Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vaizey.)
It is a pleasure to introduce the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. The reason why I sought the debate was a strong interest in how the BBC is scrutinised and what is happening in this organisation. My first recollection of the BBC is from the time when I used to go back to Poland, in communist times, and see my grandfather. At the end of the day, we would draw the curtains and quietly listen to the BBC World Service. Of course, in those times, it was illegal to listen to outside broadcasters. If people were caught, they were punished. My grandfather and many other Poles behind the iron curtain were very relieved and grateful to be able to listen to the BBC World Service because it brought them the truth, which, regrettably, they were not able to get from communist propaganda and the media there.
The experience that I have described was very positive, but I want now to read out a quote from The Economist in July 2010 that encapsulates my thinking and that of many other Conservative MPs. It says:
“Here is a curious paradox about British conservatives. Challenge them to defend grand British institutions, from the Royal Family to the House of Lords or the lack of a written constitution, and they argue passionately about the dangers of tampering and meddling with things that evolved organically over time. They will talk about the British genius of leaving well alone. Perhaps you would not start from here, they may concede, and parts of our system may look a bit odd to outsiders, even extravagantly so. But these fragile accretions work rather well, they say, and would not survive piecemeal attempts to reform and tweak them. If it ain’t broke, in other words, don’t fix it.
And yet, get the same British conservatives onto the subject of the BBC, and they turn into wild-eyed Jacobins, yearning to punish and slash and burn and stick the heads of senior BBC staff on spikes.”
I have to say that that rather encapsulates my thinking about the BBC. I do not understand what it is about this organisation that gets my blood pressure rising and gets me so upset and irritated. I hope to be able to raise some of the issues that certainly frustrate me as a parliamentarian and a representative of taxpayers.
The BBC was set up in 1929, and of course I understand that in the late 1920s it needed to have state funding. However, the 1920s were a very different era from today. We have to think—I give this very important challenge to my hon. Friend the Minister—about how appropriate it is in 2012 for this broadcaster to receive such huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. The BBC is insulated from reality with that comfort blanket of taxpayers’ money. It knows that, no matter what it does, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money will be poured into its organisation. I feel passionately that there is a lack of urgency, a lack, if I may say so, of innovation and a lack of determination to compete due to the secure nature of its state funding. I would like to know from the Minister what plans he has to ensure that more commercialism is brought to the BBC and that it is forced to pay for itself, rather than relying on taxpayers’ money.
I personally object to having to pay £145.50 every year to have a television licence. The public affairs department at the BBC keeps telling me how wonderfully cost-effective that is—much cheaper than any other broadcaster—but I personally object to having to pay £145.50 for the privilege of having a television licence. In 2012, it is somewhat out of date that citizens have to pay for the privilege of owning a television set. One should automatically be able to have a television and watch it without the need for a licence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on succeeding in securing so important a debate. I recognise his doubts in relation to the licence fee and the guaranteed income that the BBC receives. Would his doubts be satisfied if there were greater transparency over how that money was spent? Every local authority in England publishes every invoice for amounts in excess of £500. Does he think that that would be an admirable model for the BBC to follow?
I completely concur. The BBC has been guilty in the past in the sense that trying to extract information from it has been like pulling teeth without anaesthetic. I do not understand why it has to have this cloak-and-dagger mystery surrounding how it spends taxpayers’ money, because at the end of the day—we must remember this—it is taxpayers’ money. I want to ram that point home over and over again. We are scrutinised here in the House of Commons because we are funded by taxpayers. The BBC is also funded by taxpayers and it has to be as transparent as Parliament is trying to be.
Yes, I concur with my right hon. Friend. I am a great supporter of the coalition Government, and what he refers to is one of their early success stories.
I reiterate to the Minister the need for commercial activity and, dare I say it—this will be anathema to the BBC—some form of privatisation. I see people in the Public Gallery shaking their heads, but we have to think the unthinkable and challenge the BBC, because it does not understand the meaning of reform and adapting to the modern era. I would like also to talk about the salaries of senior executives.
I apologise for interrupting again so soon, but on the issue of the commercial sector, is my hon. Friend aware that a day’s viewing on Sky costs roughly £1.50, whereas a day’s viewing on the BBC costs 40p? The private sector is not doing very well by comparison, particularly when we bear in mind the fact that 26% of Sky viewing is of BBC programmes anyway and has already been paid for.
Order. Before the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) replies and continues his speech, I remind all hon. Members that, for the purposes of debate, the Public Gallery is invisible—it does not exist. It does not matter how much members of the public are gesticulating, Members should not recognise them.
Yes, I apologise for that, Sir Roger, but the particular gesticulating was rather irritating and I wanted to highlight it. [Laughter.] May I carry on by saying that I do have a concern about the salaries of senior BBC executives? The outgoing director-general had a salary of more than £800,000. Of course, the BBC says that that remuneration is commensurate with other levels of remuneration in the industry and that in fact it is less than that for comparable positions in other organisations. Again, I find it very difficult to comprehend how someone working in the public sector, with taxpayers’ money, can have such a large salary.
To answer the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), which I had forgotten to do, Sky may cost more, but at least I have the option of paying or not paying for a Sky subscription. I do not have the option of not paying the BBC its licence fee—I have no option—so there is an important distinction there.
I am told that the new director-general will take a pay cut—to a mere £450,000 per annum. I do not believe that I am the only person in the country who is concerned that the director-general of the BBC will receive such an enormous salary. We must ask ourselves what is so special about running the BBC that means that the director-general receives twice the remuneration of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. We all, particularly those of us who have come from the private sector, acknowledge that we need to take pay cuts to do this job. We believe in what we do and understand that we are working in the public sector and paid with taxpayers’ money, so we cannot receive the same salaries that we received in the private sector. People in very senior positions in the BBC must also try to understand that, particularly in the very difficult economic circumstances the UK faces. It is essential for them to take a lead on this. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about increased transparency in the salaries of senior executives and what steps are being taken to cut those salaries further.
One must not forget that there are many extremely hard-working, good BBC employees in regional radio who are paid rather small salaries. I would like to highlight the great differences in remuneration between those at the very top and other people working in the BBC.
