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Sir Jimmy Savile (BBC Inquiry)

Volume 551: debated on Monday 15 October 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on the BBC inquiry into the allegations against the late Sir Jimmy Savile.

The allegations emerging around Jimmy Savile are absolutely horrifying. My thoughts are with those affected and their families who have suffered in silence for decades. I believe that it is absolutely right that the BBC asked the police first and foremost to investigate these allegations, and that it has waited to act, on the advice of the police, before launching its own inquiries. It is essential that the police inquiry is not disrupted.

The BBC is a globally admired British institution and has a unique place in our cultural life. As such, it is imperative that it behaves in a manner that makes it worthy of the public’s ongoing trust and confidence. Both the Prime Minister and I said last week that we believed that the BBC should investigate these very serious allegations. The BBC Trust is there to represent the interests of licence fee payers: it must investigate these matters and rectify them, too.

Following the board meeting on Friday, I called both the director-general and the chair of the BBC Trust to underline how vital it is to have clear terms of reference in place and for there to be an announcement of who will chair the inquiries as soon as possible. From those conversations, I am now confident that both the BBC and the BBC Trust are taking these allegations very seriously indeed.

As the House will be aware, the BBC has launched three separate investigations. The first will look into the allegations with regard to the item on Savile which was inappropriately pulled from “Newsnight”. The second review, to be undertaken when the police advise it is appropriate to do so, will focus on Jimmy Savile himself. Thirdly, although the BBC’s child protection policy was overhauled in 2002, the review will also focus on whether its policy is fit for purpose and what lessons can be learned. This review will be assisted by an independent expert. An additional piece of work will look at the very troubling allegations of sexual harassment at the BBC that have come to light in recent weeks. The director-general will give further details later in the week. These are undoubtedly very serious matters, which have wide-ranging implications for a number of public institutions—not just the BBC. It is now crucial that we understand what went wrong and how it can be put right.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer.

Other institutions besides the BBC—including hospitals, children’s homes, the Crown Prosecution Service and even the police—appear to have serious questions to answer, and I am pushing for answers on those, too, but the BBC currently faces more questions than others because many of the alleged acts of sexual abuse and paedophilia happened on BBC premises and Savile was a BBC employee. While many of these questions relate to the past, there are very serious questions about the actions of the BBC in the present. Any hint of a cover-up by the BBC of its own role in this dreadful affair will cause huge damage to public and audience trust. We do not have an explanation of why the BBC scrapped the “Newsnight” investigation entirely rather than give it more time to develop its work, or of why the BBC did not pass on to police at the time new claims it had obtained about Savile and two other living celebrities who are still at large having allegedly abused under-age girls on BBC premises?

I have a number of major concerns that the inquiries announced by the BBC will not be sufficiently independent, transparent or robust to give the public confidence. I shall write to Dame Fiona Reynolds this afternoon to set out those concerns in detail. In the light of these concerns, I ask whether my right hon. Friend is concerned that the BBC has been slow to react to the growing scandal, and that by dragging its feet on the need for a proper independent inquiry on its own conduct, it has appeared as though it does not want to get to the bottom of this matter. Does she think the BBC’s arrangements for two inquiries are sufficiently independent, transparent and comprehensive? Does she think that a separate, rapid inquiry into the cancellation of the “Newsnight” story is justified? In view of the wider questions about the role of other institutions, does she think that a wider public inquiry into the whole affair would be justified? Finally, is my right hon. Friend concerned that the BBC Trust has acted more as a cheerleader and defender of the BBC than as a critical guardian of standards? Does she think the current relationship is fit for purpose?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to cover some of the issues that he has raised. I spoke to both the director-general and the chairman of the BBC Trust after the board meeting on Friday, and I feel that they are taking these matters extremely seriously indeed. I would underline that point to my hon. Friend. Ultimately, it is for the BBC Trust to have the confidence of the licence fee payer and the comfort confidence of the British public. It is therefore vital for all the inquiries to be undertaken in a transparent and independent manner, and I think that the involvement of Dame Fiona Reynolds as the trust’s senior independent director designate will reassure us in that regard.

As for the role of a wider inquiry, my hon. Friend should bear in mind that a police investigation is currently taking place. I think everyone would agree that it is important for the individuals who have been victims to know that that investigation can proceed unfettered, and that that should be our priority at this stage.

I support what the Secretary of State has said. Everyone has been sickened by the vile abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile, and it is impossible to overstate the suffering caused to those whom he abused. What has deepened the revulsion is that this happened at the BBC, an institution so loved and trusted that it is known as “Auntie”. That has cast a stain on the BBC.

Does the Secretary of State agree that no one should be complacent and believe that sexual abuse by people in positions of power at the BBC happened then, but could not happen now? The BBC should proceed now to review all its policies and processes on the protection of children, sexual harassment and whistleblowing, in order to be sure that the right policies and processes are in place and are properly enforced. That need not wait for the police investigation. Does the Secretary of State agree that it must apply to all employees, including those at the very top—the senior executives and the top talent? Clearly it was Jimmy Savile’s exalted celebrity status that gave him a sense of impunity.

