Skip to main content

Scottish Separation (BBC)

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. Yesterday was an historic day for Scotland, as we heard that we will possibly have to make our biggest decision in 300 years —it is certainly the biggest decision of our lifetimes. As we finally begin to move past the processed arguments, we must now be sure that we have the substantial, honest and transparent debate that Scotland deserves.

As the independence debate continues, the First Minister, Alex Salmond, has been making all sorts of assertions about what a post-independent Scotland would look like: the Queen would remain as Head of State; we would keep the pound sterling; the Bank of England would be Scotland’s lender of last resort; we would automatically have a seat on the Monetary Policy Committee; and we would remain a member of the EU under the current terms. Even last night, one of Mr Salmond’s closest allies was saying that the Scots would remain part of the United Kingdom and still be British. All those are assertions, not facts. It is the usual claim that all the things that we like will stay the same, and all the things that we do not like will not happen any more. However, that is not the case with the BBC. Alex Salmond says that he has a plan. He intends to break up the BBC and establish a separate licence fee-funded public service broadcaster in Scotland. He wants to model the Scottish broadcasting corporation, or the SBC, on the Irish RTE model. Scots viewers, he asserts, will see no change. He says that we will still have the same access to the existing BBC output: BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News 24, BBC Parliament, CBBC, CBeebies, which I understand is the Minister’s favourite channel, Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, the iPlayer, some of the best nature programmes ever produced, fantastic sporting coverage, as we had with the Olympics, and news packages from BBC journalists around the world.

On news coverage, the BBC is a trusted source across Britain and the world. In Scotland, we have always been internationalists and we take a keen and impassioned interest in what is happening across the world—whether the US elections, the middle east conflict, famine in Africa, or international disasters such as the tsunami or events in Haiti. Coverage of such events requires significant sums of investment, and Scots would be all the poorer for the loss of access to that trusted information.

The BBC remains the single most trusted source of information across the UK, and we should value its impartiality. The claim is that we could keep all the current breadth and quality of output of the BBC, as well as increasing investment in locally created content. The First Minister asserts that he will do all that on the licence fee income from Scots viewers. Let us look at the facts. There are 2.2 million licences in Scotland. If everyone paid the full amount, that would be approximately £320 million, but the real figure is less. By the time we take out the collection costs and discounts, such as those for the over-75s, the real figure is closer to £300 million, as opposed to the UK-wide BBC budget for all platforms of around £3.5 billion. It is fantasy to suggest that the current range of TV, radio, website and iPlayer content will be available to viewers in an independent Scotland.

What programmes are under threat and would not be available in a separate Scotland after the break-up of the BBC? There will be no “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Frozen Planet”, “Holby City”, “Match of the Day”, “Doctor Who”, “News at 10” or “Question Time”. I will not read out the entire list as it is endless.

I have been with my hon. Friend all the way through his speech until he mentioned “Strictly Come Dancing”. I know that I hold a minority view, but he would be in danger of convincing me of the opposite case if they were to get rid of “Strictly Come Dancing”. Seriously, “The Culture Show” is a good example of a BBC programme that is made in Scotland for the whole UK. In the past couple of years, it has been noticeable how it better reflects the whole UK. Is not the real future of the BBC to be much more British, rather than London-centric?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He implied that he was not being serious when he made the point about “Strictly Come Dancing”, but he did look rather serious. In a moment, I will reveal the figures that illustrate how popular the programme is in Scotland. Even though I do not watch it, I am sure that many others do. He also makes an important point about “The Culture Show”. We are proud of the fact that the British Broadcasting Corporation celebrates the history of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we would like to see that strength continued and not put under threat by the Scottish National party’s proposals.

