I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government’s White Paper on the BBC fails to provide an acceptable basis for Charter renewal; notes the threat the White Paper poses to the editorial and financial independence of the BBC; expresses concern about the re-writing of the BBC’s founding mission statement; further notes the concerns about the White Paper expressed by Members of this House and the House of Lords; and calls on the Government to reconsider the proposals contained in the White Paper.
The new BBC charter will form one of the legacies of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for good or ill. I say that not by way of making any predictions at all about the right hon. Gentleman’s immediate political future as a Cabinet Minister post-EU referendum in the Prime Minister’s revenge reshuffle, but simply by way of drawing attention to what is a fact of life for all Culture Secretaries who oversee the renewal of the BBC charter during their time in office.
The BBC is a revered, trusted national institution to which we all contribute, of which we can all be proud, and on which we all rely for much of our quality programming. In addition, it is admired around the world. It enables us to project the United Kingdom’s influence and soft power across the globe. It is at the heart of our much-admired public broadcasting ecology. It helps to facilitate and nurture our creative industries and talent. Charter renewal provides an opportunity for it to be supported and nurtured, rather than denigrated and diminished.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the White Paper produced by the Secretary of State rises to that challenge. I fear that it is, in fact, intended to diminish the scope and effectiveness of the BBC. Although it does not contain some of the wilder and more lurid proposals briefed by the right hon. Gentleman’s Department to Conservative-supporting newspapers ahead of its publication, it contains measures which may undermine the BBC’s editorial and financial independence, and which may, during the charter period, be used to chip away at the things that make the BBC the great British institution that it is. Furthermore, it is clear from the consultation responses that the public do not support the direction in which the White Paper proposes to take the BBC. I intend to mention some of those responses today, and to ask the Secretary of State to think again about some of his proposals.
The BBC’s editorial independence is one of the most important requirements of its future success. It must be protected at all costs, and there must be no suspicion that the Government of the day can influence the BBC board in any way. The White Paper’s proposal for BBC governance is among the most important of all its proposals. According to the Government’s own consultation, three quarters of the public want the BBC to remain independent, while 56% believe that it is the broadcaster most likely to produce balanced and unbiased news reporting. That compares with 14% for ITN News, 13% for Sky News and 13% for Channel 4 News. The public really do value the editorial independence of the BBC.
I am loth to stop the hon. Lady when she is in full flow, but I wonder whether she has seen the results of a Government survey of views on the BBC from throughout the United Kingdom. If so, she will have learned that the highest levels of dissatisfaction were found in Scotland. Does that not suggest to her that we need to address this issue creatively? Has not the time now come for the establishment of a federal BBC throughout the United Kingdom, and the introduction of a “Scottish Six” service produced and directed from Scotland?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s focus on matters Scottish, and, of course, I respect the fact that he has views on what policies should be used to address those matters. I do not myself believe that the policy prescriptions that he has just suggested represent the only or, indeed, the right way forward, but I do agree with him that the BBC should be better able to reflect the nations and regions of this country in the way in which it produces news and other programmes. I think that some of the proposals for increasing diversity and devolving production and power in the BBC will gain support across the House, but the question of precisely how that should be done in Scotland is not one on which we would necessarily agree.
No one in the House, I hope, wants to see the BBC become a state broadcaster, or have arrangements for governance that give the impression that it is one. The Government must ensure that there is no question of Government influence on editorial decision-making, but there are serious fears that these plans provide too much power for the Government to exert day-to-day influence on the BBC‘s editorial decision-making.
I will in a moment, because I know that the right hon. Gentleman has had some important things to say about this matter.
The director-general has said that there are honest disagreements between Ministers and the BBC on how best to protect and enhance BBC independence. He is a diplomat.
I share the hon. Lady’s passion for BBC independence. As a former BBC journalist, I have been on both sides of these various arguments in my time.
The hon. Lady rightly quoted figures that demonstrated all the audience satisfaction with and public support for the BBC—which, as she knows, I share—but her basic position seems to be that the Government’s proposals in some way undermine its fundamentals. Let me gently point out to her that among those who welcomed the Government’s proposals was the BBC itself. The BBC does not feel that it is being undermined, so why does the hon. Lady think that it is being undermined?
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but I think that when the BBC’s future for the next 11 years is to be decided by the Government of the day, it should not be surprising that it may well agree in public with almost anything that the Government of the day say. Whether or not that is a true reflection of what is going on behind the scenes is another matter.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that the BBC welcomed the proposals because it had got off lightly? It will continue to be funded publicly for the next 11 years, and will be able to persist in its wasteful practice of spending money in a cavalier manner with very little input and curtailment from the Government.
I do not agree with that analysis.
The proposed new unitary board will run the BBC. In his statement on the White Paper in the House on 12 May, the Secretary of State suggested, in effect, that the new board would be like the BBC Trust but without its current regulatory functions, which would go to Ofcom, but in my view that stretches credulity. Page 51 of the White Paper states:
“The board as a whole will have responsibility for setting the overall editorial direction and the framework for editorial standards.”
There is to be only one board instead of two, and that unitary board will run the BBC in all meaningful senses. The Secretary of State plans to enable Ministers to appoint up to half the new board members, including the chair and deputy chair. That creates an unprecedented power for the Government directly to influence those who are responsible for editorial matters at the BBC.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Page 50 of the White Paper clearly states that the appointment of the chair
“will be subject to a confirmatory hearing before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee”,
and that the appointments of other members of the board will be subject to discussions with the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Is the hon. Lady not satisfied with that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for promoting me to the Privy Council and for suggesting that I might be a member of the Tory party, which was probably going a bit too far.
It is, of course, true that some safeguards are implied in the proposals, and that is to be welcomed, but how the proposals look is also important to those outside. I think that simply reiterating that the director-general is the editor-in-chief does not really allay the fears created by the Secretary of State’s plans. I also think that his recent record in respect of public appointments does not reassure those of us who are worried. When the independent panel that was established to appoint a trustee to the National Portrait Gallery failed to shortlist his five favoured candidates—three of whom were Tory donors and one of whom was an ex-Minister—he simply scrapped the appointments process, and attempted to impugn the integrity of the chair of the panel. This prompted a furious slap-down from the now-retired Commissioner for Public Appointments, who accused him of exercising political interference in a supposedly objective public appointments process. We only know about this debacle because Sir David Normington’s letter was leaked.
Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern about the implications of the White Paper for the BBC and its editorial independence. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) might have had his concerns allayed, but he has described editorial independence as a red line. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee Chairman said as recently as yesterday that the plans had prompted “a lot of concern”, and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer has said that
“there remain a number of concerns relating to independence”.
It is still not too late for the Secretary of State to make it clear that the appointments to the new unitary board will be made through a demonstrably independent means and that he will not seek to influence the outcome of the process. Indeed, it would benefit him if he were to do that. Why does he not undertake today to agree that the Commissioner for Public Appointments should run the process of appointing the board members, and restrict his own power to appointing those people who have been selected through such an independent process? He really needs to provide proper reassurance, and he can do so. Such an undertaking would be heartily welcomed across the House.
Ofcom will have a new role setting service licences and quotas for the BBC. It is important that this regulatory regime should not be used to interfere with the editorial and creative freedom of the BBC to use licence fee payers’ money to produce the programming it decides to produce. There must be no efforts from the Government to pursue the wilder proposals on scheduling and so-called distinctiveness that did not, in the end, find their way into the White Paper. We will seek assurances that Ofcom’s role in this respect will not impact unduly on the BBC’s editorial independence or be a weapon to be used by the Government or the BBC’s commercial rivals to interfere with the BBC’s creative freedom.
The BBC must be seen to retain its financial independence as well as its editorial independence. In that respect, the explicit statement on page 97 of the White Paper that
“the licence fee is not solely for the use of the BBC”
is deplorable, and could impinge on the BBC’s financial independence. I am glad that there is to be no more top-slicing of the licence fee. That would have constituted a breach of last year’s funding agreement—of which the House knows I have been critical in any event—between the BBC and the Government. The White Paper proposes the creation of a contestable pot of licence fee payers’ money, worth £20 million a year over three years. This sets an unwelcome precedent. Governments of all stripes have been too keen in recent years to see the licence fee as money for the Treasury to allocate to its own priorities. I believe that licence fee payers’ money should properly be seen as belonging to the BBC to enable it to fulfil its remit. It should be for the BBC to decide how it wishes to do that, not for the Secretary of State or the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Secretary of State has said his Department will consult on this proposal. If the consultation responses are against establishing the contestable pot, will he undertake to drop the idea? Will he tell us today when his consultation will start and when he intends it to finish? Can he confirm that the same levels of transparency and accountability that apply to BBC funding will be applied to this contestable pot if his pilot goes ahead? Has he considered the fact that this could be categorised as state aid if it is given to other broadcasters to use, as he no doubt intends?
We agree that the BBC should be as transparent and accountable as possible in relation to the licence fee payers’ money that it spends, so we support the idea of the National Audit Office being allowed to investigate the publicly funded areas of the BBC. However, allowing the NAO to audit the BBC’s commercial operations, which are not in receipt of any licence fee payers’ money, could place those operations at a significant market disadvantage. What argument is there for doing that? The commercial operations of museums, for example, are not open to the NAO scrutiny, and I know of no organisation in the private sector that receives public money that is subject to NAO scrutiny.
Failure to get this right could have the effect of reducing returns for BBC Worldwide, thereby limiting the extent to which the BBC is able to subsidise the licence fee through its commercial operations. The money that it makes from BBC Worldwide operations currently amounts to more than 12.5% of the BBC’s entire content budget, which would save licence fee payers the equivalent of more than £10 each if the licence fee had to be increased to cover a shortfall of that amount.
The hon. Lady is a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, as indeed am I. She will be aware that the Committee has a long-standing issue with the BBC in relation to parliamentary accountability. Is she in favour of an increase in that accountability?
That is going back a bit, but I am indeed a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, and that is one of the reasons that I have very high regard for the abilities of the National Audit Office. I have no problem with the NAO being the auditor of the BBC, but there is an issue with its being the auditor of the BBC’s purely commercial operations. Is it really appropriate for the NAO to pursue entirely private money that has nothing to do with public funding? If this goes ahead, it will set an interesting precedent. I want to hear from the Secretary of State why he thinks this might be appropriate. I want to hear his arguments for doing it, because I think that there could be difficulties.
I am also concerned about the imposition of a mid-term health check on the new charter. It seems suspiciously like the break clause—which the newspapers were briefed that the Secretary of State wanted—by another name. We welcome the fact that the charter is to last for 11 years, and it should not be compromised or have the agreement that underpins it reopened by the back door during that period. I am concerned that the so-called health check—the break clause by another name—will be destabilising for the BBC and create uncertainty, which will not be helpful. Page 58 of the White Paper states:
“It will be for the government of the day to determine the precise scope”—
of the health check—
“consulting the BBC’s unitary board and Ofcom”.
So, the Government could decide, were they so minded, to reopen such questions as whether the licence fee belongs to the BBC or should be given to other broadcasters, the extent of the contestable pot, whether the licence fee is indeed the right form of funding, and any number of other things that would in effect reopen the charter settlement.
The Secretary of State told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday that this was not his intention. He now has an opportunity to guarantee, in the charter and the agreement he makes with the BBC, that any such process will have the narrowest possible focus and cannot be used to reopen the fundamental tenets that underpin the charter halfway through its term. We need reassurance, in other words, that it will not be a five-year charter in all but name.