I strongly support the Secretary of State’s recognition that people will want to be confident that the inquiries that the BBC is setting up will be genuinely independent, and that they will want to know when those inquiries can be established and when reports on them will be issued. I also support the recognition by the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) that this goes wider than just the BBC, and that there are still countless young women and men who have been abused but have never complained because they bear a great burden of shame, guilt and disgust, and fear that they will not be believed. Should not our strong and clear message to them today be “Come forward now, seek the support that you need to address the wrong that has been done to you, and, in doing so, not only secure the justice that you deserve but protect others in the future”?

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her comments and her support. She is right: there can be no room for complacency. I know that when we have discussed this matter in Committees of the House, we have stressed the importance of vigilance as well as checking. A vigilant culture in our corporations is vital.

The BBC undertook a root-and-branch review of its child protection policies in 2002, and made significant changes. Having looked at those changes over the last few days, I can see why they are held up as an exemplar in their field, but the right hon. and learned Lady is right to say that we need to reconsider. We must leave no stone unturned in ensuring that such appalling situations cannot arise again. Child abuse can have nowhere to live at any level in an organisation.

Let me reassure the right hon. and learned Lady again that we have a shared objective, namely to ensure that the reviews are entirely independent. I have been assured by the BBC that both the chairmanship and the remit of the organisations that will conduct them will be made available to everyone in the next few days.

I echo what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The revelations of recent weeks raise serious questions, not just about the culture that existed in the BBC some years ago—and in other organisations—but about the way in which the BBC has handled the matter, and in particular the very damaging suggestion that the “Newsnight” investigation was suppressed. The director-general of the BBC has offered to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee next week, and I am sure that my colleagues will wish to take up that offer.

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. I look forward to his Committee’s input, and the role that it will play in ensuring that these matters are handled transparently.

Last year, the coalition scaled back criminal checks on people who have access to children, and the Home Secretary has said that organisations should instead use a “common-sense” approach when vetting individuals. After these dreadful allegations at the BBC and other organisations, does the Minister think that the “common-sense” approach will keep our children safe?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she has looked at this matter in some detail, as I, too, have done. I can reassure her that the BBC’s own child protection policy goes beyond that which is required, and it is expected that where people work with children and young people the role will be subject to a satisfactory Criminal Records Bureau check or indeed a PVG—Protecting Vulnerable Groups scheme—check. She is right always to be questioning whether we do have the right checks in place, but I say to her that the individual we are talking about today had no criminal convictions. So this is not just about looking at convictions; it is also about the culture of vigilance that I talked about when responding to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman).

Does my right hon. Friend agree that these latest sickening revelations just reinforce the sobering message that child sexual exploitation is rife in every community, every organisation and every social class, whether it is hiding behind the culture of celebrity in the BBC and other institutions, behind the culture of fear within the Church or behind the culture of political correctness that prevents the police and social services from properly investigating when cultural sensitivities are involved? If one compensation is to come out of this all, it will be, as the right hon. and learned Lady has said, to embolden victims to come forward and, most importantly, for them to be taken seriously by the institutions that are there to protect them.

My hon. Friend speaks with enormous passion on this subject, and I had the privilege of working with him on the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill when we were in opposition. I agree with him that the seriousness of the situation is something that all the organisations that have been implicated need to look at. I reassure him that the police investigating the Savile inquiry are working with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to try to ensure that people who have been affected are forthcoming with evidence and that we can get to the root of this problem.

The whistleblowing legislation gives protection to those within an organisation who seek to expose a culture of wrongdoing. Will the Secretary of State look again at that legislation to see whether it can go further and impose a duty on individuals to blow the whistle in situations such as this?

I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments. All these things are issues that we can and should be looking at.

I understand my hon. Friend’s question. I am not sure whether he is aware that knighthoods cease upon the death of an individual, so the path he suggests is not one that can be taken. However, I think that his point sought to ensure that the appalling nature of these acts is recognised, and that is a point worth making.

The Secretary of State has rightly said that this goes wider than the BBC. Clearly, other inquiries will need to take place, as it seems that Savile had unfettered access to children, vulnerable patients and others on wards—this access seems to have been given almost entirely because of his celebrity and fundraiser status. Will the Secretary of State tell us how there will be co-ordination across the undoubted inquiries that we need in the health service and the one for the BBC?

The hon. Lady is entirely right to say that, as I said in my opening words, a number of other organisations need to undertake investigations. Those involving hospitals will be done at a local primary care trust level, although of course the Department of Health will be carefully examining the outcomes.

One cannot indict the dead, one cannot prosecute the dead and, as a consequence, one can never properly give justice to the victims of the dead. So can my right hon. Friend assure me that one of the things the police will thoroughly investigate is why no credible complaints against Savile ever resulted in charges?