I was very upset about the BBC’s coverage of the jubilee celebrations. I watched it; I thought it was scandalous, shabby and rather unprofessional. It is part and parcel of what I call the “dumbing down” of the BBC—not treating the audience in a sophisticated way, but being what it must perceive to be modern and trendy. It did not understand its importance. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) may laugh, but this is part and parcel of debating and putting forward different and contrasting views.
I understand the passionate case that my hon. Friend makes. It is a free market; people can switch to other channels. He must recognise that the biggest viewing figures for all such national events are still with the BBC, but that is choice as opposed to compulsion. In terms of the BBC’s future and accountability, does he agree that, with technology, licence fee payers could be more involved in the appointment of, and indeed could vote for, non-executive directors to represent them on the board of the BBC Trust?
Yes, that is a reasonable and sensible point, but I am trying to get my hon. Friend the Minister to understand and take on board the wishes of those citizens, like myself, who do not want to watch the BBC or pay a licence fee of £145.50. At the moment, I do not believe that the BBC is as good as other channels on television. He may say that it is impossible—“You cannot detach yourself from this additional tax. You have to pay it and you have no alternative.”—but in this era we should think differently. I cannot believe that I am the only British citizen who does not want to watch the BBC and does not want to pay the licence fee.
My hon. Friend puts his case forcefully; his reputation precedes him. Perhaps he could move on to more positive elements of the BBC, such as BBC Radio Shropshire, of which I know he is an enormous fan. That is paid for by the licence fee.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I would not miss an opportunity to refer to BBC Radio Shropshire. It is a gem—the one glimmer of light in the whole organisation. I will come on to BBC Radio Shropshire shortly.
I have a serious point about the lack of foreign news on the domestic BBC. I am always amazed at how much trivial information is given out by the BBC in its news bulletins. There is very little about what is happening in parts of the world such as Latin America. For example, an extraordinary coup took place in Paraguay just the other week, and, of course, there was no coverage of it on the BBC. I could mention all sorts of interesting political developments in Africa, Latin America, the far east and eastern Europe that the BBC simply does not cover. It is difficult for people to understand what is happening across the world if the BBC constantly focuses on celebrity gossip and the UK to the exclusion of important and detailed constitutional changes taking place around the world.
I heavily criticise the fact that the BBC does not show foreign films. The reason why people speak such eloquent English in other European countries is that they are constantly watching English films with subtitles. It is a wonderful way for people, particularly the young, to learn another language. They watch a foreign programme and, particularly if it is a series that they like and watch weekly, listen to the audio, but read the subtitles in their own language. I challenge anybody in the room to say how often they see foreign films shown on the BBC with subtitles. It is a very rare occurrence and I would like it to happen more often.
I would also like to challenge the interview style of certain interviewers. I refer particularly to Mr Paxman. I do not know what problem this man has got; perhaps he is not getting enough exercise or something. There is something wrong with this man—something fundamentally, emotionally wrong with the way in which he interviews people. Most politicians who are interviewed by him immediately clam up and seize up, and the interview is not very conducive to finding out what they think. They are guarded and do not want to interact fully, engage or explain what they are pursuing, due to the sheer aggression and patronising tone that this man always brings to interviews. When the Economic Secretary to the Treasury was interviewed recently, I was appalled at the way he treated her: the derisory contempt and the patronising tone—highly aggressive and highly rude.
I suppose that some people might get some form of titillation from watching such a combative interview style, but they must ask themselves, where does it get the audience? Are they any closer to understanding what the Minister seeks to say or the policy of the person being interviewed? I rather suspect that the answers are a mystery to the person watching, because the focus has been on the aggression. I have asked the BBC how much money it spends on anger management courses, but I have yet to receive an answer. It should put some of these people on anger management courses, because they really need to get a grip.
I am not asking for interviews in the style of communist Romania, with sycophants interviewing communist apparatchiks in easy interviews. Interviewers should not accommodate politicians, but there are countries where the relationship between the interviewer and the politician is much healthier and focused on the questions, rather than the conduct of the interviewer.
Of course, I also have complaints about John Humphrys, by whom I have been interviewed on the “Today” programme. He is extremely patronising and arrogant, and does not let one answer any questions. That is in huge contrast to when I was interviewed on the BBC by Mr Andrew Marr. I wrote a biography of Colonel Gaddafi and was invited in not as a politician but as an author. It was fascinating that the tone of the interview was completely different. Mr Marr was interested in what I had to say and asked probing questions in a manner conducive to starting a communication. I felt that the listener was interested in the interaction we were having. Being interviewed at the BBC as an author is, in my experience, different from being interviewed as a politician.
Of course, I am coming to the one ray of light in the BBC world, which is, as my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, Radio Shropshire, a wonderful organisation run by Mr Tim Beech. It is important to me because it is meaningful; it is where the BBC works. Because it is focused on Shropshire and has local presenters, who talk about local issues affecting my constituents and the community where I live, it is, for me and my constituents, a meaningful body. I admire it greatly. However, again, the BBC focuses just on inner-city areas and neglects rural parts of the country. For example, there is no television camera at BBC Radio Shropshire, in Shrewsbury. Someone who happens to live in Shropshire, the largest land-locked county in England, cannot be interviewed by the BBC. On Saturday, the BBC telephoned me for an interview about the elections in Libya, and bombarded me with telephone calls. I said, “Look, I’m sorry, I can’t do it, because there is no television camera here in Shrewsbury.” The BBC said, “We’ll have to take you to the nearest station, which is Birmingham.” I am not going to do a 90-mile round trip on a Saturday afternoon, when I am with my family, to do a five-minute interview about elections in Libya. The point I am making is not just that politicians in Shropshire must travel 90 miles to do television interviews. There are many charities and important voluntary sector organisations in Shropshire that would like to take such opportunities, but it is impossible for them because the nearest television camera is in Birmingham, which is a 92-mile round trip from Shrewsbury.
It so happens I was on BBC Suffolk this morning, discussing lively political issues. In Ipswich we have a camera, so my hon. Friend may want to suggest to the editor that he get one. Would my hon. Friend at least give recognition to the fact that after a vigorous campaign by Members of Parliament, the BBC has put local radio firmly back into the future of the BBC and should be congratulated on rethinking its proposed regional strategy?