I know that Members raised this issue when the White Paper was published. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) pressed Ministers for more detail on this point immediately after its publication. In the other place, the Conservative Lord Fowler has questioned the plan to have such a review, arguing that these functions should be left to a
“strong board of independent directors”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2016; Vol. 771, c. 1825.]
He stated that those directors should be allowed to run the BBC “without interference”, and I find myself agreeing with him. Can the Secretary of State confirm today that the health check—if he decides to persevere with it—will be able to recommend proposals to be included only in the subsequent charter, rather than being used to compromise the BBC’s independence midway through the charter term we are about to embark on? Will he reassure the House, especially Opposition Members, that it will be set in the narrowest possible terms?
The BBC’s core Reithian mission to “inform, educate and entertain” has worked well for over 90 years. It is the foundation on which the corporation’s success has been built. There has always been a virtue in the clarity provided by the simplicity of the current mission statement that has stood the BBC in good stead, so why is the Secretary of State determined to alter the substance of the mission statement to include
“an explicit requirement to be distinctive, high quality and impartial”?
What exactly do the Government mean by “distinctiveness”? It is one of those words that can mean all things to all people. It certainly means something different to him than it means to the BBC or members of the public. Page 32 of the White Paper defines distinctiveness as:
“A requirement that the BBC should be substantially different to other providers across each and every service”.
That hardly pins it down. Ministers must allay the concerns that this could be interpreted as the BBC being forced to withdraw from anything its commercial rivals wish it was not doing, for their own commercial gain.
The Secretary of State has questioned the distinctiveness of some of the BBC’s most popular programmes, such as “Strictly Come Dancing”. The White Paper states on page 71:
“The government is clear that it cannot and indeed should not determine either the content or scheduling of programmes.”
However, it also sets out prescriptive content requirements for radio and TV. To take one example for TV, it demands on page 38:
“Fewer high-output long-term titles.”
He seems to be telling the BBC to stop producing much-loved shows, such as “Countryfile”, “Casualty” and “Doctor Who”, that happen to have been produced for many years. What reassurances can he give that he will not simply require Ofcom to make the BBC back off doing things he does not like, on the basis of those extremely prescriptive requirements?
I do not think that anyone wants the BBC to be unable to make popular programmes, but does the hon. Lady accept that companies such as ITV have a valid point when they say that the money that is available to the BBC every year through the licence fee gives it an advantage in the ratings war and in buying in programmes that help it in that ratings war?
I think that competition between private and commercial broadcasters and public broadcasters in this country on the basis of high-quality programming benefits all sectors, the British public and our creative industries. I do not accept that the BBC being able to make good-quality programmes, perhaps over an extended number of years, somehow compromises the capacity of the rest of our broadcasting and TV industry to do similar things. It gives us a better, bigger, richer broadcasting ecology.
If the Secretary of State, who is a free marketeer by instinct, wishes to intervene by micromanaging the public sector elements of our broadcasting industry, he is making a very big mistake, as well as turning into a statist, interfering Minister who should leave our broadcasters to get on with the job that they do so well, particularly those who work in the BBC.
My hon. Friend talks about the Secretary of State micromanaging the BBC. Is she as disappointed as I am that, although there is a lot of micromanagement, there is not much micromanagement to make sure that there is more diversity at the BBC in respect of its programmes, producers and so on?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the BBC needs to do more on diversity. To be fair to the Secretary of State—I want to be fair to him, of course—he is concerned about that too. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the BBC to achieve results. The difficulty is when Ministers start telling it precisely how it should achieve those results. That is when we run into difficulties. It is perfectly reasonable, as he has said, to expect the BBC to do better in that regard. I think we all expect that.
We should be in no doubt about the scale of the public’s support for the BBC. Some 192,000 people participated in the public consultation on the charter, which is the second largest response to a Government consultation ever. More than four fifths of the responses indicated that the BBC is serving its audiences well; 66% indicated that the BBC has a positive wider impact on the market; and approximately two thirds indicated that BBC expansion was justified, rather than its diminution. Although the public’s overwhelming support for the BBC cannot be in any doubt, the Secretary of State should recall that there is concern about some of the Government’s proposals. For example, 62% of over-60s are suspicious of the Government’s intentions towards the BBC.
I hope that the Secretary of State will consider fully the widespread concerns among the public, industry professionals and parliamentarians about his proposals, and take steps genuinely to change them to reassure those of us who care about the future of the BBC over the next charter period. If he does so, he will be able to look back on his time in office as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport knowing that he boosted the BBC. If he does not, I believe that his legacy will be seen as rather more disruptive.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” in line 1 to end and add:
“notes the positive response from the BBC to the publication of the BBC White Paper which sets a clear framework for a stable and successful future for one of the United Kingdom’s finest institutions, enhancing its independence and empowering it to continue to create distinctive, high-quality and well-liked programmes and content; welcomes the open and consultative process that has informed the Charter Review including the second largest ever public consultation and the detailed contribution from committees of both Houses to the Charter Review process; and notes the Government’s intention to publish a draft Charter, in good time, for debate in the devolved administrations, as well as both Houses, before the Charter is finalised.”
I thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for giving the House the opportunity to debate the White Paper on the future of the BBC, even if I am less than happy with the terms of her motion. The motion talks about the “threat” to the
“editorial and financial independence of the BBC”—
two principles that will be explicitly strengthened, rather than weakened, under the proposals in the White Paper. However, that is typical of the entire debate around the charter renewal process, which has been characterised by the Government’s critics tilting at windmills, perhaps in tribute to Cervantes, the 400th anniversary of whose death we are commemorating, alongside that of Shakespeare.
The White Paper was designed not to wreck the BBC, but rather to cement its status as the finest broadcaster in the world for many years to come. It was informed by an extensive consultation—the largest of its kind ever undertaken by Government. We talked frequently and at length to representatives of the BBC—both the management and the trust—in what the chair of the BBC has described as “constructive engagement”. We received more than 190,000 responses from the public; 16 focus groups were held; there was nationally representative polling of more than 4,000 adults across the UK; and more than 300 organisations and experts engaged with us. I will not list all of those, but to give a flavour of how diverse they were, let me say that they included the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, the British Film Institute, Equity, Glasgow City Council, Sir Lenny Henry, the Met Office, the National Union of Journalists, UK Sport and the Wellcome Trust.
I am also grateful to the members of the advisory group, who provided expert views; to Armando Iannucci, who assembled two panels containing some of the best and brightest creative minds working in television today; and to David Clementi and David Perry, who conducted detailed reviews of BBC governance and licence fee enforcement respectively. Moreover, February saw the publication of reports on BBC charter review by Select Committees of both Houses. Each one was considered very carefully by myself and the Department, and I am pleased that we agreed with many of their recommendations.
I say the same thing that I said to the shadow Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will have seen from the response from Scotland that the dissatisfaction levels there are higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a sense that the BBC does not properly and adequately reflect us as a nation. What will he do to address those concerns?
I share those concerns. It is a matter that I discussed at some length with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is hoping to catch your eye shortly, Madam Deputy Speaker. He is a member of the Select Committee that I gave evidence to yesterday on charter review. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is absolutely right that opinion research has shown that the level of satisfaction with the BBC, while still being high, is lower in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is of concern to the BBC. We have sought to put in place new measures to ensure that the BBC takes action to address that. First, there is representation on the board. We want somebody who will act as a voice for Scotland, and I will come on to the governance arrangements shortly. Secondly, there will be a new service licence for each of the nations of the UK, so there will be a specific service licence setting out in broad terms how the BBC is expected to ensure that it meets the needs of people in Scotland. However, at the end of the day, these are matters for the BBC. The service licence, like all service licences, will be set in broad terms. How the BBC goes about raising the level of satisfaction in its output in Scotland is ultimately a matter for the organisation, but I know that it is anxious to address that. I am sure that the director-general will be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about that.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that. He knows that there is great concern about this issue in Scotland. A few proposals have emerged, including the one from the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs in the Scottish Parliament for a much more federal type of BBC. There is also the ongoing discussion about a new service that is produced in Scotland, where we can see the eyes of the world through a Scottish production with Scottish values. Does the Secretary of State see any merit in that? If he does not, what is wrong with those suggestions?
This is the point at which I fear I will disappoint the hon. Gentleman. Although it is important that the BBC achieves high levels of satisfaction right across the United Kingdom, it is the British Broadcasting Corporation and it represents the whole of the United Kingdom, and I do not support making it a federal structure. The question of how it provides news coverage is for the BBC, but as it is the UK broadcaster, it is important that it should provide a UK-wide national news bulletin that draws the nation together.
I thank the Secretary of State for so generously giving way. On this issue of Scotland and other regions in the United Kingdom, does he agree that, under this new arrangement, Scotland has far greater representation than many regions within England? The west midlands, for example, has an equivalent population to Scotland, but Scotland has a much greater seat at the table.
There will be a non-executive member of the BBC board to represent England, but not specifically each region. The requirement on the BBC, as part of its purpose, is to serve the nations and regions. The BBC is fully aware of the dissatisfaction that is felt in some parts of England. My hon. Friend identified the west midlands. The level of investment by the BBC in the west midlands has already been debated in the House in the past. It is important for the BBC to invest in production in every part of the United Kingdom and to reflect the requirements of every part of the country.
I am afraid that I cannot do that at this stage. That will primarily be a matter for the BBC. While the charter will set out the over-arching governance structure—in other words the creation of a unitary board and an external regulator—organisation within the corporation itself is largely a matter for the BBC. Obviously, I encourage the hon. Lady to discuss that matter with the BBC and perhaps the new chairman of the board, who is currently the chairman of the BBC Trust.
I was tempted by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire to talk about some of the evidence that I gave yesterday to the Select Committee. Obviously, the House of Lords Committee has also taken a close interest in these matters, and I have no doubt that the Committees in both Houses will continue to do so as we move towards producing a draft charter, which I hope to do before the summer. Members will then have plenty of time to study it in detail before debates in both Houses as well as in the devolved Administrations, as we committed to in the memorandum of understanding with the devolved Administrations. Once approved by the Privy Council, the new charter will formally come into effect on 1 January 2017 and the BBC will then transition to its new model of governance and regulation over the ensuing months.
I will not repeat all the details of the White Paper, because we had a lengthy discussion when it was published, but let me address the two specific concerns, which were raised by the shadow Secretary of State, of editorial and financial independence. On the former, the new governance structure is exactly as recommended by Sir David Clementi in his widely welcomed report. Whereas previously all of the appointments of the governors of the BBC and, following changes, the BBC Trust were made by the Government, at least half of the new BBC board will be appointed by the BBC. The six positions that are Government appointees will be made through the public appointments process, which was not previously in place. Peter Riddell, the new commissioner for public appointments, said:
“I welcome the broad principles outlined in today’s BBC White Paper about how appointments will be made to the new Unitary Board. To put these into practice, there will need to be a robust, independent process which attracts a broad range of candidates for these posts.”
That is exactly what the Government want to see. The BBC accepts that the Government should appoint both the chairman and the deputy chairman through the public appointments process. It has questioned whether the Government should make the appointment of four non-executive directors, but those four NEDs are there specifically to represent each of the nations of the UK, and their appointment is made not just by the Government in Westminster, but in consultation with the devolved Administrations. If that was taken away, we would lose the ability of the devolved Administrations to have a say in the appointment of the governor to represent each of the nations of the UK.
