it is appropriate to use any time that there is to spare, but the BBC seems to have developed two cultures: a radio culture that stills worries about crunching the pips and performs on time; and a television culture that allows the evening to drift on. I am not the kind of person who would argue that the World cup final should be interrupted by the news—I would not want that—but there is a degree of inappropriate sloppiness.
Secondly, there is still more work to be done to improve communication. We have broadly got there with subtitles, except perhaps on BBC Parliament, but the use of audio description and signing is still comparatively minor.
Thirdly, we must consider the role of the BBC as a dominant producer, even following recent changes. This is something on which I would clash swords with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby because I welcome moving the amount of production by the independent sector to 50 per cent. because that is the minimum that is required to give that sector sufficient headroom to flourish. I would not mind if the figure eventually went beyond that, although I certainly would not drive it up to 100 per cent.
Behind all that is the reality of a huge income from licence fee payers, which is now more than £3 billion. Incidentally, owing to the growth in the number of households, that is not subject to any significant fiscal drag. However, when one considers the techniques and technology used to raise that money, even if operations are more efficient than they ever were—I have been to see the national television licensing office in Bristol—it is absolutely clear that a pretty old-fashioned approach is adopted.
It is due to such considerations, especially the income, that the giant’s strength needs careful tying down externally. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who opened the debate for our party, was entirely right to express his detailed concerns on exactly those matters that worry me.
In essence, my plea is for greater transparency in our approach to the BBC. I go back once again to the early days—indeed to a time long before my memories of the BBC began—when, leaving aside the listeners, as they were then, there were only two parties to the transaction, the BBC and the Government, and doing a deal was relatively easy. It may not have been entirely reputable and it may not have been the perfect deal, but at least it was feasible, and there were no other players on the field to displace. I would dare to go further and say that only the stern rectitude and independence of Lord Reith—plus, perhaps, the contingent fact of the intervention of world war two, when the BBC’s reputation soared—enabled the BBC’s potentially difficult inwardness to be used positively.
Now, of course, many other players and interests are engaged. Government Members should not think that, if we raise issues, it automatically means that we have an interest or are seeking to diminish the BBC; we raise them because we would like it to be more successful, and that requires a fresh approach. That is particularly relevant to the regime for regulation imposed on the various broadcasting players. For example, on the points made about the way in which the NAO regulates public bodies, I fail to understand why the BBC should be in a different position from any other recipient of public funds. I fail to understand why Ofcom can regulate other broadcasting agencies but not the BBC.
I am glad, and I acknowledge it, that the strains in governance that became apparent after the Hutton disaster have been eased by the establishment of a separate BBC Trust, but that trust still does not have full independence. Nor is there an NAO audit; indeed, we do not have details of the forthcoming licence fee increase or a full justification for it being set at inflation plus 2.3 per cent., despite the fact that even the Department of Health will not receive anything better than that in future, and most Departments will not receive anything beyond inflation. Alongside that, the costs of digitisation, and particularly of the social interventions necessary to make that a tolerable process and to maintain universal access, remain opaque.
In conclusion, for the BBC to play to its undoubted strengths of quality and objectivity, it needs to be able to demonstrate independence, including, critically, independence of governing. It need not fear objective regulation and audit of what is in effect—admittedly, for all purposes—public money, any more than a private sector corporation should fear that when discharging its public duties under licence. The downside of those essentially healthy pressures would be far less damaging than the continuation of cosy and imprecise deals with Government, in which the BBC continues to receive or—perhaps no less importantly—is thought to receive special privileges in return for putting some of its large resources towards discharging what is essentially the Government’s business, for example in digitisation.
The settlement of the charter renewal is essentially an interim one, both in its response to technology, and in its response to governance issues. We will need to go further in due course. In doing so, I hope passionately that we will respect the BBC as a power for good and that we will try to achieve a better mix that enables and encourages it to act responsibly, both to its viewers and to other providers of broadcasting services, and in doing so to maintain its distinctive, remarkable and unique qualities, which have made it a world brand of which we should be proud, and which we wish to support. However, we believe that the best contribution to its support would be not to leave unchanged, but to alter and improve, its arrangements to make it more effective in future.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referred to the fact that we have just emerged from a period of saturation football coverage. It is worth recalling that in the early days of televised sport the BBC was required to avoid advertising placards around sports grounds, which, it believed, contaminated its purpose. Today, of course, no sportsman is interviewed unless there are at least 30 logos decorating every part of his body and the surrounding apparatus.
That is a reminder that there has always been something different about the BBC—and I, for one, hope that that will always be the case. The BBC was different—and this relates directly to the arguments about crowding out—because its purpose was to crowd out a view that our culture should be commercialised. It took the view that it was important to crowd out the inferior, the second rate, and things that were culturally corrosive. No doubt, that reflected the view of the time but, I hope, it reflects a larger and longer view, too. I confess to total, irrevocable prejudice in favour of the BBC, which is probably the best thing about living in this country. The idea of life without Radio 4 is unthinkable. I accept that that reflects my age and class, but there are not many things of which I can say so these days. I detected in the contributions of some hon. Members a certain loss of confidence in the institution, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, is one of the few British institutions that is universally admired once one leaves these shores.
It would be unfortunate if a loss of confidence prevented us from seeing the BBC for what it is. In these debates, some Government Members always want to find good reasons to defend the BBC while noting deficiencies while, interestingly, some Opposition Members always search for reasons to erode the BBC while making general protestations of support. That has been reflected in what has been said today. The BBC is different for all of us, because we think we own it. Indeed, it often likes to tell us that we own it, and stages events such as “Your BBC”. The problem, however, is that we have delusions of ownership, as our feelings about the BBC are different from our feelings about other institutions. When those institutions misbehave or do things that we do not like, we say, “Oh well, that is simply how the market works” or “That is how the world is”. With the BBC, it is a more personal, intimate relationship, and we think that our institution is behaving wrongly.
To cite an example that has surfaced in our debate, a week or two ago, Mr. Jonathan Ross decided to ask the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition whether he used to masturbate when he looked at pictures of Mrs. Thatcher, and many of us were not just embarrassed but affronted. Such incidents make us feel that our institution has let us down. We feel that it has behaved in ways that it should not have behaved.
When we hear Mr. John Humphrys asking the Deputy Prime Minister last week whether he had affairs with other women, we feel embarrassed for the institution, because we feel it has fallen below standards that we thought made it different from other institutions from which we would expect such behaviour. What is worse about that is not just that it represents a lapse of judgment, but that those who are responsible for these matters inside the organisation proceed to defend what is done. That is the most worrying thing about it—not so much that it is done, as that it is then defended.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on BBC Radio Ulster on a family programme last week, one of the presenters on the 60th birthday of President George Bush indicated that he should rot in hell? The controller of the BBC apologised for that, but the same gentleman will go on saying very nasty things about people and offending the majority of people in Northern Ireland who would support President Bush.
I am grateful for the intervention. I must confess that I am not as familiar with the output of Radio Ulster as I ought to be, but I am interested in the example that the hon. Lady gives. It leads on to probably the only general point that I want to make.
It is sometimes said that because our media system is fragmenting in the way that our society is fragmenting, the BBC therefore cannot go on being the kind of institution that it has been in a society and a media system that were different. I would turn that argument on its head and say that the more our society and our media system are fragmenting, the more we need somewhere where we can nourish what we used to call—I know it sounds old-fashioned—a common culture. We either think that the moment has gone or that that is not worth doing, or we think that it is pretty fundamental to a society. I happen to think that it is fundamental, and that the BBC plays a pivotal role in the future of that common culture in all kinds of ways that go beyond some of the considerations that have been suggested today.
I worry about what is happening to this society in a number of respects. I worry about what has happened over the past generation or so. I was told just a few days ago by someone no less than a bishop—I apologise for putting it in this way, but it is the only way I can do it—that the French now refer routinely to the English as “les fuck-offs”. They do that because our culture has changed and because the presentation of our culture has changed in our media.
It used to be said in a different and older Reithian age that it was the mission of the BBC not to go to where people were, but to go to where people are and to take them to a better place. It seems rather arch and old-fashioned to say that now, but the presentation of our culture in the media now has helped to contribute to what has happened to our society.
It used to be said, again, that we did not have to worry about presentations of violence and coarseness on our media because people were protected from their effects by the structures of family and of community. Those structures have weakened and been eroded, with the effect that for many people now, what is presented in the media is their version of how they think life is lived—of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. That gives a particular obligation to a public service broadcaster, a guardian of the common culture, in how it responds to that situation. It is the distance between “Yes, Minister” a generation ago, a programme of pure wit, and a programme like “The Thick of It” in our time, both garlanded with awards, but very different in terms of the kind of language and behaviour that they reflect.
The challenges facing the BBC in binding the common culture together are enormous. They are enormous on the political front, too. It has been said that there was a loss of confidence in the wake of Hutton, and I am sure there was. My charge against the BBC is not institutional bias, as has been said by some hon. Members, but a kind of weary cynicism, a lack of civic engagement. It is the BBC’s role to do something about the civic ills that beset us. That is what it is charged with doing. The new purposes that the Government have given it under the charter tell it to do precisely that.
I conclude my brief remarks by saying that the founding mission of the BBC is as important now as it ever was. Yes, it infuriates us. Yes, no doubt it can be a bloated bureaucracy. But the purpose that it was established to perform, which was to prevent our culture from simply being commercialised, to be the yardstick of excellence, which is different from elitism, remains as true now as ever before—in fact, more so, because the pressure crowding out that commitment to excellence across the board is greater now than it ever was before. The pressures of fragmentation in our society are greater than they ever were before. That gives a new, particular and pressing role to the BBC in affirming the purpose for which it was set up 80 years ago, but doing so in new, different and very challenging circumstances.