I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration, which echoes that of other Members in the House today. I can absolutely assure him that the very serious allegations that have been made are being examined in great detail and that the fact that they have gone on over a number of years without receiving the recognition that they require will, of course, be at the heart of those investigations.

I had the now dubious honour of being Jimmy Savile’s Member of Parliament and, in that role, I met him on several occasions. A year ago, of course, there was an outpouring of grief in the city of Leeds and in my constituency, as well as throughout the country, on his death. Does the Secretary of State understand how people now feel betrayed, angry and very concerned that it is said in the media—we do not know whether it is true or not—that many people, including senior figures not just at the BBC but in other walks of life, knew of Savile’s proclivities but were too frightened to say anything? Does she think that the BBC inquiry, and other inquiries that are to come, should find out and get to the truth of who knew what and when?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and that is at the heart of the inquiry. It is vital not only that we have the police investigation, which will consider the potential implications as regards any criminal wrongdoing, but that we ensure that we understand exactly what was known and when—to use his words—in any corporate organisation, particularly the BBC. I think he is absolutely right.

I am sorry to say that I do not share the Secretary of State’s confidence that the BBC has the wherewithal to clean out its own Augean stables. The culture, practice and ethics of the BBC have left much to be desired over this matter. Indeed, I wrote to Leveson on 4 October asking whether he would extend his inquiry, given that the Prime Minister had said:

“We have also made it clear that the inquiry should look not just at the press, but at other media organisations, including broadcasters and social media if there is any evidence that they have been involved in criminal activities”.—[Official Report, 20 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 919.]

Leveson has yet to report, so would that not be the easiest way of getting an independent inquiry as quickly possible about this matter, the BBC’s role in which is under a large question mark?

I understand my hon. Friend’s question and concern, but I suggest that extending the scope of Leveson at the moment might result in a delay to the inquiry that I do not think anybody would want to see. I reassure my hon. Friend that the issues about which she is concerned will be dealt with within the two inquiries that have been announced. I hope I will be able to reassure her further when the terms of reference of those inquiries come out, and she can be assured that I will continue to work to monitor these issues closely with the BBC.

Is the Secretary of State utterly convinced that the culture of the BBC has changed since the revelations about the vile actions of Jimmy Savile? Just a few weeks ago, one of its senior talent was caught in photographs in the grips of a young woman with his hand down her trousers in a public place and he got away with it with nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders and a silly excuse. Is the culture really changing? Has it really changed? Is the Secretary of State utterly convinced? She knows that the police inquiry will take years and that the BBC will get away in the smoke. Surely now is the time for the independent inquiry into the BBC.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to question not just past but present practices. The BBC investigations will consider that exact issue, including not only the situation with the piece on “Newsnight” but the additional work on the troubling allegations we all read about in the papers over the weekend and today. He is right to say that the BBC must consider the present as well as the past.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about the fact that the culture of child protection in the BBC will underlie any investigation? Many people have commented that things were different then, and I am afraid that that leads to the assumption that the same thing could not happen today. As well as dealing with those who are found guilty of turning a blind eye to such actions, the inquiries must also consider those who decided to drop the “Newsnight” investigation because they were worried that it was in bad taste. That was equally an assumption that such things could not go on and shows that the culture is wrong.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must ensure that children’s concerns and allegations of impropriety or sexual abuse are taken seriously, whether within the police, the NHS or the BBC. He is right to make that challenge and to say that it should be an ongoing concern for the Government.

The BBC has not always investigated in-house matters with the same rigour it rightly shows when looking at other organisations and individuals. Along with its 2002 child protection policy, which should have introduced a culture change, what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that the BBC now has the leadership in place to deliver that culture change and investigate its own affairs as it does elsewhere?

My hon. Friend is right that we have to ensure that there is that challenge, and ultimately that is the role of the trust, which represents the licence fee payer and must make sure it holds the executive to account. My predecessor introduced a number of changes to the trust’s role. We will continue to look at that role and, as we move towards charter renewal, it will of course be hotly in our sights.

My right hon. Friend said that Sir Jimmy Savile’s knighthood, awarded in 1996, ceased on his death, but many victims will see that as insufficient. Will she consider raising with the honours forfeiture committee the possibility of posthumously stripping Jimmy Savile of his knighthood and OBE?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. That is a matter for the honours forfeiture committee, which I am sure will have heard his comments.

Until the law was changed some 25 years ago it was deemed in such cases that a child complainant with unsupported or uncorroborated evidence could not be believed and prosecutions therefore could not be brought. Although the law has, thankfully, been changed, is not now the time to remind all children and young people who are victims of such despicable acts that they can come forward and be treated in confidence by professionals who are dedicated to ensuring that the truth comes out?

My hon. Friend, who I know has a great deal of experience in this area, will be pleased to know that the Metropolitan police, who are undertaking the investigation, are working with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for precisely the reasons he gives. We must ensure that young people who have had these experiences, or adults who had them when they were young, can come forward so that their evidence can be heard, perhaps through a third party, to ensure that we know all the facts.