However, as well as putting in place a more independent board, we will also strengthen the independence of the director-general as editor-in-chief. Editorial decisions will be a matter for him and the BBC executives— not for non-executive board members. Those non-executive members will be able to hold the director-general to account for his decisions, but only after programmes are transmitted. It is clear that the board’s involvement is to oversee and to deal with possible complaints about editorial decisions, but only after transmission of programmes.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned that we have decided to extend the term of the charter to 11 years specifically to meet the concern that it should not coincide with the electoral cycle. It is correct that we are intending to have a mid-term health check, and, as I have repeatedly said, it is precisely that—a health check. It is not an opening up of the charter. However, it does seem sensible that, if we are setting a charter for 11 years, we should not have no opportunity whatever to look at how it is working for the whole of that 11-year period, particularly at a time when changes are taking place so rapidly. We have said explicitly in the White Paper that it is a review to provide a health check focusing on the governance and regulatory reforms in the mid-term. We have gone on to say that the review will not consider changes to the fundamental mission, purposes and licence fee model as these have been determined by the current charter review process. I make it clear again that this is a health check to examine how the changes we are putting in place are working, but we do not anticipate any need to reopen questions about the charter.
Given the criticisms of the inefficiency and value for money at the BBC, the huge payouts for people who are made redundant, for example, and then come back nearly a year later—even the National Union of Journalists has criticised that—and the high levels of pay at management level, if after five years there has been no reform or change in the squandering of money by the BBC, what will happen at the review at that stage? Would the Secretary of State reconsider the licence fee or would he put in greater financial controls?
We are actually putting in stronger financial controls now, because we are opening up the whole of the BBC for the National Audit Office to examine to consider the questions of whether maximum value for money is being obtained for the licence fee payer. Not only will the NAO be able to carry out value-for-money studies, as it has in some areas already, but it will become the auditor of the BBC. The NAO has a very good record of ensuring that public money is spent properly and is not wasted.
We have set out a path that will, we hope, lead to the whole of the BBC’s schedule being opened up for commissioning. We would expect the BBC to meet the targets in doing that. We will continue to talk to the BBC about that and if it looked as though they were failing to meet those targets we might raise that with them before, but that is already set out in the charter. No changes would be required, because we have already made it clear that we expect the BBC gradually to open up the whole of the schedule until it reaches 100%.
On the subject of independent producers, after the last debate we had on the BBC I thank the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy for helping to secure the recordings of “The Real McCoy”. I hope to have a special screening in Parliament with a Q&A with some of the original cast in the not too distant future, and I hope that both the Minister and the Secretary of State will come along.
I am delighted to have given way to the hon. Lady to allow her the opportunity to praise my excellent Minister, who is sitting beside me.
I want to come back to the point about the National Audit Office and its ability to carry out value-for-money studies across the BBC. It is correct that the activities of BBC Worldwide are not funded with public money—they are commercially funded—but the success of BBC Worldwide has a definite impact on the finances of the BBC since it generates income for the BBC, and it is important that we extract maximum value to minimise the burden on the licence fee payer. As I mentioned when we debated this issue in the Select Committee yesterday, BBC Worldwide has not always had a brilliant record of looking after the money it spends. The Select Committee, when I was the Chair in the last Parliament, was highly critical of the Lonely Planet saga, which resulted in a massive loss to BBC Worldwide. However, I can reassure the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and the BBC that the National Audit Office is very aware of the concerns that have been expressed and is confident that it can provide reassurance that it will have no impact either on creative decision making in the BBC or on commercial negotiations with other companies.
The NAO already audits a number of public bodies that have commercial relationships with other companies and is well familiar with the need to maintain commercial confidentiality when necessary. I know that the Comptroller and Auditor General will continue to talk to the BBC, but I very much hope that we can find a way whereby the BBC’s concerns are satisfied. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood also talked about the BBC’s financial independence and, as I said, I believe that we have strengthened that rather than diminished it. We have agreed that the licence fee should be subject to regular review every five years, and that for the first five-year period it should rise each year in line with inflation, having been frozen for a long time. We have also agreed to close the iPlayer loophole and to phase out the broadband top-slice. That means that the BBC can now plan with certainty on the basis of licence fee income, along with its own commercial earnings, and it will have total flexibility in how it spends its money, with the single exception of the ring fence for the BBC World Service and the top-up grant that the Government are giving to fund its expansion.
The Secretary of State is outlining the freedom that the BBC will continue to have in expenditure, but one of the big concerns for the public is transparency. Why was there a withdrawal from the proposal to force the BBC to publish the pay packages of presenters and others in the BBC? It was originally set at about £150,000, but now it is up to a massive £450,000. Why was the decision taken to increase that when most members of the public think that it was perfectly reasonable, as this is public money and the information should be out there and transparent?
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says and have some sympathy with him. We debated with the BBC the appropriate level at which to set the publication limit and, after that debate, set it at £450,000 as a first step. It will mean that those individuals who are the highest paid on the BBC payroll will now be identified, and I think that is an important step forward in transparency. I hope that it is not the end of the saga and I would encourage the BBC to go further. The BBC expressed concerns about the consequences if it were required to publish the names of more individuals at lower levels of pay, but we will see how this first step goes. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s hope and I hope that in due course we might see more publication.
The people who initially did not want it to be set at a lower level were in the BBC. The BBC raised concerns about the potential consequences. For instance, it talked about whether it might result in poaching once people’s salary levels were known. There was also a concern that it might have the effect of bidding up salaries. I do not think that those concerns are merited, but as I say, we have taken a first step towards greater transparency and I hope that in due course we can go further.
Let me very quickly address the point raised by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood about the contestable pot. The contestable pot is a small amount of money, amounting to £60 million over three years, which, out of the total amount of money available to the BBC, is a very small amount. It does not affect the July settlement. We made it absolutely clear that the Government stand by the July settlement, and the funding for the contestable pot does not in any way affect it. We will be consulting on precisely how the contestable pot will operate. The hon. Lady raises concerns about whether it will fall within the requirements in respect of state aid. I rather hope that that will become an academic issue in a few weeks’ time but if, extraordinarily, it still applies, we will need to take that into account.
Far from threatening the BBC, the proposals in the White Paper, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said earlier, have been welcomed by it. Lord Hall, the director-general, said:
“This White Paper delivers a mandate for the strong, creative BBC the public believe in. A BBC that will be good for the creative industries—and most importantly of all, for Britain.”
The BBC Trust chairman has, as I mentioned earlier, talked about the
“constructive engagement between the Government, the BBC and the public”
“has delivered a White Paper that sets good principles, strengthens the BBC’s governance and regulation and cements a financial settlement”.
The chair of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, Laura Mansfield, said:
“This is an historic charter for the UK’s entire production sector and recognises the world-leading creativity British producers bring across every genre of production. This white paper will give BBC commissioners the freedom to choose the very best ideas, wherever they come from, whether that’s BBC Studios, the smallest or the largest production companies, while ensuring diversity of supply and regionality is rightly protected.”
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) was one of the first people who celebrated the fact that diversity is for the first time to be enshrined in the BBC charter.
On regulation and diversity, does my right hon. Friend agree that Ofcom itself may need to better reflect the population of the United Kingdom, especially as diversity becomes an ever-increasing component of its regulatory requirement?
My hon. Friend raises a perfectly valid point. Obviously, Ofcom is a public body. We would want to set an example in achieving diversity, and if its performance falls short, that is something which I know my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy and I will be happy to point out to the chairman and the chief executive.
We are looking at ways of enforcing the licence fee requirement. Anybody who watches live television is required to have a licence, so those databases represent people who are required to have a television licence.
I wish to add in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) that although I would not suggest that she is not right to be concerned, Ofcom took a major step towards greater diversity with the appointment of a female BME chief executive, who is doing a fantastic job. I am sure she would agree that there is still more that needs to be done.
Diversity is an important issue which is close to the hearts of many of us and we are making good headway on it, but does my right hon. Friend believe that designated funding—ring-fenced funding—might be helpful in driving diversity, as suggested by Lenny Henry?
We have set diversity as one of the public purposes in the charter. How the BBC delivers that is a matter for the BBC, but having been given that requirement, it will have to state how it will go about it, and that will be subject to Ofcom scrutiny.
The BBC reaches 97% of the UK population and 348 million people around the world every week. It is one of our most recognisable and strongest national brands and an utterly vital source of information, education, entertainment and soft power. It is precisely because the BBC has such a special place in British life and is so valued by the British people, and because the rest of the world feels the same way, that this Government wanted to secure its future and enable it to thrive in a media landscape that has changed beyond recognition in the past decade. That is what the proposals in this White Paper do.
I welcome this opportunity to speak about the BBC in the aftermath of the publication of the Government’s White Paper on charter renewal and the Secretary of State’s appearance yesterday before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member.
We on the SNP Benches are passionate defenders of public service broadcasting and independent journalism, so throughout the charter renewal process the SNP has engaged constructively in the debate about how the BBC can be protected and improved.
At its best the BBC is unsurpassed. Since its foundation in 1922, the BBC’s mission has been, as we all know, to inform, educate and entertain. It forms one of the cornerstones of all our national lives. In our homes daily it can be an intimate friend or sometimes an infuriating relative, but we are proud of it at its best, not least for its world-renowned reputation.
Any organisation that is successful over such a period of time must adapt. It must be able to embrace changes in technology, as well as changes in the society in which it operates. Charter renewal allows the BBC and Parliament to take stock and assess what the BBC is doing well and where it needs to improve. For some on the Government Benches and in the press who dislike the BBC, the process holds out the opportunity to attack the corporation’s core functions, and indeed during the charter renewal process we saw some wild notions floated. Some, of course, were newspaper fabrications. Other were clearly the result of Government kite flying. All of us know how that works. Ministers are able to float fanciful notions for radical reform and assess the reaction before the Secretary of State fans himself with faux horror and tells us that, of course, he had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the ludicrous and impractical proposals splashed across the pages of the madder right-wing tabloids.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the Government creating some of the headlines in the right-wing press, as he put it. What logic would there be in doing so and then not delivering? It strikes me as completely illogical and therefore very unlikely that the Government would have put those points in the press.
I am touched by the hon. Gentleman’s naiveté. Let me explain how the process works. Politicians sometimes talk to journalists. They say things that they do not want to be quoted as saying. The journalists then report that. If it floats, the politician then goes on the record; if it does not float, the politician backs away from it. That is generally the way it works. I would be happy to introduce the hon. Gentleman to journalists whom he might find useful in this regard over the coming months.
In the end—this is where I disagree to some extent with the Labour shadow Secretary of State—the White Paper is a relatively unambitious document. I suspect that that may well disappoint the Secretary of State, whom many think may have wanted a more radical legislative legacy.
There are a number of welcome proposals in the White Paper. I am far from a cheerleader for the BBC. The BBC does many things which are good, but it also—as we discovered in Scotland during the referendum, which I will touch on later—does many things which are much less good. We welcome the abolition of the BBC Trust and its replacement by a unitary board. However, like many members of the House, I am worried about the composition of the new board and its independence. How will non-executive members be chosen? Can we be certain that they will not be subject to party political pressure? We have had worrying indicators already.
The National Portrait Gallery in London was recently looking for a new trustee. The selection panel, in a blind sift, rejected all five of the Government’s preferred candidates. The Secretary of State then blithely dismissed the selection panel in its entirety and appointed a new one that pleased him rather more. I pressed him on that during his appearance at the Select Committee yesterday. He told me that the panel had been dismissed because of a technicality. Although he had not necessarily wanted to influence the selection board, he did want them to know who his preferred candidates were.