I shall try to avoid quoting a bishop.
My hon. Friends have spoken well, although I do not agree with every word of every one of them. I pay tribute to three of the speeches from the Labour Benches. The House listened intently to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), who spoke in a way that is a tribute to him and an indication of the fact that one can come into the Chamber and hear speeches of rare quality. The speech from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) showed both his experience and his interest in broadcasting. Leaving aside one part of the speech of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the whole of his speech—even the part that I shall not refer to—was delivered with an interest in the purposes that the BBC has managed to maintain over the years.
At one time one of my great-cousins was the deputy chairman of the BBC. When asked why he was not contributing to debates on television, he said he did not have one, so Sir James Duff was provided with a television. I also remember, when I was 12, lodging in a house in Rowan road in Hammersmith when the administrative work for the campaign to save the Third programme was being done by my landlady and by me and the various other people she had staying in her house. That taught me that campaigning for causes that one considers worthwhile is worth while. Essentially what I am saying is that I trust the BBC. The right approach was to trust the governors, and if we have to move on to this trust arrangement, which I think is unnecessary, we need to be able to trust the BBC, as both the trust members and the other corporate members, who will be the board of management, both executive and non-executive.
Reference has been made to the Alastair Campbell-induced vendetta against the BBC, and there have been some words about the Hutton report. Much of the Hutton report was interesting. Where Hutton went very clearly wrong was that, first, he did not acknowledge openly that in so far as the original report early in the morning on the BBC was not justified, it was corrected twice within an hour and a half. The fact that the Government waited another three weeks before letting Alastair Campbell loose makes one realise that the reason for the attack on the BBC was not what had happened on the first day, most of which was right, and what was not right was corrected fast, but was for some other purpose.
I admire Mark Thompson and Michael Grade. I deeply regret the fact that Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke left their positions. I do not just say that because Greg Dyke’s mother is one of my constituents.
My hon. Friend may have heard me say that I trust the governors; trust in the BBC means trust in the governors. I would not have made that decision, but they did it for their own reasons. They may argue that they accepted the resignation offer that Greg Dyke sent and expected to have accepted because they thought that it was the best way to save the BBC, which in a way is a commentary on the Government’s attitude at the time.
That leads me on to two separate practical points. The first is that I believe that the BBC should decide and declare that all political pressure, whether it comes from the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Government or the Opposition, should be published. There should be a special website where both recordings or reports of pressure are published. We need openness. There is lot of talk about what role the National Audit Office or Ofcom should have. I happen to believe that we do not need the NAO or Ofcom for the BBC, but leaving that to one side, if people start putting a barrage of pressure on the broadcasters, the BBC should make that available to the listeners and the viewers—those who are having their BBC interfered with. No civil servant or political adviser should say anything to any editor that they are not prepared to have reproduced. That would make a significant difference to the way in which people treat the BBC. One can use persuasion or inducements, but make sure that one is prepared to have them known about by other people. I pay tribute to Nick Jones, one of the journalists who has managed to give a running commentary on the way in which people have been behaving.
My hon. Friend will recognise, though, that the NAO would never interfere in the editorial independence of the BBC or express any view on what was broadcast. It would simply publish reports on the corporate governance of the BBC.
I am aware of that. I would defend the NAO in the same way as I defend the BBC. All I am trying to say is that the two do not need to get too involved with each other.
My second point concerns money. We have not spent much time referring to the agreement between the Government and BBC—“Broadcasting. An Agreement Between Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation”. Seeing a reference to the Secretary of State, I should declare that my wife, when in government, was involved in helping with BBC senior appointments, and she is now a headhunter, and her firm, although not her personally, might still be doing the same sort of thing. I put that on the record, although I shall not draw a point from it.
Paragraph 78 of the agreement refers to compensation for free television licences. It is odd that we can have this sort of debate without referring to the fact that the Government are providing a great deal of support for the BBC directly because of their support for those over 75. I say that as a way of coming on to my practical point, which is that I hope that the Government and the BBC will find a way of saying to students who are in university lodgings that they do not individually require a television licence. It is bizarre that a child or grandchild of mine living in my house and doing a university course is not required to have a separate television licence, but in a hall of residence every student is in theory supposed to have a television licence if they are to have access to television or broadcasting through either their mobile phone or a television in their room. Speaking on behalf of mature and younger students, I hope that the Government will resolve that in an acceptable way. If it is not possible to build that into this measure, I hope that they will find a way of tackling it.
I come to the general issue of the BBC around the nation. I happen to spend most of my time listening to Radio 4 in the car; Radio 5 from 5 to 6 in the morning; and then Radio 4 when possible and Radio 2 on Sunday evenings; my consumption of BBC output is usually radio rather than television. That reminds me of one more point that I offer to the BBC through the Secretary of State: can it please try to get the sound from television broadcasts available on digital radio? It is possible in the United States on most radios to pick up television sound, and we should be able to in this country. Many people, for one reason or another cannot have access to a television, perhaps because they are on a bus or a train, but do have access to radio, but having the continuity of picking up television programmes that they are interested in, even if they cannot see them, would be a worthwhile objective.
The BBC has interesting purposes, which are about bringing the world to the UK and the UK to the world. The idea that the BBC is getting involved in broadcasting around the world does not worry me at all. When I go round the world I want to be able to have access to BBC broadcasting. I understand that in some cases it is done commercially and in some cases it is done otherwise.
Historically, many of the BBC’s initiatives have not been either approved of by Government or funded by Government, including the World Service, the World Television Service, and a number of others. We can trust the BBC to try things and if they do not work, to acknowledge it, and those that work successfully are either continued or modified, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said with regard to the single composer downloads. He and I may agree on some parts of that, but he illustrates a case where the BBC was prepared to pay attention when it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.
I know that a number of hon. Members wish to speak, and I agree with some of the points made about high salaries. For example, for all my fondness of the Dimblebys, I would be perfectly prepared to have Nick Clarke continue doing “Question Time” because he does it very well.
I do not think that it is a shame to say that someone does something well. It would be a shame if I said that he had done it badly and my hon. Friend disagreed with me. I often think that listeners are prepared to have the person who is prepared to do a job at half the price but with 95 per cent. of the public esteem, because that is the way even the Dimblebys started.
I pay tribute to the BBC especially for the way in which it has provided much more opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to work in it, not just as presenters. We are no longer at the stage we were at 20 years ago, when I was a Minister and nearly every sound technician or lighting person, assistant stage manager was white. The people who were doing the media courses in the colleges and the polytechnics were able to get work experience at the BBC and then apply for jobs with the experience and training, instead of relying on links through one of the great broadcasting families, or treating working for the BBC as though it was the London docks or the print industry. I pay tribute to the BBC for the action that it has taken there.
On the question of the people in the BBC being paid well for doing a good job or having pensions, I calculated that my public service pension will be £40,000 a year, which grossed up comes to about £800,000 worth of pension. The idea of someone who is in the commercial world of broadcasting, including the BBC, being able to do three times as well as that does not frighten me at all. We should have a sense of perspective when we consider these issues.
As and when the trust is established, I hope that we will have no more premature retirements of chairmen or directors general. If we get to the stage where any form of popular pressure, from the Government or anywhere else, hits the BBC, I hope that the members of the corporation—the trust members and the members of the board of management, as I think of them—will be sufficiently robust to see it off. It would be a good thing for the BBC to win some of these bloody—to use the word in its proper sense—battles.
I am grateful that the late start of this debate enables me to speak. It therefore follows that I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at short notice.
I have in my constituency a substantial amount of the BBC’s real estate and a substantial proportion of its work force. I should put it on record that many years ago, for a short period, I enjoyed, if that is the right word, a BBC salary. It was such a short period and such a low salary that I would not even aspire to the £10 a week pension that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) boasted he will receive. My constituency also has a growing number of independent media businesses that rely directly or indirectly on the BBC. I get many representations from management, staff and independent contractors, who are not always of one mind.
I will not abuse the time that I have been given by doing anything other than making a limited number of specific points. It is perhaps therefore inevitable that I will be somewhat critical of the BBC, so I bracket my remarks by saying that I share with many Members on both sides of the House a general appreciation of the BBC. I should also say that I support the Government’s proposals for ensuring the future and the independence of the BBC, as set out in the charter and agreement.
The BBC remains the sine qua non of independent media in the UK, however self-satisfied its promotional ads. I sometimes think that these days we see more ads between programmes on the BBC than on ITV; I do not know whether that it has more to do with the collapse in commercial advertising or with preening at White City. The presenters can seem so smug that I sometimes wonder whether we will see John Humphrys interviewing Andrew Marr about what John Simpson meant by his last report. If the Government wanted to get on to the programme, they would probably have to send a text message from the Prime Minister to be read out at the end. We saw the efforts that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) had to make to get on to the BBC. Nevertheless, whatever its faults, and however dumbed down its programmes—I am not of course referring to the right hon. Member for Witney—its resilience stops Sky News becoming Fox News in this country. I wonder if that is why, at root, Labour Members generally wish the BBC well, and Conservative Members sometimes wish it ill.
The BBC made a mistake in its recent decision on executive salaries. It was an inappropriate sleight of hand involving giving back as contractual rights most of what had previously been discretionary bonuses, and doing so at a very sensitive time. Many BBC staff are facing relocation, outsourcing or job cuts, and there is considerable anger at the sums of money that are being paid. It is glib of the chairman to say that it is necessary for the purposes of competition. Often, the trouble with the BBC is that it wants to have it both ways. It says that it is the public service broadcaster, yet when it wishes to pay large sums of money to its staff, it says that it has to be a direct competitor with the commercial sector. I support the licence fee, but it brings with it obligations, including economy with public money and accountability.