It is also asserted that licence fee income will be used to support Scotland’s media and creative industries to a greater extent than is the case now. That means more spent on programmes such as “River City” and still all the UK content.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am asking him to give way and not to dance. Let me unpack that bit about the BBC’s input in Scotland. As a public sector broadcaster, the BBC supports independent production companies. Has he had any indication of what the impact will be on that? BBC shows that are produced in Scotland, which inject money and skills into the Scottish economy, can only be supported by that national level.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. Scotland’s creative industries support more than 60,000 jobs and contribute £5 billion to the Scottish economy. Across the whole UK, 43% of all commissions for independent television producers come from the BBC. In Scotland, the network commissions are the main source of revenues for independent production companies, and that will be put under threat by these proposals.

In Scotland, we are used to the SNP making things up as it goes along, but from this evidence it is not even good at that anymore. It is inconceivable that the quality, quantity and breadth of output could be maintained with just 10% of the current available resource. In the First Minister’s speech to the Edinburgh international festival in August, he laid out his plans for the SBC. He gave the example of Denmark and Norway. Let us compare their licence fee rates. For Denmark, it is £264.27; Norway is £277.94; and the UK is £145.50. That is 40p per day across all formats. Radio costs 6p per day for all programmes and all channels. TV costs 24p per day for all channels and all programmes.

The SBC proposals include commercials and a higher licence fee. Some might ask whether there is any evidence of interest from Scottish viewers in the programmes that I set out earlier. I am happy to set the record straight. The figures show that Scots take a keen interest in UK output. Despite the dislike of “Strictly Come Dancing” expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), some 910,000 people in Scotland watch the programme every week. That is 39% of the audience share in Scotland. Some 750,000 people watched “Frozen Planet”, which is 28% of the audience share. “Match of the Day” English premiership highlights pull in 262,000 viewers, compared with 186,000 for “Sportscene” highlights. Perhaps that is because the Rangers fans are not able to watch their great team in the premiership, which is a source of great pain for me personally. However, we should not worry because the First Minister told Jeremy Paxman in an interview recently that SBC will purchase from the BBC the likes of “Newsnight”. In that very statement, he actually makes the case for the BBC—we Scots already purchase “Newsnight”, and every other TV and radio programme, and it is called the licence fee. Why on earth would we want to break up the BBC then spend money buying the exact same programmes back again? Is that just because it is called the British Broadcasting Corporation?

Sadly, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is not in the Chamber today. In fact, there is not a single SNP representative present. Perhaps they are too busy thinking about 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote or about how to gerrymander the Electoral Commission proposals. What they should be doing is engaging in the debate about the future of the country.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, the SNP’s broadcasting spokesperson, exposed the true face of the Yes Scotland’s positivity when he said in March this year that the BBC is the institutional enemy of the party’s drive for separation. “Institutional enemy” are his words, not mine.

The hon. Gentleman went on to claim that the SBC would spend £75 million a year importing popular UK programmes, which viewers could then view for free in Scotland. However, the ability to purchase is yet another assertion, not a fact. It is another statement rooted in myth, not in reality.

Setting aside my concerns about any Minister—especially Alex Salmond—dictating the schedule of a broadcaster, he will simply not have the funding to do so. When he makes the assertion on “Newsnight” that we would purchase output from the rest of the BBC, he does so on the basis that the funding would be available to do that and that an independent, free-from-Government-control broadcaster would choose to do so. Both assertions are false.

It is also ridiculous and fanciful to make the claim that nothing would change. Let us examine the claim that the SBC would be able to use the money that it had to purchase programmes. Is there any indication of what it would cost to provide, say, the current package of sports or news for Scottish viewers? This year alone, the BBC will spend £479 million on sport, so we would have no British Open or Grand National and—I can see the SNP breaking out in a cold sweat at the mention of the word—no Olympics in Scotland, and certainly no red button coverage.

The BBC will spend £390 million on news, so there would be no coverage of the US elections or the Arab spring. It will spend £116 million on children’s programmes, so no CBBC, no CBeebies and—I understand of particular relevance to the Minister— no “Nina and the Neurons”. The BBC will spend £336 million on factual programmes, so no “Frozen Planet” and no David Attenborough in Scotland.