That is policy masquerading as process. I asked the Secretary of State what would happen at the BBC; specifically, would this happen at the BBC? It seemed obvious, from his reaction, that it would. I do not want independent selection panels for the BBC board to know who the Secretary of State’s preferred candidates are. I want the BBC board to be entirely independent of government. I am worried by the evidence the Secretary of State gave at our Committee yesterday, as anyone, across all parties in this House, who cares about the independence of the BBC should be.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see the other side of the coin? Given the bias that exists within the BBC and the fact that it will be able to choose half the members, with the other half being chosen by the public appointments committee, the real danger is that the BBC will simply continue on its merry way choosing half the board from the cadre of people that it believes most reflect the BBC values that many people currently reject. There would be a diversity of people chosen by the public appointments board.
I am afraid that that is simply called editorial independence. There should be board members chosen by the BBC who are independent and not subject to politicians’ pressure. However, non-executive members should be entirely independent as well. What worried me yesterday about the Secretary of State’s evidence was that he showed a willingness to apply political pressure to non-executive board members. That is something that all Members across the House should be disturbed to hear.
I am absolutely delighted for the Scottish Government to have a say. My objection, however, is about something different. My objection is to political pressure being put on appointments, in particular to the main board. As we all know, the main board, with the number of members it has, will be enormously powerful. In fact, the Secretary of State yesterday argued how different this board would be from the previous trust—he said it would have real teeth. It is therefore vital that we should have fully independent board members, specifically the non-executive members the Government want to appoint.
The answer to that is we do not know yet. That is precisely why I am addressing these concerns in Parliament today. If the non-executive board members are truly independent, of course that is a great thing. However, the evidence the Secretary of State gave yesterday was worrying for the reasons I have given.
Trust in the BBC is crucial. It is no secret, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, that many in Scotland have been suspicious of BBC objectivity in recent years. The Secretary of State said a short while ago that a majority in Scotland—although he acknowledged a lesser number—were pleased with the BBC, but let me give the House the figure from the BBC Trust itself. The BBC enjoys only a 48% satisfaction rating in Scotland—less than half, for those who are numerically challenged. Sometimes criticisms of the BBC in Scotland have been fair and sometimes not, but the BBC itself—the Secretary of State acknowledged this—has a problem in Scotland.
We welcome other proposals in the White Paper. Licensed services issued by the new regulator Ofcom will include specific regulatory provision for all the nations. Out-of-London quotas will be maintained, which should enable a healthy, independent production sector in the nations and regions. The BBC’s network television supply target will be 17% for content spending in the nations, with spending proportionate to the population of each nation. That suggests some progress in adapting the BBC to the changing needs of these islands in 2016 and beyond.
Of course, many of the changes required must come from within the BBC itself. There are proposals for the creation of a BBC Scotland board to oversee dedicated, nation-specific services. This would help to devolve decision-making, increasing the likelihood of relevant and reflective content suited for distinct audiences. We welcome the idea of a separate Scottish board, as proposed. We want to see a BBC that is editorially independent and well-resourced; a BBC that is bold and creative, and one that is crucially representative of, and delivers for, both Scottish and UK audiences as a whole. With a more responsive governance structure, we believe the BBC would be more nimble and better able to address the concerns of audiences.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Chancellor very recently, without warning, cut £1 million from the budget of BBC Alba, the excellent Scottish Gaelic media service. That rather flies in the face of the stated support for BBC Alba in the White Paper. Does he agree that this throws the Government’s motives towards the BBC into question more generally?
I agree that that was most disappointing. BBC Alba is a fine product universally admired across all parties in Scotland. Gaelic is a struggling language that is part of our national culture. Every opportunity we can take to enhance, embrace and support the Gaelic language, especially on television, should be taken.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is in all our interests that we have a board that reflects the entirety of the society we are in? To have a board packed with lefty luvvies does his cause and my cause no good. It would be right for the Minister to, at times, ensure that there is someone who is centrist or even maybe slightly to the right on that board.
The hon. Gentleman does himself down. Perhaps in Northern Ireland he is seen as a radical, but here I have always seen him as a centrist luvvie. The BBC should of course reflect the society in which we all live. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman mentions deselection. I did not mean to be quite so wounding. As we all saw in the recent debate on BME and lesbian and gay representation—something I know the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about—I think we are all keen to see more equal representation at all levels in the BBC, from presenters to management and, of course, on the new board.
Combined with greater financial commissioning and editorial control, we believe the BBC in Scotland can provide relevant reflective programming and support our nation’s creative industries. We believe that bringing the BBC closer to viewers and listeners in Scotland is the best way of ensuring trust in, and satisfaction with, the BBC, and making sure it is rebuilt and retained.
Let me turn to news provision in Scotland, because I think it lies at the heart of the problem of trust for the BBC in Scotland. Some Members of the House may know that I spent much of my previous career in television news and current affairs. I reported for “On the Record”, “Panorama”, “Assignment” and “Newsnight”, and I presented “BBC Breakfast” and “ITV News”. I am passionate about editorially independent news. I therefore speak as a friend, albeit a critical one, when I say I do not think the BBC covered itself in glory during our referendum on independence. The model for coverage was wrong. The BBC treated a binary choice as though it were a traditional election. Proponents of the status quo were subjected to much less scrutiny than those who wanted constitutional change.
That is a soundbite, not an answer to my arguments.
The problem was that the BBC treated the referendum coverage not as a binary choice but as a traditional election. The BBC recognises that it made a mistake in that, but let me tell the House how it does so. It says, on the one hand, “We made no mistakes whatsoever in our coverage of the referendum”, but then simultaneously says, “We must learn the lessons from the Scottish referendum in the way that we cover the European referendum”—and it now tells me that it has done that in its current coverage. It cannot say that it made no mistakes in covering the Scottish referendum and simultaneously say that it will learn lessons from it—that is intellectually incoherent.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, which goes to the heart of where the BBC is critically wrong, because that coverage could have determined the outcome of the electoral process. That happened in our country in 1998, when Alastair Campbell flew to Belfast and said that he could rely on his friends in the BBC and in the press to do the Government’s job for him. At that point, the BBC lost all credibility, and today it stands in a shambles in Northern Ireland.
There is widespread agreement that the BBC did not do well in Scotland during the referendum. The corporation looked stretched and dated, and there were fresh calls for what became known as the “Scottish Six”. At the moment in Scotland, the evening news on TV cannot cover any news item outwith Scotland. Armageddon in Carlisle? The BBC Scotland coverage will lead on an airshow in Carluke. I sometimes get emails from people who are upset when I say this, so let me make it clear that it is not the fault of the journalists, but the fault of the remit, and it leads to couthie, entrenched provincialism. The BBC has been piloting a new, grown-up programme that would cover news based on merit and have a normal remit. If the main story is a UK one, that will lead the news; if American, that will lead the news; if Scottish, that will lead the news. BBC Radio Scotland has done this for decades, and BBC Alba has done it for a number of years.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s argument, because most people do not think the BBC is biased. Could he give just one example of where he has a grievance about a particular story that he thinks was biased, and then we can perhaps look into it and judge it on its merits?
It is not a question of one example but of the ongoing nature of the coverage during the referendum. As I have tried to explain, the problem was ongoing. People do not have to take my word for this. The fact that the BBC’s approval ratings are so low in Scotland obviously shows that there is a problem. There is no point in looking at figures that show that 52% of people believe that the BBC does not cover the country well and then saying, “Well, it’s just the SNP who are making a big fuss about it.” It is a deeply entrenched problem in Scotland. As somebody who loves independent journalism, as I hope I made clear in my earlier comments about the independence of the BBC, I hope that people will take me at face value when I say that I want to see an editorially independent BBC Scotland and, indeed, BBC network.
Does the hon. Gentleman mind if I proceed for a moment or two?
There have recently been rumours of political interference, on the subject of the “Scottish Six”, emanating from worried BBC staffers. Let me remind the Secretary of State about our chats on the subject over the past few months. Charmingly, if candidly, he said yesterday at the Select Committee that he was
“not qualified to judge the BBC’s output in Scotland or the reasons for its unpopularity.”
On that we are agreed—he is not qualified. In March, however, he told me in this Chamber that he agreed that increased investment and employment at BBC Scotland would be beneficial. He said:
“I obviously welcome any investment at the BBC that will create additional jobs, particularly in Scotland”.—[Official Report, 3 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 1083.]
On that occasion, when I asked about the separate “Scottish Six”, the Secretary of State assured me that it was a matter for the BBC and that neither he nor his colleagues at No. 10 Downing Street would want to interfere. I hope he recalls his comments.
He nods to say that he does. However, yesterday, when I pressed him three times in the Select Committee on whether he had been talking to BBC bosses about the “Scottish Six”, or trying to influence them, his body language looked a trifle uncomfortable, and eventually he conceded something very different. He told me that he
“might have concerns if he felt that the central place of the BBC in providing a nationwide news bulletin was being changed”
and added that the BBC
“has a responsibility to bring the nation together and news is part of that.”
Let us reflect on that line: that the job of BBC news is to bring the nation together. I could not disagree more. The job of the BBC is not to be a cheerleader for one constitutional settlement or another—that is what has caused all the distrust in Scotland. The job of the BBC is to be editorially and journalistically independent.
The Secretary of State should be playing no role whatsoever in trying to influence or block a separate “Scottish Six”. He himself stated several times that it should be a matter for the BBC and that he was not qualified to judge as he was not familiar with the BBC’s news output in Scotland. Such interference would undermine the statements made in the White Paper regarding improving the BBC’s services in the nations and restoring confidence there. It would show a blatant disregard and lack of respect for the constituent nations of the UK, including the devolved Administrations who have participated fully in the charter renewal process, and in good faith. Furthermore, it would undermine the plans that the BBC is intent on implementing.
So there we have it: a White Paper with which we broadly agree, but worrying signs that the Government want to tamper with the editorial independence of the BBC in Scotland and tamper with the political independence of the proposed new BBC board in London. SNP Members will resist both, just as we will fight any upcoming moves to privatise Channel 4. With Mr Speaker’s permission, I am now heading to the DCMS Committee to hear about Channel 4’s annual report and to offer it some moral support. Interference in the decision making of the BBC by the Government would put the independence of the BBC—a key feature of the organisation—in jeopardy, tarnishing its reliability and reputation.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) mentioned his BBC past, so I too should declare that I spent five of my happiest years at the BBC, where many of the people I worked with were some of the finest professionals I have worked with anywhere. Many of them existed on low salaries, very much in contrast to the supposed talent that so often fills our pages. That is not a moan about my own salary, of course.
One of the main duties of any Government is the maintenance of our country’s most important institutions, of which the BBC is undoubtedly one; millions enjoy its output every year. For me, though, that does not mean keeping it flush with public money and shielding it from change; it means fighting for reforms that ensure its long-term sustainability and relevance to the modern world. While it produces many excellent programmes and is an important part of the UK’s extraordinary global influence, it is becoming increasingly apparent—except, perhaps, to the corporation’s most highly paid stars—that the BBC must change further. Its broadcasting model, based on the idea of millions of families watching live broadcasts, is increasingly becoming outdated. It has expanded far beyond its initial remit, in some cases smothering independent local journalism in the process, and it has done all that by levying what is one of Britain’s most regressive taxes—the licence fee.
The White Paper on the renewal of the BBC charter offers us the opportunity to do some very important things: to refocus the corporation on the core functions that justify its present place as a state-funded broadcaster; and, I trust, to wean it off the licence fee gradually, over the longer term, and to open itself up to the calming winds of competition and outside production.
