House of Commons
Friday 1 April 2011
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Coinage (Measurement) Bill
Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Although today is April fools’ day, I can assure hon. Members that the Bill is no joke. It is relatively simple, but it will have a weighty impact, for it enables the Royal Mint to commemorate events of cultural significance and national importance with kilogram coins, starting with, but not limited to, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Indeed, the only question raised in Committee was from the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who queried whether the Bill will enable future events such as the Commonwealth games to be similarly commemorated. The answer, of course, is that it will do so, subject to the permission of Her Majesty and the agreement of the Chancellor.
By making two small amendments to the Coinage Act 1971, the Bill removes a technical obstacle that currently prevents the Royal Mint from striking kilogram coins. The Act governs the striking of coins by the Royal Mint and contains various standards in respect of a coin’s weight, fineness, composition and dimensions, with which coins struck by the Royal Mint must comply.
The Act also makes provision for permitted variations from those standards. Section 1(6) requires that the variation from the standard weight of any coin be measured as the average of a sample of not more than 1 kg of that coin. As I have said before, that is perfectly fit for the everyday coins that we have in our pockets, but in the competitive collector-coin market it is important to be able to push the boundaries and exploit growing technical capabilities and expertise to develop new and exciting products that will provide an enduring and lasting way of commemorating special events.
The Royal Mint intends to strike the coins in fine gold and in fine silver. They will have a standard diameter of 10 cm, and will weigh 1 kg. The coins will be legal tender, although their inherent metal value will far outweigh their nominal face value, which will be £1,000 for the gold coins and £500 for the silver coins. Their retail price will be heavily dependent on metal prices at the time of release. The choice of design will ultimately be a matter for Her Majesty the Queen and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the advice of the Royal Mint advisory committee on the design of coins, medals, seals and decorations.
The striking of kilogram coins has recently become part of the Olympic games tradition. Most other host nations in recent years, such as Australia, Canada and China, have issued coins of this type, and they have proved extremely popular with collectors internationally. Indeed, kilogram coins have featured in the international commemorative coin market since they were first issued in 1992. In the past 10 years, more than 40,000 Olympic kilogram coins have been issued around the world, and their ongoing popularity makes them an important addition to any international mint’s commemorative coin range. Not only are these coins highly attractive to numismatists across the world, but due to their size and the high-profile artists who will be approached to design them, they become works of art as well as an investment opportunity.
Obviously the word “kilogram” makes me slightly nervous, because it is not really British. However, my hon. Friend was referring to the other countries that have done this. When the Olympic games were held in America, did the Americans issue a kilogram coin?
That is a good point. I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend over the use of the word “kilogram”, but he will appreciate that the coins would be sold on the international market, which is why a kilogram coin is more appropriate. There seems to be some doubt about whether the United States issued such a coin. I think that it did, but I might have to come back to him. Inspiration might arrive before I finish my speech.
The Royal Mint anticipates similar demand for kilogram coins for London 2012, and plans to produce approximately 60 gold coins and 14,000 silver coins. This plan is based on more than 50 years’ experience in the international commemorative coin market. The Royal Mint also attends regular international seminars with other mints, numismatists, collectors and trade partners, from which it is clear that there is a sizeable international market for kilogram coins. In anticipation of the London 2012 Olympics, the Royal Mint has put together an Olympic coin programme that, if this Bill is successful, is likely to be the largest ever seen.
This Bill will allow the Royal Mint to produce kilogram coins that will form the pinnacle of the programme. It has been endorsed by Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, who wrote:
“I have no doubt that the Royal Mint’s Olympic Coin Programme will continue the worldwide success story of Olympic coins, and will take its place in the Olympic Museum at Lausanne alongside the 700 or so Olympic Coins of past years”.
The Bill will allow the Royal Mint to crown its Olympic coin programme with kilogram coins, but they are just part of a range of products designed to offer something for everyone. By providing royalties to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, the kilogram coins will contribute to financing London 2012. I understand that royalties will also be paid to the Treasury.
The Olympic coin programme in its entirety has been designed to ensure the widest possible participation. Design competitions have been run for “Blue Peter” viewers, for secondary school children, for art and design college students, and indeed for members of the public in general. The intention throughout has been to maximise the social and educational benefits of the programme. At the other end of the scale to the kilogram coin is the London 2012 sports collection, which features 29 50p pieces, each representing a different Olympic or Paralympic sport. Indeed, I thought that the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) was slightly cruel to me in Committee when she suggested that each coin should have a picture of me doing different decathlon events, whether the discus, javelin, the 100 metres, or perhaps even the 800 metres. I fear that that will not be the case.
The Royal Mint launched a competition inviting the British public to design the 50p sports series, and received more than 30,000 entries. The athletics 50p was designed by the nine-year-old winner of a “Blue Peter” competition—the first child ever to design a UK coin. Of particular relevance to my own constituency, the goalball 50p was designed by a Buckinghamshire artist, Jonathan Wren. I am pleased for the opportunity to be sponsoring a Bill that has wide-reaching implications for the whole UK and beyond. My constituency is home to one of the Olympic training villages—and indeed was the birthplace of the Paralympic games—so this Bill further cements a long-standing and important association between my constituency and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. I am grateful for the swift passage and warm welcome the Bill has enjoyed throughout the House to date, and I would like to thank hon. Members for their support so far. I commend the Bill to the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on piloting the Bill to Third Reading and through Committee and Second Reading. He will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has supported the Bill to date. That support from the official Opposition will continue today.
The Bill makes an important contribution to ensuring that we can celebrate the Olympics next year and potentially, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, consider the provision, through Her Majesty the Queen and the Chancellor, of further commemorative coins at suitable occasions in the future. As he said, the Bill is required to ensure that we establish a legal background for the change in size of the coins. I am particularly pleased that we can put in place this coin for the Olympic games. As the then Northern Ireland sports Minister, I remember standing in Trafalgar square on 6 July 2005 when the Olympics were awarded to the United Kingdom. I think it is fair to say that it was one of the achievements of the previous Labour Government that the Olympics were awarded to the UK, with cross-party support from both sides of the House. It is certainly something that we look forward to next year.
The coin itself will provide an opportunity to add value to the Olympics, allow us to celebrate them and send the message to the rest of the world and collectors across the globe that London is a place to do business. I hope that the sale of the coins will bring some value to the Treasury. We have had many discussions with the Minister about the level of the deficit. I am sure that this will bring in at least some money to offset some of the draconian measures that the Government will introduce. However, far be it from me to inject a note of discord into what is a day when we accept that the Bill is needed, fulfils a purpose and will serve a useful function. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on piloting the Bill. He has our full support, and I look forward to many sales of the commemorative coin next year and to a successful Olympics. In future years, when commemorative coins are introduced on the many more occasions when we require them, he will be noted as the Member who introduced the Bill. I trust that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) does not take too unkindly to the fact that kilograms are in place today. I am sure that there are many areas on which we can agree, and although his scepticism about Europe reaches into a number of areas, I hope that he, too, will fully support the Bill and its objectives.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on piloting the Bill so swiftly through its stages in the House. I should like to make a couple of points following on from the remarks made already.
My first comment concerns the value that the coin will bring to the Treasury. I understand that there are to be two coins—a gold coin with a face value of £1,000, and a silver coin with a face value of £500. I also understand that 60 of the gold coins and an estimated 14,000 of the silver coins are to be minted. The value of the coins will depend on the prevailing cost of precious metals, but if we were to base the cost on the best current estimate, a gold coin is likely to fetch about £40,000 and a silver coin about £500. Taking those together and doing a quick bit of maths, that makes £19.9 million—not bad for a morning’s work—which I am sure would be gratefully received by the Treasury. Indeed, I understand that 20,000 coins were sold in the Beijing Olympics, so I wonder whether there might be scope for minting more than is currently allowed for.
In that case the amount from the silver coins would be more than doubled, and there are more of them as well.
Let me turn to the size. On Second Reading I mentioned my disappointment that the coins were to be minted in kilograms, and suggested that they be minted in a multiple of a troy ounce. It was said that the coins are for the international market. If the object of the enterprise is to raise as much money as possible for the Treasury, the coins might be worth even more—with more collectors for them, raising even more money for the Treasury—if they are minted as a multiple of a troy ounce, because of their rarity on the international market.
Mention has been made of the suggestion made in Committee that the coin should perhaps bear an image of my hon. Friend in an athletic pose. He has been very modest today, because he has not mentioned the fact that, as he told the Committee, on the weekend before it sat he did his combat fitness test for the Army, running 8 miles while carrying 25 kg on his back. That is no mean feat, and I am not sure that many of us in the Chamber this morning could do that.
Indeed, it would have been easier if they had been, but the pack on my hon. Friend’s back was probably rather bulkier. I thank him for his work for the Army.
Finally, it is often said that too few private Member’s Bills—in fact, hardly any—make it through the House. I would draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that this Bill—which will, I am sure, shortly complete its stages through this House—will be the fourth Bill to complete its passage on a Friday, in addition to the Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rule and Law of Succession) Bill, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority Bill and the Wreck Removal Convention Bill. That shows that passing a private Member’s Bill is possible, and as this Bill has shown, it is also possible to do it fairly swiftly. The Bill received its Second Reading on 4 February, went to Committee on 16 March and today, on 1 April, will pass safely to the other place for consideration, where I hope it will receive swift approval, so that the Royal Mint can crack on with producing the coins and bringing in much needed funds to our Treasury. I congratulate my hon. Friend on piloting the Bill to this stage and wish it well in its future consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on bringing the Bill successfully to this stage. As we have heard, the Bill is wholly supported by the Government and, I think, by Members across the House.