The Scottish Broadcasting Corporation’s budget would be, at best, £300 million. The BBC spend on sport is £479 million a year; on news, it is £390 million a year; children’s programmes, £116 million a year; and factual programmes, £336 million a year. So, after spending on buying the BBC programmes that it wants, the claim is that that would leave at least £100 million to produce quality programmes in Scotland. That is roughly equivalent to a single HBO mini-series: a series of “Game of Thrones” costs $60 million to make; “John Adams” cost $100 million; and “The Pacific” cost $200 million. Even then, that is one hour on one night a week. What about the other 167 hours that the SBC would need to fill? That exposes the quality gap of the proposals.

The impact also spreads to the BBC website and the iPlayer. Internet users in the Republic of Ireland, France, Germany and the US do not have access to the website output and iPlayer that the Scots do, for one simple reason: they are not part of the United Kingdom. So Scots would have no access to the existing output: no radio, no iPlayer. Scots would have access to the international iPlayer, but when we compare the two, a quick glance shows what is missing. Also, the international iPlayer has a subscription fee—an additional cost to Scots. Of course, there is no mention of that in the separatists’ proposals.

Web content would be geo-blocked, as it is in every other foreign country, but there would also be other losers from the SNP proposition: Scotland’s creative industries. There are 100 TV production companies based in Scotland, and 15,000 people are employed in the industry. “Waterloo Road” alone, a fantastic production for the BBC, represents a £10 million a year investment and 200 jobs.

Let us consider the current spend in Scotland: it has 8.4% of the population, 8.7% of total licences, and the SNP’s Scottish Broadcasting Commission recommended 8.6% of spend should be local. However, 9% of BBC TV production spend is now in Scotland. High-profile productions such as “Question Time” and “The Culture Show” already happen in Scotland. Scotland has a proud record in the cultural and creative sector, fantastic festivals and world renowned actors. I must mention the tremendous regeneration in my constituency in Glasgow on the Clyde. The BBC capital investment in its Pacific quay headquarters is approaching £200 million. That is a real success story for Scotland, but it is all at risk from the SNP’s plans.

Not only Scots would lose out; the rest of the UK would lose out, too. There is a licence fee freeze until 2016. On top of that pressure on BBC income, losing Scottish licence fee income would mean an off-the-top cut of almost 10% in BBC income. That risks decimating the organisation. The position put forward by the SNP is not only not credible, but downright misleading.

In summary, the proposals mean a higher licence fee; loss of the iPlayer; more adverts; fewer popular programmes; and fewer channels. It is yet another gulf between the rhetoric of the SNP and the reality of what their proposals mean for Scottish viewers, producers and the wider creative industry. Instead, what we need in Scotland is to look beyond the narrow constitutional debate and to continuing to use the collective strength of the United Kingdom and the BBC to support the industry, attract investment, create jobs and wealth, invest in both our present and future talents, and develop the quality programmes that we can enjoy here in Britain and also export around the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I am grateful for the chance to respond to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) on securing it and on making such an eloquent speech setting out his concerns about the future of the BBC and the potential impact of an independent Scotland. His speech was so good that I am tempted to simply sit down, because he covered a range of issues so comprehensively. I have noted his deep commitment to the unity of the BBC and the importance of national public service broadcasting, as well as to the Union itself. I also thank the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for their contributions.

It might be helpful if I remind the House of the Government’s very clear position on the wider question of the Union. We believe that Scotland is stronger in the UK and the UK is stronger with Scotland in it. The United Kingdom is one of the most successful and longest standing political, social and economic unions in history. Our economy, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central indicated, is stronger as a result of the ties that bind the UK. Its size and diversity drive its success and provide protection during periods such as the financial and eurozone crises.