Yes, I agree with that. It is an important point and I want the Minister to take cognisance of the fact that Conservative Members of Parliament are interested in the regionalisation of the BBC and in making it more meaningful for local residents. I am delighted for my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) that there is a camera in Ipswich. I have written to the director-general of the BBC about the lack of one in Shrewsbury and lobbied senior BBC executives for the past seven years, to no effect. I hope that, as I have raised it again with the Minister today, some action may be forthcoming to ensure that the important county of Shropshire will have a television camera.
It costs £124.6 million to collect the licence fee, and I want hon. Members to remember that figure. I have been in touch with the BBC public affairs department, which says that that is extremely good value for money, and that those involved are doing a great job. However, let us remember what £124 million is. Sometimes we refer to these figures without trying to understand their gravity. In 2012, when we must make cuts because of the state of the public finances, is it right and appropriate to have two licensing centres, one of which, I believe, is in Preston and the other in Darlington? Is that the optimum way to handle matters? I have asked the BBC to tell me how many people work in those centres, and the response from the public affairs department is, “We don’t know, and that is not a relevant question.” It has a contractor to do such things. I am worried about that, because we should know how many people work at the TV licensing centres.
I want to know why the operation costs £124 million. Think for a moment, Sir Roger, what we could do with that money. Is the present method the only way to collect the licence fee, or are there other innovative ways in which it could be done? I shall say something which will shock hon. Members: I do not want to pay the licence fee, but is it possible for some sort of direct taxation to be used? I do not know; I am only throwing that idea into the air, because I would like the Minister to explain what work he has done on assessing how the licence fee can be collected better, and how the cost of doing it can be reduced from £124.6 million.
I feel passionately about foreign affairs. I am the chairman of the all-party groups on Saudi Arabia and Libya and have a strong interest in Mauritania. Not many people talk about Mauritania, but it is where the Arab spring and democratisation started. I am always amazed: I argue frequently with BBC people who criticise certain countries—Mauritania in particular; I say to them, “Have you actually been?” “No.” There is a liberal élite—as I keep referring to it—at the BBC, which is always judgmental, high-handed and opinionated, without doing research on the ground about what is really happening in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and other Arab countries. I suggest that before those people cast aspersions on or express opinions about those countries, they must spend time doing research. If they give the wrong impression about countries such as Mauritania, it may preclude or hinder some British companies from interacting with or investing in them.
One of the most important aspects of the debate comes from a friend of mine, with whom I was at university, who works for the BBC in the north of England. He has given me a document to read out, but he has asked to remain anonymous. Such is the culture of fear in the BBC: people who work there fear they will be reprimanded if they say anything negative. My friend writes:
“Over the past 12 months…the BBC has been insisting that freelancers earning over…a certain amount per year (in the region of £10,000 p.a) shall set up service companies, and invoice the BBC through the company rather than individually.
The BBC are running scared of the HMRC. IR35 rule. They were afraid that if the revenue were to closely examine the working arrangements of many freelance professionals, with reference to their work for the corporation, then HMRC would possibly rule that the freelancers were in fact in full time employment with the BBC. This would render the BBC liable for employers’ national insurance contributions totalling many hundreds of thousands of pounds. To escape this possible liability, the corporation has insisted on the service company arrangement, otherwise new contracts would not be issued to the individuals concerned.”
Let me pause there for a moment. Those employees, some of whom have worked for the organisation for many years, are being told that if they do not set up their own companies and invoice the BBC through those companies, their contracts will be terminated. I find that behaviour staggering and highly deplorable. My friend goes on to say:
“That was the stark ultimatum issued by the BBC. Many freelancers are extremely unhappy with this arrangement which brings with it extra costs in setting up the company and extra accountancy fees. And of course this immediately puts the individual in the spotlight as far as NI contributions are concerned. It is they (the freelancers) not the BBC who could now be liable for National Insurance contributions as the individual is now employed by their own service company - but it gets the BBC off the hook!! It should be noted that individual freelancers have never been paid for time off for sickness or holidays. At the same time the BBC continues to impose strict contract conditions on such freelancers (even through the service company) as far as work outside the BBC is concerned. However there are exceptions to this rule, with a number of high profile (and extremely well paid) personalities still allowed to expand their portfolio of work outside the corporation, with, in many cases, high profile television advertising commissions or newspaper features. Whether or not this is allowed seems to boil down to the amount of ‘clout’ the individual has—in other words would the BBC not wish to lose their services? If the answer is that it would not, then they (the freelancers) seem to be able to do what they wish and for whom they like. The BBC is acting like a bully and getting away with it whenever it can, riding roughshod over loyal freelancers who have served them without the protection of staff contracts, in some cases for many years.”
I have given a copy of this letter to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who has taken a great interest in it and has promised an investigation. The behaviour of the BBC in this regard is scandalous and I urge the Minister to give it his very close attention.
I thank you, Sir Roger, for giving me the opportunity to speak, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution.
Order. There are, I think, nine hon. Members present. No doubt all of them wish to rise to extol the virtues of their local BBC radio stations, all of which are on a par of excellence with BBC Radio Kent. The fact of the matter is that we are short of time. I propose to call those on the Front Bench at 10.40. To be as helpful as I can to hon. Members, I do not propose to impose a time limit, but you can do the maths for yourselves. I will call first those who have written in to Mr Speaker to indicate a desire to speak. The batting order is: Mr McDonnell, Mr Foster, Andy Slaughter, Sheryll Murray and Glyn Davies. I have noted that Mr Mulholland, Thérèse Coffey, Alun Cairns and Jim Shannon are all in the Chamber and wish to speak, and your names are a matter of record. If you do not wish to participate in the debate, or feel that you might not get called, you are free to intervene if any hon. Member wishes to give way.
On my calculations, we have about four minutes each, so I will be as brief as I can. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on the way in which he introduced the debate. The affection in which he is held in certain parts of the House is clear.
The last issue the hon. Gentleman raised is something we are all concerned about and we will certainly take it up. May I gently suggest to him that he should tell his friend that joining the trade union might help because it, too, is raising such issues? He also mentioned the scandal of Shrewsbury not having a TV camera. Of course we will raise that matter that as well, and we may even have a “whip round” at some stage to assist him. I am pleased that he has secured this debate, and I look forward to hearing the coalition parties’ response to his proposals for the full privatisation of the BBC or its funding directly through taxation. We are looking for a creative approach from the Front Benchers.
