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Broadcasting (Public Service Content) Bill

Volume 526: debated on Friday 1 April 2011

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who has been away on parliamentary duties and hopes to get here later, subject to any delays caused by public transport. In his absence, I have the great honour and privilege of moving the Bill.

The Bill is in many ways similar to the Broadcasting (Public Service Content) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend on 12 June 2009. It is good news that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) is in the Chamber today, as he is the very man who was the shadow Minister when that Bill was introduced. I have read his comments on that Bill with great interest in Hansard, and I can read between the lines. He cannot fool me: he was totally in favour of it. No one who rereads that debate in Hansard could come to any other conclusion.

It is great to be following the previous debate, and I know that there are other important Bills on the Order Paper today, so I hope that we can make rapid progress with this Second Reading. This is a non-controversial Bill that should have the support of the whole House. It really should be the fifth private Member’s Bill to become an Act of Parliament in this Session.

At its heart, this is a coalition Bill, but I want to put it clearly on the record that it is not a Whips’ handout Bill. It might appear to be, because it contains all the elements that the coalition is in favour of, but I have to say that it is more of a Liberal-leaning Bill than a Conservative Bill. The Liberal party believes in private trade, in giving more power to the people and in civil liberties. In particular, it is against regressive taxation. All those elements are dealt with in the Bill. From a Conservative point of view, it has the disadvantage of breaking with tradition, but it would also lower taxation and create more trade and competition in the television and broadcasting industry. In the past, the BBC was linked with the previous great Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and many of us feel that the current Labour party will want to distance itself from that era. For that reason, we might get its support for the Bill as well.

The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) spoke from the Dispatch Box a few minutes ago, and he gave me a good idea. He pointed out that the Royal Mint had been relocated to south Wales, and that that had been a tremendous success. There is therefore a good reason to relocate the BBC away from London. I am sure that such a move would gain the support of the governors and all the people who work in the BBC. It might be a good idea to relocate the BBC to Swansea, but people might say that Swansea was much too far away for people needing to get back to London to meet important people. I have a much better solution. If the BBC were relocated to Wellingborough, people would have only a 50-minute journey into town to meet those people, and the rents and rates in Wellingborough are much lower than they are here.

I am concerned about that suggestion, because it might lead to a whole load of left-wing voters moving to Wellingborough, which could undermine my hon. Friend’s majority.

Alas, the public interest comes before self-interest, and I would lay down my seat if we could get the BBC to move to Wellingborough. Also, if the Bill were passed into law, the BBC would be a completely different kettle of fish, so I do not think I have too much to worry about in that regard. One of the great advantages of the Bill, if it became law, would be that the newly appointed Lord Patten would not have a job. That would save the BBC a considerable amount of money.

The Bill has had a small change in its text since its previous incarnation, but that change has important implications for non-BBC broadcasters. The Bill is also a sequel to the 2008 private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. The aim of the Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill was fairly modest: it just wanted to abolish the licence fee in total. I do not think that that is right. I want to retain the licence fee, but I want it to cost a lot less, and I want its benefits to be available to non-BBC broadcasters. At the moment, it is not so much a licence fee as a BBC fee. All the money goes to the BBC, and none goes to other broadcasters.

I am told that the current licence fee, which is in effect a poll tax, is £145.50 a year. Almost no one can avoid paying that if they are under the age of 75. Anyone who has more than one television set in more than one location has to pay more than one licence fee. It is a very regressive tax. Also, anyone who does not have a television is still hounded as though they do have one. I had a constituent—this is not made up—who told the BBC licensing authorities that he did not have a television set. They did not believe him. They sent inspectors around to inspect every room in his home to see whether there was a hidden television. That is the sort of thing we might get in a totalitarian state, but surely it is not acceptable in the United Kingdom at any time, and certainly not in this century.

Let me provide a much more up-to-date example. First, however, I want to put on the record my thanks to my researchers, Mr James Newhall and Miss Victoria Michell, who provided some of the research for my speech, and to my hon. Friend for his previous work. Victoria Michell is my intern. She experienced the TV licensing authority’s wrath. Previously living alone, working hard for a living and choosing to spend her money on shoes rather than a television, she informed the licensing authority that she did not own a television set and thought that that would be the end of the matter. Oh no! She regularly received letters from the licensing authority, insisting that she must have a television set and demanding to know why she had not paid the fee. She then received a visit from the inspectors. Unfortunately, she was at work—a normal pastime of those in their 20s—so they left her a note informing her that they would be back. She called the authority, grudgingly admitting she felt a little intimidated, to tell them that she worked full time and that if they wanted to visit her, they could do so but out of working hours. She was told by the inspectors that they would visit when it suited them. She waited every night—when she was not working late, at the gym or having dinner with friends—eagerly to clear her name, prove her innocence and show off her shoe collection. However, they never came. My intern would like to inform the House, so it is absolutely on the record, that she has since moved, adopted two televisions and has a TV licence.

Although that is a somewhat light-hearted story, if that person had been elderly or vulnerable, they would have felt considerably intimidated by a state regulator invading their privacy. The Bill would put an end to that. I should say that my intern is a well-qualified, highly articulate, intelligent young lady who is not easily intimidated. By the way, if anyone has a job going, I would recommend her as an exceptional researcher

The next part of my speech is put in to get myself promoted! In these days of economic crisis, which is due to the mismanagement of the economy by the previous Labour Administration, who believed the illusion of there being no more boom and bust and threw away more and more public money, we now have a coalition Government, who were put together for the purpose of cutting the deficit. Everyone understands that these are tough times, and my constituents in Wellingborough find it difficult to pay £145.50 a year for something that they might not want. It is extraordinarily unfair that hard-working families who just get by have to pay nearly £150 whether they like it or not. What is really unfair is that a millionaire in another part of the country has to pay the same amount. In any other taxation situation, Labour Members would jump up and down and say that that is terribly regressive, which, of course, it is.

The Government, led by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, did an exceptionally good job with the Budget, but there were difficult decisions to be taken and they had to cut. It is rather strange that one thing that did not get cut—and a number of things did not get cut—was the cost of the television licence.

Let me now turn my attention to the issue of whether the BBC provides any public service content broadcasting at all and whether it should qualify for any money whatsoever under the Bill. I shall be interested to hear Members’ views about this later. The Bill calls for public service content to be impartial and factual, so we need to see whether the BBC meets that test. My argument is that the BBC is, in fact, institutionally biased. It does not know that it is biased, but it is. I shall provide three brief examples of that.

The Government have ring-fenced spending on the NHS and is increasing it in real terms. The Department for International Development budget is increasing and our contributions to the EU are going from £19.8 billion over the last five years to £41 billion over the next five years. My constituents are being asked to pay nearly £150 to fund the state broadcaster, even though they may never watch the BBC. I am someone who, because of my profession, looks at all the different channels and I occasionally have to watch the BBC, but I do not watch it any more than I watch the channels for which I have to pay to view or the adverts on ITV. My wife has one of those buttons that can be pressed to miss out the adverts. That seems to me to be wholly unfair, so I sit and watch them as that is the only way I can be assured that ITV will continue. My wife does not agree with me on that point, but then Mrs Bone does not always agree with me on everything.

Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that we have heard quite a number of his philosophical ruminations, references to his constituents and his admirable intern, for whom he hopes someone else in the House will provide a job, and the unfailing reference to the indefatigable Mrs Bone? I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that his Bill contains three clauses on “Public service content”, “Payment of licence fee” and “Short title, commencement and extent”, and it is to be hoped that on one of those he will dilate ere long.

I entirely take your advice, Mr Speaker, but I do not want to dilate long on any particular point, so I shall try to keep my points brief when I get to them. Okay, so that gets rid of that, that and that. That has gone, too. We will get there, Sir.

The public service content is mentioned in clause 1(1) and is defined in some detail in clause 1(2). Let me outline the idea behind the Bill. The licence fee will be available to all broadcasters and it will be paid out in return for public service broadcasting content. It will not be left purely to the BBC, but be open to ITV, Channel 4, Sky and any other broadcaster and to local radio. The licence fee, which many people think is paid directly to the BBC, is, in fact, paid to the Secretary of State, who then dishes it out. I believe that the licence fee should be allotted for a specific purpose—in this case, the provision of public service content broadcasting. That is what my Bill would do.

I know that other very important Bills such as the Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) Bill and the Fire Safety (Protection of Tenants) Bill are still to come, so I hope this debate will not go on for too long. As I say, I expect to get support, if not from Opposition Members, certainly from my hon. Friend the Minister, as I have read the remarks he made on the earlier Bill.

I will remind the Minister. Bearing in mind that today is 1 April, I think what he effectively said was that it was a jolly good Bill and that it should pass. That is a summary of how I read what he said, although he may want to go into more detail on that.

Let me get back to the Bill. Public service content is broken down into four different categories. The first is the news element, so if a programme is a news programme, it must comprise

“local, national, international news or current affairs which is impartial, factual and objective”.

Last night, I was participating in the “Anglia Late Edition” with the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who was very good. The trouble is that whenever I go on programmes with him, I find myself in agreement with him—and most of the time we both disagree with our own parties. The hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) was also participating and he was very good. It was a genuine programme in which we talked about the alternative vote, cuts and the closure of an RAF station—it was everything that public service broadcasting should be. It was a balanced programme—a representative of the Green party was on it as well—and it is a perfect example of the sort of broadcasting that we should have. Anglia does not receive a penny from the licence fee, however, and I believe that it should.

I want now to consider, in some detail, whether the BBC could qualify for any of that public service money. Let us return to the time of the last but one Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I felt then, and I think many other people felt, that we had not a British Broadcasting Corporation but a Blair Broadcasting Corporation, institutionally biased in favour of that Government. It did all the things that they liked. If someone was left-leaning, liberal, supported modernisation or loved the EU, he would be reported fairly and much more than anyone else. But if people did not fall into that category, why should they be asked to pay £150 for a licence, if they were paying for something that (a) they did not want to watch and (b) they did not agree with?

My Bill proposes that the licence fee should constitute money for public service broadcasting, and that any broadcaster who provides public service content should be able to apply for it. It would pay for no more and no less than that. It would not be limited to the BBC, and any broadcaster would be able to apply for it. If Sky were to broadcast public service content, it would be able to apply. I estimate that the cost of a licence would fall from £150 to about £50.

Millions of people watch, on the BBC, “Top Gear” and “EastEnders”. Millions of people also watch “Fifth Gear” and “Coronation Street”. Those two pairs of programmes are of exactly the same type, but one is funded by the state and the other is funded commercially. Under this Bill, the BBC would have to fund commercial programmes itself, through product placement, by selling the programmes on, or by imposing a small subscription fee which would, of course, have to be commercially competitive. The effect would be that of market forces competing. Such a system would not only keep the fee low, but put pressure on Sky to reduce its subscription fee—and if I had any criticism of Sky, it would relate to the level of its subscription fee. It would provide complete protection of public service content.

