I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 170931 and 200239 relating to the TV Licence fee.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. A number of people who have signed the petitions or emailed me are concerned that they still have to pay the licence fee, arguing that they do not see why they should have to pay for another service in an age in which subscription and streaming services are the norm. They also think that the licence fee is too high. That is certainly true of one of our petitioners, who said that he only uses streaming services and Freeview, while someone who emailed me said:
“It now seems absurd to pay for something which you have absolutely no control over”,
and that he
“will typically watch only four programmes the BBC produces a year”.
He must keep detailed records of his TV watching, if that is the case.
They also make the fair point that the licence fee is a regressive tax. We cannot get away from that, which is why the previous Labour Government introduced free television licences for the poorest pensioners—those aged over 75—which the previous Chancellor then put on to the BBC’s budget. However, its being regressive is outweighed by its simplicity, and by the fact that nowadays people pay a lot more for satellite and subscription services. What is missing from the arguments I have received is any consciousness of the role of public sector broadcasting as a good for all society, and of the wide range of services that the BBC is expected to provide as a condition of the licence fee.
My hon. Friend, who I am pleased to say is now a member of the Petitions Committee, is quite right. The BBC has to meet obligations that commercial broadcasters do not, which is very important.
Those who argue against the licence fee find it quite difficult to come up with an alternative, or at least a viable alternative. The then Culture, Media and Sport Committee suggested in a previous Parliament that over time we might move to the German model by having a broadcasting levy on every household. That has the merit of being simple and relatively easy to collect, and it would also ensure that those who use only, say, BBC radio or its online services contribute something to their cost. However, it does not get away from the regressive argument.
Finland funds its public sector broadcasting through personal taxation, which allows it not to be regressive. However, I do not feel that would work in this country, since the Treasury is notoriously resistant to hypothecation; it would be far too easy for any Chancellor to raid that budget. It would also be very damaging to the BBC’s independence, which I think many of us feel is worth preserving.
The point that the hon. Lady makes is exactly the issue. Looking at the current licence fee system, we realise that there are obvious flaws. However, when we go on to consider all the alternatives, we realise that what we have now is probably best described as the least worst option.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a bit like Churchill’s saying that democracy is the worst possible system we could have—until we look at all the others.
Some people say that the BBC should become a streaming service, but that would not allow it to fund the programmes it is required to—for minority interests, for the regions, for different language services and so on. There is also advertising, which I will come to in a moment, but I make the point now that funding programmes through advertising is not free, as many people seem to think; it is actually added to the cost of everything we buy. As such, it is the most regressive tax possible. I do not watch much ITV, for example, but I am willing to pay for it because I believe in diversity in the media. I pay for it when I purchase goods in the shops.
I think that the difficulty of finding an alternative to the licence fee has actually helped to increase support for it over the years. A recent BBC consultation showed that 75% of people were in favour of retaining the licence fee. Of course, that is from a self-selecting group—people who are interested in the BBC and respond to its consultations—but other polls have also shown a majority in favour. A recent Ipsos MORI poll from this year showed that 49% of people are in favour of funding the BBC through the licence fee, compared with 27% who want it funded by advertising and 23% who want it to be a subscription service.
It is true that a poll in The Daily Telegraph a few years ago—in 2013, I think—showed 70% in favour of either abolishing or reducing the licence fee, but that conflates two things and is not a reasonable guide. If asked, most of us would like the cost of anything we pay for to be reduced, and would say so. In fact, other polls show support for the licence fee actually rising over time—it was at 28% in 1989, 32% in 2004, and 49% this year.
The problem with suggesting that the BBC should be funded by advertising is that it would be fishing in the same pool as the commercial broadcasters. There is only a limited amount of money available, especially as more advertising moves online, and I very much doubt that the revenue would be there to fund the kinds of programmes we have now. Another important point is that advertisers—quite reasonably, from their point of view—want spots during shows that are guaranteed to be popular, but a public sector broadcaster such as the BBC has to do more than that; it has to be free to experiment and to produce programmes for minority interests. That broad sweep of BBC programmes is probably the reason why 95% of people in this country watch it at some point or another. Indeed, despite the competition, it is still the largest media provider for adults, including, very surprisingly, young adults.
There are many programmes that I do not think would even be made without public service broadcasting. I cannot see a commercial company producing, for instance, a cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, as the BBC did, or providing broadcasts of opera or ballet. I am reluctant to offend the Opposition Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), who is a noted opera buff, but opera is still a minority interest. No commercial broadcaster would organise and broadcast the Proms, which is the largest classical music festival in the world.