I think the hon. Gentleman was simply suggesting ideas for the coalition manifesto at the next election. Such ideas seem to be coming daily from a wide range of Back Benchers at the moment.
Later today in Parliament, a group of trade unions will launch the report, “BBC Cuts: There is an alternative”. They include the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union, the Musicians’ Union, the National Union of Journalists, Unite the Union, and the Writers’ Guild. I urge all Members to come along to that launch. The report outlines the concerns of the unions, which are representing their staff, about the threat to the BBC itself. It might well fit in with what the hon. Gentleman has said. The unions believe that the freeze in the licence fee for the coming period and the loading on of additional responsibilities mean that some of the BBC’s core activities are being cut, and that the BBC is under threat. Although I do not want to go into the murky past of how that licence fee settlementcame about, I have to say that undue influence was exerted by Rupert Murdoch and Murdoch junior. Their statements at the Mactaggart lecture in 2009 were translated a fortnight later by the Secretary of State in an article in The Sun, but let us not go into that in any depth, because the Leveson inquiry may well demonstrate the undue influence that the Murdoch empire exerted on the eventual settlement of the licence fee.
The implications of that licence fee settlement are that 2,000 jobs will go at the BBC; and that there will be £340 million of extra funding responsibilities for the World Service, S4C, the roll-out of super-fast broadband, local TV and BBC monitoring. In news, 140 jobs are already going. Something that might cheer up the hon. Gentleman is that three “Newsnight” reporters are going as well, but I am not sure which ones; he might wish to suggest a few names. Three Radio 4 news reporters are going, as are 17 posts across Radio 1, and one extra in news services. Twenty-eight posts are going in the newsroom, including nine studio staff. The News Channel is losing a presenter, the radio newsroom is losing two senior broadcast journalists, and six posts are to go in other areas.
Members—including the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who has now left her seat—have mentioned the effective lobby that we all undertook on a cross-party basis to try to save as much as we could of local radio, but that only stopped cuts worth some £15 million; others are going ahead. There are plans, too, to axe 31 posts in national TV current affairs. Editions are being cut from Radio 4’s “Law in Action” and “The Report”, while “Beyond Westminster” and “Taking a Stand” are coming to an end. The BBC plans to halve its spending on party conferences and reduce programme presentation from them; six jobs are going at Millbank, along with four posts in live political programmes.
The Asian Network is still under threat. International news coverage will be affected, with a number of sponsored reporters’ posts around the world being closed. Whatever the criticisms of the World Service, many people rely on it as the only accurate journalism accessible to them on a whole range of fronts. Those are the concerns that many people have about the future of the BBC. They add to the other concerns we have about major sports events being lost to paid TV and the threat to the BBC as a major sponsor of creativity, arts and entertainment.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about some of the BBC’s priorities, especially regarding the high pay of some of the staff. I agree that, as has been suggested, the remuneration committee should be populated by representatives of the staff as well as the listening public. In that way, we may well control some of the high salaries.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on bringing this matter to the House, and it is good to know that a Member can ask the Backbench Business Committee for a debate one week and have it the next week; that is good news.
Does the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) share the concern of many people inside and outside this House that although BBC executives are, as he said, highly paid, regional programmes—including those on BBC Radio Ulster and on BBC TV in the Province—are being affected detrimentally? One of the downfalls of the current system is that there are fewer people on the ground and less community involvement.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely spot-on. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said that there are high salaries at the top of the BBC, and low salaries at the bottom and on the front line. That issue must be addressed, and can be through the remuneration committee, which should include staff and listener representatives. That way, pay could be controlled.
The hon. Gentleman said that three members of staff were being made redundant on “Newsnight”. Our understanding is that Mr Paxman earns about £800,000 per annum. If he were prepared to receive a measly £200,000 per annum, we could save those other three jobs.
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman putting that to Mr Paxman in his next interview. Having said that, he makes a valid point about high salaries overall; we all agree on that issue.
However, we are not just talking about BBC salaries internally. What I find amazing is how much is being spent on consultants. The unions have produced their own figures on that subject, and they say that £3 million went to Deloitte’s alone in 2010-11. In fact, £8 million was spent on consultants that year, despite the 20% cuts overall within the BBC. There is a profligacy that must be addressed by management, and it would be best addressed if they take their staff with them in examining these issues.
Some bizarre and wasteful projects have gone ahead. The new Broadcasting House building in central London cost more than £1 billion, and the Public Accounts Committee has criticised the BBC’s flawed digital media initiative, which wasted £26 million. There are real issues that the BBC must address.
At the end of the day, however, the reality is that for every £1 spent on the BBC, another £2 is generated in income right the way across the economy. That is not the case with Sky. For every £1 spent on Sky, only 90p comes back to the rest of the economy; the rest goes out of the country. So, we must recognise the asset that the BBC is and, therefore, the need for continuing investment.
That is why I support the continuation of the licence fee, but the licence fee debate does need to be reopened. There was a fix at the height of the Murdoch influence, during that weekend in October 2010, and there was a lack of transparency, as has been demonstrated by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s criticism of that process. If we do not reopen the licence fee debate, my fear is that we will see a gradual erosion of BBC services and that it will lose some of its core functions. In the long term, that could undermine that generation of creativity—particularly in entertainment—that is helping us to rebalance our economy away from an over-reliance on finance and back towards manufacturing, thereby protecting the long-term future of the creative industries.
That is why I would welcome the Secretary of State reopening the dialogue and discussion about the future of the BBC in a creative way, and his engaging today with the unions, whose report is an incredibly constructive contribution to this debate.
Sir Roger, BBC Radio Bristol is excellent.
As chairman of the all-party group on the BBC, I have to say that we are critical friends of the BBC. We believe that it is the best public service broadcaster in the world, and that that is helped by competition from some other excellent broadcasters in the UK. We accept that, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has rightly pointed out, there are a number of areas where the BBC does not get things right. He gave some examples, and others could include the Jonathan Ross affair or, more recently, the dire coverage of the jubilee celebrations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski)—I, too, congratulate him on securing this debate—mentioned.