One of the misconceptions about the Bill has involved sport. During the debate on the earlier Bill, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), now Deputy Leader of the House, said that because sport was not public service content, it would not be possible to broadcast any of it on the BBC. That is not the case. Commercially viable events such as test matches and the premier league would be commercially available to any broadcaster who paid the fee. As for minority sports that no one would otherwise want to broadcast, they are covered by clause 1(2)(d), which refers to the public service criterion that

“the content would not otherwise be likely to be provided by the market responding to consumer demand.”

During that earlier debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) referred to cuts in the broadcasting of horse racing events that were considered not to be commercially viable. Under the Bill, such events would become available to broadcasters because they would fall under the catch-all of clause 1(2)(d).

Will there be a special preservation order for “Test Match Special”, which really is part of the fabric of British life?

That is a hugely important issue. According to my personal prejudice, “Test Match Special” must survive for ever, but the BBC cannot be trusted in that regard. Oh, no.

In my desire to be a new Conservative and a modern man, I bought a Saab biofuel car. There was a radio in it, and I tried to tune it. I understand that the new chairman of the BBC has never listened to Radio 1 or Radio 2 except when he has experienced difficulty in tuning his radio to radio 4. Would you believe it—when I tried to tune my radio to Radio 4 to listen to “Test Match Special”, I found that it was not on the dial! The BBC had removed it from medium wave and stuck it on long wave. The BBC cannot be trusted with “Test Match Special”. That is one of the respects in which the Bill would improve the position, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter.

The Bill does not, however, concern only news programmes and sport. It also concerns other rather important matters. Since the introduction of the earlier Bill in June 2009, commercial broadcasters have cut current affairs and religious programmes and children’s entertainment. I think that if such programmes were made available to other broadcasters, we would be able to welcome their return.

I was going to give a very good example of why the BBC should not be allowed to have any money for its current affairs programmes, but I am conscious that time is moving on and I want to deal with the detail of the Bill, so I shall remove that little example. I will not go into it. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, I will not allow myself to be encouraged, other than to say that it related to an occasion on which Mr Brown, the then Prime Minister, went to the European Parliament—I will summarise it very quickly—and Dan Hannan beat him up briefly in a speech. Whatever one may have thought about that occasion, it clearly qualified as public service broadcasting. Unfortunately, the BBC reporter decided to walk out and not to cover it, although he had been notified earlier that it would happen. Two million people tuned in to watch it on YouTube.

It seemed to me that that was an example of the BBC’s institutionally biased view. It did not want to cover anything that was anti-EU. That is why I say that the BBC cannot be trusted with too much of the licence fee money for public service broadcasting.

I mentioned that the event was watched by 3 million people rather than 2 million because I monitored it, and I remember the figure rising from 2.6 million to 2.7 million and eventually to well over 3 million. Does my hon. Friend agree that that speech would rightly rank in an anthology of the greatest speeches of the last 10 years? It is only three or four minutes long, but it is one of the most extraordinary things that I have ever seen.

Indeed. I have to say that I have not had the privilege of seeing it because I do not know how YouTube works, but on the very day that it was broadcast, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who was taking his children to school, was hauled aside by someone who said “You must come and watch this on YouTube.” It should have been on national television rather than on YouTube. He followed it up with a letter to the director-general, who passed it on to someone else in the organisation to answer, who eventually replied saying, “We’ve looked into this matter and”—this is the crucial point—“the BBC news content is subjective.” How right that is! It is utterly subjective. Therefore, by the BBC’s own admission, it would fall foul of this part of my Bill and so would not necessarily qualify for licence fee funding for its news output. It would then have to start being objective, factual and impartial, and once it achieved that, it would qualify for the funding.

Because of what we Members do for a living, we watch all the news broadcasters to see the different ways they cover the news so we get a broad understanding of what is happening. Quite often Sky, Channel 4 and ITV will have a story at the top of the bulletin that the BBC has chosen to place further down because it is biased against that story. I do not say that with any glee; rather, I say it with some sadness and concern. When a state broadcaster is institutionally biased against the views of Conservative-leaning people—even though it does not understand that—I wonder why the majority in this country, who are Conservative leaning, have to pay a forced poll tax. I remember the poll tax demonstrations.

All that this little, uncontroversial Bill would do is remove all of the funding from the licence fee going to the BBC, thereby reducing the cost of the fee to, let us say, about £50, and allowing the BBC to put on other programmes if it wants—and which it should do—but funding them through product placement, resale or a small subscription. The great benefit of that is that it would bring competition into the industry. I think all Members would agree that the BBC is overmanned and that some of the other stations produce the same quality of news broadcasting for far less. The key benefit for viewers is that after the Bill becomes the fifth private Member’s Bill to be enacted this Session, if they want to watch the BBC, they will find that the cost of the licence fee they are required to pay—which will be the fee for public service content for all broadcasters plus the subscription fee to the BBC—is less than the £150 that they are forced to pay now.

In concluding my opening remarks, I shall address the detail of the Bill. It is a fairly short Bill—there are only three clauses—but it is very important.

My hon. Friend mentioned at the beginning of his speech that this Bill makes one minor change to the Bill introduced in the previous Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). What is that change, what will its effect be, and why has it been made?

It was remiss of me not to address that earlier, but I omitted to do so because I wanted to make swift progress. The problem I identified with the previous Bill—and I think this is why the Minister, who was the shadow Minister at the time, did not welcome it entirely in the last debate we had on the issue—was the fact that the licence fee was stuck with the BBC. The former Bill reduced the licence fee, but that was still only paid to the BBC. Therefore, although there would be all the advantages of the licence fee being payable only for public service content—which is, in essence, what this Bill is about—it would still be restricted to the BBC alone. The new Bill changes the wording so that the measures apply to all broadcasters rather than just the BBC. The logic of that change is clear. If the licence fee is payable for public service content, it should be open to all broadcasters. Therefore, an independent local radio station—Connect FM in Northampton, for instance—would have the same right to that funding as BBC Radio Northampton. It is a very small, but a very important, change, as I hope will become clear when I address some of my more detailed points.

The Bill is essentially about public service content. That is addressed in clause 1(1), which states:

“For the purposes of the Communications Act 2003 ‘public service television broadcasting’ shall be construed as broadcasting material with public service content, as defined in subsection (2).”

This measure gives the phrase “public service television broadcasting” in the 2003 Act a proper definition, and thereby improves that piece of legislation.

The BBC used to try to say, “Everything we do is public service broadcasting.” [Interruption.] No, I am not going down that route as there are too many examples of programmes about which people would say, “That was smutty, and had no public service content.” “EastEnders” is a very good programme, and I have certainly watched it more times than the new chairman of the BBC, because I think the last time he watched it was the last time he bought a McDonald’s meal—I believe that is what he said to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. “EastEnders” is entertainment, however; it is not a programme that has public service content.

Clause 1(2) addresses the core of the definition of public service content, and it states:

“‘Public service content’ is content which is primarily produced in the United Kingdom and which satisfies one or more of the following criteria”.

I have stressed that the content should be primarily produced in the UK because if we are forcing UK taxpayers to pay a fee, the least we can do is ensure that the programmes are made in this country. That is especially the case at a time of economic crisis, but even if we were not in an economic crisis, I still think it is right that UK licence fee money should go to UK-produced programmes.

The definition of public service content is divided into four categories. The first is that

“it comprises local, national, international news or current affairs which is impartial, factual and objective.”

I have spent some time outlining why some of the BBC news programmes would fall foul of that, and would therefore not get any licence fee money. However, other programmes such as “Question Time” and “Newsnight” clearly would qualify for that funding.

Something else I notice about the BBC, which, again, shows its institutional bias against anyone from the right, is that the people its news channel invites to review the newspapers are invariably lefties with some bizarre left-wing view. When is a normal citizen there? I have never been invited on one of these programmes; I am willing to turn up and do that at some unearthly hour, but I am never asked. That institutional bias is one of the reasons I think the BBC would have a problem getting all its news output paid for by the licence fee.

The second definition of public service content is that

“its primary purpose is to inform, educate or entertain children”.

I think most of us would agree that that is a reasonable definition. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, are far too young to remember this, but I can remember television going off air and the test card coming on the screen at 5 o’clock so children could do their homework. I am not suggesting we go back to that, but would it not be nice if we had some better children’s programmes? I understand broadcasters do not want to go down that route at present because they are not commercially viable.

My hon. Friend is taking us on a trip down memory lane. Would he also like televisions to broadcast in black and white, so that he can relive those memories of the 1950s?

My hon. Friend looks very young, but he is obviously older than I am because I cannot remember the black and white era, and so I cannot possibly comment on whether that would be a good or bad thing.

The go-ahead BBC still regards black and white television as being sufficiently important and relevant as to issue a separate licence to those who have black and white sets. So there clearly must be some demand for this and it would be interesting to know how many such licences are issued. One has to pay only £49 to watch in black and white, rather than £145.50.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which may well be teased out in Committee. This very good coalition Government have a one-in, one-out policy on regulation, and my Bill removes regulation. One licence fee would disappear because the £49 licence fee would, in effect, be the only licence fee, so no matter whether someone had a black and white TV set or a colour one, they would not be discriminated against; people would certainly be paying no more than they are now, but they might be paying a great deal less. My Bill would end the bureaucracy of having two fees. That deals with clause 1(2)(b).

Clause 1(2)(c) also deals with the public service content and says that if a programme is produced primarily for “charitable or religious” reasons, licence fee money would be provided. The cost of one of the national charity appeals, for example, red nose day, would fall on the licence fee. That is perfectly fair. This approach would also open things up for other organisations, such as Sky, to put on those sorts of programmes, and so more charitable money would be raised. I do not think that many people could be against that.

I am old enough to remember when we had a lot more religious programmes. I do not confess to it, but I am a practising Christian and this is a largely Christian country, as I hope the census will confirm—I remind everyone to fill it in. Bizarrely, the census question on religion is optional—I believe it is the only one that is. That confirmation would help to demonstrate to broadcasters the need to spend public service money on religious programmes, because the census will have proved that a lot of people want to see them.

That is an important point, because the Bill does not try to restrict the religious content to the religion that my hon. Friend and I follow. Followers of any religion—Muslims, Hindus and those from the Jesus Christ Church of Latter-day Saints—could qualify for protection under this Bill.

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes the point much better than I could. Some people will ask what the census has to do with this issue, but it has a lot to do with it because it is from that census that broadcasters will be able to determine what percentage of the population are interested in religious programmes. That is why I find it strange that the question on religion is optional on the census form.

Clause 1(2)(d) is the catch-all provision and we have to explain it in a little more detail later. It states that

“the content would not otherwise be likely to be provided by the market responding to consumer demand.”

It deals with programmes for which there is a very limited interest, despite the fact that they should be put on. The BBC does put such programmes on, as do some other broadcasters, although fewer and fewer are doing so. I am talking about programmes that cater for people who are interested in steam engines—I have probably picked the wrong example, because I know that they interest a lot of people. Things that would not normally attract big audiences would still be funded by the taxpayer if they were in the interests of public service.