I am pleased that, as my hon. Friend observed, the Bill will allow the Royal Mint to provide an Olympic coin programme that will surpass its predecessors and ensure the Royal Mint’s place as a leading international provider of commemorative coins. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in an endorsement letter to the Royal Mint:
“As we move towards the Games it is wonderful to see British companies, such as the Royal Mint, commemorating the journey in a way that brings British skill and craftsmanship to the attention of the world.”
In doing so, the Royal Mint will also generate a revenue stream for the Exchequer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) noted. Under the UK coin contract, the Royal Mint pays a royalty to Her Majesty’s Treasury for commemorative coins. It is estimated that the Olympic coin programme, including the kilogram coins, will generate a royalty payment of approximately £1.8 million, although the exact amount will depend on sales volumes, retail price and metal prices. However, the mint will no doubt receive additional profits, which it can invest in developing the Royal Mint and its business over the coming years, which will be welcome. The Royal Mint has similar royalty arrangements with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, and the International Olympic Committee. As this Bill is not limited to the Olympic coin programme, future events celebrated with kilogram coins would generate similar revenue.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North noted, today is indeed April fools’ day. This debate brings to mind a 2008 April fool, when a Canadian radio station interviewed a Royal Canadian Mint spokesman who revealed plans to replace the Canadian $5 bill with a $3 coin. The coin was dubbed a “threenie”, in line with the nicknames of Canada’s $1 coin—which is commonly called a “loonie”, as it depicts a common loon on the reverse—and the $2 coin, which is affectionately known as the “toonie”.
It may well end up with that nickname, which would be appropriate for a coin that, as we heard, will not just be minted to commemorate the Olympics but could be used to commemorate a whole range of special events in this country where we think that coin collectors might be interested in adding to their collections.
With their large size, the kilogram coins will be an exciting, artistic and eye-catching piece of numismatic art that will no doubt be treasured and passed on to future generations. At almost 1,100 years old, the Royal Mint is a tradition in itself. The production processes—from design and modelling, to the blast furnaces, and the striking of blanks and ultimately coins—are the epitome of a successful manufacturing company. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in last week’s Budget speech, manufacturing is crucial to the rebalancing of our economy. Under this Government manufacturing is now growing at a record rate, with 14,000 more jobs created in the sector in the last three months alone.
As the House will be aware, the Budget announced several measures to help promote and further develop British manufacturing, over and above the efforts that the sector is already making. I have no doubt that the Royal Mint will continue to pioneer new processes and develop as a pivotal part of British manufacturing. The Royal Mint has been based in south Wales since the 1960s and employs 850 people. I had the chance to meet them last year when I went down there to look at their production process and learn more about the practicalities of minting coins. I had a fascinating trip, but also learned an awful lot about the skill that the employees have to use to ensure that the coins that are minted—the coins that end up in our pockets and that we spend in shops every day—are ones that we can rely on.
Does the Minister recall that the establishment of the Royal Mint in south Wales was the result of a decision by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, to decentralise government activity from London to the regions? I would like to impress on the Minister the advantages of considering such moves again in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It struck me how important the Mint was to the local economy when I visited it. The broader point that he rightly makes is that, as the economy grows in the coming years, we need to ensure that more growth is in manufacturing, and that more of that manufacturing growth takes place outside London and the south-east, so that we end up with a more balanced economy.
It is also worth pointing out that the Royal Mint produces not only coins but all our British military medals except the Victoria cross, and, as we have heard, it has won competitive tender procedures to produce medals for sporting events such as the 2005 Ashes series and the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic games.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North also mentioned the 50p sports series, and the House should note that the 29 designs are not only available as collectors’ items but featured on circulating coins currently being issued to the general public. Fourteen of the 29 designs have already been issued in line with natural demand for coin, with the remainder entering our pockets in the lead-up to next summer’s games. The 50p sports series also helped the Royal Mint to enter the record books when, last October, 1,697 newly minted Olympic 50p coins were flipped simultaneously, setting a new world record. I doubt that that record will be surpassed using kilogram coins, but that shows that the Royal Mint is part of the fabric of our British culture in a broader way than many of us realise.
The London 2012 Olympic games will be an event of huge importance for the whole country, and this legislation is important in ensuring that it can be appropriately celebrated. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right in saying:
“I know that everyone in the UK is eager to make London 2012 the best Olympic and Paralympic Games ever seen, and I believe that the London 2012 Coin Programme will be one of the greatest and most successful in the history of the Games”.
I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North for introducing the Bill, which will help the Royal Mint to achieve such an ambition. We all wish it a safe and swift passage through the other place.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Broadcasting (Public Service Content) Bill
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is my fourth attempt to bring in a Bill to amend the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 and my first opportunity, after seven years of trying, to get a Second Reading debate. I am therefore very pleased to have this opportunity today. My Bill seeks to amend those regulations to provide for information about the country of origin of food to be made available to consumers. That is it; I am not trying to restrict imports from anywhere.
I am not trying to prevent people who love Spanish chorizo from buying as much of it as they want. I am not trying to prevent people who want genuine German wurst from buying it by the Mercedes Benz truck load and importing it into this country to sell to all the people who want to buy it. I am not trying to prevent those who are partial to kangaroo meat from buying that, either. According to the website of J. M. Danslow, a quality butcher in Gravesend, kangaroo meat is
“used by some of the world’s best restaurants because of its high quality and unique flavour.”
Those who are partial to kangaroo meat have nothing to fear from my Bill. Those who like bison, which is
“the most flavoured red meat available to today’s consumer …nutritious, tender and easy to prepare”,
can also set their minds at rest.
Likewise, no one who likes eating reindeer meat, which according to Danslow is
“fine-fibred, tender and lean”
as well as being
“rich in vitamin A, vitamin E and all vitamins B”,
has any cause for concern. I might add that there are other concerns about reindeer meat, as the Swedish store Ikea found to its cost a couple of years ago when it started selling salami made from reindeer in its UK stores at Christmas time. The idea that Rudolf’s big thank you for helping Santa to deliver all his presents in double-quick time was to be chopped up and turned into salami for the Christmas dinner table was a little too much for the nation’s children and their parents to bear. But, if there are still any secret reindeer meat eaters out there following that debacle, they have nothing to fear from my Bill.
My Bill seeks to do one thing: I just want consumers to know where meat comes from. I want them to know, not to think or to guess or to hope. If producers say on the label that meat is British, it should actually be British. I have set out this argument in the House on four previous occasions: on 22 March 2004; on 29 October 2008; and in a slightly different Bill on 17 March 2009, which is identical to the Bill that I asked the Leader of the House to introduce on 11 January 2011. So I will not detain the House for very long.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend has set out his arguments in the House before, but I and other Members who are present today were not here on those occasions, and we would very much welcome listening to those arguments in some detail.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will set out a précis of the arguments for his benefit and for that of other Members. I do not want to dwell on them at length, however, because I also need to explore the aspects of European law that are unjustifiably held to be fatal to the Bill.
I was saying that the Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) Bill that I introduced in 2009 is worth some attention, particularly because of its sponsors. I reiterate that that Bill is identical to today’s Bill, save for the names of the sponsors. My 2009 Bill had a range of sponsors from different parties, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who I am delighted to see sitting in his place today. It is a great pleasure for me to be able to introduce a Bill that I know has the support of two people who are now Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I do not wish to detain the House by talking about the cheating that goes on, but I will briefly summarise the problem. The current rules do not do the job adequately, and consumers continue to be misled. In the case of certain foodstuffs, no indication need be given that the product is made with imported meat. Examples include the Tesco chicken dinner in its range of children’s meals, which simply states “Produced in the UK”, although the chicken actually comes from Thailand. Sometimes a phrase will be used to imply the country of origin. For example, items from the Bird’s Eye Great British Menu range turn out, on closer inspection, to contain imported meat. At present, producers of imported meat can lawfully use the Union flag on packaging to imply that a product is British, even when it is not, and they do so. They can, and do, import meat from overseas, package it here and say that it has been produced in the UK.
There are not many people out there who disagree with what I am saying about the need to address the problem. An ICM poll for the Honest Food campaign showed that 87% of consumers in the survey believe that the Government should ensure that the country of origin is clearly shown on food products. The survey also showed that 89% believe that when a product such as sausages or bacon is labelled as “British” or “produced in the UK”, it should mean that the sausages or bacon are from an animal reared in Britain.
The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) is a sponsor of the Bill. When he was an Agriculture Minister 12 years ago in 1999, he told us:
“I want to give clear unambiguous information on the real place of origin, not place of processing or place of slicing; I want to clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions”.—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol. 366, c. 1126.]
In the last Labour Administration, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said:
“A pork pie made in Britain from Danish pork can legitimately be labelled as a British pork pie”.
“That’s nonsense, and it needs to change.”
I agree, and so did the farming Minister at the time, Jane Kennedy, who was then the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree—and she is, I might add, very much missed. She appeared on the excellent Channel 4 programme, “Jamie Saves our Bacon”, and told Jamie Oliver that misleading labelling was “a disgrace”. Once again, I agree.