When I was setting out on my career, I and many other journalists got our first jobs at thriving local papers. Such papers provided British journalism with a natural talent-scouting system, and that has profited all of us, including the BBC. The BBC was never meant to compete with newspapers, yet the BBC News website now undercuts a lot of independent local—and, at times, national—journalism. Local journalists, working directly in their communities, provide an irreplaceable public service. Can the BBC put journalists everywhere local newspapers currently employ them? Of course not. By contrast, the BBC now seems to concentrate jobs in London and Manchester, and even major cities are suffering the consequences. In my experience, BBC Birmingham is all too often treated not even as Cinderella: frankly, we are not even allowed to sweep the floor when it comes to BBC largesse. I very much applaud the campaign by the Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail to try to get a fairer deal for our region.
When the move was made to Manchester, it was lauded because it would increase regional diversity, but in some respects the corporation saw that as the beginning and the end of the process of attempting to reduce its overdependence on the capital. In many ways, the biggest effect has been to increase house prices in leafy Cheshire suburbs, rather than to create genuine regional diversity.
What has actually happened is that we have created a bipolar organisation. There has been a move out of other regions, such as Birmingham and other parts of the United Kingdom, to these two centres. That was the natural consequence of the huge sums that were invested. I am not jealous of Salford in that it is obviously fantastic for that community. However, I think the BBC thought, when it came up with this process, that its work was done. I would like genuine diversity, including for the nations, as is discussed in the White Paper, but really for the English regions, with the BBC drilling down into local communities to deliver news and content that makes a difference, but also supporting the private sector.
Current proposals for the BBC to use local newspaper content, such as court circulars and documents—court reporting—are better than nothing, but it is a sad indictment that some local newspapers will now be used, frankly, as wire services for the BBC News website. Previous Governments were rather flat-footed in updating the BBC charter for the online age, and slow to recognise the dangers this unimpeded growth posed to independent journalism and regional diversity.
Another anachronism holding the BBC back over the long term is the licence fee. This might seem strange, given the ferocity with which the BBC’s supporters have fought to defend it, but I believe nothing is doing more to prevent the corporation’s adaptation to the modern world of multi-platform working. My wife and I grew up in a world of mass broadcasts and TV specials watched by tens of millions, yet the number of times a month we watch live TV together these days can be counted on one hand. That is not just due to working in this place, but is genuinely encountered by many people around the country. To younger people raised in the days of on-demand services, Netflix and YouTube, that vanished era is not even a memory, yet the BBC remains committed—addicted—to the regressive tax of the licence fee.
If we came up with a licence fee today, how could we justify it? It is a flat levy—the same for rich and poor alike—which is charged to anybody watching British programming, regardless of whether they consume BBC services or not, and it is backed by the threat of criminal prosecution. It really does not have any place in the broadcasting model for the 21st century.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the BBC is the envy of countries the world over? In Australia, where I come from, we have the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Public service broadcasting is important in this debate. The ABC, which is funded largely by the Government, has experienced cut on cut in its budgeting over the years, and has suffered as a result.
Public service broadcasting is apparently not so universally regarded in that way in Scotland, according to the speech of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire.
We must not be reckless with the BBC. As I said earlier, it would be an act of vandalism simply to turn off the tap without giving it time to transition to a new way of doing things. However, the message from this renewal of the charter must be loud and clear: it needs to move on, and the days of the licence fee are, I hope, numbered. That must be acknowledged by BBC managers, who are even now demanding a higher fee, the extension of the fee to websites and continued criminal prosecution. The mid-term review is a sensible health check to see whether the BBC is moving in the right direction. I hope that it will encompass the BBC’s move towards independent production, which is ultimately the only way in which it can move away from and wean itself off the licence fee.
The White Paper contains some promising steps in the right direction. For example, opening up more production contracts to independent companies will allow them to compete for public broadcasting funding. However, there must be clear targets for such diversification so that Ministers and MPs can hold BBC managers to account and ensure they are making adequate progress. They must also make sure that the BBC is proactive in finding fairer and more imaginative ways of funding its services. Many of its assets, such as its back catalogue, are not core to its public service function and could easily be made subscription services. Like other Members, I welcome the initiative to bring in the National Audit Office when it comes to the BBC’s activities.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s words with great interest, and I credit him with and pay respect to him for his experience in this area. If, however, he is looking for logic in the structure of the BBC, he will be sorely disappointed because the BBC is above that. The BBC is an utterly unique institution—there is no similar corporate structure anywhere else—and we have a system which on paper seems bizarre, but by heaven it works. Can we not just glory in this special, unique and, dare I say it, British BBC?
I am sure those comments have been noted outside this place, and the hon. Gentleman can expect the headhunters to call shortly.
As I was saying, many of the BBC’s assets, such as its back catalogue, are not core to its public services, and if there are both audiences and quality programming, such services will survive and thrive. If not, why are we taxing the poorest to pay for them? Such change may seem difficult and even painful to people who have grown up being used to the status quo, but a fair and flexible funding model and a narrower focus on the core functions of public service broadcasting will be good not just for independent journalists and their viewers, but for the BBC as well.
Last month the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport published his long-awaited White Paper on the BBC’s charter renewal, which we have all seen, and I have deep concerns about it. In response to overwhelming opposition from the general public and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the Secretary of State has climbed down from some of his most radical proposals: “Strictly Come Dancing” will no longer be banned from prime time, the BBC will no longer be forced to sell off its highly profitable stake in UKTV, and he claims that the new all-powerful unitary board will no longer be packed with a majority of Government appointees. The way that has been handled suggests that those suggestions were either leaked to gauge public opinion on the Secretary of State’s long-held intentions against the BBC, or to make his final proposals seem paltry by comparison. Whatever his intention, he has laid bare his fundamental dislike of the BBC and what it stands for.
I welcome the publication of salaries above £450,000. However, I question why there is no threshold of £150,000, because MPs and those in public life speak about that figure—and below it—as one that should be put into the public realm. Why £450,000? To my constituents, people in the broadcasting industry on £300,000 earn a considerable amount of money.
I agree that closing the iPlayer loophole is important. We are seeing a transformation in the way that broadcasting is delivered, and it is important that the Government keep up to date with those changes. I also welcome the increase in funding for the World Service. That is long overdue, especially after the issues that we had a few years ago, where changes to the World Service moved it from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the BBC. That was effectively a reduction in the BBC budget, and it had consequences on delivery, some of which have led to a U-turn.
I welcome 11 years for charter renewal instead of 10, but if the Government collapse, or if we have a general election outside the five-year cycle, will that aspiration be lost? What mechanism can be introduced to ensure the fundamental principle of the BBC being non-political, as the Secretary of State says, so that the cycle of charter renewal falls after a general election should general elections not fall in five-year cycles?
There are significant problems with the Government’s proposals, and those persist despite the Secretary of State’s apparent U-turns in the past few weeks. Such problems could have a significant impact on the BBC’s independence, remit, and purpose. Part of what makes the BBC such a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy is its independence from politics. Unlike other media corporations, it is a public service and accountable to the public. Because it is beholden to all of us, it can hold those in power to account. The BBC is respected by the UK public and—more importantly—internationally, for its impartiality, but the Government’s proposals for a new BBC unitary board threaten to undermine that impartiality. Although the Secretary of State was thwarted in his efforts to allow the Government to appoint a majority of board members, he still intends Ministers to handpick as many as half the membership. Given that the new board will have far greater powers than the current BBC Trust, because appointees will make operational and strategic decisions that will determine the BBC’s future, his proposals constitute a worrying attack on the organisation’s impartiality.
Given that the Secretary of State has described the BBC’s abolition as a “tempting prospect”, it is hardly surprising that 62% of over-60s admitted to having no confidence in the Government to protect the BBC during its charter renewal. Indeed, their concerns are entirely justified. Before he set his sights on the BBC, the Secretary of State intervened in the National Portrait Gallery’s recruitment process, and people have a right to be concerned about his track record. Indeed, he has form on interference, because after his preferred candidates were not shortlisted, he decided to rerun the selection process. Such a willingness to intervene is undoubtedly a frightening precedent for the appointments procedure of the new BBC board. Equally worrying is the Government’s insistence on a five-year review of the charter—the Secretary of State calls it a “health check”—and the encouragement of commercial rivals to bid for licence fee money. While the former will prevent the BBC from carrying out long-term planning, the encouragement of commercial rivals to bid for licence fee money will accelerate the erosion of the organisation’s financial independence. Taking money from the BBC undermines its ability to deliver services. We have seen a worrying reduction in or changes to BBC online and BBC radio, and a worrying threat—a sword of Damocles—seems to hang over BBC 24.
The Secretary of State says that the five-year health check is mid-term, and that he will not be interfering. No matter what promises he makes, he cannot escape the fact that the five-year health check is an intervention—a dialogue between the Government and the BBC. What is the point of the health check if the Government have no powers and no ability to change the BBC should it show failing health? In my opinion, the health check is a political tool of the Government.
Such measures are completely at odds with wider public opinion, and threaten to damage the UK’s influence abroad through the BBC. The BBC is popular. Some 97% of the population use it for around 18 hours a week, and 76% of people think it delivers value for money. Despite that, the Secretary of State wants to transform the BBC’s entire mission under the banner of “distinctiveness”. Here, I worry. Although he himself could not provide any definition of distinctiveness to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I do not think that the public will be fooled into believing that that will represent anything other than an attempt to marginalise the BBC in favour of its commercial competitors.
The requirement for so-called distinctive content, overseen by the commercial regulator Ofcom, will inevitably undermine the BBC by restricting its popularity. It will push popular programmes from peak-time slots; putting less popular shows in those slots will harm the BBC’s excellent viewing figures and reputation. That will enable a future Government to push an agenda of further cuts and reforms, as the Government will have set the BBC up to fail. Cash grabs, such as the Chancellor’s transfer of the costs for free TV licences for the over-75s from the Department for Work and Pensions to the BBC, and efforts to expunge BBC services, which we saw in the Government’s attempt to remove online recipes, will become commonplace, further damaging the BBC’s reputation. The result will be a BBC lacking impartiality, financial autonomy and independence, and with its reputation for quality broadcasting undermined.
An immense amount of public pressure forced the Secretary of State to step away from attacks on the BBC’s online recipes and on some of its better broadcasting, such as “Strictly Come Dancing” and “The Great British Bake Off”. But all this is happening on top of the Government’s previous attacks on the excellent BBC Online services and on the BBC’s local and international radio content, among others. Other issues not in the White Paper are not being addressed, such as the charges the BBC faces for delivery via satellite—the cost the BBC incurs for that ought to be addressed.
We must maintain the pressure on the Secretary of State to protect the BBC and the public interest, to make him withdraw his attacks on the BBC’s independence and uphold the great virtues that mean that the BBC is held in the highest esteem, not only in the UK but around the world.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and to speak in this debate about the BBC’s future. With that in mind, although she is not in her place I thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. She was right to say that the BBC is a revered and trusted national institution that we should view with great pride. I certainly do so from the Government Benches. We should also be minded that the BBC costs licence fee payers just 40p a day, the same price as The Sun—I will leave the analogy there.
The BBC is particularly important given the Government’s commitment to improve social mobility. Children from the poorest backgrounds have the ability to access the BBC while they are growing up, and we should not forget what it can do for their social mobility. I speak as an example, having failed my 12-plus. I eventually went on to study for my A-levels at a sixth-form college, where I had quite a lot of independence. Had it not been for the BBC filling in some of the years for me, I do not believe I would be here in this place—although for some that may be a reason to speak against the BBC. I was proud, therefore, to be one of the 190,000 members of the public who responded to the consultation document, and I believe that the Government’s charter renewal fits about right with the document I completed. During the process, I engaged with the BBC and wanted to do everything I could to support it. When I was elected 12 months ago, I made this my cause. I wanted to come here and speak highly of an institution that had done so much for me over the years, and I was delighted to obtain reassurances from the Secretary of State that the Government wanted only to strengthen it.