Many questions arise from that catch-all phrase, which is why we have to deal with it a little further on in the Bill. People were saying to me that programmes that were not popular would no longer be put on, but that is not the case. People have said to me, “I understand that news, children’s programmes with educational purposes and charitable and religious programmes will get the licence fee, but what if it is a programme that I really care about? How is that going to be funded? They will not put it on because it is not commercially viable.” That is where clause 1(2)(d) comes in.

Such a programme might be about fishing or it might be a minority programme that eventually becomes commercially viable and has to move out of this arrangement. A very good example of that is coverage of American football. When American football first came on to British screens on Channel 4 it was very much a minority interest, although I am interested in it and I have often wondered why we do not have a NFL all-party group. Interest in the sport grew, as did the audience, and eventually Sky took on the coverage, with some of it also appearing on Channel 4 and Channel Five. Under my Bill, it would have initially been funded by the licence fee and no longer have needed any licence fee support on becoming commercially viable. Just because licence fee money would be given at the beginning to develop an interest in a particular field, it would not have to continue to be paid once the programme became commercially viable.

The problem with that provision is, of course, one of definition. I have tried to deal with that in clause 1(3), which states:

“Where the only criterion of public service content is that contained in subsection (2)(d), the judgement relating to the likelihood of market failure shall be made by the National Audit Office, which must publish an opinion on any matter referred to it by the Secretary of State pursuant to this section.”

By the time my Bill comes in, and after the reshuffle on 6 May, I expect the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) who is with us in the Chamber today to be the very Minister who makes these decisions, so I hope he will be paying particular attention to this provision, as he will have to deal with it.

The provision has been misunderstood. People have said that it means that the Secretary of State—or the NAO—will decide on whether to have a fishing programme or another synchronised swimming programme, but that is not its purpose. The broadcaster will able to apply for the money from the licence fee for those programmes and that money will be given. The audit is retrospective and would deal with cases where it is felt a broadcaster was putting on something that is commercially viable, but that it had claimed under 1(2)(d) would be a market failure. The NAO is an admirable body that would be able to tell clearly whether a programme was likely to be commercially viable or whether there would be a market failure, which would account for its taking money from the licence fee pot.

To be fair to the newly promoted Secretary of State, as I shall call him, I do not think he would actually have to decide very often on this matter, because self-regulation would do the trick. To use a ridiculous example, it would be very embarrassing if the BBC applied for funding for “EastEnders”, because although it would get the money, shortly afterwards the Secretary of State would make a referral to the NAO to say, “This is completely ridiculous.” Self-regulation would stop such applications, because broadcasters would be hugely embarrassed if they took money from the licence fee for public service content only for the Secretary of State to refer the matter to the NAO and for it to say, “No, this is a commercially viable programme. Repay that money.” The damage it would do to that broadcaster would be immense, so I think there would be self-regulation in that field.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Has there been a request from the Government for an urgent ministerial statement on the arrival of the Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa? There have been reports overnight that another envoy—this time an official envoy from the Gaddafi regime—is here. These matters are of the utmost importance, because clearly we have embarked on what was to be a humanitarian mission and we are now very heavily engaged in the murky politics of Libya. What is going on? The House would like to know.

For those hon. Members who wonder why I was interrupted at this particular moment for that point of order, it is because 11 o’clock is the usual time on Friday when statements are made.

It has been reported this morning that a Libyan Government envoy, Mohammed Ismail, has been in the country for the past few days and I can well understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) made that point of order.

On the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) was previously making, about “EastEnders”, does not the fact that such programmes are covered by the BBC and paid for out of the licence fee prove the problem with the current definition of public service broadcasting? They are paid for by the licence fee, as a poll tax on everyone, whereas a programme such as “Coronation Street”, which is watched by just as many people, does not receive a penny.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. That is exactly the case. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that the reporting of the Libyan situation by the BBC is anything other than impartial and accurate and it has clearly been able to get licence fee money for that.

I move to the part of the Bill on which I expect to get shouted down the most and get a lot of criticism—clause 1(4), which states:

“No content shall be public service content if it fails to satisfy prevailing standards of good taste”.

Hon. Members might think this measure means that the National Audit Office is going to look at programmes and decide whether they are smutty, but that absolutely is not what my Bill does. My Bill says that public service content money cannot be given for programmes that do not comply with the prevailing view of what constitutes good taste and decency. It will be the prevailing view that is important. The measure would apply only if a broadcaster applied for public service content money from the licence fee for a programme. It could broadcast any other programmes it liked, within the general law of the land, but it would not get any licence fee money for producing programmes that did not meet prevailing standards of good taste and decency. It would be the British public who decided whether a programme met those standards. If only 10 people wrote in to complain about a programme, obviously the Secretary of State would not refer that case to the NAO.

I know quite a lot about the NAO, having been the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and having had it report to me. If I may say so, this is the weakest part of my hon. Friend’s Bill, because the NAO is totally unequipped to get involved in any such policy decision. It is an audit office: it looks at the economy and efficiency of Government projects. If the Bill were to pass into Committee, I think he would have to reconsider this measure.

I have been proved a prophet, Mr Deputy Speaker! Already, almost within 10 seconds of my mentioning this measure, I have been criticised by a great parliamentarian of the House. That is exactly what I said would happen. However, there is a misunderstanding, because it would not be the NAO that determined this issue, it would be public opinion. If 30 million people suddenly complained about a programme on the BBC, it would be the Secretary of State—by then, I hope, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be the Secretary of State—who made that decision, but that would not happen unless there were an exceptional case.

I have to look at what the Bill says, which is that:

“the judgement relating to the likelihood of market failure shall be made by the National Audit Office”.

How could the NAO, which by definition is concerned with the economy and efficiency of the public sector and Government projects, possibly make a judgment relating to the market failure of a particular programme or set of programmes? I am confused.

My hon. Friend has gone back to the previous measure. Subsections (3) and (4) are not joined together; they are separate. Going back to subsection (3), I cannot imagine a situation in which there would actually be a referral, but it would not be for the NAO to refer. The Secretary of State would have to decide that a broadcaster had taken money from the licence fee pot for a commercially viable programme. That would be difficult enough for him to do, but if he were of that opinion, and I gave the clear example of “EastEnders” as a commercially viable programme, it would then be up to the NAO to make a commercial decision, not a decision on the content, on whether there might be market failure—whether that programme would not otherwise be commercially produced.

All that might be difficult and there are hurdles. First, there is the self-regulation that would prevent virtually any of these manoeuvres from having to take place. Then the Secretary of State would have to take a political decision, which would be difficult because he would not refer something to the NAO lightly. In the case of “EastEnders” or “Top Gear”, for example, the NAO would come to the conclusion that they were commercially viable and would be put on elsewhere.

Would not “Top Gear” be deemed public service broadcasting? It is highly educational, telling people about the motor car and the workings of the internal combustion engine, and it exposes some of the falsehoods in elements of the green movement.

It does all those things, particularly the latter, but I am afraid it is still a commercially viable programme, so, if my Bill were passed, there would still be a “Top Gear” on the BBC. There is no doubt about that. Therefore I think that I win and my hon. Friend loses on that point.

Order. I think we are doing quite well, but we have given “Top Gear” and “EastEnders” a good run and I am sure we could move further into the Bill now.

I hope that we are making good progress, Mr Deputy Speaker. We are nearly at the end of clause 1, which is the most important, and there are only three clauses. My problem is coming up with BBC programmes that I have heard of, because I watch so few of them, but I do watch “Top Gear” and I occasionally see “EastEnders” when I am in the gym. I do not listen to it, but it is on the television, although I never understand why that is on and the Parliament channel is not. I am talking about the gym in Westminster. I am sorry Mr Deputy Speaker, but I could not think of any other programmes.

Let me return to the wording that I have already said might be the biggest problem, in clause 1(4):

“No content shall be public service content if it fails to satisfy prevailing standards of good taste and decency.”

I think that would be self-regulated unless a particular broadcaster were determined to try to circumvent the Bill. The measure would not mean that other, commercially viable, programmes that broadcasters wanted to put on could not go into areas that would fall foul of the measure.

I am pleased to say that we now come to clause 2, on the payment of the licence fee. Subsection (1) says:

“No licence fee revenue shall be paid to any broadcaster by the Secretary of State for services which do not satisfy the criteria of public service content in section 1.”

That is clear. An interesting point that will surprise most people is that the licence fee is not paid directly to the BBC; it is handed out by the Secretary of State, so there is no real shift under the Bill. The Secretary of State will still make the payments, but instead of all the licence fee being handed over to the BBC, it will be divvied out to different broadcasters who provide public service content.

Clause 2(2) says:

“It shall be the duty of the National Audit Office to keep under review the total cost of public service television broadcasting.”

That is quite an important little subsection, because we could find—to take things to an extreme—that because there is that pot of money, all the non-BBC broadcasters apply for money to put on public service content, and the overall cost would then balloon, so the National Audit Office will keep under review the total expenditure. I say that the licence fee should come down from about £150 to about £50. That is why that provision is in clause 2. I think it will have to be developed and amended in Committee; Members might like to put some limit on the total cost of public service broadcasting, but that will be subject to the will of the House and up to the Committee.

Clause 2(3) says:

“In pursuance of its duty under subsection (2) the National Audit Office must conduct, in each calendar year after the year in which this Act is passed, a value for money audit of the expenditure incurred on the broadcasting of public service content that is funded by the licence fee payer.”

That is pretty straightforward: the National Audit Office will produce a report once a year.

I am afraid that the provision is not straightforward at all, because my hon. Friend is putting at risk a campaign that we have waged for years to allow the National Audit Office to look at the BBC’s books. We have said time and again that the NAO would never get involved in editorial policy; the BBC is rightly very sensitive about that. How on earth can the National Audit Office make a judgment under subsection (3) without in some way getting involved in editorial policy?

Under clause 2(3), it is for the National Audit Office to determine not a programme’s content, but whether the programme is made in a cost-effective way. For instance, if a programme on fishing is put on by the BBC at a cost of £200,000 an episode, and a similar programme is put on by Sky at a cost of £20,000, it would be for the National Audit Office to point out that figure. It would not be for it to take action, but it would refer to the fact in its audit.

That happily leads me to clause 2(4), which says:

“The results of all audits conducted under this section shall be published in reports which must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.”

When my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) was effectively in charge of the overall scrutiny of the National Audit Office, the most splendid reports in the House came out. The Public Accounts Committee is most powerful and informative, and I would not want to do anything in the Bill that in any way reflected badly on the National Audit Office.

Under subsection (5),

“The Secretary of State must by regulations provide for any costs incurred by the National Audit Office in the exercise of its duties under this Act to be reclaimed from licence fee revenue.”

To respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), the subsection is another addition to the previous Bill; I draw that point to the attention of the Opposition spokesmen and the Minister. We are reducing the licence fee here, but I do not want any other cost to be put on the general taxpayer. Any cost that the National Audit Office incurs will be recovered from the licence fee, so there will be no additional cost to the general taxpayer, and that is a change from the previous Bill.