The same convenient foot-in-both-camps manner often applies locally, if I may be parochial for a few moments. The BBC is not always a good neighbour. The White City site sits directly next to the White City estate, which is a significant area of deprivation and low income in my constituency. I am not sure that the residents of that estate have always been welcome as employees or, indeed, as visitors to what is now called the media village. I wonder whether the BBC’s management have thought through, in land planning terms, the effects of their intended outsourcing, relocation to Salford and redundancies. It has significant land holdings in the area, not only on the existing White City site, where there has been a great deal of office-building over the past few years, but on the White City development area, which is one of the largest brownfield development sites in Europe. If jobs are going from the area, what will happen to the buildings there? What will happen to Television Centre, which is the hub of that area, or to the local economy—the people and businesses who are dependent on the BBC?
As I said, many independent media companies are now, rightly or wrongly, big employers in the area and an established part of the local commercial sector, in TV, in radio and in support services. They, too, are suffering from uncertainty. For example, there is clear guidance in the agreement on the role of independent providers in television, but not in radio. I am not advocating greater externalisation of BBC radio services, although some of my constituents would wish me to do so. However, the fact that radio gets a second-class service—it is always an afterthought in these respects—creates uncertainty for the directly employed staff as well as for contractors. That point is highlighted by the fact that in the agreement independent radio producers are lumped together with online services, with which they have no connection whatsoever.
I do not want to trespass too much on the House’s time. In conclusion, I believe that the thrust of Government policy—to safeguard the licence fee and thereby to safeguard the independence of the BBC—is right. However, in return the BBC has to earn the trust of its viewers, its staff, and its neighbours, wherever it intends to end up. At the moment, as far as I can see, it will still end up substantially in my constituency.
It is a rare bit of serendipity for me to be called after the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter), because my theme is the London-centricity of the BBC. I am sorry to hear about some of his problems as a neighbour of the BBC. Unfortunately, many of us in the United Kingdom would not know about those problems, as we do not have the benefit of having the BBC as such a strong local employer. Even after the relocation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the BBC will still be overwhelmingly concentrated in London in terms of employment, expenditure and commissioning. That has political, cultural and economic consequences.
About 30 years ago, Abba briefly overtook Volvo as the most important contributor to the export potential of Sweden. People thought that strange at the time, but now we realise that the creative industries are the real motor of the modern economy. Therefore, the jobs, expenditure and investment that flow from the BBC’s concentration in London have important economic consequences right across the United Kingdom.
London-centricity has been a feature of the BBC from the beginning. Lord Reith, on receiving a request to meet a delegation from Wales, was famously heard to reply:
“I thought I dealt with Wales last week”.
Some things never change. I was struck by the Secretary of State’s comparison of the BBC with that other great three-letter acronym of public life, the NHS. There are some similarities: both are large-scale public sector organisations, which are, sadly, slightly anomalous in these days of privatisation, but continue to have a reservoir of public good will, with the exception of one or two people on the outer fringes of the Conservative party.
However, in one sense, the NHS in these islands has diverged because we have at least three national health services—and I imagine that there is a different model of delivery in Northern Ireland, too. We have different national health services, all based on the common principle of being free at the point of delivery, but differently managed and organised in the nations of the United Kingdom.
The BBC has had to respond to devolution, which has, however, thrown its position into sharp relief. Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish listeners are constantly served up a series of England-only policy discussions, on, for example, foundation hospitals and specialist schools, which are entirely irrelevant to our education and health services because those matters either are or should be devolved. I hope that those that are not devolved will be soon.
We are considering the broadcasting equivalent of the West Lothian question. If licence fee payers in England are not subjected to news about health and education policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because it is not directly relevant to their lives, why should licence fee payers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland be constantly subjected to news that is not relevant to our daily lives? There is cross-party support for that point. Even the Scottish Executive made that point in their recent submission to the review.
Wales makes it on to the main news bulletins in London only as a bit of local colour—a Quixotic or “and finally” story. Hence the recent story about the Labour Minister in the Welsh Assembly who pressed the wrong button made it on to network news. However, the underlying story, which was the reason for the debate—the assertion that 500 people in Wales had died unnecessarily because of chaos in the Welsh ambulance service—did not. Surely that was the more serious story, but it did not make it on to the network, whereas the slightly comic story about somebody pressing the wrong button did. That unfortunately reflects the underlying attitude that persists in the news media in London towards Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, indeed, anything that emanates from outside London and the south-east.
However, the BBC is a house divided because BBC Wales—I am sure that the same is true of BBC Scotland—has also been the promoter of a national consciousness and identity. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said in the Chamber in the debate last month that a senior BBC executive had told him, in a rather colourful turn of phrase, that the Welsh Nationalist party was born in the bowels of BBC Wales in Llandaff. I think that the hon. Gentleman intended the comment to be disparaging but I agree with him in some ways because in no other nation in Europe has broadcasting performed such a central role in creating a modern national consciousness. The Welsh historian John Davies has even gone so far as to say that the Welsh nation was an artefact created through broadcasting. I understand what he means by that.
The BBC in Wales produced the Welsh language radio service Radio Cymru, which has managed to increase the number of young people who listen to that station by more than 50 per cent. in the past decade. The BBC produced the Welsh language online service and the Welsh language news content for S4C. The BBC in Wales has made great strides in expanding its domestic news coverage to reflect the new political landscape.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s points closely, especially about the role of BBC Wales in promoting the Welsh language. Does he share my concern about the lack of prominence that BBC Northern Ireland gives to promoting the Ulster Scots language and culture, which had only six hours of radio and half an hour of television provision last year?
Yes. I am aware and strongly supportive of the call for the promotion of Ulster Scots, which the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages recognises. The Government have signed up to the European charter, and the agreement with the BBC will require the trust to have regard, among other things, to the importance of appropriate provision in minority languages. I therefore hope that the BBC Trust will move forward in enhancing its promotion of the Ulster Scots language and culture in Northern Ireland.
If I can receive my national and international news in the Welsh language from the BBC’s current provision, why cannot I, as a citizen of Wales, receive my national and international news in the English language through a Welsh sixth television news service that reflects all the information and news that is relevant to the citizens of Wales? A similar demand has been made in Scotland. The problem lies at the centre of the BBC, not in BBC Wales or BBC Scotland, where there is untapped potential and some frustration at their inability to move forward with provision.
On “Newsnight” recently, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) commented on the attitude of the BBC in London, which referred to Scotland as “up there” and to the Scottish as “them”, as if they were not licence fee payers or citizens in the same United Kingdom multinational state. Only the creation of distinctive Scottish and Welsh news services can overcome that problem.
The 20-minute opt-out on “Newsnight”—or “Newsnicht”, as some people call it—has been well received in Scotland. On that basis, why is there opposition to moving forward with full Scottish and Welsh sixth stations? I believe that it is because a distorted view persists in London. That was literally and graphically demonstrated in the new weather map. We are tired of being at the wrong end of somebody else’s telescope, seeing ourselves through their eyes. We want our window on the world in Wales and Scotland. We want to be seen through our eyes, not the prism of someone else’s prejudices.
If news coverage reflects the balance of political power, that of cultural power is reflected in the production and content of drama. Wales has traditionally done poorly in the proportion of network output that is produced there. In the 1990s, BBC Wales produced 11 drama series for the network, but only one was subsequently commissioned for a second series, although there has been some progress. It was not always that way. Bangor was home to the variety department between 1940-43. The entire department was transported from Bristol overnight on a special train, which carried 432 people, 17 dogs and a parrot. I do not know whether that is a model for the relocation to Manchester. According to the Daily Post:
“Bangor lost its innocence overnight with a transport of actors”.
I think that it is safe to say that Manchester lost its innocence some time ago.
That was a rare golden age. When, in 1994, the BBC wanted to produce a film on the life of Aneurin Bevan by the Oscar-winning writer, Trevor Griffiths, it was told that it would not get a penny for it. It went ahead and spent the entire drama budget for BBC Wales on that one production, which was eventually aired on the network on BBC2 on a Sunday at 11.20pm.
Things have improved since then, however, and we have seen some increases in production. Indeed, two of the leading productions on BBC1—“Life on Mars” and, of course, “Doctor Who”—were produced in Wales. We have seen a trebling of the amount of network money being spent in Wales in three years to £50 million, and we are grateful for that. We notice, however, that very few of the network productions so far have contained any Welsh characters, Welsh accents or Welsh settings. Scotland has traditionally done better—“Monarch of the Glen” is an example—but productions there tend to be culturally stereotypical. The Scottish press says that they are either “heather and highlands” or urban and gritty.
One wonders whether there is a problem at the commissioning end. Ruth Caleb, who was appointed by BBC Wales in the 1990s to drive forward drama development, talked about a fundamental prejudice towards Wales by commissioning editors. “It won’t be too Welsh, will it?” was the constant refrain. She was regularly asked to get rid of Welsh characters, settings and storylines, and Welsh accents were a definite no-no, so I am glad that I chose politics over acting as a career.
This is a serious problem, and it continues even now. Ruth Pitt resigned from her post as the creative director of the very valuable Out of London project in May because of her frustration at what she described as the attitude of commissioners and programme makers in London towards developing network production beyond Manchester. They have reluctantly accepted that there seems to be a creative cluster up there in the north-west of England, but they are not too sure about the rest of the United Kingdom. The talent is there, however, as the success of BBC Wales with “Doctor Who” and other recent productions has proved.