I am aware that the Government have tabled an amendment, but I want to focus on the three key areas in the motion. The first is the view that the charter renewal White Paper
“fails to provide an acceptable basis for Charter renewal”.
That is not true of the White Paper as a whole. The charter will be renewed for an 11-year period, which puts it outside the election cycle. I listened to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is no longer in his seat, and his view that the BBC was biased in the Scottish referendum. Over the years, it has struck me that the party that loses an election or, in this instance, a referendum tends to turn around and bash the BBC for letting it down and not giving it a proper crack. The bulk of our constituents would put that down to being a sore loser. Such attacks do this place no favours.
I won my election so I am delighted with the BBC to that extent, but I am making a serious point. It ill behoves this place to attack the BBC from all sides. I have observed over the years that when both parties attack the BBC, it probably means it is getting it about right.
The day the White Paper was published, I was fortunate to speak at a Media Society event in favour of the BBC and about the White Paper. The head of BBC policy was also at the event, and he was asked how many marks out of 10 he would give the White Paper in terms of support for the BBC. He gave it eight out of 10. If someone was sitting an exam, 80% would give them a first-class mark. This suggests that the BBC is happy with what has been negotiated, and I applaud it for having done a great job.
The second element in the motion is
“the threat the White Paper poses to the editorial and financial independence of the BBC”.
Again, this does not stack up, in the light of the White Paper’s content. For the first time, the BBC will be able to appoint people to the board. If the chairman opts for a board of 14, the BBC will appoint the majority. The BBC’s editorial independence lies with the director-general, which provides for a welcome separation of responsibilities. On financial independence, there is a five-year funding commitment that ensures a real-terms increase, which the BBC has lacked for some years. I welcome that and know that the BBC does as well. The National Audit Office and Ofcom also provide a degree of independence that allows the BBC to spend its money better and to be better regulated. I would have thought that all hon. Members would have welcomed that.
The third element of the motion
“expresses concern about the re-writing of the BBC’s founding mission statement”.
The BBC’s duty is to educate, inform and entertain, with the additional requirement that its output should be distinctive. If something is not distinctive, it should not be shown on the BBC—that might mean an end to repeats of my speeches to the House, as well as the cookery recipes! The BBC has nothing to fear from the addition of the word “distinctive”. Originality is what it does best and constantly. The BBC’s output now contains fewer derivative formats and US imports than it did some years back, so if all this means is the loss of “The Voice”, I would welcome it.
I do, however, seek the Minister’s confirmation on a few points. The first relates to the health check on page 54 of the White Paper.
I want to take the hon. Gentleman back one sentence to the issue of distinctiveness. What would he say about the BBC’s distinctiveness in the provision of sport? If it is not distinctive, should the BBC provide for sport or not? I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s views on that.
I was coming on to this point, because distinctiveness was one of my asks for the Minister. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention this issue. When it comes to showing sport, taking too distinctive an approach could end up being an unpopular approach that nobody wants to watch. If distinctiveness in football programmes on TV means panning away from the pitch and doing something distinct, I will not want to watch it, but I do not believe that that is how the issue will be interpreted. There must be a common-sense and sensible way of interpreting it.
Let me provide another example, about which I am a little more concerned—the output of Radio 1. I recognise that someone of my age should not be listening to Radio 1, but I do listen to it. In my view, Radio 1 already provides a distinctive mix. It provides music that is currently in the charts, as well as playing music that is being aired for the first time because no other commercial broadcaster will play it. If it then goes into the charts, the commercial radio stations will want to play it. If we expect the BBC to be distinctive in having nothing but new music, my worry would be that listeners will not turn on at all, so the new music would never make it through towards the mainstream.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) is right that we need to be careful about the definition of ‘distinctiveness’, but I do not see that as anything other than reminding the BBC that its output should be both original and excellent. I acknowledge that the Secretary of State is more a fan of Motorhead, but I hope that distinctiveness will not be taken far enough as to allow any of Motorhead’s music to be played on Radio 1.
I mentioned the health check, and I believe that the devil will be in the detail of the language. It is important to have the opportunity to survey what is happening. It makes absolute sense that, five years into an 11-year period, there should be an opportunity to ensure that the charter renewal has worked. If it has not, it can be changed. I agree that if it is worded too widely, it could become a matter of concern and end up being a break clause. As I say, the devil will be in the detail. It was interesting to hear Opposition speakers assuming that a Conservative Government would be in place at that particular point. I obviously very much hope that that will be the case.
The hon. Gentleman did indeed say that, so I correct myself on that basis. Perhaps we can agree by saying, “Who knows what the future will bring?”, making it essential for the five-year health-check provisions to be worded tightly to ensure that the BBC continues to be the BBC that I believe this charter will deliver—certainly for the first five years.
I also seek the Minister’s reassurance about the make-up of the board. We might find that six appointments are made through the Government process, but we should all remember that these will be in accordance with the Nolan principles on public appointments, which is why I do not buy some of the points that have been made about bias. I am conscious that there will also be up to eight appointments made by the BBC itself. It is essential for the board to have one culture and to operate as one, notwithstanding the two different mechanisms for appointments.
My final concern relates to diversity targets. I was delighted to have a BBC breakfast yesterday with the BBC team that is looking to promote its diversity objectives. I applaud the ambitious figures it came up with to make sure that the BBC’s output reflects the society that we live in. The figures are indeed ambitious and have to be delivered by 2020. Key for me is that the BBC does not lose its excellence in so doing. It is essential for the best people to be put into the jobs on the basis of merit. That is a huge concern for me.
I end by welcoming the White Paper, which I believe strengthens the BBC. It gives the BBC integrity and gives back much of the independence that it might have lost over the years. It must be funded properly. I greatly welcome the Government’s amended motion, and I look forward to supporting it and the BBC in the Lobby later today.
Order. I apologise for the fact that there has been a slight change in today’s business. As Members will see on the Annunciator, there is to be a business statement after the debate. If no Member speaks for more than seven or eight minutes, everyone will be able to contribute before the vote.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. Some of what I say will reflect the fact that I chair the NUJ parliamentary group, the financial support for which is specified in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests under my name.
Members on both sides of the House have agreed that the BBC is a fantastic organisation. It is a fantastic organisation for us as a country because of the exceptionally high quality and variety of its output, and it is a fantastic organisation internationally. On the international front, I think that the fact that the BBC is watched and listened to by 350 million people every year is a remarkable tribute to the quality of its journalism, and we must focus on maintaining and supporting it in what is a lively, vibrant and changing media world.
The BBC’s international role goes back a long way. My mother is Danish, and in the middle of the second world war it was to the BBC that her people turned when they wanted to find out the truth of what was going on and hear some news on which they could rely. It is very important that we continue to invest in the kind of journalism that provides that reliability for people in places across the globe where there is no free media and no free press.
For us at home, as we heard from the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the BBC provides a range of programmes. Whether we are talking about music and music festivals, about the contribution to the creative sector—for every £1 that is invested in the BBC, we get £2 back for the creative industries—or about what I enjoy most, namely the quality of the science and nature programmes, the BBC is a truly remarkable institution, and we must give it the support that it needs in this changing world. However—partly because of the moves set out in the White Paper, and partly because of other things that have happened since the general election—I fear that it will not be given the support to which it is entitled, on either the financial or the independence front. I want to say something first about money and then about independence before making a few points about other specific issues.
On the money front, of course it is welcome that the licence fee has been guaranteed for five years, and of course it is welcome that it is to be extended to iPlayer watchers. It is also welcome that there is to be no more top-slicing—although the fact that top-slicing is ending for broadband is rather ironic, given the somewhat problematic roll-out that we are seeing in rural areas, which the Minister knows so much about. However, all that must be seen in the context of the fact that, last summer, the BBC Trust rolled over and accepted responsibility for providing free television licences for pensioners, at a cost of £700 million in licence fee money.
It is all very well for the White Paper to set out a process for establishing what future financial arrangements will be. I would have a bit more confidence in the BBC Trust had it not rolled over and agreed to what the Government wanted, but—not just because of that, but because, on a previous occasion, the previous chair and director-general also agreed to big cuts in the space of, I believe, less than 24 hours—I am not convinced that the BBC’s current financial settlement is adequate. When I receive emails from BBC managers telling me that they are reviewing the 24-hour rolling news service because it has to make cuts, I am afraid that that does rather challenge the roseate picture that was presented by the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend is of course right, and I shall move on to the argument about contestability in a moment.
In some respects the White Paper is a good document because it provides lots of interesting facts and background. One particularly interesting aspect is the forecast of people’s media use. People’s use of mobile media is forecast to double by 2020, so it seems extremely odd to be chopping the BBC’s resources at this particular moment. I can see that time is pressing, so I shall move on to the question of independence.
The problem with half the board members being appointed by the Government through a Government-run process will be the convergence between the Executive and the trust. I agree that the trust suffered from some role confusion. Was it a cheerleader or a regulator? It seemed to slide between the two. However, the problem is that it will not be possible for the director-general, who sits on the board alongside its other members, to maintain the kind of editorial independence on which we all rely. And of course, if appointment is not a problem, reappointment certainly will be.
I want to mention three specific issues. The first is the proposal to merge the world rolling news service and the national rolling news channel. It is completely obvious that each of those channels has a completely different agenda, and that one of them would lose out under such a proposal. My second concern is the contracting out of about 60% of the BBC’s radio content. On the question of contracting out and contestability, it is fine for us to subject to competitive tender and contract out between 10% and 25% of programmes, but once we move beyond 50%, we are tipping the balance in the wrong direction. We already have independent television producers and independent commercial channels. We have channels funded by subscription and channels funded by advertising, and it seems quite inappropriate to suggest that the BBC should follow their model through contestability.
The impact of the BBC on the general quality of programming is reinforced by what happened when ITV made “Downton Abbey” and exported it to America. The Americans were convinced that it was a BBC production because it was so good. That illustrates the influence of the BBC on television standards across the board. Finally, I have to question whether financing local news through the licence fee is the best approach. Obviously, we need to do something about local newspapers, but I am not convinced that the licence fee is the right route through which to do that.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and it has been a pleasure to listen to her contribution. I nearly always agree with about half of what she says. I shall limit myself to making one main point. I am grateful to you for squeezing me into the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall try to limit myself to five minutes. I shall pass over all the complimentary things that I was going to say about the BBC. It is an example of British expertise and invention right across the world, and I would have liked to say more about that.
We need to recognise that developing and agreeing on the role and scope of the BBC is an important responsibility for the Government through the charter review and renewal. The BBC is inevitably very powerful, and its huge success means that it becomes dominant in many of its markets, so there is a role for Government to be aware of the impact that the BBC, backed by £4 billion of what is effectively public money through the licence fee, has on diversity and to ensure that that remains positive. I believe that it always does, but that is a role for Government.
However, just because we are huge supporters of the BBC, it does not mean that we cannot criticise it from time to time. My approach to the BBC is a bit like my approach to the Welsh rugby team: I love it second only to my family, but when they play badly, I feel that I have the right to criticise. I do not think that that impacts on my regard for the BBC or, indeed, for the Welsh rugby team.