Clause 2(6) says:

“Regulations under subsection (5) shall be made by statutory instrument and are subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

I hope that when the Bill is in Committee, we will have those draft regulations, so that the Committee can consider them before the Bill makes further progress. That, in a nutshell, is clauses 1 and 2. I am sorry to be so brief, but there are other important Bills that we must get on to.

Clause 3 is just on the short title, commencement and extent of the Bill. The short title is in clause 3(1), which says:

“This Act may be cited as the Broadcasting (Public Service Content) Act 2011.”

Even if I were sitting on the Opposition Benches, I would have difficulty criticising that part of the clause, though I might have a go. Clause 3(2) says:

“This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed by the Secretary of State by order made by statutory instrument provided that such date shall be no later than 1 January 2012.”

I have allowed plenty of time for the Bill to be passed. If the Government are so enthusiastic that they want to bring it in before 1 January 2012, they can, but we have put in place a back-stop.

That may well be so, and I sincerely hope that the Bill does make such rapid progress, but of course it may not. It may well be held up in Committee, or in the other place. What would happen if 1 January 2012 had already passed by the time of Royal Assent? That, of course, would also affect clause 3(1), because the title of the Act would have to be changed so that it ended with “2012”.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I made a judgment call. The issue was discussed in some detail with the Clerks when I was considering the drafting. If that were to happen, the Bill would have to be amended, either in Committee or on Report. The reason that we chose 1 January 2012—this relates slightly to a debate that we had earlier this week—is that the number of days for private Members’ Bills is very limited this Session. Instead of getting the 26 that we should have, we have only 17, which means that if the Bill is not further considered on one of those dates, it will be lost.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the situation in the other place. He also raises another good and important point; the last private Members’ Bills day is 20 January 2012, so perhaps there would be an argument for pushing the date in the Bill back to after 20 January 2012. I thank him for that, and I hope that his bid to be on the Bill Committee will be noted by the business managers. I hope that every Member who has spoken gets on the Committee.

The final provision is clause 3(3), which says:

“This Act extends to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

I do not think that there is much doubt that the Bill, which affects the British Broadcasting Corporation, should cover the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In fact, I probably should have put “United Kingdom” in the subsection.

There is one clause that was not printed. We considered whether we had to print “notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972”, but I was told that, unbelievably, the Bill is in no way affected by the European Union.

My hon. Friend has missed one aspect of the Bill that is undoubtedly affected by the European Union legislation. That is where it suggests that payment should be made only for programmes produced in the United Kingdom. The European Union would come down on that like a ton of bricks.

Ah! I should not have taken that intervention. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point that I may not have thought of. The Bill is certainly not a ploy to cause any trouble between the House and the European Union. I hope that we would be at one on the matter. In defence, all I can say is that when the Bill comes into effect on 1 January 2012, I do not believe that the United Kingdom will be in the European Union.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on speaking so eloquently on the Bill. He has done a public service. Although we all know that the life of private Members’ Bills is nasty, brutish and short, and we must be realistic about the prospect of such a Bill ever becoming law, it is important that the BBC becomes aware of the strong opinion in Parliament about the way it is funded.

The licence fee paid by the taxpayer is, in effect, a poll tax on the entire population. There is no way of avoiding it, except by not having a television set. Such a tax should provide for public service broadcasting. The definitions in the Bill are not perfect, but they do at least open up a debate on what constitutes public service broadcasting. If we are going to fund television and radio from the taxpayer, it is justifiable to ask whether game shows or programmes such as “EastEnders” are public service broadcasting or whether they are perfectly acceptable programmes, made according to consumer demand, that could be funded in many other ways. One of the purposes of the Bill will be to put pressure on the BBC to justify the nature of its public service broadcasting.

The list in clause 1 is not exhaustive, but it is sensible. There is no doubt that public service broadcasting comprises news and current affairs, programmes that

“inform, educate or entertain children”,

and charitable and religious programmes, but there are other programmes that could be considered to be public service broadcasting. For instance, if the BBC produces a major costume drama based on a Dickens novel, is that public service broadcasting? I would argue that it is. Or if the BBC produces opera, symphonic music or anything like that, I would argue that that is all public service broadcasting because many such programmes would not be commercially viable unless they were supported by some subsidy.

I accept that that argument could be dealt with in Committee. I hope my hon. Friend and the House will recognise that all these are value judgments. That is where a Bill such as this might get into some difficulty. Is it for the House to impose on a broadcaster its own value judgments of what is in the public interest?

That leads me to the points that I have been making in interventions about the National Audit Office. I do not intend to delay the House very long. I want to make the point as strongly as I can. In that respect, my hon. Friend is in severe difficulties. The BBC has said all along that its entire ethos is that it is independent of the Executive. That is absolutely right. Nobody here wants the Executive or Parliament in any way to interfere to the slightest extent with the editorial content of the BBC. We all know that in other countries public service broadcasting has been manipulated by regimes to support the regime. We must make it clear in the debate that nobody—I hope—on our Front Bench, on the Opposition Front Bench or even on the Back Benches is trying to tell the BBC what sort of programmes it should put on and what should be in those programmes. It is not for us as politicians to do that.

Parliament is surely entitled, however, to say that as that organisation is funded by tax—a licence fee, a poll tax—we want to make sure that we get value for money, and that the organisation is run, in the words of the National Audit Office Act 1983, in a way that is economic and efficient. That is why, for years, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), whom I see in the Chamber, and I, sitting on the Public Accounts Committee, have been running a campaign, which at last is meeting with some success, arguing that it is wrong that the BBC, virtually alone among Government-funded organisations, does not have any parliamentary controls over its expenditure.

That has been a long-running campaign and the BBC constantly resisted us, saying that that was the thin end of the wedge. It argued that we would start by asking questions about whether a studio was run properly in terms of its lighting or whatever, whether it was efficiently run, whether a private finance initiative project was run efficiently or whether a building was procured efficiently. “You will start with that, o Parliament,” the BBC says, “but—thin end of the wedge—you will eventually want to get involved in the editorial content. You’ll be summoning the director-general and saying that some programme was too left-wing or too right-wing.”

We finally won that argument, and we said yes, the National Audit Office should be allowed to audit the BBC. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, who is a friend as well as a colleague, is in some difficulties here. I was not persuaded by the replies that he gave me. Clause 1(2) states:

“‘Public service content’ is content which is primarily produced in the United Kingdom and which satisfies one or more of the following criteria—”

It could be religious, educational and so on. Then we come to subsection (2)(d), which says

“The content would not otherwise be likely to provided by the market responding to consumer demand”

and subsection (3), which states:

“Where the only criterion of public service content is that contained in subsection (2)(d), the judgement relating to the likelihood of market failure shall be made by the National Audit Office”.

The National Audit Office is composed of some 800 highly skilled people. Their job is concerned with the public sector. They are not qualified to deal with the concept of market failure in a broadcasting organisation.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I appreciate his long experience of dealing with the National Audit Office. Does he think there would be scope for the NAO to establish as a separate unit, perhaps, with new employees who have the necessary experience to perform that role, based in the general office? Is that a possibility?

That is a helpful intervention because it takes me on to my next point. A couple of weeks ago the House did me the great honour of electing me as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission—not the Committee, but the commission. Members may not be aware of this, but it is very important that the National Audit Office budget is not controlled by the Treasury, because of course the NAO audits Government Departments. We do not want the situation that arises in other countries, where the Treasury gets its fingers on the budget of the National Audit Office. We, as a commission and a Committee of the House, keep a close eye on the overall budget of the National Audit Office.

My hon. Friend lightly throws into the pot the suggestion that we set up a new unit in the NAO, employ more people and increase its budget. There is a price to pay for all this. How many people will the National Audit Office have to employ to carry out its duties under the Bill? Those duties could be quite onerous.

I think that we are in very dangerous territory, because bit by bit we are dragging the National Audit Office into editorial policy. It is difficult to determine the possibility of market failure without judging whether a programme is likely to be a success in the marketplace, and how is such a judgment to be made without judging the editorial content? I am very sympathetic to what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough is trying to do in the Bill, and I think that the whole House would like to apply more pressure on the BBC to use taxpayers’ money to produce more serious programmes, but I hope that he will not put at risk the campaign that is now nearing fruition. The current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has been part of that campaign, and he made a commitment in the Conservative party manifesto—it was repeated in the Labour party manifesto—that for the first time the BBC’s finances, but not editorial policy, would be subject to the National Audit Office and, therefore, to Parliament.

My hon. Friend gets into even more trouble in clause 2(3), which states:

“In pursuance of its duty under subsections (2) the National Audit Office must conduct, in each calendar year after the year in which this Act is passed, a value for money audit of the expenditure incurred on the broadcasting of public service content”.

I would like to know exactly what he means, because value for money is really a term of art in these matters. It means looking at how efficiently a contract was procured, how many staff were employed and what were the finances for it, but is he suggesting—perhaps he is not—that the value for money in some sense will relate to whether the programmes are of interest to the public and have public service content?

I will give way in a moment.

If that is the case, I would have thought that that is directly asking the editorial question, “Is this programme of value to the public or sheer amusement? Is it educational, religious, charitable, news, or is it a programme that is intended simply to entertain?” There again we are in very dangerous territory. I am sure that my hon. Friend can reassure me that that is not his intention.

It is indeed the former, not the later. It is whether the cost of production is value for money. It is in no way intended to be an interpretation of the value of the content. That will need to be clarified further in Committee.

My hon. Friend assures me, so I think that we are now getting to a stage where, as a result of my previous interventions and what I have said so far in my speech, the National Audit Office is gradually retreating from the Bill. That is fine, but there is another problem: who will make a judgment on what is public service content? That could be a very fraught issue indeed. Apparently, it will not now be the National Audit Office. It is at least generally independent, but for the reasons I have argued it is not right that it should do it. Will it now be the Secretary of State? With that, we are in even more dangerous territory—I see the Minister sitting on the Front Bench. Would it be for the Secretary of State, a politician, to start making judgments on what is or is not public service content? That could be very dangerous.

I can foresee the arguments that the BBC would use if the Bill were to come close to becoming law. It would say that it is a world-class broadcaster that is known to be generally independent and that produces high-quality programmes. Were the Bill to become law, we would move into an era when politicians would get their sticky fingers on determining what programmes were shown on the BBC. My hon. Friend shakes his head, but I am sure he will recognise that those are precisely the arguments that the BBC would use. If he wishes to intervene he may do so, because it is very important that he makes the point that there is absolutely no question of Parliament, politicians or the Government getting involved in any way in what is shown on the BBC. Before he gives too facile an answer, I say to him that he will know that money is everything, and were the Bill to become law the BBC would obviously want as many of its programmes as possible to be deemed to be of public service content, because they would be financed by the licence payer. There would undoubtedly be borderline areas where it was not entirely clear whether a programme had public service content or was sheer entertainment.