I hope that we are moving away from the kind of monolithic monochrome world that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referred to earlier. We live in a polycentric state. We are not one nation; we never have been, and we never will be. The BBC’s motto is “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”. It does not say that one nation should speak, leaving the rest unable to speak even to themselves.
The White Paper talked about fostering national cohesion, and gave the broadcasting of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race as an example. I am not sure that the boat race was ever a symbol of social cohesion, even less a basis for national unity. The Government said that the BBC should provide access to sporting events such as the World cup to unite the nation. Well, which nation did they mean? The rather feverish coverage of those, including the First Minister for Scotland, who had the temerity to suggest that they would not support England in the World cup has shown that we have different ways of looking at the world. We are more than one nation, and that needs to be reflected within the BBC.
The agreement represents an improvement, because it does not contain any old-fashioned, outmoded “greater Englandism”. It talks about representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities. It also employs much softer tones than the White Paper when suggesting that the BBC should, on occasion, bring audiences together for shared experiences, including those sporting occasions on which our natural national allegiances in these islands inevitably mean that licence fee payers will sometimes find themselves on opposing sides.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who presented his case with his usual vigour and humour. His was one of several memorable speeches in today’s debate. I will always remember two in particular. As a loyal Labour Back Bencher, I was shocked by the relish with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) announced his first ever rebellion against the Labour Government, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip will not use her new powers too harshly against him. I will also always remember the passionate defence of the cultural role of the BBC put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Perhaps he was fortunate—unlike poor old Zidane last night—that there was not a fourth official present to provide the benefit of an action replay at the crucial moment.
One of the iconic BBC programmes, “Top of the Pops”, is coming to the end of its 40-year run on 30 July. In recognition of that, I want to give the House my top 10 reflections on the BBC charter process. When I mentioned this idea to a colleague in the Tea Room this morning, he said, “Well, at least you’re not giving them your top 40!” I will try to be brief. For those of us of a certain age, who probably reached our peak at the same time as “Top of the Pops” did, its passing will mark a moment.
My first reflection is on the role and the reach of the BBC in our society. Despite what my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, 94 per cent. of people still come across some form of BBC output each week, and 80 per cent. watch BBC1, the most popular channel in the nation. Nearly 70 per cent. of all BBC income is still spent on original programming, a far greater proportion than that spent by any of its commercial rivals. The proportion of Sky’s income that is spent on original programming is very low indeed, for example.
The BBC still has a hold on all generations in this country, despite its worries about what the young think of it, and whether they consume media in a different way. The other day, I happened upon a survey of 3,000 graduates, including engineering, business and humanities students, asking them who they most wanted to work for. The answer from all categories was the BBC. I do not think that it was the prospect of Jonathan Ross-style salaries that attracted them so much as the reputation of the BBC and the opportunities that it offers to excel across a whole range of activities.
My second reflection is about BBC sports coverage. When Ofcom carried out a survey of what was important to viewers about the BBC, its news coverage was No. 1—and quite rightly so, when we consider the values of BBC news. However, BBC sport was at No. 2. It is worth reflecting that, last night, 18 million people watched the World cup final on the BBC, which was a record for more than 25 years.
Those water-cooler moments that hon. Members have been referring to are one part of BBC sport; another is the encouragement of minority sports. The Paralympics, for example, would never have taken off in the way they have without BBC coverage. With the demise of “Grandstand”, it is important that those who are charged with maintaining the reputation of BBC sport—which comprised nearly 1,700 hours, or nearly 10 per cent. of the output, on the main two channels last year—should continue to encourage minority sports. They should show them particularly on their interactive coverage. One that appears to be somewhat under threat at the moment is the BBC’s racing coverage, which is consumed by many people. There are rumours that that coverage is to be cut in half. I hope that the BBC will look carefully at the coverage of all minority sports.
Thirdly, I want to reflect on the argument of crowding out. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said that in one sense it is the purpose of the BBC to crowd out in order to influence the market. That is true, but we should not underestimate the potential for the BBC to participate along with the private sector. I shall give two examples that have already been mentioned this evening. There are the plans for BBC local television and the protests of some local newspaper owners about such television, local websites and so forth. It is interesting that in Birmingham, where this is being pioneered, Trinity Mirror, which publishes the main evening newspapers in the west midlands, has entered into a partnership and drawn up a joint letter of intent with the BBC. That is one example of where the BBC and the private sector can have a positive impact by working together.
Another example, which we heard about earlier, is the Beethoven downloading, which happened last year when, following the BBC’s Beethoven week, millions of people downloaded the composer’s work. It is well worth remembering that that was done in partnership and in consultation with some of this country’s major orchestras and big music companies. CD sales of Beethoven increased by about 100 per cent. in the wake of that. Both the BBC and the private sector learned the lessons: they saw a market for downloading classical music that no one had thought existed before. When Bach week followed Beethoven week, it was done in a very different way.
Next, just a word or two on governance. I believe that this is a major and welcome departure for the BBC. The new trust and executive are now two separate entities. No longer will the chairman of the trust be the chairman of the whole BBC; he will be the voice of the licence fee payers in a way that the chairman of the governors never was. He will have to consider the interests of the licence fee payers not just in respect of the BBC’s output, but in relation to the BBC’s impact on other public service broadcasters as well. It is a radical departure, which is symbolised by the different secretariat that the BBC Trust will now have and by its physically different location.
My fifth reflection is on local radio, which has come up just once in our debate so far when my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to it. This week, BBC Radio York—my local radio station—is the proud host broadcaster of the Great Yorkshire show, which illustrates the part that BBC local radio plays in many of our local communities. One of the BBC’s plans for expansion is to fill in the gaps of local radio up and down the country. In Yorkshire, that will mean having a station in Bradford as well as Leeds, which is well worth supporting.
Next, on the opposite side from BBC local radio is the BBC World Service, BBC World and the new experiment of Arabic television. BBC World Service radio has recently gained record listening figures and BBC Arabic television is a worthy experiment that should perhaps have happened long ago. I hope that, if we go down this route of the Foreign Office and the BBC further expanding into television, it will not be at the expense of further BBC World Service radio channels. I believe that BBC World, which is run on a commercial basis, has improved over the years and it is meant to come into profit in 2010. It is well worth reflecting that it is the only news channel in the world that is trying to run on a completely commercial basis, whereas al-Jazeera and the channels recently launched in France are very much the recipients of public subsidy.
My seventh point is about BBC Resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned the importance of the BBC’s training function. In the rush to maximise the use of independent producers, which clearly have a role in BBC output, we should not forget the importance of the core in-house service. Bearing in mind the question mark about whether BBC Resources will be privatised after 2007, it would be odd if the BBC had accountants and lawyers directly on its staff, but no longer had technicians. The BBC Trust should think carefully about that—it should perhaps do a value-for-money study—when so many big corporations are bringing such functions back in house.
In direct response to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, I hope that moving BBC Radio 5 and BBC Sport to Manchester is just the start. Some time during the next charter period, I would like to see one of the big channels moved somewhere in the UK. That would be a major step forward and a major way of combating the London-centric focus, to which, like any London-based institution, the BBC occasionally falls prey.
My ninth point has not arisen in the debate so far—the BBC’s coverage of religion. We sometimes talk about great moments in sport, but in the last two or three years, the BBC has provided great coverage of religious events, whether it be the death of the Pope or the recent enthronement of the Archbishop of York. It is important that the BBC continues to provide coverage of all the religions in today’s Britain. Last year’s “The Monastery” was an innovative programme, which brought an understanding of religious life to a wide and popular audience. It is also important to show programmes relating to worship at religious festivals.
Finally, the dumbing down of the BBC has come up during every charter period over the years. I noticed that the News Chronicle of 1958 said:
“The Sound Broadcasting Society, which originated in the campaign to save the Third Programme from mutilation, is still keeping up a spirited fight against the declining standards of the BBC…It is sad that the BBC should have fallen so far from the high standards it once set itself.”
To a certain extent, it was ever thus: we always look back to a golden age of the BBC. I contend that, perhaps, we are not too far from such a golden age today, with the expansion of Freeview, the success of the BBC’s interventions on to the internet, the respect in which it is widely held and the quality of much of its output. BBC radio is still slightly embarrassed to have more than 50 per cent. of the total audience share, largely because of the quality of its output. Perhaps, today, we are in such a golden age. I always remember the words of Dennis Potter, who said of the BBC’s mission:
“Switch on, tune in and grow.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) pointed out earlier, one of the great things about the BBC is that it can interest people in things that they never realised that they were interested in, and long may it be so.
It has been a great pleasure for me to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey)—a great man—and to listen to the debate on the BBC this evening. I must, however, pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter), when he tried to paint the picture that Labour Members were pro-BBC and that the commentary from Conservative Members was somehow hostile to the BBC. Anyone outside the House who reads Hansard will know that the debate has been very even-handed and that positive, constructive and critical points have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Certainly, in my speech, I intend to be both positive and critical of the BBC.
The best thing that I have come across during the debate was a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), when he stated that licence fees for students in halls of residence should be abolished. I totally agree with him. Why should students living in halls of residence—people who have little enough money already—have to pay licence fees? That is certainly something that I shall take away from the debate, and I hope to secure a Westminster Hall debate on the subject to try to convince the Government to abolish such fees for students.
Another argument that my hon. Friend might deploy in trying to woo the student vote relates, of course, to the fact that so few students now watch television. That is not to say that their minds are on higher things; they simply spend all their time on the internet now.
Yes, absolutely, that is true, but I should like students to have free licences none the less.