The close ties and history of the nations of the United Kingdom mean that we can project significant influence and face global challenges together, as well as providing services, benefits and protections across the whole of the United Kingdom’s population. The Government are not making any plans for independence. We are absolutely confident that, in any referendum, the Scottish people will continue to support being part of the United Kingdom.

It is the current Scottish Government who are proposing independence, but in the matter of broadcasting, along with the many other issues set, they have not set out what independence would look like and what it would mean for Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman’s speech so eloquently made clear. I confirm not only that the UK Government are not thinking about independence, because we are confident that the Union will remain, but that I and other Ministers with responsibilities in this area have not had any discussions with the BBC Trust about the devolution of broadcasting.

Any company in the run-up to a big decision will take a risk assessment about what the consequences of the decision could be for that company or business. Has that been done for the BBC or is it likely to happen in the coming two years?

As far as I am aware—I will expand on this later—the BBC has not said what the position would be for BBC Scotland and other services in the case of independence. I understand it does not want to comment, because it wants to remain impartial throughout the debate. However, I can speak for myself and the Government and say that we have not had any discussions with the BBC Trust about the devolution of broadcasting or the outcome of a referendum on Scottish independence. Let me also be absolutely clear that the Government remain committed to keeping broadcasting as a national responsibility—a reserved matter—and not devolving it.

We have not undertaken any analysis of the potential impact on the BBC of independence for Scotland. However, there is no evidence to suggest that independence for Scotland would benefit licence fee payers. There were and still are very good reasons why broadcasting as a whole was not devolved in the devolution settlements. To pick up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, essentially the country as a whole benefits from pooling the licence fee, as well as from the advertising revenue and subscription fees that go to fund the excellent broadcasting output of this country. Pooling the licence fee allows major investment to be made in a range of programmes that we can all enjoy, whether they are made in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

As a country, we share immense pride in the BBC for the quality and independence of its output, which is respected and admired globally. The hon. Gentleman referred to it in his speech, but there could not be a better example of that output than the BBC’s coverage of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Sorry—I should say that Channel 4 covered the Paralympics. However, the BBC’s coverage of the London Olympics delivered the biggest national television event since current measuring systems began, with 90% of the UK population tuning in for at least 15 minutes. There is a greater net benefit to the nation and all our constituent parts in having broadcasting remain a reserved matter.

It is also important to take this opportunity to note the excellent service provided by the BBC to Scottish viewers; the hon. Gentleman referred to it in his speech. Equally, we should celebrate the high-quality productions that BBC Scotland provides to the whole BBC network, for the enjoyment of viewers the length and breadth of the British Isles. Viewers and listeners in Scotland benefit from a range of high-quality services. Both BBC1 and BBC2 provide opt-outs for Scottish programming as well as the usual network offer. BBC Alba provides a Gaelic language service. BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Gaelic radio provide services in both languages throughout Scotland, as well as employment in rural Scotland. There is no question but that a significant proportion of the licence fee is already being used specifically to serve Scotland through those services.

It is also worth noting the major investment that the BBC made in Scottish broadcasting when it opened the state of the art Pacific Quay broadcasting centre in 2007; the hon. Gentleman referred to the centre, which is in his constituency. I was lucky to visit Pacific Quay earlier this year and it was an incredibly impressive outfit. It is a significant employer in Scotland, providing jobs for about 1,250 people, and as the hon. Gentleman noted, I was lucky enough to pick up two signed photographs of Nina from “Nina and the Neurons” for my two children.

Such facilities have helped to make sure that BBC Scotland has been responsible over the years for some of the most enjoyed original content available to viewers throughout the UK, from children’s classics such as “Balamory” and the aforementioned “Nina and the Neurons” to acclaimed comedies such as “Mrs Brown’s Boys” and the new series of the very popular “Waterloo Road”, which was also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Through Audience Council Scotland and the BBC Trustee for Scotland, Bill Matthews, I am pleased to say that the BBC Trust takes very seriously its role to ensure that the voice of Scottish listeners and viewers is heard and is at the heart of decision making in the BBC, and also looks at how well the BBC is performing for audiences in Scotland.