Generally, however, the BBC is an excellent organisation. It is now enjoying the highest level of customer satisfaction since records began; it is more trusted than ever before; its news service is the most trusted of all news services within the UK; and as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, it gives very good value for money to the economy of the UK. Not only does the BBC invest £1 billion directly into the creative economy—helping freelancers and small companies, including independent production companies—overall, it brings more than £8 billion into our economy. That means that for every £1 of licence fee, we are getting £2 into the economy. So the BBC is brilliant for the economy, and it is great for cultural activities and sporting activities. Also, let us just think of what is about to happen: the Olympics are about to start and the BBC, as the main broadcaster, will be providing 2,500 hours of coverage. For the first time ever, it will cover every single sport in the games on a variety of different platforms.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight sport. However, does he recognise the very real concerns that still exist about the coverage of sport below the national level—below competitions such as the premier league, the Guinness premiership and rugby league’s super league? Such coverage will suffer under current proposals.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that television coverage of any sport can massively increase participation and involvement in it, and far too many of the so-called “minority sports” are not receiving the level of coverage I would like them to receive.
Given that there is very limited time, I want to pick up on a few of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. First, he says that there should be more transparency in terms of executive pay. Frankly, I do not know what he means by that. If he goes to the BBC website, he will be able to find the precise salaries of all the senior executives. Indeed, he will be able to see not only that information but all the expenses of senior executives, produced on a quarterly basis. I am sure he will be very pleased to see that those expenses are down 35% year on year over the last couple of years.
However, if my hon. Friend is not satisfied with that information and wants more than just senior BBC executives’ salaries to be revealed, he can look further down the BBC website, where he will see the salaries of a further 462 senior and not-so-senior BBC managers; I checked the website myself a few seconds ago and saw that information for myself. Again, he will doubtless be pleased to see that the pay bill of those managers has gone down by 13.6% and their number has gone down by 8.5%. Also, as has been referred to by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, further work is ongoing to reduce costs, with a 25% pay bill cut and a 20% cut in headcount. So, the call for more transparency is unnecessary; there already is transparency.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman go directly to the National Audit Office, which can now look at that information following the coalition agreement to that effect. I am sure that he will be able to check that information with the NAO and the BBC.
Time is very short, so let me turn to the issue of foreign coverage. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has had time to pick up a copy of today’s Metro. If he has, he will have seen comments by the man who is, in my view, the greatest writer of TV programmes, Aaron Sorkin, who produced the fabulous “The West Wing”. He said in today’s Metro:
“I was in London during Hurricane Katrina and watched the BBC news coverage. That was the first time I ever…watched news about America at length while away in a foreign country. I could not believe the difference in the coverage compared with US news – it was night and day. The BBC is fantastic”.
Of course, if Mr Sorkin has sleepless nights, as I do, he can always turn on the excellent world news coverage of the brilliant BBC World Service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham also raised the issue of the cost of licence fee collection. Of course, we would all like to see it reduced, but during the last 20 years it has been significantly reduced as a cost of income, going down from more than 6% to the current figure of 3.4%. Of course, work is being done to reduce it still further.
My hon. Friend suggested that we should collect the licence fee through the tax system. I understand that the Institute of Economic Affairs has said that it costs £20 billion to collect tax at the moment. If we collected the licence fee through the tax system, presumably he would be standing here in Parliament saying, “Why are we spending extra money on collecting tax? Think what you could do with that money.” Of course, that is an interesting question. However, 3.4% of income is not a bad rate for the collection cost of the licence fee.
Finally, I say to my hon. Friend that the problem with privatisation is that it would end up providing far fewer services and far fewer opportunities to meet minority interests, because commercial organisations will not spend their time on those interests, and the minority sports, for example, would totally lose out. The great benefit of having the BBC is that it can cover those things that other broadcasters will not cover. And with that, I will end.
If that was the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) being a critical friend, I would hate to see him being sycophantic. I am afraid that the BBC’s uncritical friends do it as much damage as those, such as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who would like to see it privatised and sold off to Mr Murdoch. However, I praise the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for having secured the debate.
My vision is very different. I support the licence fee, and I want the BBC to succeed and thrive, because the alternatives do not bear thinking about. I am afraid, however, that the opportunity is given to extreme alternatives because the BBC constantly lets itself down. I only have a few moments to speak, and as the MP who represents White City and Shepherd’s Bush, I am going to be a little parochial and talk about my own experiences, which are somewhat emblematic of how the BBC has lost its way.
A May 2004 press release stated:
“The BBC’s new Media Village at White City in London will be officially opened tomorrow evening…by Jonathan Ross”—
no less. It went on:
“The Media Village development will play a central role in the regeneration of the wider urban area”.
It also stated that there would be five new buildings by distinguished architects, on a 17-acre site, providing 6,000 jobs for 6,000 people.
Three and a half years later, The Daily Telegraph reported:
“The BBC is to sell Television Centre, its headquarters in West London, to help plug the hole in its finances… Property experts say the site, which houses many of the BBC’s senior executives, could sell for more than £300 million.”
The BBC described the decision to sell as
“another milestone in the BBC’s property strategy”,
while Danny Baker called executives behind the decision “soulless crumbs” and “half-wits”. Of the two, my view is slightly closer to Mr Baker’s.
The situation is now much worse. By 2020-21, the entire media village site will also have been vacated, and 7,000 jobs will have gone from my constituency. Why? Because the BBC has failed to see the possibility of retrenchment and the need to cut back on costs. I was told by a prominent insider that the BBC had three gears for growth: fast, faster and tardis. It has built Salford—a soulless project—and the vanity project of Broadcasting House; consequently, the only site it can dispose of is White City, and 60 years of history there will go, through sheer poor planning.
The BBC was at the centre of a vision for the White City area as the media centre for not just this country, but probably Europe. Instead, we will have faceless developments of multi-storey luxury flats for foreign investors. In fact, the future of the first major BBC site, at Wood lane, would have gone before a planning committee tonight were it not for legal challenges by residents that have forced the report to be withdrawn.
The only silver lining might have been if the BBC was making a lot of money out of the disposals, to subsidise programme making and to avoid the sort of staff cuts that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) spoke about. The BBC manages such things so badly; it has sold the sites at an undervalue. The proposal for the Wood lane site is what we call the poor man’s Shard—a 35-storey block of luxury flats. I am told that the BBC sold the site at an undervalue, and no doubt—it is in the press—it is also selling its TV centre site at an undervalue, getting a poor deal for licence payers.