Some progress has been made with voluntary codes, but they are voluntary. As I said in seeking leave to bring in this Bill, significant concerns persist about the effectiveness of voluntary agreements, while the demand for mandatory country-of-origin labelling continues to grow. Helen Ferrier, the chief science and regulatory affairs officer for the National Farmers Union said of the guidance from the British Retail Consortium:
“Unless all companies sign up and then consistently stick to their promises, some consumers will still be misled.”
Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance also welcomed the guidance and urged food organisations to sign up to its standards, but she also lamented:
“The code is not mandatory, which would offer further protection still.”
At the annual general meeting of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in 2010, a resolution calling for the mandatory, clear labelling of food with its true country of origin was passed unanimously. The Minister might like to reflect that this is an organisation not to be trifled with, as a former Prime Minister found out to his cost. The chair of the Women’s Institute, Ruth Bond said:
“We know that consumers want to make informed choices, and surely it is not right that consumers remain dependent on the goodwill of retailers signing up to a voluntary scheme. Without legislation there is no guarantee that consumers will get the choice and information they are demanding.”
Let me turn to deal briefly with the Bill. It is a very short Bill of two clauses, including the “Short title and commencement”, so I suppose it is what most of us would call a one-clause Bill. It provides definitions of meat products under the rubric of “Country of origin labelling”. More extended provisions explain in more detail the definition of “Meat component” and the circumstances in which the word “British” can be used—or where it cannot:
“No meat product may be labelled ‘British’ unless the animal from which the meat was derived was born, reared and slaughtered in the United Kingdom.”
The key issue I want to devote most of my time to exploring is whether there are fatal flaws in the Bill because of European Union law. Some people believe that to be the case, but I am not sure that it is. Let me start by pointing out the terms of the EC directive—the original directive 2000/13/EC. It states in paragraph (6) of the preamble:
“The prime consideration for any rules on the labelling of foodstuffs should be the need to inform and protect the consumer.”
Paragraph (8) continues:
“Detailed labelling, in particular giving the exact nature and characteristics of the product, which enables the consumer to make his choice in full knowledge of the facts is the most appropriate”—
and now we come to the most interesting bit—
“since it creates the fewest obstacles to free trade.”
More detailed labelling means fewer obstacles to free trade. Paragraph (14) of the preamble continues:
“The rules on labelling should also prohibit the use of information that would mislead the purchaser”.
Moving on from the preamble to the articles, article 2 states quite clearly in the first paragraph:
“The labelling and methods used must not…be such as could mislead the purchaser to a material degree”.
All over the directive, it is perfectly clear that the purpose is to protect the interests of consumers.
It is not at all obvious therefore that what I am doing—it could easily be argued that I am simply trying to transpose into UK law, albeit more effectively than hitherto, the requirements of this directive—is in any sense contrary to European law. However, I accept that there is an argument to be had. My contention is that this is about consumer choice, not about restricting markets in any way.
In order to make the point in more detail, let me turn to the leading text on the free movement of goods. It is the fourth edition of “Free Movement of Goods in the European Community: under Articles 28 to 30 of the EC Treaty”, by Mr Peter Oliver. As it makes clear, an extant jurisprudence offers a considerable opportunity for complex discussion. It states:
“Article 28 (formerly article 30) provides: ‘Quantitative restrictions on imports and exports and all measures having equivalent effect shall…be prohibited between Member States…the concept of measures of equivalent effect to quantitative restrictions differs from quantitative restrictions themselves in that it is considerably wider and more complex.”
In other words, it is quite possible that even if someone was not trying—as I am not trying—to restrict the imports of goods by providing that meat sold here must be accurately labelled, that could be the equivalent effect although it was not the intention, and article 28 prohibits measures that have the effect of quantitative restrictions.
I strongly support my hon. Friend’s Bill, but I wonder what other countries in the EU do. It is difficult to imagine the French, for instance, tolerating the position that exists in this country, and they are better at protecting their own meat market. Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten the House.
I will. I shall be citing a number of cases that have been heard in the European courts, which illustrate that not just the French but many other countries have come up against these issues and that there is a developed jurisprudence.
As Peter Oliver says in his book,
“in determining whether a particular measure falls under Article 28…it is imperative to proceed in two stages. The first question to ask is: does this measure restrict imports (or exports) so as to be caught by Article 28…? If so, then the second question arises, namely: is the measure nevertheless justified in Community law and thus lawful?”
Mr Oliver examines explicitly the question of the obligation to make a declaration of origin. He makes it clear that in “certain circumstances”, case law has held—in the past—that
“the requirement that the importer make a declaration of origin is contrary to Article 28. This was laid down in the Donckerwolke judgment, already discussed”
—earlier in his book, that is—
“where the Court held:
‘the requirement by the importing Member State of the indication of the country of origin on the customs declaration document for products in free circulation…does not in itself constitute a measure of equivalent effect’”
—in other words, one that would produce the equivalent of quantitative restrictions—
“‘if the goods in question are covered by measures of commercial policy adopted by that State in conformity with the Treaty.’”
The judgment went on to say, however—and this is the point—
“‘such a requirement would, however, fall under the prohibition contained in Article  of the Treaty if the importer were required to declare, with regard to origin, something other than what he knows or may reasonably be expected to know’”.
I would say that meat suppliers should
“reasonably be expected to know”
where the meat that they are supplying comes from.
On the face of it, the requirement would not fall under the prohibition in article 28. Unfortunately for that line of argument, however—as Mr Oliver goes on to say—
“At least since January 1, 1993, when Article 14”
—the former article 7A—
“of the Treaty took effect, all obligations to make a declaration of origin constitute measures of equivalent effect. The qualifications in Donckerwolcke, which related to the now moribund Article 134…no longer apply.”
It might be thought that that constituted “Game, set and match”, or “I am done middle stump”—depending on whether a tennis or a cricketing analogy is preferred—but even then it is not as simple as that, because the treaty also contains article 30. Mr Oliver’s book is devoted almost entirely to article 28 and article 30. The main exception, as he describes it—article 30—includes the subject of mandatory requirements. Article 30 states:
“The provisions of Articles 28 and 29 shall not preclude prohibitions or restrictions on imports, exports or goods in transit justified on grounds of”—
and a whole laundry list follows—
“public morality, public policy or public security; the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants; the protection of national treasures possessing artistic, historic or archaeological value; or the protection of industrial and commercial property.”
We could drive a pyramid through that group of exceptions. That makes plenty of work for lawyers, of course, but it also shows that the issue is not quite as clear as some might try to make us believe.
Mr Oliver goes on to say:
“The wording of this provision shows that it applies both to quantitative restrictions and to measures of equivalent effect. Furthermore, it covers that latter whether they are ‘distinctly’ or ‘indistinctly’ applicable.”
“it is also clear from the wording of Article 30 that, subject to certain limits, it merely entitles the Member States to exercise certain powers: it does not oblige them to do so.”
We must bear in mind that I am not trying to impose any restrictions on imports. I am merely trying to ensure that the consumer has clear information. Therefore, my proposals should receive the lightest possible interpretation in respect of these rules.
Mr Oliver goes on to point out that as the European Court of Justice
“held in Bauhuis v Netherlands, Article 30 ‘constitutes a derogation from the basic rule that all obstacles to the free movement of goods between Member States shall be eliminated’”.
In other words, such derogations are possible. Mr Oliver continues:
“To be justified under Article 30, national provisions”—
which is what mine would be—
“must fall within one of the grounds of justification covered by the first sentence of Article 30”.
I think mine do that. Public policy says there should be better information for consumers so they can make informed choices, and public policy is one of the justifications under article 30.
As Mr Oliver points out, to be justified under article 30 national provisions must also
“not constitute arbitrary discrimination nor a disguised restriction on trade between Member States and must be justified.”
I am not trying to put any disguised restrictions on trade between member states. I simply want information for consumers, and what I am trying to do is certainly not arbitrary.
“the Court in ‘Cassis de Dijon’”—
one of the most famous cases in European jurisprudence—
“has recognised a series of ‘mandatory requirements’ in addition to the grounds of justification expressly set out in Article 30.”
As is clearly set out in the book,
“the better view is that the ‘mandatory requirements’ fall under that provision”—
“despite the Court’s traditional view that they were subsumed within Article 28.
The ‘mandatory requirements’ recognised so far are: the prevention of tax evasion, consumer protection, the prevention of unfair competition, the protection of the environment, the improvement of working conditions, the maintenance of press diversity”
and so forth.
“One questions left open by ‘Cassis de Dijon’ was the relationship between the ‘mandatory requirements’ laid down by that judgment and Article 30, which is not mentioned at all in the judgment. Two schools of thought evolved on this matter:
(a) According to the first view, the ‘mandatory requirements’ are to be weighed up within Article 28, not Article 30. Moreover, only ‘indistinctly applicable’ measures may qualify, so that ‘distinctly applicable’ measures may only be justified on the grounds expressly set out in Article 30. On this view, therefore, ‘indistinctly applicable measures’ are granted more favourable treatment in that the ‘mandatory requirements’ apply to them alone.
(b) According to the second view, the ‘mandatory requirements’ are regarded as being subsumed under Article 30, on the grounds that they constitute additions to the list of grounds of justification expressly set out in Article 30. On this view, the mandatory requirements are subject to precisely the same tests as the latter grounds.”