The Minister is quite rightly pointing out the fantastic benefits that Scotland receives from the BBC, in terms of representing and promoting its culture, as well as being the trusted resource that it is. How would he respond directly to the comments by the SNP broadcasting spokesperson that the BBC is the institutional enemy in Scotland?

I have not heard those remarks or seen the context in which they were made, but as I have made clear in my remarks, I think that the BBC is as loved in Scotland as it is in other parts of the UK. The viewing figures that the hon. Gentleman referred to indicate how popular its programmes are in Scotland, and the key policies that I have just rehearsed—in terms of the Audience Council Scotland and a specific trustee for Scotland—show that the BBC takes extremely seriously the matter of ensuring that its output in Scotland appeals to Scottish viewers and listeners. Furthermore, the fact that it has such a significant base in Scotland, with such significant levels of employment, tells all of us that the BBC is a friend of Scotland and that the Scottish people are admirers of the BBC.

As I said earlier, all that underlines why the Government actively encourage broadcasters, as indeed the previous Government did, to undertake production in all parts of the UK. The principle of having a geographically broad production base is enshrined in the Communications Act 2003, which imposes quotas to encourage licensed broadcasters to undertake television production outside the traditional base of London. The whole country benefits from the policy; it is good for viewers, it is good for local economies and it is good for our cultural diversity. Much of the country’s best television comes from the nations and regions, because pooling our talents and resources means that we get the best outcome.

The SNP specifically raised establishing a new public service broadcasting channel for Scotland and separating BBC Scotland from the rest of the BBC. I am sure it will come as no surprise to hon. Members that we see absolutely no basis for supporting those proposals. As I have already said, the Government are satisfied with the existing level of public provision and funding for broadcasting in Scotland. Not only does the BBC provide a wide range of services but STV provides it with keen competition for public service broadcasting within Scotland. Scottish licence fee payers are not, as the First Minister claims, disadvantaged by the UK-wide public service broadcasting system. In fact, like licence fee payers throughout the UK they benefit from it, in terms of investment, choice, quality and diversity. Our new proposals for local television will also benefit Scotland, with decisions imminent on the awarding of licences for local TV stations in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Let me also talk about the BBC’s independent status, because that is very important in this debate. We remain fully committed to an independent BBC that forms the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in this country. Nothing we do will undermine that position, and the current licence fee settlement is grounded on that premise. This approach has ensured that the BBC remains a national asset of extraordinary importance and continues to bring great benefits to our country’s culture, to its democracy and, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, to our creative industries, which thrive in Scotland with many successful independent production companies.

The fundamental reason for our commitment to the independence of the BBC is the benefit that it brings to the whole of the United Kingdom. The independent status of the BBC supports the important principle of freedom of expression, which in turn supports a healthy and well-informed democracy. Any potential for political interference in the BBC’s day-to-day operations or output would dilute the corporation’s freedom of expression, with the outcome that the BBC’s contribution to the quality of life in this country would not be as great.

Crucially for this debate, political interference would impair the transparent and open discussion about our shared future that the BBC provides so effectively and intends to continue providing. The BBC is now entering a new era under the direction of its new director-general and I congratulate the BBC Trust on his appointment. I look forward to hearing what his vision for the BBC will be as we move forward.

Let me reiterate the key points that I wanted to make this morning. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central on securing this very important debate and on setting out so eloquently his position, which I suspect is the position of his party. The BBC quite rightly remains independent from Government and politicians. The BBC remains a broadcaster for the whole of the UK; and we as a Government believe, as the previous Government did, that it is important not to devolve broadcasting matters, so that we continue to provide a broadcasting system for the whole of the UK. The BBC continues to invest significant sums in basing itself in Scotland, making programmes in Scotland and providing specific output for the viewers and listeners of Scotland. Long may that remain the case.

Sitting suspended.