My hon. Friend is getting to a really important point. He is absolutely right on this issue, but the process will be self-regulating and will be done by the self-regulator. We are talking about not only the BBC, but all broadcasters. It is rather like the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. No Member would dare to claim for anything now that was even borderline; they would make sure that they got it right. If someone did not do so, they would be exposed. The point is that it is self-regulation, and the fact is that they would be terribly embarrassed if anything was ever referred.

I am grateful for the reassurance that my hon. Friend is attempting to give me, but may I say, with respect to him, that it is not entirely convincing? Many of those judgments are subjective, particularly in the world of broadcasting and entertainment. I hope that he does not think that I am being unduly negative. I am simply using the opportunity of this speech to ask some questions and make some points.

Before sitting down, I want to say that I believe very strongly that my hon. Friend the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Wellingborough have done a service, because it is very important that the BBC is aware that there is considerable feeling in Parliament that there might be alternatives to the present structure. Is it right that the licence fee, which is paid for by the taxpayer, should just fund entertainment? The taxpayer should fund programmes that are educational and definitely concerned with public sector information, but in the modern world there are so many other broadcasters and possibilities. My hon. Friend is right to make that point.

The BBC has become a vast tree and all other broadcasters are in its shade. Public sector programmes are declining in value and content. We know that independent broadcasters are under enormous pressure. One need only compare the quality of the weather forecasts on the BBC with those on independent channels to know that much more money, resources and expertise go into those on the BBC. Undoubtedly, independent television is under enormous pressure to try to produce high-quality programmes. It would be an entirely positive step if some of the licence fee could be diverted to them. That would aid competition and ensure an explosion of new and interesting programmes, including educational and religious programmes, not only from the BBC but from independent broadcasters.

I hope that my hon. Friend does not think that I am unduly negative, as I am strongly in favour of opening up the entire debate. I do not believe that the BBC’s funding structure should be set in stone. What was appropriate for the 1930s or 1950s may not be appropriate for 2015, 2020 or 2025. It may well be the case in future that the BBC’s entertainment programmes should be funded by subscription, advertisements or other means. The Bill is an important first step in raising the profile of those arguments, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing it and on speaking on support of it.

The Opposition do not accept the narrow definition proposed by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) of public service broadcasting. If his proposals were to succeed, many valuable, worthwhile and popular BBC programmes would be lost.

The BBC must continue to offer a broad mix of programming that appeals to everyone who pays the licence fee. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that licence fee payers are happy only to pay for “Newsnight”, “Blue Peter” and Radio 3. I want the BBC to do more than that because, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) highlighted, where do we draw the line between what is informative and what is entertaining—programmes such as “Dragons’ Den” “The Apprentice”, “Human Planet” and Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe”?

I hear what the hon. Lady is saying, but can she give the House any examples of programmes made by the BBC that would not be provided for and would not be paid for under her definition?

It would be dangerous for politicians, including hon. Members, to begin to tell the BBC what programmes they should or should not broadcast. The BBC’s editorial independence has long been cherished, and that must continue. Programmes such as “Dragons’ Den” “The Apprentice”, “Human Planet” and Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe” have shown that it is possible to make business, anthropology and astrophysics appeal to a mass audience.

We continue to believe that a broad-based BBC fulfilling all of Lord Reith’s original mission to “inform, educate and entertain” remains the best way to preserve the public service broadcasting that is a hallmark of our society. Many people say that if they were to leave the country, alongside a decent cup of tea and Marmite, it is our TV and radio, particularly the BBC, that they would miss most.

I do not believe, unlike the hon. Member for Wellingborough, in a cod liver oil BBC—it is good for you, but it might not always taste nice and it is a bit of a chore to take it. That is not the way forward, and it would be a serious mistake. While I celebrate the BBC, I am not uncritical of it. This debate plays an important role in expressing to the corporation views on how it can redefine and develop its role. While the Opposition rigorously defend and promote the BBC, we will continue to be at the forefront of pressing it to be more transparent and accountable, and to work even harder to ensure that every pound of the licence fee spent delivers maximum value on the airwaves for licence fee payers.

I can agree with the hon. Gentleman about the value of the BBC’s current affairs programming. My own story can perhaps provide a little insight into my views on the issue. I grew up in a working-class family in Bradford, far from the corridors of power and with no first-hand experience of how the world of politics worked. It was through the BBC, particularly its quality current affairs programmes, that I learned how the country was run. As a Yorkshire teenager, I might not have been as politically obsessed as the Foreign Secretary, but as a 17-year-old who wanted to make a difference I sat and watched programmes such as “On The Record”. Those programmes took me into worlds which I would never otherwise have known about.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, and I am sorry that she does not support the Bill—but if Front-Bench speakers do not support my Bill, I know that it is totally right. Does she accept, however, that she has proved my point? The BBC is institutionally biased towards the left, because she was attracted to politics by the BBC.

I am grateful for that intervention, because it gives me the opportunity to say that the Education Secretary worked on “On The Record”. As far as I am aware, he has never been described as a raving leftie.

Indeed. Those programmes took me into worlds that I would never otherwise have known about. They showed me how the levers of power worked and they even managed not to put me off wanting to continue in politics. In fact, before coming to the House I spent many years working at “On The Record”, devising questions for John Humphrys to use to skewer Members of Parliament.

Although political programmes such as “On The Record” are vital, nobody would suggest that the sole aim of the BBC should be to appeal to politically obsessed 17-year- olds. That is why I want to take issue with another flaw in the Bill. I believe that the BBC should also produce entertaining programming. It is absurd to suggest that these entertaining programmes can suddenly be pulled out of a hat when the market walks away from this or that genre. At the moment, commercial television is having a comedy heyday with brilliant, award-winning programmes such as “Harry Hill’s TV Burp”, “Shameless” and “Benidorm”, but there have been times when the market has not produced brilliant comedy. I am glad that when the market was not at its best, the BBC was able to continue to provide the nation’s laughs. Knowing how programmes are developed and commissioned, I can tell the hon. Member for Wellingborough that brilliant comedy formats are not made overnight; it is not as easy as turning on a tap to provide a stream of programmes that can immediately fill a supposed gap in the market.

Drama is conspicuous by its absence from the Bill. Take this month’s stunning BBC Four adaptation of “Women In Love”, for example. I have to declare a bias, given that I am proud to represent D. H. Lawrence’s home town of Eastwood. The series concluded last night, and the book was brilliantly adapted by Nottinghamshire writer Billy Ivory of “Made In Dagenham” fame. If we really want to talk about improving public service broadcasting, we should let the BBC do more to inspire new British talent. As Billy Ivory reminded me the other day, single dramas like “Play for Today” and “Screen Two”, which many hon. Members will remember, were vital in giving young screenwriters their first break. Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears were part of a whole generation of the brightest and best writing and directing talent who cut their teeth on “Play for Today” and went on to define British cinema in the decades that followed. I would like the BBC to do more to ensure that it provides the space for the aspiring writers and actors who will be the stars of the future.

In conclusion, we do not agree with the narrow definition of what constitutes public service broadcasting. We believe that the licence fee should not only continue to fund news, current affairs, children’s and religious programming, but should be used to allow the BBC to continue to offer the mix of drama, science, documentaries, entertainment and sport that make it the envy of the world. I am confident that the House will join me in rejecting the hon. Gentleman’s wrong-headed proposition. It is wrong on so many counts. Turning the BBC into a graveyard for programmes that politicians think are important is not the answer and, crucially, it is not what the British people want.

May I say how pleasing, if not ironic, it is that in a debate on the future of broadcasting the Member introducing the Bill—my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—should be a virtual promoter, and not the actual promoter, who is my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)?

I had some sympathy with the Bill when I first read it, and I had some sympathy with it when I first heard my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough speak. However, as his speech went on, I lost some of my sympathy. The Reithian principles underpinning the BBC to “inform, educate and entertain” have changed down the years, and the BBC itself is no longer the colossus of information that it used to be. Sundays no longer stop for “Hancock’s Half Hour” as they did in the 1950s and we do not all sit down to “Morecambe and Wise” on Christmas day as we did in the 1970s. The BBC provided those programmes. Today, young people in particular get their information, news and entertainment from a diverse set of media, largely digital. The BBC needs to take account of that.

However, I was concerned that one reason my hon. Friend gave for not scrapping but reducing the licence fee was that a gang of little armies in the BBC visit recalcitrant licence payers, saying, “I’ll be back—until you pay.” That is no reason for saying hasta la vista to the BBC, which, I think, the Bill is designed to achieve.

I am uncomfortable with the Bill especially because of the definition of public service content. I was particularly struck by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), which cannot be improved on, and his consideration of what public sector broadcasting is and the fact that any definition is subjective. One man’s demotic entertainment is another man’s vital public service.

Who is to say what constitutes that vital public service? For example, is satire a public service? Some of us here might not think that it is, but many of our constituents may believe that satire is a vital public service. What about “Lark Rise to Candleford”? I personally think that it is one of the most tedious and interminable programmes on the BBC, but others may say, “It’s educational and should be provided free of charge.” My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) mentioned “Top Gear”. Some may say that it is childish and inane, whereas others may say that Jeremy Clarkson is a national treasure who should be preserved, and that the programme is a public service that should be provided free of charge. What about “Just a Minute” on the radio? My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough spoke for not one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition, but about 67. Is that programme just a bit of fun or does it provide listeners with a good educational service, which improves their English if nothing else?

I must leap to my feet. My hon. Friend is on dangerous ground when he talks about “Just a Minute”. I must warn him that it is my wife’s favourite programme.

I leap to its defence. I am a great fan of “Just a Minute” and I want it to continue and Nicholas Parsons to remain in the chair for as long as possible. I certainly do not want it taken off the air because some people say that it is not public service broadcasting, that it should pay its own way and, if it cannot, that it should go.

My hon. Friend mentioned “Test Match Special”. Does he think that it is impartial? I would say that it is not. When England play Australia, Aggers is particularly partial. Would my hon. Friend therefore strike the programme from the list of public service broadcasting? I hope that he would not. He seemed to say that he supported it.

My hon. Friend appears to want to turn the Secretary of State, the National Audit Office or both into some sort of latter-day Lord Chamberlain’s Office, to adjudicate on what is appropriate for public service broadcasting. We could end up with programme makers, uncertain about whether the programme that they wish to put on air will qualify for public service subsidy, going script in hand to the Secretary of State, saying, “Here you are, sir. Read this. Do you think you’ll give us the money for it?” That would put the Secretary of State or the NAO in an invidious position. Neither are equipped for that role and they should not be asked to undertake it.

On the basis that I do not think that we can properly define public service and that the Secretary of State or the NAO should not be responsible for deciding what is aired and what is paid for, I oppose the Bill. I would rather have Lord Patten, who is a big man who can take it on the chin, trying to sort out the BBC, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough examining closely the way in which the BBC spends our money—how much more than other broadcasters it spends on sending journalists and technicians off, for example, to the Olympics or to Libya—than try to interfere in editorial content.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough understands my reasons for opposing the Bill and that he will consider withdrawing his support for it.

