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BBC (Charter Renewal)

Volume 600: debated on Thursday 22 October 2015

1. What assessment he has made of the appropriate scale and scope of BBC services to inform the charter renewal process. (901722)

9. What assessment he has made of the appropriate scale and scope of BBC services to inform the charter renewal process. (901731)

I commend the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for her enthusiasm.

We have just consulted on the scale and scope of BBC services in the charter review consultation, which ran from 16 July to 8 October. My Department will provide a summary of responses and will consult on further proposals in the spring.

Ealing has long been a BBC borough, with the wig and prop department in north Acton and many things filmed there. It has many BBC employees, hundreds of whom have contacted me wanting to safeguard its distinctiveness. The Secretary of State is a fellow music buff—we are both alumni of the all-party group on music—and was at the reception where it was revealed that 75% of music played on the BBC would not get exposure on commercial airwaves. Does he not appreciate that the people in that room and my constituents fear for the BBC’s unique music output under his Government’s plans for charter renewal?

I am conscious of the very strong creative industries based in Ealing. As the hon. Lady says, I was present at the BBC “save music” event a couple of weeks ago, where I expressed my surprise that anyone had felt it necessary. I am the first person to recognise the importance of music on the BBC. I believe that the BBC plays a very important role in providing a platform for genres and bands that would not otherwise be covered in the commercial sector. We are having a consultation, we have received 190,000 responses and we will analyse those responses. I share the hon. Lady’s view of the importance of music on the BBC.

“The Great British Bake Off”, “The Voice”, “Doctor Who”, “Strictly” and “Match of the Day” are great British programmes made by our great British broadcaster, which is loved by millions here and around the world. Why do the Government seem so resolute and determined to diminish the role and the size of the BBC, weakening our influence abroad and undermining British programming?

Even if I wanted to tell the BBC that it should not broadcast “Strictly Come Dancing” or “The Great British Bake Off”—and I do not—I would not be able to do so. It is up to the BBC to choose. What I do think is appropriate is that, at the time of charter renewal, we should have a debate about the BBC’s purpose, its scale and scope, its funding and its governance. That is what we are doing, and we are extremely pleased at the very high level of response that we have received.

May I associate myself with your remarks about Michael Meacher, Mr Speaker? Unusually, we shared a member of staff across the House, which I do not think happens very often. He was a great man and your words were very well said. I send my sympathies to his family.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be far better for subscribers to the BBC to determine the scale and scope of its services, rather than the Government? If the BBC is as popular with the public as it claims, it has nothing to fear from moving to a subscription model. Given its international recognition, is it not inevitable that, freed from the shackles of the licence fee, the BBC’s revenue would increase substantially if it moved to a subscription model?

I am, of course, familiar with my hon. Friend’s views on the BBC. He has made his case with customary strength and fluency. We are analysing the responses to the consultation and his view will be taken into account, as will the other 192,000 we have received.

During the charter renewal negotiations, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the level of support for decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence fee across the country and across the House? Some 150 colleagues from all parties, including the hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), signed my early-day motion that called for decriminalisation.

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s work in supporting the campaign for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee. I understand the strength of opinion on the subject on both sides of the House. We are looking at it carefully. However, as he will know, David Perry conducted a thorough review of the issue and came up with a number of important concerns that would need to be addressed if we were to go down that road.

I share the sentiments expressed about Michael Meacher. He was, 30 years ago, the first Member of Parliament I ever met.

In a very interesting speech to the Society of Editors this week, the Secretary of State said, with respect to the BBC’s intention to help local news, that it should not employ more journalists, but should commission content from court reporting, councils and the like. Was that a warning to the director-general of the BBC or a direction? Was it another attempt to top-slice the licence fee, this time in favour of local newspapers?

It was support for a proposal that was first put forward by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I chaired and of which he was a member. He may recall our advocating this initiative that the BBC could take to help local newspapers. I understand the concern of the local newspaper industry that certain actions of the BBC are undermining it. This initiative could support local newspapers, both by making information available more generally and recognising that local newspapers provide an invaluable service in holding to account local institutions. It is still under discussion and I welcome the progress that is being made.

The charter renewal process is a big challenge for the BBC, as is remaining impartial in its coverage of the forthcoming EU referendum. Many of us on the Government Benches are not confident that the BBC is up to that challenge. What is the Secretary of State’s view?

I have followed with interest the discussions in the European Scrutiny Committee on that issue and am aware of the concerns that have been expressed. It is for that reason that I wrote to the chairman of the BBC Trust and the chief executive of Ofcom to re-emphasise the importance of the impartiality requirements on all broadcasters, particularly in matters of some controversy, of which I suspect the European Union referendum will be one.

I, too, attended the launch of UK Music’s great Let it Beeb campaign, which calls on the Government to protect vital BBC music services from cuts during charter renewal. Despite numerous briefings to the press about wanting to cut the BBC down to size and reports that Radio 1 and Radio 2 will be sold off, the Secretary of State told the audience that he would be “very willing” to sign the petition. I hope that he has done so. Given his new-found enthusiasm for the BBC, will he use this opportunity to sign up to another vital characteristic—the BBC is and must be a great universal broadcaster that produces something for everyone? Will he make that promise?

One thing I do not want to do is reach conclusions on every question contained in the Green Paper before we have even started going through all the consultation. [Interruption.] I did express my support for music on the BBC, but we are looking carefully at all the responses that have been received. I share the hon. Lady’s view that the BBC is a great broadcaster, and it is my intention that it should remain that way.