I hope that the new director-general will change the BBC’s culture and management. The BBC’s history, certainly during the time that I have represented the area as an MP, has been tragic, in its service to licence fee payers and to my constituents. I wish that I had more time to talk about what I believe to be editorial and managerial mistakes made by the BBC. Three years ago, the BBC thought it was a good idea to bring Britain’s leading fascist to the centre of one of the most multicultural areas of the country, to appear on “Question Time”, and after the invasion of Gaza, it declined to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, despite the thousands of deaths and the destruction of infrastructure.
Those examples reveal deep problems at the heart of how the BBC is run, and the last thing that it wants is for us to say, “Carry on; you’re doing a wonderful job.” I genuinely want the BBC to continue as a leading world broadcaster, but that will not happen without major reform right at the top of the organisation.
This debate is exceptionally important, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing it. The BBC is such a prominent news outlet for the public that, if there are issues concerning its performance and quality of reporting, it is appropriate that we discuss them.
There is a great distinction between local TV and radio and national coverage. The local presenters in Cornwall are very efficient, and TV programmes such as the local “Politics Show” and “Spotlight” are always informative, as is Radio Cornwall, which has a large number of listeners throughout the county and beyond, through the iPlayer. Recently, I have had some concerns about the cuts affecting those valuable shows and programmes such as Laurence Reed’s phone-in, which has a big social benefit for many housebound people in Cornwall. I am really pleased that we do not seem to have lost the phone-in. I was disappointed, however, when I heard about an alleged incident involving one of my local BBC radio interviewers and a local councillor last week. The councillor informed me that the interviewer refused an opportunity to interview another councillor with a different view from his preferred story, using the words, “That’s not the angle I want.” I will raise the matter with the local BBC controller, because I understood that BBC reporting, both nationally and locally, was supposed to be unbiased. The fact that the story was angled against the local council causes me concern.
Nationally, there have been some clear instances of exceptionally poor coverage. I have received a lot of letters from constituents about the Thames jubilee flotilla—an issue mentioned by other Members today. The coverage was described as “inane” and “mind-numbingly tedious” by Stephen Fry on Twitter, and an hon. Friend described it as “low-grade celebrity-driven drivel.” My constituents would have preferred presenters with comprehensive maritime knowledge, focusing on the participant vessels, most of which were interesting and had a lot of history attached to them, rather than on the crowds and the celebrities, and I agree with them. Some of my constituents were not able to go to London to see the flotilla for themselves, so they relied on the BBC and ended up frustrated and upset that the coverage was ruined by celebrities who did not understand what they were talking about. A pilot gig from Cornwall, the Ginette, owned by the Tamar and Tavy Gig Club, made the long journey to take part in the flotilla, and the crew deserved recognition for their efforts, as did so many of the other participants.
The BBC licence fee is basically a tax, so why should people pay for such unsatisfactory coverage? The licence fee has not kept up with technology. Shows can now be watched on computers, tablets and phones, and if we plug them in to charge them we could be breaking the law. I believe that the licence fee needs reform. It is an out-of-date tax that gives the BBC an unfair advantage in an incredibly competitive market. I do not believe that a licence fee is wrong, so long as coverage is worth paying for. The BBC needs to improve its coverage of important events. The BBC also needs to be accountable. Will the Minister confirm that we need to consider this out-of-date system and address these issues of great concern to the public?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), my immediate neighbour. Our constituencies are close together and we often share campaigns because many services available in my constituency are also available in his. This is another day when we are working together, although not completely in terms of our contributions.
I love the BBC. I love it as I might love an opinionated, aged aunt or an opinionated teenage daughter. I criticise the BBC; watching it, I often share the frustration and anger that hon. Members have discussed. It raises my blood pressure. I have never reached the stage of wanting to see leading BBC staff members’ heads on spikes, but it certainly makes me angry.
However, I never forget how hugely important the BBC is in Wales. My interest in politics is Wales and Welsh issues. The BBC has a huge part to play in Wales, probably bigger than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It has a special role in the promotion and development of the Welsh language. Since S4C was established in 1982, the BBC has played an incredibly important part in working with S4C. That relationship has changed as a result of recent legislation, and is much closer. S4C has a massive role in the development of the language, and it has been hugely successful. Since its beginning, the BBC has provided 10 hours a week of programming for S4C. It produces “Newyddion” and “Pobol y Cwm”, and they are a fundamental part of what makes Wales.
The BBC also underpins the musical tradition in Wales. It has its own national orchestra of Wales, which gives 50 concerts a year, produces educational projects in which 15,000 people participated last year and broadcasts concerts on Radio 3. It takes Wales out into the world as nothing else does. Wales is a small nation, and the BBC enables us to reach beyond. I know that Welsh Members of Parliament have a reputation for making perhaps more noise than might be justified, bearing in mind our numbers, but the BBC takes us out to the world. It produces “Gavin and Stacey”, “Merlin” and “Sherlock”, all created in Wales, as are “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood”. That is Wales in the world, and it is fantastically important for us.
BBC production underpins the creative sector in Wales. Privatisation has been mentioned, but the BBC underpins a huge part of the private sector creative industry in Wales by commissioning programmes. It is massively important to the sector. We have our own producers who have become world-renowned. Jeremy Paxman has been mentioned in this debate. Hon. Members might try being interviewed by Mr Vaughan Roderick, who knows every bit of information it is possible to acquire for the past 50 years. Anybody as feisty as Felicity Evans will match Jeremy Paxman any day. The BBC in Wales is a hugely important institution.
Of course the BBC makes me angry, as it makes all of us angry. It has inherent biases. I am angry about its bias towards European integration, which I often think underpins a lot of what it does. It has a ridiculous obsession with supporting onshore wind, which makes me so angry sometimes that my television has been in danger of my doing it damage. However, we must remember that even if it has a bias, we know about it. If we buy The Guardian, we know that it will lean to the left. If we buy the Daily Mail, we know that it will lean to the right. I feel comfortable that I know about the prejudices in the BBC.
The message of today’s debate is this. Let us hold the BBC to account, and let us criticise it when we think it should be criticised, but let us never forget that the BBC is a fantastic institution that takes Britain out to the world in a way that nothing else does. It certainly takes Wales out to the rest of the United Kingdom, and to the world as well.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for being brief in order to allow us all to speak. It is much appreciated.