Mr Oliver continues:
“In support of the first theory, it should be said that the Court has repeatedly held that Article 30 must be interpreted narrowly since it constitutes an exception to a fundamental principle of Community law.”
“Yet it is submitted that that is outweighed by the following considerations:
(a) The second view avoids the undue harshness resulting from the first theory with respect to ‘distinctly applicable’ measures necessary on such grounds as consumer protection. According to the first theory, even though they are necessary, such measures are quite simply prohibited. According to the second theory, they are considered to fall under Article 28, but may be justified under Article 30. Since the Court has now accepted that consumer protection may justify restrictions otherwise prohibited by Article 28, does it make sense to approach it differently from, say, plant health merely because in 1957 (when the Treaty of Rome was first drafted) consumer protection did not yet arouse much passion?”
Mr Oliver continued:
“It always seemed clear that the ‘mandatory requirements’ have the same properties as the grounds of justification in Article 30. As van Gerven”—
the then advocate-general—
“remarked in Aragonesa de Publicidad v Departamento de Sanidad ‘…the conditions governing the applicability of the Cassis de Dijon doctrine and of Article  are the same”.
“For these reasons, the second approach has been firmly and consistently advocated in this book since its very first edition, which appeared in 1982. This is despite the fact that…the Court had already chosen to follow the other approach, which was also backed by most commentators for many years.”
Mr Oliver’s point in this text, which is one of the leading reference books on the free movement of goods, is that the second approach is gaining favour. He continued:
“What is more, the Court has on occasion had recourse to some far-fetched—not to say exotic—devices so as to maintain the façade that the ‘mandatory requirements’ apply only to ‘indistinctly applicable measures’. Thus the Court has been driven to holding the following measures to be ‘indistinctly applicable’ so as to be able to consider the ‘mandatory requirements’ at all: a German statutory provision to the effect that only wines from certain specific regions of Germany could be marketed in bottles of a particular shape; legislation prohibiting the importation and marketing of meat products containing non-meat ingredients; and a measure prohibiting the use of the letter R in a circle (which indicates that a name constitutes a registered trade mark) unless such registration had occurred in the Member States in question.
Perhaps the most striking example occurred in Commission v Belgium (waste disposal), which concerned a blatantly discriminatory ban on imports of waste into Wallonia from other Member States.”
Mr Oliver goes on to talk about a “most welcome” move made by advocate-general Jacobs, whom I sat next to at lunch once in Luxembourg and I found to be a thoroughly excellent chap. Mr Oliver describes how Mr Jacobs
“has criticised the Court’s traditional approach on at least two occasions. In Chemische Afvalstoffen Dusseldorp v Minister van Milieubeheer”—
I think that that is Dutch, rather than German—
“referring to the last edition of this book, he acknowledged that the Court had been ‘obliged to adopt rather tortuous reasoning’ in the cases just mentioned and most particularly in the Walloon Waste case. In PreussenElektra v Schleswag, the same Advocate General went further, saying that ‘the reasoning in Walloon Waste is flawed and that ‘it is desirable that even directly discriminatory measures can sometimes be justified on grounds of environmental protection’, the latter being a ‘mandatory requirement’. He then added: ‘In view of the fundamental importance for the analysis of Article 30 of the Treaty of the question whether directly discriminatory measures can be justified by imperative requirements, the Court should, in my view, clarify its position in order to provide the necessary legal certainty’.
Mr Oliver goes on to say:
“Without expressly renouncing its earlier position, the Court has grudgingly moved in this direction…first…in Konsumentenombudsmannen v De Agostini”.
That case basically considered whether an outright ban on advertising certain products on television, which was held to have a greater effect in some member states than in others, could be justified.
“Likewise, in Decker v Caisse de maladie des employés privés, the Court considered a ‘distinctly applicable’ Luxembourg rule requiring the prior authorisation of the purchase of glasses from another Member State…in PreussenElektra, blatantly discriminatory legislation on wind energy was held to be justified for the protection of the environment (a mandatory requirement).
Mr Oliver continued:
“Although these developments must surely be applauded, it is a pity that the Court has not yet shown the courage to disown its earlier approach expressly, as this would undoubtedly be in the interests of legal certainty.”
His fundamental point is as follows:
“In short, the view consistently espoused in all the previous editions of this book has been gaining ground in recent years.”
Why trouble the House with all this jurisprudence, especially as a non-lawyer? The reason is extremely simple: I want to make it clear there is an argument to be had. Indeed, having listened to what the Prime Minister has said on the subject of food labelling, I venture to suggest that he agrees with me. He said at the Oxford farming conference:
“Food can be imported to Britain, processed here, and subsequently labelled in a way that suggests it’s genuinely British. That is completely wrong. I cannot overstate the importance of enabling informed consumer choice. Effective marketing can only be achieved if labelling is accurate and clear.”
He went on:
“I know that this may raise issues with the European Union. But the role of a Government that cares about British farming is not to sit on its hands and say ‘there’s nothing we can do’, but instead to test these rules and if necessary challenge and change them.”
That is exactly what my Bill is designed to do and would accomplish, and I hope that the House will read it a Second time.
It is interesting to reflect that the key aspects of both this and the previous Bill end up essentially being determined by foreign organisations. In this one, we see clearly that it is an issue of the European Union, and it is a great pleasure, as always, to see the Minister for Europe in his place, because he is wiser and better informed on these issues than almost anyone else in the House. In the previous debate, the issue was whether we would be allowed under European treaties to subsidise from the licence fee the production of programmes made in the United Kingdom. That is clearly an issue that Europe would have poked its nose into.
Then we get into a desperately depressing discussion about whether something that this sovereign Parliament is considering doing is legal. Whatever this sovereign Parliament decides to do is by its very nature legal although it may undermine some obligations we have under international treaties. I know that a senior judge—indeed the most senior judge, Lord Justice Judge—spoke recently about the application of European Union law and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in this country. He rightly pointed out that they have effect only because of laws that this House has passed; therefore, they can have uneffect, if such a word exists, if this House passes amending legislation. A possible problem with the Bill is that it does not have a “notwithstanding” clause. If it said “notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972”, it would undoubtedly be possible to introduce food labelling regulations.
This is an issue of great topicality. I have been discussing food labelling for meat products with a constituent, specifically about their religious nature. Canon John Baker who lives in Midsomer Norton has corresponded with me about his concerns that eating halal food would be in breach of a Christian’s obligations, as set out in the Acts of the Apostles, on eating food that has been blessed in honour of gods other than our lord and saviour and the blessed trinity. I have taken this up with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who I thought would be an authority on this matter. Hon. Members will be reassured to know, when they buy their meat, that whether it is halal or not, labelled or not, it is still perfectly legitimate to eat. I am glad to put on the record the authoritative view of the established Church—not, as it happens, my Church—on this important issue.
I am inclined to remark in parenthesis that although my hon. Friend is not a member of the established Church, we all feel that he probably ought to be were it not for the minor question of doctrine.
On the “notwithstanding” clause, I was tempted to put one in, but I did not for two reasons: first, because I contend that my Bill falls on the right side of the jurisprudence I have been talking about within the European legal system, and secondly because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tends to get the heebie-jeebies when the word “notwithstanding” is mentioned. As I was praying him in aid, as well as the two Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers who have given their support by signing the previous, identical version of the Bill, it seemed to me not a politic thing to do.
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern about introducing a “notwithstanding” clause, because it does seem to some to be the nuclear option when it comes to our European relations. We would have to debate whether it was suitable to use such a powerful clause in relation to food labelling, and whether food labelling is an issue of such importance that it is worth fracturing our relationship with Europe over, because the “notwithstanding” clause does ultimately fracture our relationship with Europe, or leads to a fundamental renegotiation. The question, I suppose, is whether that is what the British electorate want.
I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend on the point about most people in this country wanting to know where their food comes from, how it is processed, and what is in it. It all gets frightfully stomach-churning when we read in the detail of the Bill what is classified as meat:
“the heart, any other internal organ…the muscles of the head, the carpus, the tarsus, or the tail from any mammalian or bird species recognised as fit for human consumption.”
Some of those bits do not sound fit for human consumption at all. They sound more like dog meat, which probably should be equally carefully labelled, so that the great dogs of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not mistakenly consume foreign-produced dog food; I expect that would cause them great concern, because we know that the English bulldog is a particularly patriotic symbol.
I come back to the concerns of consumers. We have had lots of rows with Europe about how food is labelled and processed, and Europe always seems to be on the wrong side of the argument. It always seems to be restraining some form of trade without allowing people to have proper information. I remember the great row about where Parma ham was cut, and whether it could be described as Parma ham if it was not physically cut in Italy. That seemed fair old nonsense; if a person has a great slab of ham and cuts it up at home, it is the same ham as if they had cut it up in Italy. I think it was Asda that wanted to do that in some plant in the United Kingdom. Europe goes for a tough and restrictive anti-free-trade regulation. It seems to put us in a position where we cannot really be honest with the British consumer and let him or her know what they are buying. That is important, because we have read the most appalling stories of the labelling of food that is pretty much no more than packaged in this country as if it were British.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) so rightly mentioned the use of the Union flag on food. When we see the Union flag, we want to think, “That’s a best bit of British beef.” We do not want to think that it has possibly come from Kobe, where the beef used to be very good and delicious, but which we might now worry was becoming radioactive. We need to know what it is, and what is in it. If it has come from Kobe via some European country and we are not being told, that must be to the disadvantage of the British consumer when they go out to do the weekly shopping.