It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher). I wanted to comment further on what the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), who has just left the Chamber, said. Like her, I grew up in Yorkshire, albeit not in Bradford, but in Rotherham in south Yorkshire. Also like her, I gathered a lot of political news from the BBC in my earlier years. I remember watching the great Brian Walden on a Sunday lunchtime. I hope it is not too embarrassing to say that in some ways, I rather looked forward to his interviews and his tremendous style. It was a great pleasure to me that as I progressed in politics, I had the opportunity to meet him in person and to listen to him at greater length. I am glad that he is now far more supportive of Conservative views than perhaps he was when a Labour Member of Parliament. Nevertheless, he was a great interviewer.

I have that in common with the shadow Minister, but at the outset, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who so ably moved the Second Reading motion, mentioned Dan Hannan’s successful viral video, which had 2 million or 3 million hits from around the world. As my hon. Friend said, on Second Reading of a similar Bill in 2009, it was mentioned that that story was covered by the BBC not at the time, but two days later, when Mr Hannan, a Member of the European Parliament, was interviewed on the BBC not because of the speech itself, but because of the coverage that it received on YouTube. With typical modesty, Mr Hannan said that he was completely perplexed and slightly stunned by the global reaction to his speech, but many licence fee payers would have been completely perplexed and slightly stunned by the fact that Mr Mardell, the reporter who covered the story, had not felt it necessary or appropriate to cover the speech in his report from Strasbourg on the day when it was made.

I shall not stand here this morning and launch a diatribe against the BBC—far from it. I have no axe to grind against the BBC, which does the job that it was set up to do. In many ways, the problem is historical and lies with the legislation. Many good people work in the BBC, and day in, day out, carry out their duties to the best of their ability. I do not see it as my job to attack the BBC.

Debates on such matters often turn into a debate on whether one is pro or anti-BBC, but I want to approach it from the point of the view of the public. What is best for the public? What is best for an average family sitting at home? What do they want from their television set and radio?

We are moving to a completely new set-up for the whole of broadcasting, which is why I think this debate is so timely and important. The licence fee dates back to an era when broadcasting was new and cutting-edge technology, and I can well understand why it was necessary for it to receive public help. It was sensible for Parliament at the time to say, “Look, if this new technology is to get off the ground, it needs help and something to push it along”, and so the licence fee was born. It started life modestly. I think that the first licence fee, back in the early ‘20s, was just a few shillings. It then developed over the years to what it is today. The first licence fee was for a radio—of course, there was no television when it was introduced—and was just 10 shillings in November 1922. The first television licence fee was £2, the first colour licence fee, which was introduced in 1968, was £10, and today it is £145.50.

I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for ensuring that the licence fee will be frozen for the next six years. When it comes down to the household budget, that will be of great benefit, certainly to all of my constituents.

As usual, my hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I would have to disagree with him on one thing though. How can it be right that when every other public service has to make cuts, the BBC only has to freeze its spending? That does not seem fair to me.

There is that point. One might ask why it was not asked to reduce the licence fee, but it did take on additional responsibilities, as I understand it. That was covered in the letter from the Secretary of State to Sir Michael Lyons in which he reaffirmed the Government’s respect for the BBC’s editorial and operational independence, but made it clear that, as part of the new settlement, the BBC would have to provide funding for new broadcasting activities. That includes local media, to which I will return later. However, the thing that has received most publicity is that it will take over funding for the World Service, BBC Monitoring and S4C. So the Government have asked the BBC to take on new responsibilities, so, in effect, there will be a reduction.

There is, however, plenty of scope for cuts to the BBC’s budget. The amounts involved are eye-watering. I realise that £145.50 does not sound like very much. People would think, “That’s pretty good value, isn’t it?” It might well be good value, but the point is that it is multiplied across the whole nation. Let us consider houses split into separate flats and households. Each needs a separate television licence. In large cities, such as Sheffield, Manchester and London, there are houses that have been divided into flats, and there could be six, eight, 10 or even more individual units, each paying a £145.50. It is therefore quite feasible for the BBC to receive more than £1,000 from just one small block.

It is also notable that the licence fee has never gone down. Most technologies are expensive to start with, but as more and more people are drawn into the market, the costs come down.

Does my hon. Friend accept that although the price of the licence fee has not gone down, its cost as a proportion of individuals’ incomes has?

I do not know what the relative cost of a 10 shilling licence was as a proportion of weekly income in—

So yes, on that basis, the licence fee is probably more affordable now. However, that is not to say that my underlying point about the wealth, assets and financial power of the BBC is not entirely valid.

Indeed, it might benefit the House to look at how, in very broad terms, the licence fee was spent in 2009-10 and how that equates to a monthly cost for each household. For example, the cost of the television service—which covers the main BBC channels, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC News, BBC Parliament, the HD service and the red button service—was £2.351 billion. That means that two thirds of the licence fee went on television. The radio service—Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7—took up 17% of the licence fee, at a cost of £604 million. Online services—BBC online, iPlayer and BBC Mobile—cost £199 million, at 6% of the fee. One might think, “Well, what’s left?”, but under the final heading, “Other”, £406 million was spent on, for instance, “digital”, investing in new technology—one might ask what that has to do with public service broadcasting—running costs and collecting the licence fee. To break that down into monthly costs for each household, the television service costs £7.85, radio costs £2.01, online services cost 67p, and “Other”, including collection, costs £1.35. Those are important figures to bear in mind for what I will say later about what I see as the future of broadcasting in this country.

Since its early days, the BBC has developed because it has benefited from a constant, annual, fixed flow of income. It has not had to worry about marketing its services—although it has, of course, through BBC Worldwide and its commercial arms. Indeed, in many ways, part of the problem is that the BBC has been encouraged to become more than just a public service broadcaster, and is now a quasi-commercial animal. It sells its programmes around the world and takes on new roles all the time. Incidentally, I have never been convinced that it was necessary—and no one has been able to explain to me why it was necessary—for the BBC, a broadcaster, to purchase the Lonely Planet travel guides. But we do not want to turn this into a debate about what is right and wrong with the BBC. It performs an excellent role, but the future is surely going to be more about the local TV network, which this Government are doing so much to develop. That is why I support the Bill. Under the terms of the settlement, only a small amount of money will go from the licence fee into local television. I think that it is about £200 million, which is small beer when we consider that the BBC’s total income is £3.5 billion. I honestly think that it could afford to do much more than that.

It has been pointed out that the licence fee is the equivalent of a poll tax, in that anyone who has a television has no choice about paying it. In return for paying it, they are guaranteed a certain level of programming from the BBC, based on the Communications Act 2003, which contains the crucial requirement that the broadcast programmes of the BBC must comply with section 264 of the Act. This is central to our debate today, because the definition of public service broadcasting lies at the root of the problem, as I said in an earlier intervention.

The problem is that section 264 is drafted so widely that it covers virtually everything. I cannot think of anything that would not be covered by it. Subsection (4) of the provision states:

“(4) The purposes of public service television broadcasting in the United Kingdom are—

(a) the provision of relevant television services which secure that programmes dealing with a wide range of subject-matters are made available for viewing;

(b) the provision of relevant television services in a manner which (having regard to the days on which they are shown and the times of day at which they are shown) is likely to meet the needs and satisfy the interests of as many different audiences as practicable;

(c) the provision of relevant television services which (taken together and having regard to the same matters) are properly balanced, so far as their nature and subject-matters are concerned, for meeting the needs and satisfying the interests of the available audiences; and

(d) the provision of relevant television services which (taken together) maintain high general standards with respect to the programmes included in them, and, in particular with respect to—

(i) the contents of the programmes;

(ii) the quality of the programme making; and

(iii) the professional skill and editorial integrity applied in the making of the programmes.”

Subsection (6) states:

“(6) A manner of fulfilling the purposes of public service television broadcasting in the United Kingdom is compatible with this subsection if it ensures—

(a) that the relevant television services (taken together) comprise a public service for the dissemination of information and for the provision of education and entertainment;

(b) that cultural activity in the United Kingdom, and its diversity, are reflected, supported and stimulated by the representation in those services (taken together) of drama, comedy and music”.

Given that statutory definition, it is not surprising that the BBC is able to broadcast anything it can think of.

It was said earlier that it is not for politicians to define public service broadcasting, but with great respect to those who said that, I contend that that is exactly what politicians have tried to do. If someone has to do the defining, who else could it be other than politicians who are elected to this place to make those sorts of judgments? What matters is that, having provided the definition, we then give broadcasters the independence and freedom to make programmes that comply with the terms that we have set down.

The definition in clause 1(2) is much narrower. It mentions the importance of “impartial, factual and objective” as well as

“local, national, international news and current affairs”

programmes. It also refers to the purpose of informing, educating and entertaining of children and programmes whose

“primary content is charitable or religious”.

That is perfectly adequate to cover those areas that might not properly be provided for in the competitive marketplace.

We are where we are with broadcasting. Although the BBC strides the stage like a colossus in broadcasting in this country, fortunately it has not completely shut out other broadcasters. These other broadcasters are, however, shut out from having any share of the licence fee. That is why I support the Bill. It cannot be right that a small, independent broadcaster that wanted to put on, for example, a religious programme on a Sunday afternoon which might attract only a few thousand people should be excluded from access to the vast funds that the BBC has simply because of how our broadcasting system is established.

I support the Government’s actions in trying to introduce more diversity into our television network. I suspect that, in years to come, this whole debate will become completely out of date and irrelevant. We are already seeing the morphing of television and the internet into one seamless product. Already, high-end, top-level specification televisions are being introduced with the ability to take in content down the line from the internet. I have a television that can be plugged into the internet to download extra things, but I am not proficient enough to be quite there yet. We all will be, however, in years to come. Perhaps if I did not spend as much time on my feet in this place and went home to fiddle with my telly for a few hours, I would be able to do that. I see the Minister nodding.

All that brings enormous challenges to the BBC. If I were looking at it from the BBC’s point of view, I would say, “Look, in future, how are we going to be able to raise our revenue when nobody will really want to bother with a licence fee?” It will be considered more and more anachronistic as time goes on. It will become out of date and out of place in modern, 21st-century Britain.

Television will eventually have a series of online channels that will be accessed through broadband and provided by a range of organisations. People may well access them by means of a code or a special encrypted key for which they will pay a small subscription fee, and which may be connected with an individual provider or even an individual programme. Someone might, for example, be interested in “Test Match Special”, as I am. There would be nothing to prevent “Test Match Special” from being made available, perhaps not by the BBC but by A. N. Other organisation, which would charge a small subscription fee to those who wanted to access it through their digital radios—which are becoming far more common, and are installed in most modern vehicles almost as a matter of course—through their televisions, though long wave, or online through their computers.

That strikes me as an entirely feasible funding model. If people were not paying £145 a year for a licence, they would be able to choose which programmes to watch and to subscribe to on a much more interest and subject-specific basis. At present there is a “one size fits all” arrangement whereby people must pay for everything, whether they are interested in it or not and whether they watch it or not.