I rise to give an update on the campaign, led by the all-party parliamentary rugby league group and supported by all the other sporting groups in Parliament, to save BBC local radio’s hugely important role in promoting all our sports. The issue goes back to the decision to freeze the licence fee until 2017, and the difficult choices that we all acknowledge the BBC has had to make. The BBC published its proposals for changes in “Delivering quality first”, but it also published proposals for BBC local radio at the same time, which got little coverage and achieved virtually no real understanding even among the major sporting associations. The proposals will mean a loss of local programmes on BBC local radio on weekday afternoons and of all local programming between 7 and 10, which of course means the loss of any sports magazine shows, discussions or programmes about sport, as well as the significant loss of live commentary and a reduction in the number of games covered in all sorts of sports.
If I may be so bold as to correct something said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), this is absolutely not about minority sports; it is about all sports. BBC local radio does a wonderful job of supporting smaller sports that are not covered anywhere else, but I am talking about this country’s four main team sports: football, cricket, rugby league and rugby union. They would be affected by the proposals. We—those of us who are English, at least—have all bemoaned our disappointing performance in Euro 2012. How can our team not perform better when we have the best league in the world? We must recognise that in order to compete, we need to encourage people at grass-roots level to take up sport in the first place, and that is what is being threatened.
We were delighted to host a meeting on 13 December of all-party sports groups. We got the BBC in front of us and launched a campaign to get members of the public—fans of all the sports—to write to the BBC. I am delighted to say that that campaign received a record response from the public, who then responded to the consultation on local radio. A significant proportion were rugby league fans, but other sports were also represented.
We were delighted when, on 25 January this year, Lord Patten announced that he had indeed listened and instructed the BBC to review his proposals for local radio. He was clear and specific to those making the decision that his instruction arose from the undue effect on sport and local sport. In particular, the BBC Trust asked the BBC to review three key areas: scaling back plans for local radio to share programmes in the afternoon; ensuring that local radio stations have adequately staffed newsrooms; protecting specialist content outside peak times.
The changes were announced on 16 May. We were absolutely delighted that the savings would be £8 million rather than the original £15 million, that the impact on stations’ content had decreased to £2.1 million from £8.5 million and that the majority of staff would retain their own afternoon programmes. However, it remains a key concern that there will be common national output between 7 and 10 o’clock. We ask the BBC to reconsider that proposal, which will continue to damage local sports. We are delighted that the BBC Trust has listened so far, but it must go further. We want to keep working with it. The rugby league group and other groups in Parliament will continue to press the BBC Trust and work with it to face local challenges without creating a detrimental effect on local and grass-roots sport throughout the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate at an excellent moment in the history of the BBC, given that it has a new director-general. I hope that the director-general will read this debate and take to heart many of the things that hon. Members have said.
All hon. Members present agree with some of the things that the hon. Gentleman has said. I think we all agree that there is too much pay inequality in the BBC. It is good that the new director-general has agreed to a reduced salary—he will be paid less than his predecessor—but I fear that the issue reflects pay inequalities in the sector in general, which seem to be, if not at banker standards, extremely high. The hon. Gentleman also has a point about aggressive and biased interviewing. I remember reading the transcript of a “Today” programme interview with Jacqui Smith when she was Home Secretary, in which she was not able to complete one single sentence. As the hon. Gentleman has said, that is not illuminating for the listener.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of privatisation and further reforms to the licence fee, but I do not believe that that is where the BBC should go. The fact is that most of the television news that people watch in this country—70% of it—is on various BBC channels, and that is because they trust the BBC news. That is a good thing, and the BBC has a good reputation. I will deal with whether it could improve its editorial quality, but its reputation is a positive. I do not think that the Panglossian view expressed by the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) is totally right. Those are the facts. We do not want the BBC to be less trusted than it is at present.
Although the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham talked about privatisation, he did not mention what was at one point the Murdoch agenda of breaking up the BBC. There have also been some discussions about whether the BBC should be treated on all fours with the commercial broadcasters when Ofcom reviews the competition rules. The Secretary of State has asked that question and, while it is worth asking it, I want to explain why the answer is that the BBC is different from the commercial broadcasters and should be treated as such.
First, there is the issue of public accountability, a point that the BBC itself made in its submission. It is a valid argument, but perhaps the BBC is not as open as it thinks it is, which has led to some of the frustrations voiced by hon. Members. Secondly, the licence fee gives the BBC a privileged position, so we can expect high standards from it.
What we are really trying to achieve in news and in television coverage in general is greater diversity. One route taken by the BBC—this should be taken into account—is to put out 25% of all production to independent producers, which means that there is internal plurality within the BBC’s programme making.
The really powerful people in television in this country, however, are the commissioning editors, a small number of whom have a huge amount of power over what we watch. They presume to know what the public want, and they measure their success according to ratings, but that is only half the story. I want the views of the public to be taken into account more directly when commissioning. In a recent experiment, Channel 4 asked the public what repeats they wanted to see, but it would be far more interesting if we asked audiences what programmes they would like to be made about subjects that they have not seen any coverage of. I am sure that if we put the same question to listeners of Radio 1 and of Radio 4, they would come up with different ideas, but we should involve the public far more in public commissioning. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham might then get the programmes on Mauritania that he would like to see, but perhaps not.
The hon. Lady mentioned the important word “diversity”. Does she agree that the BBC needs to do more to ensure that senior executives are more diverse and that more of them come from more diverse backgrounds and from ethnic minorities? Senior executives are far too white, far too privileged and come from a very small section of society.
Diversity is the exact issue that I want to address. There are various dimensions to diversity. A big survey on how women are used in programming focused on the number of women employed by the BBC and the number of women experts whom it interviews. It found that the number of women used is way below that of men, which is not acceptable, because women also pay the licence fee. We cannot tolerate it.
Does having more men in management result in a better picture on the screen? The new director-general is, of course, a man—as Jack Lemmon was told at the end of “Some Like It Hot”, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”—but I hope that he will continue the process of enabling us to see more women on screen.
My final point on diversity relates to the regions, which many hon. Members have mentioned. With apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), who made a devastating critique of the BBC’s property portfolio management—he seems to have renamed himself the hon. Member for White City—the BBC is, and is perceived to be, very London-centric. A major effort was made to address that by moving to Salford. The fact is that Salford and London are two places and there are many more places across the entire nation. We want to see programmes that reflect life in many other areas.