The BBC has to be able to innovate, whether in developing the iPlayer or producing different kinds of programmes. Some of those programmes will fail, and I and other Members here will not like some others, but they are an important part of maintaining diversity in the media. Indeed, if we do not want bland uniformity, an organisation that can encompass Radio 4 and Radio 6 Music and make programmes varying from “EastEnders” to “The Sky at Night” is an important thing to preserve.
Another important point about the licence fee is that it helps to preserve BBC independence. It protects the BBC—most of the time, at least—from political interference and stops it being subject to the demands of advertisers or of an overweening proprietor; colleagues can name their own media mogul.
That is particularly important when it comes to news. The BBC is the most watched news provider in the country, with 77% of adults watching BBC News at least once a week. In a time when trust in institutions is declining, it is still the most trusted news provider— 57% of people trust it, and the nearest rival is on 11%. It maintains a network of correspondents all around the world and is trusted not just in this country but abroad. Many people trust BBC News. The BBC World Service, which is largely funded by the licence fee, does an enormous amount to bolster the prestige of this country abroad.
People ask whether I have criticisms of BBC News. Of course I do. I think far too much time is spent on interviewers repeating things. We hear something from someone in the studio, then they go to someone standing outside in the cold, and the handover of, “What more can you tell us?” is usually met in my house by a shout of, “Nothing at all!” It is far too London-centric. It still operates as if a problem on a London rail line is of interest to the whole country, or a few flakes of snow falling on the capital constitutes a national disaster. More importantly, it has gone to believing that balance means just interviewing two people of different views. There is not enough probing of those people to try to get at the facts.
Having said that, at least I know when I am watching BBC News that they are trying to get to the truth, however imperfectly. In an age of Fox News and alternative facts, that is worth having. Moreover, in the times in which we live, when there are attempts to intervene in and influence votes—a lot of it coming from Russia and other providers—having an independent news provider is essential to a functioning democracy. I would pay my licence fee for that alone, frankly. At 40p a day, which is what it works out at, I do not think it can be considered onerous.
The BBC is now doing an enormous amount to boost creative industries in the regions. Cardiff has the Drama Village, and Media City in Salford has been a great success.
The hon. Lady is making a really forthright and excellent speech. She mentioned BBC spend across the regions and its investment. One area where I think the BBC is failing is the west midlands, where we have seen an average spend of £12.50 for each licence fee. Although I know things look rosier from Warrington North and Manchester, there is still a feeling of a deficit in areas such as my own.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. There is much more to do, and I will come to that in a moment.
Media City has been a huge success and has boosted other creative industries in the region, although it took some time to convince certain people that there are nice places to live that are not in London and that northerners do not keep coal in the bath and ferrets up their trousers.
The BBC’s natural history unit, which produces excellent documentaries, is based in Bristol. There has been investment in Birmingham and Belfast. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said, there is a lot more to do. The BBC needs to do much more to reflect the diversity in this country.
I totally agree with virtually everything the hon. Lady is saying. It is good that we examine the licence fee, although it was examined fairly recently—the new royal charter was introduced in January this year. I hope she agrees that the World Service has been a lifeline to many people in many nations throughout the world. The education of our children over decades has been excellent and continues to be so. BBC Scotland is well respected north of the border—speaking of which, my trousers are a ferret-free zone. I value the input. It is right that we look at the way we pay for it and the value we get for 40p a day. In time to come, and as broadcasting changes, we will need to look at it.
The hon. Gentleman is right; we need continually to scrutinise the BBC and what it offers.
The BBC needs to have much more programming coming from the regions and to do much more to increase the diversity of its staff. I am very pleased when the BBC tells me that its apprentices in engineering, media and production come overwhelmingly from families where the parents have not been to university, but there are only 230 of them. More needs to be done to ensure that its journalists, presenters and, most of all, its producers and commissioning editors reflect the diversity of this country, and to break the charmed circle where people go from Oxford and Cambridge to the BBC; and not because those are bad people, but because a national broadcaster has to reflect the different experiences, ways of looking at things and outlooks of people in the regions and nations of this country.
When the BBC says that it has reduced management costs, I am pleased to hear it, but we also know that it has a real problem with the gender pay gap, which needs to be addressed. Even more importantly, pay at the bottom of the BBC pyramid is often very low. People who want to move into broadcasting need to be able to do so without having to rely on families for support, so that they can make a career and so that people from different backgrounds can begin a career at the BBC.
Nevertheless, I still think that the licence fee presents value for money. Strides have been made in ensuring that more of it is collected. A National Audit Office report earlier this year showed that the amount of money collected had gone up and that complaints had halved since 2010, but let us be clear that it is still expensive to collect. That is why the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) is right to say that we have to keep examining it and looking at alternatives.