Let us be honest about this. The figures that I read out earlier show that a vast proportion of the billions that go into the BBC each year is spent on programmes that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, what most people outside the House would regard as public service broadcasting. I have already mentioned soap operas such as “EastEnders” and “Coronation Street”, and I will not pursue that line again, but I will say that, by definition, the very fact that soap operas are so popular and attract millions of viewers means that they are capable of standing on their own two feet.

I will not press you on the fact that we are now going into repeats, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Does not the definition of a soap opera make it clear that it cannot constitute public service content? Soap operas were introduced in the first place to advertise a washing powder on television.

I know that I look old, but I must admit that I do not remember that. Indeed, I was not aware of it. It is interesting to learn why they are called soap operas. I always wondered why it was. That is well worth knowing.

There is a huge amount of content on the BBC that most people outside the House would not consider to be part of the public service remit. It is worth examining the definition of public service broadcasting in more detail, and it is worth looking at how other countries deal with the issue, because the problems that we are discussing are not unique to this country.

An independent media is part and parcel of any free democracy. People always think about newspapers in this respect, of course, and talk about “the free press”, but it is not just about the free press nowadays; rather, it is about free broadcasters. It is often considered to be one of the defining qualities of a banana republic or a dictatorship that the Government have seized control of the state broadcaster. I well understand the points made earlier that we, as politicians, do not want to go down that route; of course we do not. The way to stop that happening, however, is to allow a diversity of broadcasters, each of whom if necessary would—as the Bill allows—be able to receive small sums in funding. I am talking here not about billions of pounds, but about perhaps £20 million or £30 million.

Let us consider how many separate public service broadcasters we could therefore have in this country. That is a tremendous vision; it is a vision for the 21st and the 22nd centuries. There could be dozens of broadcasters, and they would, perhaps, be broadcasting in a different way from in the past: not over the television, but via the internet—and, increasingly, the mobile internet. People will therefore be watching these different providers as they go about their daily lives.

That points to an issue that I might address after I have finished my opening remarks. In the past, if someone watched a show on television on a Saturday night, they could be pretty sure on the Monday morning when they went into school or work that almost everybody else had also watched it. However, we have now already reached a situation where there are so many TV channels that the odds are that no one else has watched that show, because what takes one person’s fancy to watch of an evening will most probably be different from what takes someone else’s fancy to watch.

Some people, including me, have not even subscribed to Sky television. Therefore, if someone talks to me about a Sky programme that they have watched, I will not have been able to see it because I do not have a Sky box. That is my choice, however; I have chosen not to subscribe.

However, I might choose to subscribe under certain circumstances. The programmes the BBC no longer broadcasts that I miss most are the cricket test matches. A process was gone through, and they were bought up by a different broadcaster. I accept that, but one of the problems with the power and might of the BBC is that it can very often bid up the prices far more than a small broadcaster could afford. Nevertheless, live television coverage of the test matches has been lost from terrestrial TV. Although there is still the highlights package, which is available in the evening, ball-by-ball coverage has now gone to Sky, and I have no problem with that. However, if the cricket was available as a package on its own, so we could pay just for the Sky cricket content rather than the whole sports package, I might be interested in subscribing.

We have seen that development in horse racing. There are now channels specifically for horse racing. This is relevant because our debate is about the future of broadcasting. At present, horse racing is also on the BBC, however. The BBC uses some of the taxpayers’ licence fee to pay for the cost of broadcasting horse racing, and it is directly competing with other broadcasters such as the At The Races channel. That channel might like to broadcast the Cheltenham gold cup, the grand national and other major races.

Order. We are now getting into too much programme detail. We have touched on cricket, horse racing and “EastEnders”, and I recognise they may all be important, but we now need to turn to the content of the Bill.

Hon. Members have raised the question of public service, and it may well be that sport does not fall into that category, although as a matter of fact these things are being dealt with at the moment.

I wish briefly to examine the arrangements in some other countries, which have struggled to tackle this problem of how to deal with paying for an independent broadcaster. In Pakistan, the public broadcaster is a state-owned corporation—the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation—which was funded publicly through money obtained from television, radio and video cassette recorder licensing. Its Radio Pakistan has stations covering all the major cities and 80% of the country, serving 95.5 million listeners, which is more than we have in the UK. It also has its own world service, broadcasting in seven languages daily.

Sadly, events in Japan have meant that the Japanese station that many of us have been able to see recently, as it has shown the coverage following the earthquake and tsunami, is its main public broadcaster, NHK—the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Many English speakers often refer to it informally as “Radio Tokyo”. It was set up in 1926 and was modelled on the BBC. It is funded by a receiving fee paid by every Japanese household, it has no commercial advertising and it maintains a position of strict political impartiality.

Malaysia has a public service broadcaster that is entirely state-owned. It was previously funded publicly through money obtained from television licensing, but it is now state subsidised, as Malaysia has abolished TV licences. Malaysia operates 16 state and seven district radio stations, as well as two national terrestrial television channels. Croatia, interestingly, has a mixed approach. The last figures I could find were from 2002 and they showed that 70% of the funding for HRT—I will not attempt to pronounce the name of Croatia’s national broadcaster—comes from broadcast user fees for each house, with the remainder being made up by advertising.

The best and most well-known other example of public service broadcasting can be found in the United States, whose arrangements are entirely different. Its public service broadcasting is decentralised and is not Government operated, yet nobody in this House could possibly say that the media—the broadcast and electronic media—in the US is anything other than free, impartial and independent.

My hon. Friend is making a good series of points. I am interested in hearing an around-the-world tour of different broadcasters, but I am trying to get us back to discussing the British Broadcasting Corporation.

I just make the point that it is possible to do things by other means, as other countries have proved, although some say it cannot be done.

I am conscious that many others want to speak and perhaps these are matters that we can touch on in Committee and on Report. I would happily take up the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough to serve on the Committee should the Bill proceed, as I sincerely hope it does. There are a number of other matters that I could touch on, but I will leave it there and listen—hopefully—to what the Minister has to say.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to this very interesting and wide-ranging debate on a matter of great importance. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on bringing the Bill to the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough is still awake after the previous speech, but I just wanted to check. I note from his biography that he runs marathons for charity; his extremely lengthy speech was a marathon effort on which I wholeheartedly congratulate him.

I hope the Minister is not inadvertently misleading the House. If he thinks that was a marathon speech from me, I invite him to attend on other occasions.

I am grateful for that clarification. I was going to say that despite its seeming a marathon effort to me, it covered in great detail a number of very important points and was not in any way discursive or repetitive. That is a real achievement and shows, once again, that my hon. Friend is one of the most formidable debaters in the House. When one sees his name on the annunciator, one knows that it is worth leaving what one is doing and coming to the Chamber. I also know, because I came to the House at the same time as he did, that he was the director of a travel agency, which I imagine was enormously successful. Such was the detail that he brought to the debate that I am sure customers who discussed a holiday destination with him would have received a very detailed analysis of the options available all over the world. Perhaps that attention to detail started with his distinguished career in engineering, which of course calls for great attention to detail.

We heard important contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth supported some of the comments that hon. Members made, but he made it clear that it would be dangerous to give politicians the chance to threaten the editorial independence of the BBC. I wholeheartedly agree with that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough was concerned about the NAO’s ability to audit the proposals, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North was keen to stress the diverse nature of broadcasting beyond the BBC and the opportunities presented by the Bill to support that wider broadcasting ecology.

The Government strongly support the BBC and believe it to be a jewel in our crown that is widely supported by the British public. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), who gave a precise and to-the-point summary of her party’s position, pointed out that the BBC ranks alongside tea and Marmite in the affections of British citizens who are foolish enough to leave this wonderful country of ours; that is what they miss.

The BBC is supported strongly by the public, and it is important to understand that it remains an anchor for our diverse media ecology, if that is not too much of a mixed metaphor. As it relies not on advertising but on the licence fee, it can provide quality programming, and it raises the quality bar—a bar for which other broadcasters have to aim. Other broadcasters have to balance their need for ratings with their need to produce quality broadcasting, given the choice available to the public. The BBC also provides a whole range of training opportunities; many successful directors and producers began their careers at the BBC. It provides a valuable resource for many independent production companies that provide programmes for the BBC, which is important because of the window of creative competition.

This country would be much poorer without the BBC; the brand is widely recognised around the world, and it is highly competitive. I was recently lucky enough to go to the BBC showcase in Brighton, where BBC Worldwide sells BBC television programmes to buyers from around the world. It was an astonishing occasion that reminds one how much the rest of the world values and admires the BBC. More than 500 delegates from all over the world came to buy BBC programming from across the spectrum. That provides the BBC with valuable income.

As hon. Members are aware, we concluded a rapid licence fee negotiation with the BBC in October, and I think the result is a fair deal for all involved. It is a fair deal for the licence fee payer; the licence fee is currently £145.50, and that will be frozen for the lifetime of this Parliament, up to the 2017 renewal of the BBC’s charter. It is a fair deal for the BBC, because it gives it certainty on the licence fee, instead of two years of fraught negotiation, and it allows it to plan for a substantial period. The level of the licence fee is perhaps challenging for the BBC, but we are confident that it will be able to make significant efficiency savings to absorb what is, in effect, a reduction in licence fee income.

On that important point, there is already pressure on inflation, and it is impossible to predict. What are the plans if inflation rises beyond its current reasonably low levels? What will happen then?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is arguing for an increase in the licence fee in such circumstances; I would be astonished if he was. At present, I am confident in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s management of the economy and his predictions that inflation will fall substantially next year.

As I say, the licence fee is a fair deal for all involved, bringing certainty for the BBC, a low level of licence fee for the licence fee payer, and the opportunity for efficiencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North talked about flats in multiple occupation; my understanding is that owing to the way in which our society is developing the BBC will get significantly increased income because of the number of individuals paying a licence fee. I will not say any more than that, because that would obviously be a matter of social commentary on the way people lead their lives today.

Let me turn to my concerns about some of the issues that have been raised. First, there is the issue of top-slicing the licence fee. I do not think that hon. Members actually used the phrase “top-slicing”, but it is quite clear that they want to keep the licence fee under the Bill, but would like it to be distributed to other broadcasters. The issue was debated thoroughly in the previous Parliament, and in fact it became quite a serious proposal in the past few years, particularly when Channel 4, under its previous leadership, argued for an element of the licence fee. Ofcom, the independent regulator, had examined the issue and thought it should be considered.

I always remained against top-slicing, for a number of reasons. I could not understand the perspective of people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, who clearly have significant concerns about the BBC and the quality of the programming it provides. Why on earth would they want to see two, three or four BBCs? My hon. Friend may have concerns about the quality of some of the BBC’s output, but, knowing him as I do, I suspect he probably has the occasional hernia about the output of Channel 4.