For example, it is the Durham miners ‘gala this Saturday. Eighty thousand people will be in Durham listening to speeches at this huge cultural festival, which has been going on for 125 years. I have never seen any national coverage of the miners’ gala. We will get it this year, because the leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), will make a speech, but we should receive the coverage anyway. It should not require that speech for people to see such a major event. The regions and the issue of diversity are extremely important.
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. Had the BBC not gone to where it did in Salford, it could have gone into Moss Side or into a deprived area, which White City is, of course, although the BBC never engages with the community there. The development in Salford is utterly soulless and completely cut off from the rest of the world. Moreover, what does my hon. Friend think of the Broadcasting House development on one of the most expensive real estate sites in the world?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Given your previous life as a journalist, I am sure that you were itching to participate in the debate, but you have carried out your duties with suitable neutrality and aplomb.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—I mean that—the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for whom I have spoken in the past and to whom I am utterly devoted for securing this important debate. Regardless of whether or not I agree with parts of his speech, if it does not win The Spectator speech of the year award at the parliamentarian of the year awards, I will want to know the reason why. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who spoke with his usual verve, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), on their important contributions. If I may say so, drawing myself up to my full patronising height, very few political points were scored and all hon. Members made their contributions as, I think, critical friends of the BBC.
May I use this opportunity to offer my congratulations to George Entwistle, the new director-general of the BBC, who was appointed last week? I am sure that he will prove to be a fine director-general. I have met him only once, but he seems to have received, from those who live and work in that world, a uniformly good press on his talent and ability to work with people.
I gather that that was an inauspicious debut for the new director-general. I join my right hon. Friend in saying that I, too, am a fan of the BBC. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire for highlighting additional work the BBC does under the radar. For example, in Wales, the BBC supports the orchestra—an important reminder of its wide-ranging work. When we focus on aspects that we do not like or that merit criticism, we should remember the many wonderful things the BBC does.
I was unfortunate not to see the BBC’s jubilee coverage—I watched the event live—so I cannot comment on its quality, but perhaps I can use this moment to congratulate Lord Sterling, the chairman of the National Maritime Museum, on commissioning Gloriana, the wonderful barge that sailed down the Thames as a tribute to Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. I recently visited the BBC headquarters in Scotland. It was a useful reminder of the BBC’s important presence in the regions—not just in Scotland or Wales, but in Salford and other cities in England. Of course, I bow to no one in my praise of the excellent quality of the output of BBC Radio Oxford.
I just want to put on record that, although the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has every right to defend, and bemoan the loss of, services in White City, his comment about the media city in Salford was utterly ignorant and nonsensical. I have visited that wonderful complex, and it is linked by a matter of minutes to Manchester city centre and from there to other cities in the north of England.
Forgive me for the use of the vernacular, Sir Roger, but it appears that things are really kicking off now, and we have only seven minutes of the debate left. If the hon. Member for Hammersmith would like to come back on that point, I will of course give way.
Let me deal with some of the issues that were raised, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham who secured the debate. I do not think that the BBC lacks innovation—one only has to look at iPlayer or the Space. The BBC innovates as much as any other public broadcaster. I do not believe that it pulls back from competing. In fact, most criticism from other media companies about the BBC is that it is too competitive. Nor do I think that the BBC is uncommercial. BBC Worldwide, headed by an excellent chief executive, John Smith, now commands sales of more than £1 billion a year and returns almost £200 million in profit.
The salaries issue is vexed and constantly exercises hon. Members. We should recognise that the new director-general of the BBC will be paid approximately a third less than his predecessor, with the salary reducing from £671,000 to £450,000. That is still a lot of money by anybody’s standards, but we should recognise that he will be running an organisation that employs 22,000 people and has an income of £3.5 billion a year.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that some executive salaries cause concern. There is no doubt that they will continue to be debated, but we should also recognise that from a high of approximately £800,000, the salary of the director-general of the BBC has been reduced considerably. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath pointed out, details of executive salaries are now available on the BBC website. My personal view is that I would like greater transparency. Talent salaries could be more transparent, and outside interests could be considered for some of the more prominent broadcasters. Viewers have a right to know the additional earnings of people who work for the BBC and whether there is a potential conflict of interest.
The subtext of another perennial issue raised in the debate is that we would all like to run the BBC, so that we could fashion it to our own interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has an interest in foreign news and is concerned that not enough coverage is being given to the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. That is a view. I would say that the BBC has covered the conflict in Syria and the Arab spring very effectively. I am a devoted fan of “From Our Own Correspondent” on Radio 4 and the web. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland would like the Durham miners’ gala to be covered; I would like the Olivier theatre awards to be covered. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham would like to see more foreign films. The BBC recently broadcast the film “City of Life and Death”, and we are now devoted fans of Danish and Scandinavian television thanks to broadcasts on the BBC.
The future of the licence fee will no doubt be debated when the renewal of the charter comes up in the next few years. The licence fee is the most effective way to support the BBC and enshrine its independence. The cost of collections has halved, and the income from the licence fee has increased by more than 25%. We have frozen the licence fee, recognising the pressure on hard-working families, and that is, frankly, making the BBC live within its means.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith pointed out some of the concerning decisions the BBC has made in managing its estate. That is an example of the BBC suffering through bad management, not a lack of revenue. Furthermore, we have succeeded, as part of the coalition agreement, in ensuring that the National Audit Office has fairly unfettered access to the BBC’s books. When an issue arises, such as whether the BBC has spent money wisely in managing its estate, it will be possible to have an independent view from the NAO. That is a very important part of the transparency and accountability of the BBC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned IR35 and contractors. I will go back and look at that issue, which comes up time and again. I am particularly concerned about some well-remunerated employees of the BBC being paid through a company. The issue is normally raised with regard to the possibility that appropriate tax is not being paid, rather than the BBC shirking its responsibilities in paying national insurance, but I will consider that in more detail and engage with my hon. Friend if he wishes to pursue the matter further.
I stress the important principle, which I think unites us all in the Chamber, that the BBC is independent, and independent of the Government. It is one of the finest, if not the finest, public service broadcaster in the world, so when we criticise the BBC, it is worth remembering that it is a jewel in this nation’s crown.