The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) spoke extremely well in the debate. Like me, he is of Polish origin, and I know from speaking to him that he played his role in supporting Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s. I also know that the BBC played its role in the overthrow of communism not just in Poland but throughout eastern Europe. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of speaking to relatives in Poland who tuned into the BBC, late at night in the darkness of their homes. Of course it was illegal to listen to foreign broadcasters in those days, but the BBC still brought great hope to many people who were under communist tyranny, for which I thank it, as I am sure many other people do.
I praised the BBC in the debate a few weeks ago. I am pleased that many hon. Members have saluted the BBC this evening—it deserves it—but the right hon. Member for Rotherham made a very good point when he suggested that there should be a register of interests for BBC journalists and executives. I found that point very interesting. Hon. Members try extremely hard to be beyond reproach and to register all our interests, and senior people in the BBC, who also have such a public role, should declare their interests.
I shall mention two issues that I feel very strongly about and which have already been raised in this debate—the first being this man called Jonathan Ross. My wife and I watched his television programme at our home in Shrewsbury and I was appalled by this—how can I describe him?—cad and bounder’s interviewing the leader of my party in the most gratuitous and appalling way. I took great exception to Jonathan Ross ridiculing in a very public way a very important historical figure—an 80-year-old lady who is no longer in public life to the extent that she was. I found it totally unacceptable that somebody in the BBC could speak about her in that way. I very much hope that the BBC is listening not just to me, but to other Members who have spoken out against Jonathan Ross’s behaviour.
The second issue is religion, which has been briefly mentioned already. As a Roman Catholic, I sometimes get genuinely very upset by some of the critical ways in which religion is covered. It is occasionally covered with a great deal of disrespect in modern life, particularly on television. Catholics do not always jump up and down when they are offended, but that does not mean that we are not offended. In future, the BBC needs to think very carefully about how it criticises religion. There have been many vociferous protestations from members of the Sikh community—and others—when their religion has been denigrated in some way.
Locally, we in Shrewsbury listen to BBC Radio Shropshire, which I must say is an excellent station. It is impartial and balanced and the quality of its local news is exceptional. It keeps people updated, particularly the elderly and those in remote rural areas who cannot get around. In preparation for my speech, I spoke to some senior citizens who live in Halfway House, in a very rural part of my constituency. They wanted me to make the point that they benefit greatly from local radio, particularly those who live by themselves and are lonely.
Before today’s debate, I was grilled on Radio 4’s “Farming Today” about various issues that I am raising as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on dairy farmers; the interviewing was very robust. When we politicians are interviewed, reporters are robust, which is healthy for our democracy. I get frustrated by John Humphrys when I think that he is being rude or unfair to a colleague, but such harsh scrutiny is important. My concern is that if it is excessive—as Mr. Humphrys has been in certain cases—it could put people off and stop politicians going on such shows.
I am concerned about the growing number of occasions when very junior Ministers are put up for interview, rather than a Secretary of State. In fact, on many occasions now, no Government spokesman is available to speak to the BBC, which presents a very bad image to the public. The BBC and the Government have a duty to ensure that there is always representation from the highest levels of government to counteract and answer questions. Ministers must realise their duty to appear on hard-hitting interview shows, such as “Newsnight”—which has been referred to as “Newsnicht”—with Jeremy Paxman. I rarely see the Prime Minister being interviewed by hard-hitting interviewers; he tends to go for the softer, easy options.
There has been little explanation during this debate of the governance of the BBC, yet that issue is of the utmost importance; I hope that the Minister will talk further about it when he sums up. During the tragedy surrounding Dr. Kelly, the BBC governors acted very badly. I would argue, controversially, that many were not up to the job. Chaos reigned at the BBC when the Government turned up the heat on that organisation. As other Members have stated, we need governors who will stand up to Governments of whatever colour, and who will stand up for the independence of the BBC. The BBC Trust and executive body need to represent real people and be independent. How will they be chosen? What remit will they have? I hope that the Minister will respond to those questions.
The auditing of the BBC must be far more open to public scrutiny, and Members of the House have a role to play in that. I hope that the Minister can also provide a glimmer of hope about that. On the licence fee, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that continuous above-inflation increases are unacceptable. The House of Lords has recently recommended that licence fees should not increase beyond the rate of inflation. I believe that Parliament must vote on licence fees if they are significantly above the rate of inflation.
During the previous BBC debate, I spoke about how my wife and I enjoy romantic costume dramas. We believe that there should be more of those on the BBC. This evening I am going to speak about children’s programmes. My wife and I are expecting our first child in October, and are looking forward to it very much. We are very concerned about the state of children’s programmes. With our forthcoming child in mind, we watched some BBC children’s television programmes on Saturday, and I was appalled by the violence and aggression shown, both between children and from outside groups towards children. I was absolutely amazed. In my day, we learned to make things while watching children’s programmes. [Laughter.] It was all very innocent—Labour Members laugh, but it was. That is what children are meant to watch. The programmes now have a lot of violence and mindless aggression. I hope that the BBC will take note.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, was excellent. I strongly encourage the Minister and the Government to listen to the comments of someone of such quality and experience. I must disagree with him on one point, however. He said that the BBC should not get involved in television and radio in foreign countries—but I believe that such involvement is a good thing. We must challenge the global television empires and networks being built up by media tycoons. One way to do that is for the BBC to start branching out to other parts of the world, such as India and China. I would like the BBC to operate more in China, which is a great opportunity and growth market for our businesses.
Many British institutions are so popular globally and have such a good brand that we can export them abroad. For example, Shrewsbury school is so popular with foreign students that a Shrewsbury school is being opened in Bangkok, because so many Thai people want an English education. So, too, our British Broadcasting Corporation should branch out to bring our perspective to people around the world and to promote our way of life.
As I know that another Member wants to speak, I shall be as brief as possible.
I have sat through the whole debate, and it has been like an elongated version of “Points of View”—absolutely fascinating. I must admit that at one point, having drifted off, I was woken by the “Kenneth Tynan moment” when my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) intervened. On another occasion, I was roused by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), representing what is now described as cognitive capitalism.
As secretary of the all-party National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, I am aware of a number of worries about the new agreement for BBC staff. Throughout the debate we have all extolled the BBC’s virtues, such as the high-quality service that it provides. It has been suggested that it should expand into different parts of the world, become involved in different services, and link up with the private sector in future joint operations. I think we can all agree that the BBC’s quality is based on a long tradition of high-quality professionalism among its staff—a professionalism that has given us world-leading programmes and a service that is second to none, described in the House on other occasions as a jewel in the crown of public services.
Discussions with staff have revealed fears that the new agreement will threaten their jobs and professionalism and undermine their skills. They are concerned about the intervention of Ofcom and the development of the window of creative competition, or WOCC—“Doctor Who” has been mentioned, and its scriptwriter must have hauled that one off the screen as well—about their non-representation on the trust, about the grotesque top salary increases, and now about advertising on the World Service.
We have heard a good many anecdotal suggestions today that if Ofcom did not intervene, the BBC would somehow “crowd out” private sector services from the market. However, no concrete evidence has ever been produced in any research study by Ofcom itself. An Ofcom study that did take place in 2004 concluded that there was not
“sufficient evidence to prove or disprove the existence of overall ‘crowding-out’”.
Since then no individual instances investigated by Ofcom have proved that the BBC has somehow affected private sector operations.
Now that Ofcom is included in the agreement, market impact assessments must ensure that there is complete transparency. In my dealings with Ofcom in the NUJ parliamentary group, I have not found its role in seeking to protect public services in the ITV system to be particularly effective. We have had a number of debates in the House in which, on a cross-party basis, we have raised issues with Ministers about the loss of local production, and in particular the loss of local news services through ITN, as a result of Ofcom’s failure to fulfil its task and to display any teeth in controlling the cutting of such services by the private sector.
Ofcom will be one of the organisations that the BBC will be required to consult on codes of practice in any area where competition may arise. Let me issue a plea for full and adequate consultation with the trade unions representing BBC staff in the discussions that Ofcom undertakes with the BBC, especially as the process may result in the loss of their jobs. I am not sure why the Government have taken the Ofcom route when the BBC is already subject to competition law and the operation of the Office of Fair Trading. I do not understand why a special regime is needed for the BBC, as opposed to other public services.
As for the window of creative competition and the potential increase from 25 to 50 per cent. in television services going to the private sector, the concerns expressed by staff need to be examined. It is feared that it may, in the long term, undermine the skills base and potential creativity and innovation in the BBC. Yet again, there has been no independent research to justify that increase in the privatisation element, and no independent research on the quantification of the increase from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. Moreover, there is substantial evidence—which I am happy to submit to the Minister—that when work has been outsourced from the BBC, the working conditions of the staff involved have deteriorated. Problems with wages, and even with health and safety matters, have been raised consistently by individual unions.
In addition, the pensions assurances given to staff who were outsourced to companies have not been abided by. Many who are retiring are being offered benefits and pensions significantly below those that they were promised. I urge the Secretary of State to consider the detailed implementation of the agreement, so that where the window of creative competition applies and enables a wider range of services and facilities to be outsourced, there is adequate consultation with the unions and the representatives of the work force that will be affected.
The composition of the trust has been raised by various hon. Members. There is disappointment that there will not be a representative from the trade union movement on the trust itself. Historically, there has been a commitment that there should be some representative of the work force on any governing body of the BBC. That has not happened under the new regime. That means that there will be a loss of expertise on the trust in terms of the debates on the long-term future of the BBC.
The National Union of Journalists and I support the licence fee and congratulate the Government on maintaining it as the basis for the funding of the BBC, but there needs to be a wider debate during the mid-term review of the new regime. We need to discuss shortly how that review will be undertaken and what consultations will be undertaken as a result of the review.