I was a bit surprised to see this topic coming forward as an Opposition day debate, and I think that the Opposition Front-Bench team had to work quite hard to generate genuine disagreement as there is a large measure of agreement across the House about where we are going. The White Paper has been welcomed across the board, including by the BBC. Before its publication, I was receiving hundreds of emails telling me about the terrible things that the Government were going to do to the BBC, including virtually disbanding it and taking away its independence—all total nonsense, of course. I have not had a single email since. The reality is that the White Paper was welcomed by almost everybody who has had a proper response to it.
As for the argument that was made earlier about the publication of payment packages, I have some sympathy with those who believe that the level should be lowered from £450,000. A level of £150,000 is reasonable, and I hope that the Secretary of State will return to that and that the BBC accepts that the public do not really agree with the position that it has taken. It may well volunteer to bring the figure down itself.
I want to make a short point about the relationship between the BBC and S4C. S4C is important for Wales’s cultural identity and hugely important to the Welsh language. Such matters are vital to me and I often speak about them. During the previous Parliament, S4C’s funding was moved from the Government to the licence fee. Indeed, 90% of S4C’s funding now comes from the BBC, so the relationship is crucial. The Government have agreed to hold an independent inquiry into S4C’s future support arrangements, but I am told that it will not take place until after the charter for the next 11 years has been agreed. I do not want to criticise the Government here, but I want to make an important point about the degree of uncertainty that that causes.
We do not want a charter agreement that in some way makes it more difficult to have a proper, independent inquiry into S4C’s future. I make that point in this debate—I am pleased that the Secretary of State is back in his seat—because it is causing a great deal of concern about what might happen, not what is going to happen. Whenever we move forward and such things are discussed by the relevant parties, we must be careful—unless the charter review and the inquiry can be run side by side—that the charter review does not impinge on the future relationship between S4C and the BBC in the independent inquiry.
We should start by remembering that the BBC has just been asked to make what is pretty much a 20% budget cut. There must be some senior executives and some people close to the BBC who are beginning to question whether the deal that was made last summer is a good one and is being delivered. I was not privy to the conversations or the late-night telephone calls, but the nature of the deal was presumably that if they agreed to make a £650 million contribution to the black hole in the Chancellor’s Budget, the BBC as we know it would be safe going forward in two respects: that it would continue to be funded by public subscription through the licence fee and that it would be editorially independent.
I do not know what is in the minds of Ministers—we will see that as the debate on the White Paper develops over the rest of the year as we head towards the charter renewal—but it is the case that there are voices on the Government Back Benches that are hostile towards the BBC, and that will question whether the licence fee should remain and whether the BBC should be obliged to undergo more privatisation and have more of a commercial motive in its output. I thought that that debate had gone, but the BBC needs to be cognisant that it is not over.
The SNP, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) said, is absolutely committed to public service broadcasting. We must remember that the opposite of having a public service ethos in our broadcasting is to have a commercial one, in which decisions are made on the basis of how many viewers there will be and how many programmes can be sold in an international market. In my view, that makes for bad programmes and would remove innovation, creativity and experimentation.
To illustrate that with an example, probably my favourite television programme on air at the moment is “Peaky Blinders”, a gritty BBC drama series set in 1920s Birmingham about gangsters of the time. It is rich in social realism and in its attention to period detail in every respect but one: it has a contemporary electric soundtrack, even though it is a period drama. Some would say that, on paper, that does not work and spoils the programme. Actually, the electric guitar of Jack White and the other people on the soundtrack enhances the menace in the narrative.
I would bet that if somebody had taken that idea to a commissioner whose principal objective was to get as many viewers and sell as many programmes as possible, they would have sent it back saying, “No, I want a soporific score that is reflective of the ragtime music of the period.” An experiment would have been denied. That might have sold more copies and it might have gained more viewers, but it would have been a much worse programme as a result.
There have been steps forward—some of them baby steps—in the way the BBC operates. There has been some decentralisation, which is extremely welcome, and that has resulted in better programmes. For example, the forensic and high-energy examination of alleged corruption in the Metropolitan police was produced by a production crew in Belfast. Who would have thought that they would be the best equipped to do that job? In “Shetland” and “Hinterland”, one can see gritty crime dramas set very much in the vernacular of the Scottish islands or of Aberystwyth that yet command much wider audiences, because exploring diversity can bring better programmes that enrich the entire output for everyone.
I now turn to the situation in Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire made some points that I want to reiterate, but the first thing to say is that the management of the BBC are playing catch-up, and not playing it very well, with the decentralisation that has taken place in the governance of the United Kingdom. It is welcome that the Scotland Act 2016 gives the Scottish Government a say in the charter renewal process and in the management of the BBC, but is it not remarkable that almost 20 years after the creation of the Scottish Parliament, we are debating whether it should have those limited powers?
We believe, as we put forward in an amendment to the Scotland Bill and as we will put forward again, that broadcasting in Scotland should be the responsibility of the Scottish Government. How can it be that this House entrusts the Scottish Government to make decisions on assisted dying, abortion, the running of all public services and what rate of income tax people should be charged, yet thinks that they cannot control the telly or the radio? It is a remarkable situation.
We believe that, in the process of charter renewal, those debates can be revisited. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire said, we think that the BBC should consider a federal structure in which the licence fees that are collected in Scotland are controlled and directed in Scotland by people who understand what they are doing, and in which programme making and commissioning are controlled in Scotland, so that, most importantly, all of the considerable resources that are available can support the creative industries, talent and artists in our own country. At the moment, many of them do not, and much of our best creative talent is obliged to travel 400 miles south to ply its trade in this city, which is not acceptable in the long term.
When we give examples of drama or entertainment, most people would probably agree that the output should reflect the place in which it is made, but that is even more important when it comes to news and current affairs programmes. Those on the Government Benches misunderstand, perhaps deliberately, our concern in this respect. There was talk earlier of sour grapes and sore losers—by the way, Members should remember that I am speaking on behalf of a party that is getting quite adept at winning elections—but our concern is about the fairness and impartiality of our national broadcaster. When the Secretary of State says that it is the role of the BBC to keep the nation together, that becomes a non-neutral statement when we consider that the constitutional future of our country is, shall we say, a matter of divided opinion. It is not about reviewing the 2014 referendum result, but about understanding that there are different perspectives within the Scottish population.
Almost 50% of the people do not agree that staying in the United Kingdom in the longer term is the best option for us. They would like to see self-government of their own country. I am not arguing about who is going to win or lose that argument, but we should accept that there is more than one opinion. Therefore, to deny that and to allow the BBC to take an editorial view that the nation must be kept together, by which I presume it means the UK, means that many, many people will feel disfranchised and alienated from the national broadcaster. That must be a matter of concern. I know that the Secretary of State’s opinions are his opinions and that he does not control the output of BBC Scotland—of course that is right—but having senior politicians who take that view will have some effect on the people working at the coalface and making the programmes. We need to say quite clearly to BBC Scotland that it is its responsibility to reflect the diversity and the plurality of opinion that exists in that country, rather than take sides in this matter.
After speaking to senior executives at BBC Scotland, I know that the director-general now has four pilot episodes—I do not know whether they are videotapes or DVDs—of a potential Scottish news programme on his desk. The degree of control that is being exerted in relation to Scottish editors and producers varies. I hope that he will take the bold and commendable step of selecting the most ambitious of those and committing to allow the people who live in Scotland to view BBC Scotland through their own experience and in a way that reflects their own lives.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate. I want to focus on just one aspect of the White Paper—the proposal to modernise the licence fee by closing the iPlayer loophole, requiring all those who access BBC on-demand content to pay the licence fee. That will have a real impact on our students.
I have already asked questions about how the proposal will impact on students living away from home. The response was that the Government consulted on adding on-demand programme services to the TV licence framework and that, under the new proposals, all individuals will need to be covered by a TV licence if they stream or download TV programmes through on-demand services provided by the BBC. The response went on helpfully to state:
“If an individual has a licence already, then they are automatically covered to watch BBC on-demand services under the new proposals.”
I was already aware of the latter point, and that is the issue with students living away from home. I asked whether any assessment had been made of the potential effect on students, but there was no reference to that in the response, and I can only conclude that no assessment had been made.
Legally, if a student is living away from home and has a television in their room and that room is a lockable, self-contained unit, they need a TV licence. However, most students do not have televisions in their rooms so they do not need to purchase a TV licence. What many students will, however, have in the room is a computer or an iPad on which they will access BBC programmes online, many for research or study purposes, and it would seem that the proposed closure of the iPlayer loophole will now require the students to be in possession of a TV licence, adding yet more expense to an already phenomenally expensive education.
The Government claim to have consulted on the continued provision of the licence fee and found
“significant support for reform or modernisation”.
On this basis, they have
“committed to modernise the licence fee to include BBC on-demand programmes”.
Yet an examination of the consultation results shows that 59.8% of responses said that no change was needed, with only 15.1% supporting reform, including closing the iPlayer loophole. In addition, an analysis of the Radio Times survey appears in the White Paper and the startling fact is reported that 3% of respondents indicated that,
“there should be some sort of licence fee reform—including closing the iPlayer loophole.”
So, 3% and 15.1%—it is hardly a positive mandate for action, is it?
Yet on the basis of that minority view, the Government have ploughed on regardless and are now proposing to make the change without any evidence of having assessed the impact on those likely to be adversely affected. Certainly, having looked at the list of groups feeding into the consultation, I can find no group representing students—no National Union of Students or similar body was in evidence.
Although the Secretary of State consulted sources as diverse as Glasgow City Council and Sir Lenny Henry, he forgot to consult 2.5 million students in the UK. Students feel so strongly about this issue that there is a change.org petition calling for students to be made exempt from paying for a TV licence to watch BBC iPlayer on demand. The petition was started by a student at Loughborough University, who says:
“I’m acutely aware of the huge sums of money required for a student to live and study away from home...Today’s students will leave University with an average debt of about £45,000. A TV licence would add £436.50 during a 3 year course, adding yet more debt to an already unaffordable education.”
That student points out that the Government has not been kind to students financially, chronicling the increase in tuition fees in 2012 and the fact that the Government have now scrapped maintenance grants for poorer students, replacing them with loans and thus making them build up yet more debt. She believes it is about time that the Government did something positive for students in the UK. I agree with that student and I am supporting her campaign.
The petition so far has 17,405 supporters, many of whom have left comments pointing out the Reithian principles of the BBC: to inform, to educate and to entertain. Surely we would wish our students to access the first two principles and tolerate the fact that, yes, they may also be entertained at times without its adding to the mountain of debt that they leave university with.
I mentioned before that the National Union of Students was not among the bodies that had engaged with the consultation, but I have consulted with the NUS and I will finish with the words of the NUS vice-president of welfare, who said to me today:
“The iPlayer offers access to BBC radio, for which a licence fee is not required, and to archive material, for which there could be strong academic reasons necessitating access. This change would unfairly prohibit continued free usage of the services. And, at a more basic level, with the gap in available financial support and the average cost of living for students running to thousands of pounds a year, the idea that students have spare cash to cover this proposed additional cost is bordering on the ridiculous. The simplest solution is to offer an exemption for students who solely access BBC iPlayer, and we support calls on the Government to revisit this decision.”
I support the NUS’s view. I urge the Secretary of State to rethink the closure of the iPlayer loophole and to do something positive for our students by making them exempt from it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) on introducing a new angle to the debate.
My uncle Will, a clergyman of strong opinions for whom I had a good deal of respect, used to argue from the 1970s that the BBC was run by communists. A more common view, though, is that the BBC is a great British organisation or institution and, like most great British organisations, it is as much a product of historical accident as of design, a point made earlier by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).