When one is in North East Somerset, one wants to know that one’s food is really from Somerset, because some of the best food produced in the United Kingdom comes from God’s own county. We have the finest beef, lamb, chickens—you name it; turkeys, even. It has a quality, a taste, a melt-in-the-mouth flavour that makes one proud to come from Somerset. That ought to be on a label, and some bureaucrat Johnny in Brussels should not be saying, “We really can’t have this, because it might deter you from buying a German sausage.” I would not like a German sausage at all; they are much too spicy and flavoured for my taste. I like a good, proper, plain, British banger. Those hon. Members who remember watching “Yes, Prime Minister” all those years ago will know that that has been an issue in British political life for decades. We want our right to eat our sausages stuffed full of bread and things like that, because when they are, they taste nice. We do not want all this garlic and stuff that we get in foreign sausages. I am tempted to mention the Flanders and Swann song but, Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that when I get too poetic I sometimes incur your wrath, of which I live in trembling fear, so I will avoid Flanders and Swann when thinking about garlic-eaters.
We really need to know that information, so that we can get the food that we want, like and love—ideally the food from Somerset, where the grass is of particularly high quality. Those hon. Members who understand the digestion of cattle will realise that if the grass has the right flavour, and the water that falls is the best-quality rain, only to be found in Somerset, the meat and its marbling develops in a particular way.
There are occasions during a test match at Old Trafford when the rain falling can be the best possible rain, when it saves England from a notable defeat, but the rain that falls on the edge of the Mendips is the finest rain. That, as it happens, is why Joseph of Arimathea visited. He just wanted to see quite what high quality the rain was.
I was talking about the high quality of the beef in Somerset. When one looks at a piece of meat in a farm shop, like the farm shop that I used to live next door to, it has a quality that makes one look forward to one’s Sunday lunch. With some Yorkshire pudding—I know that is not meat, but it would be most upsetting to think that one’s Yorkshire pudding came from the continentals. I am sure that they have no clue how to make it. Where their eggs would come from would be not quite the thing. I know that I am going on to other food products that are not mentioned in the Bill.
I want to say a few words about one detailed concern—perhaps a pedantic concern—that I have about the Bill. That is the reference to the Union flag. Many of our most favoured nations, countries with which we have a great fellow feeling, use the Union flag as a jack. I am slightly worried that we might stop our friends in Australia and New Zealand putting their flag on because of the Union flag being used as a jack, with the stars in the fly. We want to be entirely clear—this may be a point to be discussed in Committee—that flags that incorporate the Union flag should be permissible as a representation of the country of origin when the item comes from that country.
That is a particularly welcome thing to do, because those tend to be countries that share a sovereign with us. We should have a particularly favourable attitude towards them, rather than countries such as France, which of course used to share a sovereign with us—I think of Henry VI, crowned king of France in Paris some time in the 1420s; Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know better than I the precise date—but no longer do so and have therefore lost out in the development of European history. One can only have sympathy for them in lacking such a wise and benign system of government as we have here.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am greatly relieved, because I thought he was going to propose that we might get some kangaroo meat from Somerset. Although Somerset is very good at almost everything, kangaroos might find the climate a little colder than they are used to, and perhaps the fences not quite high enough. They might do awful things like hopping over to Gloucestershire, which would no doubt be extremely dangerous for their health.
There are all sorts of other peculiar meats that one can eat. I remember being offered crocodile, but I did not have it. I thought that it was more for making ladies’ handbags than a gentleman’s dinner. It was clearly labelled as not being English; as far as I am aware, there are not many crocodiles living in England, although there always used to be those stories about them being in the sewers. As far as I know, that is not true. It was one of those urban myths.
Let us get back to the serious point while I have the attention of the Minister for Europe, which is, as always, a great pleasure. He knows the point that I will come back to and it is a serious one. We have got ourselves into a situation in our relationship with the European Union where laws that are perfectly routine and sensible run up against a European blockage. Whether the jurisprudence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk is right or the Government’s current view is right I do not know, but I do know that it has become the reason for inaction. It is one of the reasons that I greatly welcomed the European Union Bill, which is passing through the other place and which we passed recently. It contains the sovereignty clause which makes it clear that laws from Europe have effect only because of an Act of Parliament.
The reason I think that this is so important is that we may get the phraseology right—and I urge my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to bear this in mind—but we often hear about things that are against European law as being illegal. They are not illegal; they are against an international treaty obligation. There is an important difference. It is illegal in this country to murder someone, which is absolutely fine. The application of European law results from a treaty obligation that we have accepted and incorporated into our law, but it is absolutely legal for this Parliament to decide at any point to change it. That might appear to be a relatively obscure point, but language is important, because the House, if it so wishes, may pass the Bill with a “notwithstanding” clause, but it is perfectly reasonable for the Minister to say that because of our international treaty obligations it would not be considered wise to do so.
My hon. Friend, who is being generous in giving way, prompts me to intervene again on the question of the word “language”. Directive 2000/13/EC specifically states that language can be used as a legitimate restriction, which means that a label must contain the language of the country where the product is to be sold.
That seems perfectly reasonable. With regard to the Bill, I suppose that, as we are in the United Kingdom, the label is likely to be in English anyway, and English is such a commonly used language that it is hard to see that we could get the protection simply by saying that the labels had to be in English; they would be anyway. That would not indicate a great deal.
We need to consider the right balance in our relationship with Europe. In my view, Europe interferes too much in the minutiae of British life, and I would classify the Bill in that category. Whether one is in favour of specific food labelling laws is neither here nor there in this sense, but it clearly ought to be in the ambit of this Parliament to decide without worrying about Europe. It is not, except at the most excessive level, a barrier to free trade. I am concerned that we should have a relationship with Europe that is friendly, hospitable and trading, but we are getting to a situation where our democratic control of what we want to do is so undermined by the constant attrition from European law that the British people will no longer wish to accept the relationship along its current lines.
Therefore, those Ministers and hon. Members who are broadly in favour of a free trading area and the European Communities Act must bear in mind that, by allowing Europe to go too far, they might be sowing the seeds of its own destruction, and we may be beginning to see that in the move for an in-or-out referendum. I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s Bill. I think that it ought to be a matter for this sovereign Parliament to decide, but I quite accept that the Minister may feel that, in terms of our current arrangements with the EU, this may not be the best battle to fight.
I strongly support my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and his Bill. It would be very disappointing if the Government used their power to block it, especially as some current members of the Government previously supported it. The fact is that whatever the state of European law at the moment—I understand that European regulations require labelling to refer to where the food was last processed—there is absolutely no reason why the Bill should not be allowed to pass to Committee stage or, in my view, become an Act, as we could then test the jurisprudence.
In a brilliant speech that went through the entire jurisprudence, my hon. Friend set the scene for an interesting legal case. Let us at least test the water, because it is absolutely clear what the British public want. Indeed, I am not sure whether opinion polls have been mentioned yet, but one commissioned by YouGov in 2007 found that 72% of the British public want to buy British meat. I begin to part company from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), because the best sausage is Lincolnshire sausage, as he well knows; he skated over that obvious point. Leaving that aside, the public want to know where their food comes from. Some 72% of them want to buy British meat, yet research done by the industry shows that 61% of pork eaten in the UK is imported. The most important point is that 70% of meat that is imported would be illegal if reared in this country, because our welfare standards are much higher.
It is not just a question of taste. The British people, who are patriotic, would prefer to support local suppliers, but we are conscious, too, as an animal-loving country of the need to support our high welfare standards, and the fact is that 70% of imported meat would be illegal if produced here. Why cannot the House of Commons state clearly and firmly that we should do what the British people want? The Minister will doubtless produce complex arguments to explain why that would be illegal under EU law, but the Spanish, for instance, have already intervened, issuing a decree in 2003 on the compulsory labelling of canned asparagus, and that was not overturned by the EU.
If we had the courage of our convictions, and we allowed the Bill, or something similar, to become law, it is possible—indeed, probable—that it would not be overturned by the Commission because, and this point has been made again and again, nothing that we have proposed would promote the restraint of trade. Nothing that the Bill does would stop anyone buying wonderful products from France, Germany or Italy or from our friends all over the European Union. In many respects, British people have been given a fantastic array of meats and products from all over the EU, and they are happy to buy them. However, when it comes to some of their favourite products such as bacon, beef and lamb, the majority of them want to buy British, so they should be given the opportunity to do so. There should be a clear label—this has nothing to do with the restraint of trade—telling shoppers in supermarkets that the meat was processed in a certain place, but was reared in Britain. That should be clearly set out—no ifs, no buts.
My hon. Friend makes a good point that food from animals born, reared and slaughtered in this country should be so labelled so that the British public know where it has come from. However, does he not agree that much of the food on which some of those animals are reared is imported, so should that not be on the label, too?
We can discuss that. What the public want to know—and let us not get too technical about this—is whether an animal was reared in the UK. Was it slaughtered in the UK? Was the meat processed in the UK? Those are the essential questions, and all that we ask of the Minister is that he keep an open mind and allow the Bill to proceed so that we can test European jurisprudence.