It is an obscene disgrace that the management have increased their salaries over the past three years by 25 to 30 per cent. overall, while at the same time cutting jobs and reducing salaries for their workers. A ballot will take place on strike action as a result of the job cuts taking place for the NUJ. I have no doubt that that ballot will support industrial action, and that part of that result will have been caused by the reaction to the directors awarding themselves such significant increases.
Increasingly, the incursion of advertising into the BBC is a concern, although a lot of concern has been expressed this evening about the BBC’s own adverts. The BBC News international website is to include private sector advertising. One hundred and fifty staff involved at all levels of seniority have written to the director-general of the BBC to say that that will affect the global reputation of the BBC for independence and impartiality, and that it is a step too far in terms of the development of alternative sources of income for the BBC.
I pay tribute to the BBC, to the work that it has done over the years and to the service that it has provided. That is based on the commitment and professionalism of the staff themselves. With any reform of the BBC and designation of its future, we need to take the staff with us. Job cuts, privatisation and Ofcom interference will undermine the confidence of the staff in the long-term security of the BBC. There will be industrial action in the next few weeks—as a result, I am sure, of the reaction of staff to some of the Government’s proposals. I support that industrial action, and I will be appearing on the picket lines in support.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and to pay tribute to the work he does for the NUJ. As the offspring of two members of that trade union, I know about the good work that it has done.
May I also say how grateful I am to follow on the Conservative Benches my good friend, the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who, as usual, made a charming and effective contribution to the debate? He and I sat together through the previous BBC debate and we have sat together through this BBC debate. It is worth recalling, today of all days—hug a hoodie day—that it is the younger Members of the House who are prepared to sit through these debates from beginning to end and to listen to the arguments. I hate to say it but, apart from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and the Front-Bench spokesmen, it is the older Members who drift in and out, taking bite-sized chunks out of the debate. Therefore, I hope that the House will listen to what we have to say, although I must stop sitting next to my hon. Friend, because it has got to the stage where people are mistaking us for each other.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, covering the licence fee, salaries, governance and the relationship between the commercial sector and the BBC. It has also covered the general nature of public service broadcasting. For me, it was an extremely important debate, with a seminal moment. I was not born when John F. Kennedy was shot and I was being born when Robert Kennedy was shot, and I never thought that I would be present in the Chamber to hear the f-word uttered. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) breached that boundary. He had his Kenneth Tynan moment, although it may have been his Jonathan Ross moment—
Apart from that terrible moment, I strongly disagreed with two of the hon. Gentleman’s other points. With the greatest respect, the snobbery of his attitude in favouring the BBC over the commercial sector would have the Deputy Prime Minister turning in his political grave. The hon. Gentleman clearly believes that everything that the BBC does is right and proper and anything that the commercial sector does is appalling and rather infra dig. That is an extraordinary attitude to take and reminds Opposition Members that the true conservatives are often to be found among Labour Members, and those who are capable of radical and progressive thinking are often found on these Conservative Benches.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as other contributors to the debate have pointed out, the BBC has often followed behind and copied the private sector. For example, it was not until ITN started news bulletins that the BBC decided to have them. It was not until Radio Caroline came on to the airwaves that the BBC got round to creating Radio 1 and Radio 2. Similarly, it was not until Sky News started broadcasting 24-hour British news that the BBC created BBC News 24. There is, therefore, a serious point to be made about the crowding out of the commercial sector by the BBC. It does not just come in to clear up the clutter and make everything right: it often drives innovative commercial broadcasters out of business or reduces their ability to invest. Sky News stopped making a profit the minute that BBC News 24 was started with taxpayers’ money.
The Minister will recall that in last month’s debate on the BBC I pointed out that two major private employers in my constituency, Harcourt Education and RM Ltd, are both suffering from the BBC’s decision to encroach into educational publishing—not an area in which it has been involved before and in which those two companies have built up much expertise and introduced much innovation. I am further appalled to hear the news that the BBC is thinking of starting a current affairs magazine. There could be no sector in which the BBC was less wanted.
The fundamental point is that the creative landscape is tentative at the moment. As many hon. Members have said, we do not know where we will be in six months’ time, a year’s time, two years’ time or five years’ time. There are many minnows out there trying to gain a foothold in the market, trying to grow, trying to attract investment and experimenting as much as the BBC has ever experimented. If we are to allow a thousand flowers to bloom in this new digital landscape, we cannot simply give the keys to the lawnmower to the BBC and ask it to set off. It would chop down many hundreds of companies, many doing innovative work, seeking to establish a foothold.
Last month, I mentioned the black broadcaster, Henry Bonsu, who has started a black digital radio station because, he told me, the BBC thinks that the black community only wants to listen to music and hear from celebrities. He took a different view and set up a private sector radio station for the black community. That is an extremely important point, because it shows that as much innovation can be found in the private sector as in the BBC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham wondered whether people in the BBC listened to what he said. Well, this very morning I was delighted to receive a note from the director-general about BBC jam and its effect on the private sector.
The other point on which I strongly disagree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase is his ridiculous parody that everyone on the Conservative Benches is against the BBC and has a secret plot to do it down while everyone on the Labour Benches believes that the BBC is the best thing since sliced bread and cannot be touched—although I admit that I have just parodied the hon. Gentleman’s speech in exactly that fashion. I have taken the trouble over the past few weeks to communicate with my constituents on the web, using a private service—HearFromYourMP.com—to find out what they thought about the BBC. To a man and woman, there was of course strong support for the BBC.
I agree with every Member who has said that the BBC is a much-valued cultural institution in this country. It is probably—dare I use the language of the market?—one of the most powerful brands the UK has to offer, both to the nation and worldwide. There is no doubt about that. Equally, there is no doubt at all that in the complex constitution of broadcasting and the media the BBC plays an utterly vital part; it is the House of Lords of broadcasting and we meddle with it at our peril. However, that should not stop any Member from offering a candid critique of the future of the BBC.
There have certainly been some valuable contributions about BBC governance, which is extremely important. The division between the BBC Trust and the BBC executive board is clearly a dog’s breakfast; it has achieved the unique feat of uniting almost the entire broadcasting world against it. How can one trust a trust appointed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the director-general, both of whom will be on the panel that appoints members of the trust? It would be rather like asking the chairman of Thames Water to appoint the chief executive of Ofwat—there would not be much independence.
The process will be circular: if the trust is to appoint the director-general and the chairman of the executive board, how can it hold to account a director-general in whose success it would clearly have a vested interest? It is vital that a truly independent panel is set up to appoint the members of the trust. When I raised that point last month with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), he said it was important that people who knew about the industry were appointed, but the whole point of the trust is that it does not have a management role, but a regulatory and overseeing role. There are plenty of people who know about ethics and economics who would make good members of the trust; they would not need to have been programme makers.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, because I should like to find one item on which we can agree. Last night, viewers of BBC 1 were invited to vote for celebrities riding horses and jumping over fences. If such votes can be held regularly, why on earth could not the viewers—the licence fee payers—vote directly for one or two members of the trust? The BBC could use all its imaginative resources to run such an election.
It is a tempting idea and I am glad that at last we are hearing some radical—if barmy—ideas from the Labour Benches, but that way lies madness; we should end up with Ken Livingstone on the trust, which none of us wants.
That leads me to salaries. There is clearly a consensus in the House; I have never seen it more united than on the subject of salaries in the BBC. I talked to one very senior broadcaster from the private sector who said that even in that close-knit world, he and his contemporaries were astonished to hear about the salary currently being received by Jeremy Paxman, who squires a programme watched by 900,000 people—and we now learn hated by the Scots. Salaries in the BBC seem to be completely out of control. There simply cannot be justification for the sort of salaries that have been talked about, particularly in relation to Jonathan Ross.
I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). I thought that my idea—I was keeping quiet about it—that all salaries should be published and, even more importantly, that there should be a register of interests for all broadcasters so that we know whether they are speaking to a pension fund dinner here or taking a non-executive directorship there, was daft. I thought that I was alone in having that idea. Then I learned that the right hon. Gentleman shared the idea. That does not necessarily prove that it is not daft, but it does at least prove that support for the idea has grown by 100 per cent. in the course of one debate. No doubt it will grow some more.
While we are discussing salaries, I should mention the salaries paid at Ofcom, which, from what I can gather, are more closely guarded than some of the secrets during the cold war. The argument comes forward again and again that those people in the BBC and Ofcom have to be paid those salaries because otherwise they would go and work in the private sector. In response, I would borrow a phrase from the bishop mentioned by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and tell them to—and go and work in the private sector. There is a concept called public service. Many of the people on the Conservative Benches, at least, could earn two, three or four times more than they earn as Members of Parliament, but they choose not to because they believe in the concept of public service. If one works for the BBC, one has the job security and all the other benefits that come with that.
I was aware of that figure. Loth as I am to praise the Prime Minister—I will praise the office of the Prime Minister—it seems astonishing that the chief executive of a regulatory body is earning double what the Prime Minister earns.
We have talked about the licence fee and the amount of money that the BBC is asking for. Again, there is consensus in the House that the amount of money that it is asking for is simply excessive. It has already said that it is making efficiency savings of 4 per cent. It is asking for an increase in its licence fee of RPI plus 2.3 per cent. In effect, therefore, it is asking for an increase of about 6.5 per cent. in the licence fee. We also know that many of the figures that the BBC comes up with are literally written on the back of an envelope. For example, the move to Salford was meant to cost £600 million, but has now been downgraded to £400 million. There is no scrutiny of those figures by the National Audit Office. They are just broad-brush ones. The Government and the House should be extremely sceptical about the amount of money being asked for.