Let us imagine that Channel 4 had a slice of the licence fee. My hon. Friend would have to speak in the next debate not for an hour and eight minutes, but for two hours and 16 minutes to express his concerns. Imagine if there were three, four, five or six broadcasters receiving the licence fee. Given that one licence fee-funded broadcaster gets an hour and eight minutes of forensic analysis from my hon. Friend, we could be here for hours listening to him get off his chest his concerns about the licence fee.

During the debate my hon. Friend raised his concerns about the way the licence fee is collected. We know that this is a perennial problem. All of us as constituency MPs have heard from individual constituents who either do not have a television or feel that the letters they receive from TV Licensing are heavy handed. I point out to my hon. Friend that of the people who are approached by TV Licensing and asked to pay the television licence fee when they have not done so, claiming that they do not have a television, one in five do have a television. Clearly, it is important that the licence fee is collected from everyone who has a television so that all of us can enjoy the benefits of a low licence fee. The more people who did not pay for their licence, the higher the licence fee would rise.

The commissar Minister seems to imply that for the good of collecting the licence from one person, the privacy of four others may be invaded. Surely that is from the USSR, not from Britain.

I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend’s interpretation of what I said. All I am saying is that for the television licensing organisation to approach an individual and ask them to pay the licence fee may not be an unnecessary exercise in every case.

The National Audit Office was mentioned. I want to bring hon. Members up to date with where we are on that. In September 2010 we announced that the National Audit Office was to have full access to the BBC’s accounts, and that the NAO would be able to choose which areas to investigate. However, we made it clear that the BBC’s editorial policy was to be safeguarded. These changes will be given effect by amending the BBC agreement. We are working on the detail of how the changes are to be implemented, and we hope to achieve that towards the end of the year. November 2011 is the date that appears in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s structural reform plan, which I know hon. Members will have seen on our website, because I know they will want to keep up to date with the targets that the Department has set itself.

I was interested in the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North about the convergence of the internet and broadcasting. That is an extremely valid point. I hope convergence will give many more broadcasters a chance to reach new audiences. It is important that in a new media ecology—you can tell, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I like using the word “ecology”—we give new companies the space to grow. They are currently subject to co-regulation by Ofcom and the Authority for Television on Demand, and it is extremely important that that regulation is as light touch as possible to allow those organisations the space to invest, grow and market to new audiences.

Our television experience may well change dramatically. However, the increase in viewing of what is known as shift television, which allows live television to be paused and effectively watched on demand, has not been as dramatic as had been expected. A few years ago, it was expected that by this stage around 40% or 50% of viewing would be on that basis, but the figure turns out to be only around 5% or 6%. We remain a conservative nation, still watching linear television as it is broadcast by the main broadcasters.

In any debate on the BBC, which is inevitably what a debate on a Bill on public service broadcasting becomes, there will be a discussion of BBC bias. I am aware that many hon. Members feel that the BBC is biased against their particular point of view. I think it was my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Wellingborough who said that if Front Benchers disagreed with him, he knew he was right. However, I think that it is also the case that at any one time Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members will all allege that the BBC is biased against their perspectives, so perhaps one could conclude that the BBC is getting it broadly right.

Nevertheless, my concern with the BBC relates to the element of accuracy, or to the need to put decisions in context. One of the frustrations I had on a particular policy area of mine—the abolition of the UK Film Council—was the way it was reported by the BBC. As hon. Members know, the film “The King’s Speech” was partly funded by lottery money that was invested in the film via the UK Film Council. When “The King’s Speech” began winning BAFTAs and Oscars, on which the whole House congratulates its makers, the BBC was keen to report “the success of the ‘King’s Speech’, which was funded by the UK Film Council, which is being abolished by the Government.” Any lay person listening to that report would ask, “What’s going on? We have just had a fantastically successful British film and the Government are clearly withdrawing the money that supports such films.” In fact, the money that supports a film like “The King’s Speech” is being increased by 60%. It would have been better if the BBC had put that in context and said, “‘The King’s Speech’, which was funded by the lottery, the funds of which are being increased by the coalition by 60%.” That would have been an accurate portrayal of our policy.

Similarly, I suspect that the Arts Council might feel slightly aggrieved by the BBC’s reporting of its decisions this week. Incidentally, I will take this opportunity to congratulate the Arts Council’s chairman, Dame Liz Forgan, and chief executive, Alan Davey, on what I think was a significant and successful strategic review of its portfolio. The BBC reported that 600 arts organisations had lost out as a result of Government cuts, but what it did not report was that this was the first time in the Arts Council’s history that it had had an open application process. As a result, 1,333 organisations applied for £1.4 billion of funds. If there had been no cuts to the Arts Council’s grant, it would still have had only about £1 billion to invest, so there was already a £400 million shortfall. It would have been good if the BBC’s bulletins on the morning of that decision had reflected that point.

Now that I have got the things that bug me off my chest, I will return to the Bill. [Interruption.] I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker; the sip of water I just had went down the wrong way. As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State announced in January that there is to be a thorough review of media and communications over the term of this Parliament. We hope that that will lead to a new communications Act, with the aim of ensuring that we have a dynamic communications market that continues to be world-leading. If possible, we would like to deregulate where we can and ensure that we encourage growth and innovation. For the purposes of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and colleagues who support his proposals, there is a great opportunity, because we will be publishing a high-level discussion paper very soon. That will help us to draft a Green Paper, which we hope to complete by the end of the year. That offers an opportunity to my hon. Friend, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, to make a submission setting out their concerns.

It was clear from the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, and from a speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch when a similar Bill was introduced two years ago, that their knowledge of the broadcasting sector and their understanding of the many challenges that it faces are among the highest in the House. It would be a matter of personal regret if that knowledge and depth of interest were not reflected in a submission to the discussion paper that could inform the Green Paper. The discussion paper will allow people to comment on the future of public service content and, more generally, on investment in content in the UK. That is when we should discuss the nature of public service content, assessing whether a definition is needed at all and, if so, how we negotiate it. Given the importance of looking at the matter in the round, it would be unhelpful to address the case for a new definition in isolation in the Bill.

Let me set out the position more generally. The Bill seeks to abolish section 264 of the Communications Act 2003. That provision provides the basis of the framework for public service regulation set out in the Act, as well as the basis of Ofcom’s statutory reviews of public service broadcasting. It may help if I remind the House how public service broadcasting is covered in the Act, which ensures the dissemination of information and the provision of education and entertainment. It provides for cultural activity, including drama, comedy, music, feature films and other visual and performing arts. News and current affairs in the UK and around the world are covered. There is a requirement to satisfy sporting and other leisure interests, and to provide programmes on science, religion, social issues, international matters, specialist matters and religion. Children’s programming must be covered, as well as programming that reflects the lives of different communities, cultural interests and traditions in the UK and, locally, in different parts of the UK.

The characteristics and purposes of public service broadcasting proposed by Ofcom as part of its first public service broadcasting review in 2005 are worthy of consideration. Ofcom argued that public service broadcasting should be defined in terms of purposes and characteristics, rather than in terms of specific types of programmes or the output of certain institutions. It concluded that the purposes of public service broadcasting were based on the principles of informing ourselves and others; stimulating interest and knowledge; reflecting and strengthening our cultural identity; and making us aware of different cultures and viewpoints. It considered that the distinctive characteristics of public service programmes were that they were of high quality, original, innovative, challenging, engaging and widely available.

As hon. Members will be aware, the previous Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport undertook a thorough examination of what is meant by public service content in its report of November 2007. It is worth highlighting the argument that not all public service broadcasting is provided by our established public service broadcasters. A strong case can be made for the claim that other broadcasters produce a great deal of programming that meets the characteristics of public service broadcasting, as set out in the Communications Act. That is to be welcomed, as is the good quality content that does not seek to qualify as public service broadcasting.

Public service broadcasting, from whatever source, is an essential element of the UK’s broadcasting landscape. It is entertaining, informative and educational and makes a vital contribution to a healthy, well-informed democracy. It might be worth putting on the record my support for the numerous cable and satellite operators based in the UK from abroad, who invest together approximately £1.6 billion in content and about £400 million in original content, and employ around 22,000 people in this country. It is important that they are seen as part of the debate when we consider the new communications measure.

It is encouraging that Ofcom’s most recent report on public service broadcasting found that audiences continue to value public service broadcasting programming and to rate highly the importance of the public service broadcasting purposes and characteristics. In particular, for the PSB channels considered together, there were more positive ratings for the PSB purposes in relation to informing our understanding of the world, stimulating knowledge and learning and elements related to reflecting the UK’s cultural identity. It is my understanding that the public regard, for example, “Strictly Come Dancing” as public service broadcasting, particularly when Ann Widdecombe is taking part. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thought that I would get some assent across the Chamber for that remark; I thank hon. Members.

Similarly, Ofcom’s second public service broadcasting review found that audiences value highly content that meets the purposes and characteristics of public service broadcasting. The report concluded that audiences want a wide range of high-quality content, which fulfils the purposes of providing news, promoting learning, reflecting our culture, and exposing a variety of views. It went on to note that high-quality UK-originated programming plays an essential part in meeting those purposes. It is interesting to note that audiences still strongly support the BBC, but there is a clear consensus that viewers value an alternative to the BBC across a wide range of programming.

The Government recognise that the changing structure of the television advertising market, the different cycles in television advertising revenue, technological developments, which I have already mentioned, the growth in platforms and increasing convergence all have an impact on providing public service broadcasting. Such changes are now permanent features of the broadcasting landscape and the Government will fully reflect such matters as we develop our policy. To support us in doing so, I again make my call to all interested parties to tell us what needs to change, what works well and what does not work so well. We need to encourage a debate on public service broadcasting, and we hope and anticipate that the subject will be debated for a long while yet. As Ofcom noted in the conclusion to its second public service broadcasting review:

“The central question is how a historically strong and successful public service broadcasting system can navigate from its analogue form to a new digital model. We need to sustain its quality and creative spirit while also capturing the opportunities of broadband distribution, mobility and interactivity.”

I summarise by saying that the Government review of media and communications will cover investment in content, including public service content. The review provides an opportunity for all to contribute their views. Given the importance of looking at such matters in the round, it would be unhelpful to address the case for a new definition in isolation through the Bill. On that basis, I am afraid that I cannot commend the Bill to the House.

This has been an important and wide-ranging debate. I was encouraged by the fact that the shadow Minister, who spoke very well for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and the Minister, who always speaks well, agreed, which absolutely assures me that I am right in pressing the matter to a Division—when the two Front Benchers agree, they are inevitably making the wrong decision.

However, I am encouraged by what the Minister said on the Government review. I think he was encouraging me to press the matter to a Division, because such a decision would help to inform that review. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) for his interesting points, although when he picked on “Test Match Special” and “Just a Minute”, he hit hard at two programmes in which my wife and I are very interested. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who has great knowledge of the Public Accounts Committee. I take on board his comments, but I hope they can be addressed in Committee. Of course, I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who as usual spoke concisely and eloquently. I hope the Bill receives its Second Reading.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.