I will be brief because I am sure that the House wants to hear from the Minister. I begin by declaring an interest: I have eaten both crocodile and kangaroo meat at various times in my life and I am still here to tell the tale. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who reassured me that I had not offended my faith—I did not think that I had—on the many occasions that I shared halal meat with my many Muslim friends.
Not only the Germans are capable of producing spicy sausages. My butcher in the village where I live, Tottington, produces a “Hot Totty” sausage, which is delicious and spicy.
I find myself in what some people might consider an unusual position, although I do not think it is, in that I wholly support the Bill and its aim of introducing honesty in food labelling. That objective was clearly stated in the Conservative manifesto at the general election:
“We will introduce honesty in food labelling.”
Not only that, those very words are repeated in the “Programme for Government”, which states:
“We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from”.
That is the aim of the sensible Bill.
The British public want to be sure, when they go to their local butcher to buy meat, that the animal was born and reared in this country; that it was fed British grass in Britain. When they see the flag or the symbol, they do not want to be misled. They want to be assured that the meat is genuinely British.
I am reassured about my view of the Bill because one of its sponsors is my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), no less, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary. I am therefore in good company in believing that the Bill’s aims are entirely laudable.
As with so many good ideas that the House wants to promote, however, the problem is Europe and Brussels. That was mentioned by my right hon. Friend—sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset; I am sure he will soon be “right honourable”. No matter how much we pontificate today about what a good idea the Bill is, food labelling is, sadly, tackled through EU legislation. In my view, that is no reason for not trying to change the regulations, if we are so minded. I am not one for introducing more and more rules and regulations—far from it. I believe that we should have as little regulation as possible. However, when it comes to food, the British people are entitled to know what is in it and where it comes from.
I am not talking about imposing new regulations and extra burdensome bureaucracy, because the rules already exist. Food must be labelled under existing labelling rules. In January 2010, the Food Standards Agency produced a report on “country of origin” labelling. Its main findings were that consumers were aware of “country of origin” labels, although that was perhaps not their main concern. It found that meat products were the food types that consumers would most like to be labelled clearly. The Bill therefore hits the nail on the head and deals with the British public’s concern.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I do not wish to continue my remarks for too long this afternoon. The whole House will benefit from hearing the Minister’s comments on the Bill, and the Government’s view of how we should deal with what is, in fact, a very simple matter. It can be summed up simply: we want to give the British public honesty in labelling, which is what Conservatives said we would do in our manifesto, what millions of British people voted for, and what was agreed in the coalition document, under which Government Members now operate.
For all those reasons—there is much to commend the idea of honesty in food labelling—it is about time that such a Bill received Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) is to be commended for his determination and perseverance in introducing such Bills so many times. The fact that he has done so proves that the measure is worth while, and I wholly commend it to the House. I hope it receives widespread support, and look forward to hearing from the Minister.
Time is short, so I shall try to keep my remarks as brief as possible. The hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) will find a clear theological justification in Colossians 2:16. I am sure he will go away and look that up—the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) probably knows it in the original King James, which is encouraging. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for North East Somerset launch his campaign to save the great British sausage. If he chooses to turn that into a leadership bid, Labour Members will give him our full backing. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), a fellow east of England MP. A number of east of England MPs have introduced Bills today, and it will be interesting to see how this one goes—they have so far won one and lost one.
The Opposition have a number of problems with the Bill in its current form, but clearly, Members on both sides of the House and consumers support origin labelling. Consumers now have more interest in the food they eat than ever before. As a nation, we care more about where our food has come from, what is in it, how it was reared, and how it was slaughtered. The Bill raises some very interesting points on the information that consumers should receive on the pack.
We have so many decisions and choices to make in the shops, and we need our labelling to be honest, helpful to read and real. In that light, it is encouraging to see the commitment in the coalition agreement, which states:
“We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact.”
It is for the Minister to say how he will fulfil that aspect of the agreement, but the Opposition believe that country-of-origin labelling is an important aspect of food labelling.
The previous Labour Government were aware of that need and introduced a voluntary code of conduct to help both consumers and producers, but they also pushed for greater European agreement. It is helpful for labelling to be considered at European level. We support what Labour MEPs are doing on the implementation of traffic light information on food labelling. We want to ensure that legislation is produced in conjunction with that, but I am aware that that option has faced resistance in recent months.
The Opposition support the approach whereby mandatory rules are applied to ensure that consumers are clear what origin labelling means when food businesses choose to make an origin claim. For example, pork should only be allowed to be labelled as British pork if the pig was born, reared and slaughtered in the UK, which was a point made by a number of hon. Members.
We strongly support the consumer’s right to know how their food was raised and where it has come from, which is why in the EU Parliament earlier this week we supported increased labelling requirements for cloned animals entering the food chain. Unfortunately, the Government opposed that measure. A Europe-wide solution would be preferable to a measure that might get us into a legal minefield. The hon. Member for South Norfolk raised that point. Never has European case law sounded so good as when he read out the names of those cases.
The hon. Gentleman clearly supports honesty in food labelling, but does he support an extension of that to honesty in drinks labelling? He might have seen an article in the Sunday People last Sunday—I am sure it is an organ that he knows well—that called for high-caffeine drinks to have proper labelling on cans, so that young people in particular know how much caffeine is in the drink. Is that something he would also like to see?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about labelling. It is not just about food; the debate goes much wider than that. I will leave it to other hon. Members to speak on that matter, but he makes his point very well.
I will make two more points, but briefly, so that the Minister can respond. We are obviously concerned about the burden of regulation that the Bill might put on small producers and retailers. A report commissioned by the previous Government on developing a framework for assessing the costs of labelling changes in the UK should be extremely helpful on that matter, and we should consider that report as the Bill goes forward. Furthermore, the 10% requirement is quite a low level to require labelling. For example, it might affect pizza and other foods with a low meat content. That should be looked at.
We find it hard to reconcile the Bill’s presentation to the House with the fact that in the same week the coalition Government are cutting funding to the Food Standards Agency’s nutrition website, which provides consumers with more information. We broadly support the aims and methods of the Bill. However, I think that this matter should be resolved in the light of the discussions going on in Europe and of those that the Minister will be having with other Departments. I hope that the Government will do more. We will press them to do more on the issue of clear food labelling. I commend the hon. Member for South Norfolk on raising this matter for a fourth time. We will wait to see what happens next.
I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and applaud his tenacity in bringing this important subject before the House. He said that he was speaking as a non-lawyer, but he did not sound like a non-lawyer, although perhaps his use of the word “heebie-jeebies” took him some way from the legal lexicon he was using.
I was proud to be part of the Honest Food campaign in 2009 that supported the idea behind the Bill. The Department is now taking forward those principles in a way that is both effective and legal, and I would be happy to respond to my hon. Friend’s points of jurisprudence. I can assure him that the finest minds at my disposal in the Department will be available to explain our position to him. He has made an important case, and his points deserve a response.
The Bill has come before Parliament previously. I remind hon. Members that even though the Honest Food campaign was the action of the then Opposition Front-Bench team, it resulted in 900 items on supermarket shelves being changed as a consequence of the concerns we raised about the improper portrayal of products on their labelling. It was clearly wrong to state that something was from a certain part of the country and for it to exude every aspect of Britishness when the meat had been reared and slaughtered abroad but processed here, and I am pleased that we made that progress.
The Prime Minister’s comments, which my hon. Friend repeated, are relevant to what we are trying to achieve. We are developing a framework for more honest food labelling, especially for the origin of meat in food. This is an area where the Government have been active in the past year. A food labelling regulation is currently being discussed in Europe. The Government have so far been extremely successful, by including in the current text an extension of the rules, making origin labelling mandatory for fresh and frozen meat. We are tightening the rules where origin claims are made and leaving the door open to further mandatory labelling, subject to a European Commission feasibility report. That position is reflected in the Council’s common position, which is being debated in the European Parliament.
In the meantime, in addition to existing Government best practice guidance, the Department has facilitated an industry-owned voluntary code of practice on improved origin labelling for food, which has received widespread support from major trade organisations. We will evaluate its market uptake and impact shortly. The Department is also developing ways to improve the transparency of country of origin labelling in the food service sector, working with the sector to develop guidance for the hospitality sector. If possible, that will be linked to the Olympics, providing an opportunity to celebrate the origin of food at an international event. Although the Government recognise the need to provide UK consumers with clear and accurate origin labelling, a number of the Bill’s provisions deal with issues that we are already successfully pursuing in the European single market negotiations.
However, I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend and other Members present that the Government believe that clear food labelling is important. We have made considerable progress on food labelling, and we expect further progress in the EU, as the food information regulations make their way through the Council and the European Parliament. Although we are supportive of the Bill’s aims, the Government are already proactive, with many country of origin labelling initiatives already in place. There are existing rules at the European level that, as I have said, are subject to ongoing negotiations. We have been successful thus far, and we believe that we will be more successful in the coming months.
Existing EU legislation already requires mandatory origin labelling for beef, veal, poultry meat and eggs from third countries, fish, most fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, olive oil and wine. Otherwise, origin information is required only where its absence might mislead the consumer. Food businesses can already provide additional information voluntarily, as long as it is accurate and not misleading. Food labelling rules are harmonised at the EU level, and changes in labelling law are a matter for negotiation in Europe.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has pointed out that we have a lot of mandatory labelling already—he has mentioned fish, olive oil and honey. However, if we have mandatory labelling already and if, for meat other than beef, where we do not, the consumer manifestly is being misled, is there not a case for now having mandatory labelling for other meat? If there are problems in European jurisprudence—problems that I contend are solvable—that should be tested through the courts.