I hesitate to call the BBC a national treasure, but it is certainly internationally respected, largely because it is not simply consumer-driven or obviously pursuing its own agenda. It acts as though it has obligations and values—duties to inform, educate, foster cultural development and encourage democratic thought, new ideas and understanding of traditions and history. That is probably why we have the diversity of programmes and more creativity and risk on the BBC than we get from commercial broadcasting. Oddly enough, that is profitable for the BBC. If it did not have those obligations, there would be no case to provide it with public funds.
The BBC model is ultimately paternalistic—which is why, mixing metaphors, it got called “Auntie”. As we have already established, parents and aunties are seldom impartial, and we may wonder in a post-modern way whether we ever get impartiality right. However, we want a public sector broadcaster to make the effort, which means building the right sort of challenge into the system.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that from a Scottish point of view, despite the limited devolved powers that the BBC has, which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) touched on, everything is reported from a London-centric perspective? That is part of the problem and accounts for some of the dissatisfaction with the BBC.
We would make exactly the same point in the north-west, which is why we are so glad that the BBC was persuaded, sometimes kicking and screaming, to come up to Salford. A public sector broadcaster that degenerates into a clique of like-minded individuals who are inordinately pleased with themselves will not do the trick. We all recognise that the BBC has diversity issues and may also have complacency issues. Just because the BBC is criticised from both sides of the political divide, as it clearly is at present, does not mean that it is getting things right. In most other walks of life, universal condemnation is not an automatic sign that a good job is being done.
Much of the challenge should come from the public, as indeed it does. Much of the challenge will come from other media, as indeed it does. Some should come from Parliament. The Public Accounts Committee has wrestled for some time to get to the bottom of the BBC accounts and found great difficulty in doing so. The PAC has had difficulty getting to the bottom of only two issues—one is Saudi arms deals and the other is the BBC finances. If there is to be effective challenge, it must be hard-wired into the system. If it is not in the culture itself, as it should be, there must be a structure beyond feedback programmes that facilitates it.
I do not see a case against Government appointees being part of that structure. Why, after all, should the Government not have a view? The important thing is that the Government’s influence is not undue, decisive or determining, and must always be transparent. Sometimes pseudo-independent figures aligned with Government on boards and trusts—referred to earlier as leftie luvvies—are more worrying than overt Government representation. Behind-the-scenes influence can often be corrosive. There are current allegations that the BBC is running scared of covering the Tory election expenses issue because it is fearful of what the Government may do.
Sadly, I think this Government would prefer to have things both ways—covert and overt influence, stuffing the structure with Government placemen, using charter renewal as a disciplinary tool, and using traditional dark arts to hobble the BBC, where possible. It is our duty here to argue for as much transparency and accountability as we can get. That is the only genuine way in which we can safeguard independence, but transparency must be twofold. It must be about what the BBC does and funds, but also about what leverage the Government have and exercise.
We have had a high-quality and thoughtful debate. I am pleased the Secretary of State was able to take a break from his true love—campaigning in the EU referendum—to be here. He will have heard Members on all sides speak with overwhelming positivity about the BBC’s contribution to, and place in, Britain and the world. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) emphasised that in the Welsh context and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) did so in the Scottish context. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) highlighted the BBC’s importance to students. I hope the Minister will address her concerns.
Members on all sides voiced their concerns about the charter renewal process, the editorial independence of the BBC, its financial independence and the BBC’s future mission. I agree with the position of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on Motorhead, but I am afraid I cannot share his complacency about the review. Many Members, in particular the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), spoke of the good work the BBC has done and continues to do, and the value of public service. We heard about the cultural power of the BBC, the power it projects around the world and the millions of people for whom it is the only reliable window on the world. Several hon. Members spoke of the key role that our public sector broadcasters play in supporting our creative industries, the continuing success of the BBC and its role as one of the cornerstones of our £84 billion creative industries. That is something we on the Labour Benches celebrate.
I want to dwell for just a moment on the importance of the cultural sector not only here in this bastion of privilege but in every home and on every high street. The BBC is instrumental in that and it is public. We on the Labour Benches do not have an ideological problem with successful public sector organisations. Just like the 73% of respondents to the charter renewal consultation who supported the BBC’s continuing independence, the two-thirds who said that the BBC had a positive wider impact on the market and the three-fifths who agreed that the current system of financing is functioning well, we on the Labour Benches, and some on the Government Benches, see a flourishing BBC and think: how can we support it and make it even better?
The Secretary of State instead seems to have set out to deliberately diminish the BBC, undermine its finances and independence, and insist that the BBC in some way distances itself from successful popular broadcasting. This change is nothing to do with equipping the BBC for a new age of digital technology and changing methods of media consumption, something the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) rightly emphasised, and everything to do with hobbling a great British institution.
We are not arguing that the BBC is perfect. I have participated in several debates this year alone about the BBC’s poor record on diversity, be it black and minority ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or regional. Concerns about this were voiced in several interventions. The BBC’s licence fee funding means it must provide something for everyone. It is an existential principle of its very being—or Beebing—and I am pleased that its recently launched diversity policy is an attempt to reflect that. We shall watch with interest. When the BBC gets it wrong, it is right that we are critical, but we must also celebrate when it gets it right, and it gets so very much right—that is why it is the greatest broadcaster on earth.
A great deal of concern has been expressed in the debate and outside the House about the effect of the charter on the BBC’s independence. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland spoke passionately about the impact on its editorial independence. The charter changes the BBC’s governance and regulation, and those changes have been described as the biggest in the organisation’s 94-year history. The Opposition have made it clear that it is simply not acceptable for a unitary board that will have influence on editorial output to have up to half its members appointed by the Government. [Interruption.] Government Members are shaking their heads, but that is the case.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but it is quite an established principle of regulation—I worked for Ofcom, the regulator, for a number of years—that post-production influence will have a chilling effect in this case. The fact is that there will be editorial influence.
As I declared, I have an interest, having worked for Ofcom. It must be remembered that the Prime Minister once vowed to abolish it, but, rather than abolishing it, the Government have heaped new responsibilities and powers on it, creating a super-regulator in some respects. However, will they furnish it with fee resources or ensure that it has the internal boundaries that are needed to carry out such important functions? Spectrum may not be as sexy as “Strictly”, but it requires a good deal of focus, resource and energy to get it right, and we want to make sure that the resources are in place so that that happens.
The Secretary of State said earlier that previous Administrations had appointed members to the board, and that was the subject of an intervention, but he failed to mention that, in the past, the board has not had direct influence on the BBC’s editorial content, and that is a point that he and the Minister must address.
Other Members have spoken today of the threat to the financial independence of the BBC, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn eloquently set out how that threatens services. Burdening the BBC with financing free television licences for over-75s has already threatened its future independence and is a worrying precedent—an independent organisation being co-opted into delivering Government policy. The proposal to allow the National Audit Office access to the BBC’s commercial arm could derange its commercial operations, further undermining its finances and independence.
It is our BBC, and it belongs to the people—every household pays for it. However, the Government are messing with the fundamentals of our Beeb, not to equip it for the digital age, or to enable it to fight the new global behemoths or better represent our diverse society, but because it is a public sector success story—and that undermines the crooked ideology of this freewheeling Government. I urge the House to support the motion and to protect our BBC.
This is a great opportunity to respond to this important debate. I thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members who made such effective contributions. We heard the brilliant speeches that we would have expected from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson); my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who was employed by the BBC; the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones); my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who was educated by the BBC—all the people who have benefited from the BBC are on the Government side of the House; the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who rightly talked about the importance of S4C, of which he has been a doughty champion throughout; the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard); the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who spoke up for students; and the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh). They were all ably bookended by the formidable spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), whom I have now shadowed for six years.
I bow to no one in my love and respect for the BBC. I am of course currently immersed in “Versailles”. To anyone who wants to understand the dominance of the British media, let me say that it comes to something when the French have to make a 10-episode series about one of the most important episodes in their history in English so that it can be shown on the BBC. Quite right! Who wants Brexit when, if we remain, the French have to make all their programmes in English?
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, who said that the BBC was as important to him as his own family. I go to bed every night with the BBC. I cannot get to sleep unless Radio 5 Live is playing on my clock radio. This gives me an opportunity to congratulate Nihal Arthanayake, who was newly appointed today as a presenter on Radio 5 Live, as was Emma Barnett. Those are two important announcements about new presenters on Radio 5 Live—a really formidable station.
In the short time I have available, let me address some of the points that were raised. One of those is the attempt to run an argument that the BBC’s independence is somehow threatened by the new unitary board. As you are well aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, the governors of the BBC were appointed by the Government. We saw how the previous Labour Government behaved when they appointed a crony to be chairman of the BBC and appointed a Labour donor to be director-general of the BBC, and then when the BBC displeased them, they ran them both out of town. The BBC Trust is appointed by the Government. The majority of members on the new board will be appointed by the BBC. The nations and regions members will be appointed by the Government, under an independent appointments process. The excellent report by David Clementi commissioned by the Secretary of State gives a very thoughtful analysis of the best way of appointing members to the board, and I urge hon. Members to read it. There is no attempt to threaten the independence of the BBC; in fact, the position of the director-general as editor-in-chief is strengthened.
There was a lot of talk from hon. Members about the importance of the nations and regions. Again, that is strengthened by the White Paper. The BBC itself is taking important steps to enhance its coverage in the nations and regions. In the great nation of Scotland, for example, there are new drama and comedy editors, important partnerships with stakeholders such as Creative Scotland, the creation of a centre of excellence for factual programming, and of course the all-important news review.
There has been talk about the break clause, with claims that this a charter review by the back door. We are simply recognising how things in the media are changing. The structure we are putting in place is an 11-year charter that gives the BBC a great deal of independence for the forthcoming decade, but we know that technology is changing. Just look at the SNP Front Benchers on their BlackBerrys and their iPads: they are consuming media from all over the world. This is the challenge that the BBC faces. In five years, they may be watching things through virtual reality goggles. At that point, we will want to sit down with the BBC and say, “Do we need to change anything, because everybody is watching everything through virtual reality?” This is a perfectly sensible attempt to review how the charter is working and whether the BBC needs more help in this multi-media world. I think you would agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that is the right way forward.
I am pleased that many hon. Members mentioned diversity, which is deeply important to them, to me, and indeed to the viewers of the BBC. It is vital that we recognise that the charter review, thanks to the Secretary of State, has put diversity into the charter for the first time. That really is an important milestone.
I recognise that the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton raised concerns about the iPlayer loophole, but we want to close the iPlayer loophole precisely because we want to help the BBC. As more and more people consume the BBC on tablets and on mobile phones, it is important that the licence fee is also able to modernise.
The White Paper—it has, I am pleased to say, been widely welcomed by Members from all parts of the House—addresses the needs of the BBC, strengthens its independence, takes the charter out of the electoral cycle, recognises the importance of a distinctive BBC and highlights the importance of diversity. It has, quite rightly, been welcomed by the BBC.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House notes the positive response from the BBC to the publication of the BBC White Paper which sets a clear framework for a stable and successful future for one of the United Kingdom’s finest institutions, enhancing its independence and empowering it to continue to create distinctive, high-quality and well-liked programmes and content; welcomes the open and consultative process that has informed the Charter Review including the second largest ever public consultation and the detailed contribution from committees of both Houses to the Charter Review process; and notes the Government’s intention to publish a draft Charter, in good time, for debate in the devolved administrations, as well as both Houses, before the Charter is finalised.