I agree with the sentiment, which I think is shared by most people who have contributed to the debate, that digital switchover should be funded as a separate item—not only because it is clearly a matter of public policy, but for tactical reasons. We all know that the reason the BBC wants the money for digital switchover is that once switchover has switched over, the BBC can keep the money. It is a fantastic way of increasing one’s budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who used to be a bookmaker, is not in the Chamber, but I would take bets that, once digital switchover has happened, the BBC will not turn up at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and say, “Here’s a cheque back for next year because we have done digital switchover.”
In conclusion, as they say, there have been many wonderful contributions to the debate. There have also been some shocking moments from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and a shocking moment from my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), who has spawned the “Save Jonathan Dimbleby” society on the Conservative Benches. We will be going to a small flat in Hammersmith this evening to begin to photocopy the leaflets. A consensus has emerged that the BBC is a well-loved institution with support on both sides, that it makes a very valuable, clearly defined, but also indefinable, contribution both to our public life and to broadcasting and the media, but that its power continues to increase.
The BBC cannot win because, as has been pointed out, when it is not doing well, we criticise it for not being able to compete with the private sector, and when it is doing well, we criticise it for crowding out that sector. However, in a flourishing and vibrant digital age, the BBC is in danger of squashing a lot of minnows that could well grow into impressive companies. The increase to the licence fee must be kept to a minimum, and the Government should perhaps examine again the slightly half-baked governance procedures that have been put in place.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who made a powerful and telling speech. I commend him for his patience and long suffering, because in our last such debate, he was also the last Member to be called before the wind-ups. It was all the better for waiting for such an excellent contribution. This is our third such debate in as many weeks. I welcome the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), across the Dispatch Box. He will wind up the debate, and I hope, for the first time, we will get some answers to the questions that have been posed.
We are essentially debating the future governance of the BBC in the form of the new agreement between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC that will complement the charter for the next 10 years. It was helpful that the BBC’s annual report was to hand during the debate, so we are grateful that its publication was brought forward.
The report is impressive and it underscores the fact that we are indeed fortunate, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) said, to have such an internationally acclaimed public service broadcaster. We welcome the decision to renew its charter. However, the report highlights problems relating to audience share and reach, and it shows that cost-effectiveness in the BBC is going in completely the wrong direction.
Given such difficulties, it is more than ever necessary to get the structure and regulatory framework absolutely right. Concern has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the charter renewal on the table is less than perfect. The trust will not be radically different enough from the old BBC board of governors. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for Wantage, and the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), pointed out that the BBC will be both judge and jury under the proposed structure.
There has been a missed opportunity to give Ofcom increased regulatory powers over and above those already given to it, and that point was supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), for East Devon and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). Such increased powers would have meant that the BBC would be seen to have a totally independent, impartial and rigorous regulator. Given that some members of the trust have been appointed and the trust is already in place before the beginning of the new charter period, it is vital that that group of people demonstrates a clear commitment to transparent independence from management and acts objectively in the interest of licence fee payers and, as many hon. Members have pointed out, competition in public service broadcasting. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) highlighted the fact that there is no adequate appeal process against a decision of the trust, save going to judicial review, which is of course both a costly and protracted process.
It would be churlish not to recognise that positive progress has been made in the new agreement to make the BBC more accountable and transparent. Such progress includes the introduction of service licences, the duty on the trust to have regard to competition and the introduction of the concept of a public value test, including a new role for Ofcom on the joint steering group to measure the market impact assessment. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford pointed out, the composition of that group will be 50 per cent. from the trust and 50 per cent. from Ofcom, with alternating chairmen. To many hon. Members that does not look like the BBC is giving up its control-freak tendencies. Contrary to what was said by the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), and for Selby (Mr. Grogan), there will not be two separate chairs for the BBC and for the trust. Indeed, paragraph 10 on page 9 of the revised draft royal charter states:
“The Chairman of the Trust may also be known as the Chairman of the BBC.”
As I pointed out earlier, the BBC has proposed the idea of a service licence for all its services as a major new way of improving governance and setting a standard against which a particular service can be measured, but although such service licences will apply to all TV and radio services, they will not, at this stage, apply to the BBC’s ever-expanding web-based services. The BBC believes that a single service licence will suffice to cover all its internet and mobile services, but it ignores the way in which those services could affect—often detrimentally—the development of similar services in the private sector; my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage pointed in particular to BBC jam. For example, the BBC’s mobile services will bring its digital news output into direct competition with newspaper and magazine publishers in what is, for the BBC, an entry into an entirely new market.
It is unfortunate that the debate on charter renewal is taking place separately from the debate on the licence fee negotiation, as the BBC’s future role is inextricably linked to the question of funding. The fact that the announcement on the licence fee has been delayed until the end of the year suggests that agreement is a long way off. It is in the interests of licence fee payers and the creative media industries for the funding settlement to be made in the context of both the charter of renewal and the potential impact on the country’s public service broadcasting ecology. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon said, it is ludicrous for us to order from the menu without knowing whether we can afford to settle up when the bill arrives.
It is clear from what the Secretary of State said herself that the BBC’s bid for a licence fee increase of 2.3 per cent. above RPI each year does not meet with the Government’s approval—a point made strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. The case is not helped by the conclusions of two separate reports—one commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport from Panel, Kerr and Foster, and the other by ITV from Indepen—that the BBC could meet its objectives while offering licence fee payers better value for money. The BBC’s figures were seriously challenged, and confidence was not shored up when it backed off from some of its own calculations. One particular example springs to mind—the cut in the costs of moving to Manchester.
The BBC’s bid for £6 billion extra funding over the period of the next licence fee would result in the fee rising to about £180 by 2013. Many speakers, particularly the right hon. Member for Rotherham, emphasised the problem of the affordability of that form of regressive revenue collection for many of their less affluent constituents. Many people find the TV licence fee too high already, and the prospect of £180 for a licence fee fills them with concern, if not dread. That sum, of course, does not take into account the assistance package for digital switchover, which will be completed by 2012. The cost for that, as the director-general, Mark Thompson, has said, could be
“on the far side of a billion”.
While we are on the subject of analogue switch-off and digital switchover, figures on what the Treasury will charge for spectrum have been bandied about. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford tonight confirmed that a Treasury spokesman says that there is no intention whatever to charge for the new spectrum that will be released. The BBC has factored £300 million into its calculation to cover the cost, and it is important that when the Minister responds, he clears up the matter so that we know whether the Treasury will charge for the service or whether the £300 million can immediately be taken out of the BBC’s calculations, thereby reducing the proposed increase in licence fee.
With digital switchover, the Government have embarked on what was described as one of the biggest engineering projects that the country has ever undertaken. It goes without saying that the decision was taken by Government without consultation with many other parties. The BBC was very keen on it, until it was told by the Government that it would be collecting the money through the licence fee and running the assistance package. It could add, as we have said, a huge amount of money to the licence fee requirement. It will be interesting to see what calculations the Government have done on what the licence fee will be in 2012 if, as has been stated, the extra cost of the assistance package is over £1 billion.
That is such a huge potential financial burden that no final agreement can be reached on the licence fee until that figure has been accurately calculated. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon asked, can the Minister give the House a figure, estimated or otherwise, for the projected targeted assistance? If he cannot give us that figure tonight, may we have a guarantee that the figure will be made available and the calculations behind the figure made transparent before any licence fee settlement is announced?
We have already noted substantial confusion in the licence fee debate on both sides of the argument. That is why several hon. Members suggested a key role for the National Audit Office in scrutinising both the finances of the BBC and the setting of the licence fee. The halfway house agreed to date with respect to the involvement of the NAO is unacceptable. Licence fee payers will never be satisfied that they are getting value for money, particularly in a scenario of rapidly rising licence fees, unless they get the independent and rigorous scrutiny that only the NAO can provide.
It is Parliament’s responsibility to ensure that the BBC is independent, well regulated, transparent and funded to an appropriate level. The charter, unfortunately, fails to give Parliament, as the House of Lords Committee recommended, a greater role in debating and voting on vital matters, such as funding and the charter renewal. The Opposition support the BBC, but we have made many constructive suggestions to ensure that the licence fee does not get out of control and that the BBC continues to give an outstanding public service.
This has been an extremely good debate. It has been as informed at times as it has been entertaining. I should declare an interest, as I used to work for the BBC, but unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), I never had a long enough contract at the BBC to reach the dizzy heights of any provision for a BBC pension—
My right hon. Friend makes a telling point and he would always be a welcome guest.
The past 10 years have seen a transformation in the market in which the BBC makes and transmits its programmes. The next 10 years will see a transformation or, more probably, a revolution. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) observed, that revolution comes because of on-demand services, the competition and the revolution not only in what we watch but in how we watch it, and in where we will demand that content. In such a revolution, this charter and the agreement work to set the framework for the BBC for the future. It is absolutely right that we spend so much time getting this right and ensuring that the level of the licence fee is absolutely right. Despite pressure for an expedient settlement by Opposition Members, the Government will work to do what is right for the licence fee payer and for the BBC and its competition.
Speaking of expediency—[Interruption.] On cue, the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) asks the question, and I come to his contribution. His attitude to the BBC is, in itself, something of a dual transmission, bordering on two contradictory messages. On the one hand he values the BBC, and just as he auctions off his admiration he proceeds to bring his gavel down and hammer it hard with the other. On the one hand he says that he wants less regulation, and less interference, but then proceeds to offer the House a prescription for, in his own words, what more should be done.