I am happy to discuss my hon. Friend’s points about jurisprudence with him. I want to ensure that the consumer is treated fairly, with an honest labelling system, and we believe that we can do so in a way that will satisfy his determination, yet not be tested in court at a later stage. I can assure him that that is an absolute priority for the Government.
We have successfully extended compulsory origin labelling. We have also secured a requirement for origin information to be given for main ingredients where origin claims are made on food products—for example, the origin of the steak in a steak and kidney pie labelled as “Made in the UK”. It is important that the contents are included. Getting a regulation in Europe is a more effective way of improving labelling in this country.
Importantly, the Bill would apply only to England, as food labelling is a devolved matter. Any English law would place producers and retailers in England at a competitive disadvantage, both in the UK and in wider global markets, as the requirements of the Bill would increase costs not applicable across the trade, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker).
The Government are committed to clearer origin labelling and agree that consumers must be confident about the validity of any origin claims when making purchasing decisions. The Government believe that they have facilitated an industry-owned, voluntary code of practice on improved origin labelling for food. This has received widespread support. We recognise the need to provide UK consumers with clear and accurate labelling. However—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 21 October.
Business without Debate
fire safety (protection of tenants) bill
Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (19 November), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Debate to be resumed on Friday 21 October.
contaminated blood (support for infected and bereaved persons) bill [lords]
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 21 October.
medical insurance (pensioner tax relief) bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May.
parliamentary standards (amendment) bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Francois.)
Mr Deputy Speaker, may I begin by thanking you for this opportunity to raise the important subject of Yemen? I should also like to refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I come to the Chamber today as the Chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, a country that I and other Members have visited frequently, but I also have a personal interest in it because my sisters and I were born there, in Aden, and the country therefore has a special hold on me and my family.
I am glad to see the Minister for Europe here today. I know that Yemen is not yet part of Europe, but I understand that the relevant Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is already on constituency business and has other important business, and I recognise that he is unable to be here. I have known the Minister for Europe for many years. We first met when we were 19 years of age, when we were debating other subjects. I do not think that he would have anticipated that, in 2011, we would be sitting across the Chamber from each other talking about Yemen, of all subjects.
We have now reached a critical time in the history of that troubled country. I want to start by thanking the Government for following the processes that were set in motion by the previous Government. I know that the Prime Minister spoke to the President of Yemen, President Saleh, in the latter part of last year, and that the Foreign Secretary chose to go to Yemen on his recent visit to north Africa and the middle east. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for doing that. Ministers at the Foreign Office and at the Department for International Development have also done that. They also accepted a request from the all-party group that the Yemeni Foreign Minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, one of the most distinguished Foreign Ministers in the Arab world, should come to Britain. Indeed, he came a few weeks ago and participated in bilateral negotiations.
As the House knows, Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the world. Its gross national income is only £659.35 per capita, and 47% of its population live on less than $2 a day. It has an elected President, a House of Representatives and a shura council that share power. We talk about the need for the countries of north Africa and the middle east to begin the process of reform, but I believe that Yemen has already begun it. It could well be said that Yemen is perhaps the most democratic of all the countries in the region.
Yemen is situated at a key point on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. It is strategically placed above the horn of Africa, and lies across one of the most utilised international shipping routes in the world. Its security and stability, and the maintenance of the same, is of paramount importance to the region—and, I believe, to the world—and is also in the interests of our country.
Yemen has become an active al-Qaeda base. In fact, it is reputed to be the most active base in the whole of the middle east. It is therefore critical to address the issues in Yemen before it becomes another Libya. Today, on the streets of Sana’a, Aden and other Yemeni cities, protests are going on. As the Minister will know, the protests are on both sides—some in support of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while others wish to see even more radical change. Up to 28 March, there were 170 confirmed deaths and many more injured. As for weapons, 16,000 guns were recently seized in Dubai on their way to other parts of the middle east, including Yemen.
I want to pay tribute to all those who have been part of the process, including the Yemeni ambassador, His Excellency Abdulla Ali al-Radhi, who wants to see a peaceful transition, as I think does everyone who cares about Yemen. What is critical about this debate, however, is the need for us to act—and to act as quickly as possible.
As we know, Yemen’s reunification occurred in 1990. It was supposed to see an end to the separatist movement in the south. The Yemeni Government claim that al-Qaeda militants have seized a weapons factory and two towns in southern Yemen, but that has not been confirmed by others. There is also a problem with the northern province of Sa’ada now entirely under the control of Houthi rebels who are running Government facilities and manning checkpoints. The recent strengthening of terrorist cells in Yemen means that the Government have to deal not just with the problem of their own people but with those who seek to undermine the whole structure of Yemeni government.
Seventeen members of President Saleh’s party have recently resigned and he has lost support in other areas. The President, however, has made it clear that he wants to stand down as President by the end of the year. Obviously, those opposed to the President believe that this should happen sooner.
The United States has tried to mediate and was, prior to recent events, funding the army. I think that the army is now split. On 16 November 2010, the Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that
“providing equipment and training to Yemeni security forces was the best way to counter the threat posed by jihadists”.
The situation is very difficult indeed. That is why I fully understand why the Government made an announcement a few weeks ago, which I am sure the Minister for Europe will re-emphasise today, to the effect that British citizens should leave Yemen immediately. I am sure that all who are there, whether it be for tourism or work, will want to do so and follow the lead suggested by the Government.
I want to say a few words about the Friends of Yemen conference, although I recognise that the issue of international development is taking second place to what is happening in the country. The Friends of Yemen process was started on 27 January 2010 when the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) decided to hold a conference on Yemen immediately after a conference on the middle east. It was prompted by the Detroit bomber’s failed attempt to cause carnage in America on Christmas day 2009. After that, we had further meetings to see what could be done further to assist Yemen.
Sadly, the next Friends of Yemen meeting, which was due to take place last week, was cancelled. I say to the Minister and the Government that I realise the difficulty in progressing the Friends of Yemen process while such a critical situation exists in the country. We should not lose sight, however, of the contribution we have made so far. I pay tribute to the Government for what they have done.
Additional spending in the form of United Kingdom aid for Yemen will reach £76 million in 2015. That is a very large increase in bilateral aid, but the problem is that the money can be spent properly only if there are organisations working in the country. Although I understand why the process may have been halted temporarily, we should bear in mind that one of the key reasons for helping Yemen is the poverty of its people. We must never lose sight of that fact.
I know that the Foreign Secretary and the Government have been extremely keen to urge the need for reform on every Government in north Africa and the middle east. I believe that the President has started that process, but—as the Government there know, as he knows and as the opposition in Yemen have been saying—it must take place at a much faster pace in order to satisfy the views of the people. What they require more than anything else are mediation and dialogue.
How can we ensure that we are able to play a part at this critical time in the history of Yemen, without interfering and acting as the former colonial power in southern Yemen but working in concert with our international colleagues, with the backing of the United Nations and with the support of the European Union? I think that what is required now is dialogue. As the Minister knows, I have said that many times when the Foreign Secretary has come to report to the House on events such as the conference on Libya. Although that conference was not about Yemen, it was certainly discussed at the margins, and I know that Hillary Clinton discussed it with the Foreign Secretary.
How can we become involved on a diplomatic and political level, while not becoming involved in a military way? I think that the answer is quite simple. We need to be at the forefront of this activity. I want Prime Minister Cameron to ring President Saleh over the weekend. I urged him to do that on the last occasion when he made a statement to the House. I handed the Secretary of State for International Development the private office number of the President—not that I think the Prime Minister needs to be handed the President’s telephone number, because he has spoken to him before.
That dialogue is very important. I want three wise people to be sent to Yemen now: someone acting as an envoy from the United Nations, someone acting on behalf of the EU, and someone acting on behalf of Britain. I want there to be a representative from Britain not just because of our colonial past in the area, but because I think that our Prime Minister and our Government are highly respected in Yemen owing to the work that has been done by successive Governments. I think that if we wait until there is civil war, it will be too late. A mission by three wise people out to Sana’a in the next few days, bringing the sides together and convening a conference there, would make a huge difference to the future of the country.
There is a risk that if we do not arrange that, the country will slide into civil war. Then people will ask, as they do about Libya, what we can do in order to stop the massacre of individual people—not by one side or the other, because there is no question of that happening. There is no similarity to what the President of Libya is doing. However, there is a similarity in terms of what might happen in the end. The only people who will gain from a civil war in Yemen will be al-Qaeda, and if al-Qaeda takes over Yemen, or even part of Yemen, there will be an impact on our country and our ability to maintain stability, not just in the region but in the context of what might happen to us here.
Let me give just one practical example of how we can help. For months I have been urging the Government to send scanners to Sana’a airport so that cargo and passengers can be scanned before they embark on flights to the United Kingdom. The importance of that was highlighted after the problems at East Midlands airport when a package arrived, originally from Sana’a, which had been to Dubai and ended up in Castle Donington in north-west Leicestershire. I have said that it is a simple matter and that we need not send great things, but should send those scanners. What the Government did was stop direct flights, which has had a huge effect on the Yemeni economy and made things very difficult for the very poor people of Yemen.
I therefore say that there are several practical things we can do now, but the most practical thing we can do is send these wise people out there right away, because what is needed is prevention rather than cure, and if we send them after the event, there is no telling what might happen.
Yemen borders Oman, a stable and friendly country to our country. It also borders Saudi Arabia. It is in the horn of Africa too, and we know about the piracy that occurs in that part of the world. Somalia is just opposite Yemen. In fact, during most of my early life there, there were a lot of Somali people who had come from Addis and had settled in Yemen.
What I am asking for can be done now, and—believe me—it is what the people of Yemen want. They want a peaceful transition, not a bloody transition and not the separation of the country into two parts. If there is a civil war and the country is split, the split will go on for ever and ever, and the cost to the international community in aid and support will be huge.
This is as simple a solution as possible. I know it is easy for me, a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, to be suggesting something like this to the Government, but the fact is that it is a simple solution to an agonisingly difficult problem. I visited Yemen when I was Minister for Europe, but the Minister has not done so, and I know you have not visited Yemen either, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, I hope that we will all be able to visit Yemen one day. Indeed, I hope that one day I will be able to take my 16-year-old son, Luke, and my 14-year-old daughter, Anjali, to Yemen to show them the country where their father was born and spent nine very happy years of his life.
I went there as a first-generation immigrant. My parents went from India to Yemen back in those unfashionable days to find work, and they settled in Aden. There was a very large British community there, and they exercised their right to come to this country and bring me here when the civil war began and our troops were made to leave Yemen. I know what it was like. I can remember the British soldiers being killed and their funerals, which took place very near where we lived. My family were immigrants, but we were treated so well. We were Catholics in a Muslim country, but they treated us with such kindness and dignity. I think we need to return the favour—to act now before it is too late. I beg the Minister from the bottom of my heart to pass this message on.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate. Anyone who heard him speak will know of the importance of the issues he has brought before the House, most obviously to the prosperity and well-being of the people of Yemen, but also, as he rightly said, to the security of the United Kingdom and the wider global community. Anyone who listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech will also have been left in no doubt about the depth of his knowledge of Yemen and his deep and abiding affection for the country and its people.
The UK has a long-standing relationship with Yemen, and in recent years we have, under successive Governments, sought to work with the Government of Yemen and the international community to bring about greater stability, prosperity and democracy in Yemen. The current situation in the country is a cause of deep concern, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned at the start of his speech the advice the Government are giving to British nationals currently living in Yemen, and it will be of assistance to the House if I make it clear again today that we changed our travel advice again earlier this week, and we are now advising British nationals that they should leave Yemen now, while commercial carriers are still flying. Because of the violence and political turbulence in Yemen and the dangerous security situation, the ability of the British Government to provide consular assistance is very limited. If British citizens do not leave, it is highly unlikely that the British Government would be able to evacuate them or to provide consular assistance if the situation worsens further. We are therefore strongly advising British nationals to plan on that basis.
Recent protests have brought into sharp focus the economic, political and social challenges that have faced Yemen for some time. The Yemeni protestors have raised their voices in a peaceful manner to demand a more open political system, and their bravery has been apparent to everybody. It is clear to us that the time has come for political change in Yemen. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Yemeni people have made it clear that they want greater political participation, greater respect for human rights, and peace and prosperity. The United Kingdom Government support those aspirations.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh has led Yemen for more than 30 years and has steered his country through substantial change during that time, not least the unification of the two Yemeni republics. He has confirmed that he will not seek to run again as President of the Republic of Yemen, although the protestors are calling for a more immediate exit from power. I wish to make it clear to the House that it is not for the United Kingdom to determine how Yemen should be governed or who should be its President. The exact terms of the transition have to be worked out in Yemen, but we believe that it should be carried out on the basis of a credible and inclusive dialogue, that it should be peaceful and orderly, and that it needs to command the support of all sides in that country. The fundamental values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law should be upheld, and we stand ready to do what we can to support dialogue and transition, whether bilaterally or with our partners in the international Friends of Yemen group.
In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s final comments, I would say that the Foreign Secretary, Baroness Ashton on behalf of the European Union, and their counterparts in the United States are in close touch with the neighbouring countries of the Gulf on how best to offer assistance to the Government of Yemen. Sometimes we make clear in public what we are doing, but sometimes these contacts are made in private, for reasons that he will appreciate. Our judgment is that private messages are best at the moment and that a public mission would risk moving the focus from the responsibility of both the Government and opposition in Yemen to talk to each other, to whether an international mission with a high public profile would or would not succeed. Although I take the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal seriously and will ensure that the Foreign Secretary is made aware of it, we think that providing detailed and frequent support in private to those who have the responsibility to ensure transformation is the right way forward.
The violence that we have seen in recent weeks is shocking and unacceptable. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear on a number of occasions that we need to help find a way to reduce tension and avoid confrontation. All that violence does is undermine trust further, and that trust is essential if there is to be a successful negotiation and a period of political transition. As President Saleh has acknowledged, the Government of Yemen have a responsibility to protect protestors and uphold the rule of law, and that needs to be done with full regard to Yemen’s international human rights obligations.
As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, violence and the political crisis in Yemen take place against a background of a serious social and economic situation in that country. Yemen has a large and fast-growing population, huge unemployment, significant rates of child malnutrition, and rapidly declining oil and fresh water resources. As he said, more than 40% of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day, and the inflation in world food commodity prices is hitting even wealthy Yemenis hard. That is happening to such an extent that major international non-governmental organisations are seriously concerned about the potential for a significant humanitarian disaster in Yemen in the coming months. Government revenues there are decreasing and Government expenditure is increasing. The economy is in serious decline and the current political instability threatens to make an already fragile situation much worse.
Yemen and its prosperity matter to us all, because any worsening of the instability, terrorist activity and poverty will have a detrimental effect on security within Yemen, in the region and globally. Therefore, the Government’s strategy is to support Yemeni action to create a more secure, stable and economically sustainable Yemen. A number of different policy themes interact in that regard. Yes, we are helping the Yemeni Government to provide basic services for their people, such as health care and education. We have been supporting work to develop economic opportunities in that country to create jobs and generate income, most obviously through the Department for International Development’s programmes. We have supported work to build the capacity of the Yemeni Government to tackle the threat from terrorism and, within a strict framework, we have provided training to select parts of the Yemeni security forces.
Our strategy acknowledges that developing the capacity of a state cannot be just a short-term goal. It can take months or years and requires a long-term and serious commitment by both partners and donors. In addition to the assistance we provide in that area, the United Kingdom, through DFID, supports the very poorest in Yemen through the social fund for development. We are one of the biggest bilateral aid donors to Yemen and our development partnership arrangement sets out our development commitment through to 2017. Between 2008 and 2011 alone, DFID will have provided £105 million to support development in Yemen.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the Friends of Yemen group. I am happy to pay tribute to the previous Government’s initiative in establishing that group and of course the current Government have sought to follow that through. Like the right hon. Gentleman, we were disappointed when, at the request of the Yemeni Government, the planned meeting in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia was postponed. We very much hope that it can be rescheduled as soon as possible, but the timetable for that would very much depend on what happens politically in Yemen.
The Minister has set out the position very clearly as far as aid is concerned, but the emphasis now is on the critical nature of what is happening at the moment. Given that there is the Friends of Yemen group and that there is a structure, does he not feel that an emergency meeting with the emphasis less on development aid and more on protecting and helping the country to stay stable would be helpful? The critical point now is not how much aid we can give Yemen in future but how we can save people now.
I take seriously the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but as I said earlier, the meeting was postponed at the request of the Yemenis themselves. It is clearly important that they engage in such a meeting with friends and neighbours. We have not forgotten about Yemen because the friends group is not meeting: we are talking to the Saudis and other neighbours in the Gulf Co-operation Council about the best way forward to try to bring about reconciliation and political transformation in Yemen and about the way in which the regional and international community can help Yemen with development and enhancing its political stability once that period of political transition is over. That work is continuing whether or not there is a formal meeting of the Friends of Yemen group.
The Minister knows how important these matters are, and the problem is that the situation is different to that in Libya, where the successor Government will be the Libyan people in one form or another. The successor Government to President Saleh, unless we intervene now, will be al-Qaeda, and once it is in there will be no shifting it. I would like the emphasis that has been put on Libya to be put on Yemen, and I would like that to happen as soon as possible. These bilateral discussions are great, and they will always continue as part of Foreign and Commonwealth Office life, but there is urgency now.
I certainly take seriously the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the threat from al-Qaeda, especially as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other al-Qaeda affiliates have operated in Yemen for some time. AQAP in particular has significant operational capacity there. The Yemeni Government, under President Saleh, are of course publicly committed to combating AQAP, and we regard it as important that those involved in any new arrangements for government in Yemen after President Saleh has left office should be equally committed to the fight against international terrorism; we will do our utmost to work with the Government of Yemen to ensure that that happens.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned aviation security. I can tell him that the technical officials in the Department for Transport who are responsible for the project are working hard to implement it as quickly as possible, but we are not talking about equipment that we can just take to Yemen, and plug in and play; there are basic operating procedures, and staff training and management issues, that have to be tackled by the Yemeni authorities, not the United Kingdom. We can move only as fast as they will allow on clearance of equipment, undertaking training and putting in place the operating procedures. However, we have not forgotten the issue.
The United Kingdom regards the political crisis and the long-standing economic—
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).