The hon. Gentleman demonstrates little or no trust in the new trust to regulate the BBC, and he would do well to focus on the substance of the changes, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who rightly described the change to the trust from the governors as a radical departure. This evening we note the views of the hon. Gentleman’s party on regulating BBC salaries and setting ceilings on remuneration. We also note—hon. Members could not really have missed—the Opposition’s obsession with Jonathan Ross. They complain bitterly about his salary, yet they seem desperate to promote the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on the programme. I can only ask, Mr. Speaker, that if the right hon. Gentleman seeks your advice on what to wear on a future Jonathan Ross programme, you will tell him to leave his hoodie at home.
If the debate offered us insight into Conservative obsessions this evening, it also offered us a brief glimpse into contemporary Conservative party policy-making. We were treated this evening to a new policy from Conservative Members as they put forward their policy for a free television licence for all students. It was interesting for us to see that emerge in the double act performed by the hon. Members for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). All I can say is that we will cost their new proposal with relish.
Listening to the hon. Member for Wantage is always a delight, no matter where it takes the listener. We have travelled far and wide with him this evening across a broad range of subjects. At the end of the day it was really in the hands of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, the Select Committee Chairman, to give us the sober and serious considerations of policy this evening. He concerned us with points of real substance rather than a relentless preoccupation with the luncheon engagements of the Secretary of State and drinks parties to which he might not have been invited.
I should begin by reassuring the hon. Gentleman that the public value test will make a significant difference to the way in which the BBC operates in terms of future services, and despite the temptation on his part to suggest that the BBC would be moving into the business of antiques dealing or car dealing, I see absolutely no reason for it to move in that direction.
The hon. Gentleman asked about consultation—
It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman, who I do not think has been in the Chamber for the debate this afternoon; none the less, as we have time, I am more than happy to take his question. The answer is that if the BBC believes that it is a service that would serve the public well, yes. But I remind the hon. Gentleman that the new codes set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the agreement and in the charter will be looking for public value tests. That is a new and important departure. Indeed, in answer to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, the policies put forward in the Green Paper and confirmed in the White Paper, the charter and the agreement are firmly based on extensive consultation and research. The policy on governance is built firmly on the principle set out by Lord Burns and the independent panel. The policies on service licences, the public value test and the new competition framework reflect and recognise the concerns expressed most notably by the commercial sector.
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford asked about market impact assessments. The agreement makes it clear that the content of the MIA is for Ofcom alone. The main role of the joint steering group is to agree terms of reference and a timetable. That will help to ensure that the market impact and public value assessments are compatible and enable the trust to make judgments on whether a proposal should go ahead.
The hon. Gentleman asked about there being a limit to the BBC’s commercial activities, which has understandably concerned several hon. Members. There will indeed be a limit. Its commercial activities must comply with the criteria for commercial services as set out in clause 69 of the agreement. In particular, they must fit with the BBC’s public purposes as embodied in the charter.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) asked about increasing the target for audio description. While I am happy to write to him on that subject, I can reassure him that Ofcom is reviewing its statutory code on television access services, and we expect a response to that later in the year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) was right to talk about the BBC, as it sits in his constituency and he looks after White City. In response to his broad question about the Government’s objectives for television and radio, they are entirely the same— namely, to create the best programmes, for the best value, for their respective audiences.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) began by giving a somewhat gloomy forecast about the BBC being too London-centric. I do not agree with that, but I enjoyed everything that he said. It is not often that Lord Reith and Abba are thrown into the same sentence, but he managed it. The hon. Gentleman referred to not wanting to hear services from elsewhere that do not relate to Wales. The future of the BBC’s digital services should go some way towards dealing with that. With the prospect of people being able to enjoy up to 300 channels via all sorts of new services that come about as a consequence of digital services and convergences within digital services, he will increasingly have greater choice of local services. He ventured to criticise the BBC’s work in advancing digital services. I believe that the pioneering and innovative work that it is doing will deal with those criticisms and satisfy many of his constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) rightly observed that the debate resembled “Points of View”. He talked about working conditions. I would be happy to look with him at a survey of working conditions published a few weeks ago in Broadcast magazine. It reveals some areas that we would do well to consider, particularly in relation to women returning to the workplace after they have had children, and to young people. In a field where there may be 200 applicants for every job, young people often find themselves working long hours in difficult conditions for no money whatsoever. That argument does not specifically apply to the BBC, but across the board in the broadcasting industry. I was well aware of those conditions when I worked in the television industry in the 1980s, and I think that they still exist. As television grows and competition increases, there may be pressure to drive down the salaries of those working in the industry. We should work together to address that. I would welcome working with my hon. Friend and the unions on that matter.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the proposals for a “window of creative competition”, which aims to generate 50 per cent. of production from the BBC’s in-house capacity. A further 25 per cent. will be open to competition, including from BBC in-house producers, and there is also the statutory 25 per cent. guarantee. The implementation is up to the trust, which will doubtless take account of his concerns.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham raised several issues. I hope that, at the end of the evening, he will change his mind and not abstain. I accept that his questions are reasonable and that his views are sincerely held, but we disagree with some of his conclusions. Although those views are held by some, we did not find them in the substantial body of work that we conducted with licence fee payers. Indeed, they were prepared to pay even more for the BBC.
However, if licence fee payers were to pay more, they would want value for money and efficiency to be requirements of the BBC and those running it. The Government should meet those requirements in sorting out the charter and the agreement and settling the licence fee. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider whether abstaining best serves the interests of the BBC and the licence fee payer. Conservative Members’ view of the BBC is clear. Although they claim to support it, they are prepared to undermine it at every turn. I therefore ask him to reconsider.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) moved all hon. Members, and the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) rightly picked up on it. My hon. Friend reminded the House of the BBC’s role in entertainment, and his love of sport, including football, is well known. However, he also shared with us his experiences as somebody who could not be persuaded to go to university but gained much of his education through the BBC. I am sure that many hon. Members know exactly what I mean when I say that the BBC has served us all well in terms of our collective education. My hon. Friend’s characteristic remarks were self-effacing, generous and absolutely right. I only hope that Opposition Members pay as much attention to them as to their obsession with Jonathan Ross’s salary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) made a fine speech, as perspicacious as it was welcome. He was right that decisions about BBC programmes are best made by the BBC and nobody else. He is also right that the public need the confidence of knowing that the settlement of the licence fee will be properly handled and effectively audited. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has those arrangements in hand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) spoke of his admiration for the BBC. He was right to talk about its role in a fragmented world. He spoke—at moments, in a Leavisite way—about a common culture. I thought that he might start telling us about a common pursuit. However, I suspect that his remarks will be remembered as much for his French colloquialism—in case you have not heard about it, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that the hon. Member for Wantage will sneak up to you later and give you full particulars—and his fond recollection of “Yes, Minister” as for the rest of his comments.
That brings me to the Liberal Democrats. They asked whether we had squared the respective circles of efficiency and quality. The answer to that is yes. They viewed it as a weakness of Michael Grade’s that he could understand criticisms of the BBC. If one can see one’s weaknesses, that is a strength and we should give Michael Grade credit for his extraordinary work in leading the BBC in the past few years. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) asked whether the trust would be effective and whether we would trust the BBC. The answer is that we will, as the public do.
If I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, I apologise. I believe, however, that he was saying that there were criticisms and that Michael Grade was far too quick to recognise them.
It is absolutely right to get the licence fee right, and the charter and the agreement have to be right. It would be a huge mistake to behave in a political way with the BBC simply to satisfy the thirst of the Conservatives to have a number before the summer recess. This is an important settlement for the future of the BBC and for every licence fee payer.
One thing that has come out of this debate loudly and clearly is the regard in which the BBC is held by everyone—including most Members of this House—across the four nations. We are all aware of the extraordinary rate at which the broadcasting environment is changing, but as we said in the White Paper, none of us can afford to lose sight of the fact that public service broadcasting remains an essential part of the media landscape.
The next charter and agreement must provide a framework that will enable the BBC to remain in the pivotal broadcasting role that it has enjoyed in the past while ensuring that it has the ability to adapt to new challenges and to remain at the heart of public life. That is why this charter review has been the most thorough and open review ever.
I will give way, but I will say to the hon. Gentleman that, in the last debate that we held, he refused to give way to me when I had the opportunity to correct a deliberately misleading impression that he had created about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I will give way to him, but I do so in the spirit of taking up the thoughts of his party leader, who has said that he wants to end yah-boo politics, even though Conservative Members still continue the practice.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before he finishes, I would like to put to him a question that my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and I have both asked. Will he give the House a figure for the assistance package for digital switchover? If he cannot give us that figure, will he give us a guarantee that we will have that figure before the licence fee is announced?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I know that all hon. Members are concerned about digital switchover and targeted help. We are in the final stages of negotiation with the BBC on this matter. When we publish the licence fee figure, we will also publish the details of the targeted assistance scheme. In so far as I can, and if it is prudent to do so in the course of the negotiations with the BBC, I will assist the hon. Gentleman with information about targeted assistance for his constituents and those of all hon. Members. However, he will have the figures that he has requested when we publish the licence fee.
This charter review has been the most thorough and open review ever in the history of the BBC. This is a crucial moment in the review process; the agreement with the BBC has been made and now awaits the approval of the House. The charter will be sent for approval by Her Majesty in Council. This is a new phase in the evolution of the BBC, and I urge the House to support it.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the Agreement (Cm 6872) dated 30th June 2006, between the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was laid before this House on 3rd July 2006.
I propose to put together the Questions on the five motions.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
Climate Change Levy
That the draft Climate Change Agreements (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2006, which were laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 13th June, be approved.
Rehabilitation of Offenders
That the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations 2006, which were laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
Question agreed to.