Some £162 million was spent on collection in 2014, despite the fact that the licence fee remained static between 2010 and 2016. Evasion is running at between 6.2% and 7.2%. That costs the rest of us between £250 million and £290 million a year. Because of that, there are people who argue quite passionately that not paying the licence fee should be decriminalised. I thought long and hard about this before coming to the debate. I think, on balance, that I would not support that, because it is simply likely to increase evasion. Indeed, when David Perry QC reviewed this, he said that it
“carries the risk of an increase in evasion and would involve significant cost to the taxpayer and those who pay the licence fee.”
I do not want people who do pay their dues to be penalised because of those who do not. People who worry about the criminalisation of not paying the licence fee are often more worried about sentencing for it, which is a different issue. I do not—nor, I suspect, does anyone else—want to see very poor people jailed for not paying their licence fee.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it would be an argument for never prosecuting anyone for anything, because everything uses up court time. I am not sure that it is a real argument. I am much more convinced by the costs that people who do pay would incur if evasion went up. That already costs people quite a lot of money.
The fundamental question in all this is whether we believe in public service broadcasting. I do. I think it is a public good, and we finance many things because they are a public good. Some people do not want to pay for them. I remember a gentleman who told me during the election campaign that he did not see why he should pay taxes for the education system, because he did not have any children. “They pay your pension,” is the answer to that one. We get such comments all the time.
I think that we get a good service from the BBC. We think that our television is terrible, until we go abroad and look at what is provided there. We do not realise how good the BBC camera operatives are, until we try to watch rugby or football from somewhere else, where they are not as good, and we miss the goals because they are up at the other end of the pitch. We think that BBC News has its problems, until we are trapped somewhere where the only English language service available is CNN, which seems to be designed for people with the attention span of a gnat.
Gnat with a g, in case the hon. Gentleman thinks I am insulting him.
We are not good at celebrating our successes in this country, but the BBC is a great success and we ought to celebrate it. Who else would have thought that televising Dickens as a serial, as it was originally done, was a good idea? Would any commercial broadcaster have thought of reviving a clapped-out old science fiction programme in which someone travels around in a ship disguised as a police box? But “Doctor Who” earns hundreds of millions of pounds around the world now. Would a commercial broadcaster ever have taken up a proposal for a serial about two old-age pensioners who meet after many years apart and who have dysfunctional families, or got actors of the calibre of Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid to play them? Then we would not have had the brilliantly named “Last Tango in Halifax”. I doubt very much that a commercial broadcaster would have taken up a proposal for a serial about a woman police sergeant in Yorkshire who looks after her grandson, or one where people said, “Oh yes, we’re going to cast Sean Bean as a Catholic priest in this.” If the BBC had not done so, we would never have had the brilliant “Happy Valley”, which has some of the best parts for women that I have ever seen, or “Broken”, which had some of the best acting that I have seen this year.
If that sounds like a recital of my favourite programmes, it is. Other people will have other favourites, but that is the beauty of a public service broadcaster: the wide range of programmes that it produces, whether they are brilliant nature documentaries, great dramas or good news broadcasts. There are also some turkeys, as we all know, but that is the price we pay for trying to bring in new programmes. We get successes and we get failures, but what we do not get is people constantly following the pattern of what went before. I therefore think that we ought to celebrate our public service broadcasting. We ought to ensure that it continues and, because of that, it has to be paid for.
Nothing comes for free in this life. If we do not pay for the BBC through the licence fee, we have to find another way of paying for it, but we should be clear that the BBC as it exists today, across radio and TV and online, is a success and that, by and large, we get very good value for our licence fee. It is interesting to see what the petitioners have said, but my view is that we should keep the licence fee and keep the model that has been so successful for us.
I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for responding to the e-petitions. I should declare an interest, as I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary BBC group—a position I hold with great pride. The BBC is a revered institution and perhaps unique in the way it is funded. I believe that we should look on it as a blessing to this country that it exists in the manner it does. It is an institution that we should cherish, hold dear and do everything we can to preserve. We should also be mindful of the fact that the licence fee works out at about 40p a day, which I believe is about the same price as a copy of The Sun—I will leave the analogy there.
As for replacing the licence fee, the hon. Lady makes the point: although it is certainly an unusual way to fund a media producer of output these days, the BBC does appear to have support for its model and, as she mentioned, increasing support. I recognise that it is a very unusual way to fund a media provider and that there is no choice, if one wants to have a TV but not watch the BBC, but in reality the bulk of the population use BBC programming, so I maintain that it is good value for money.
I also believe that the BBC is incredibly important to social mobility—something that is even more of a challenge now than it has been in the past. The reality is that young people who have access to the BBC have access to the most extraordinary amount of information. They may well not be in the privileged position of their family being able to impart that knowledge and information, but the fact that they can use the BBC, via the web or via TV or radio, to fill in some of the gaps that they need to fill is something that we should not lose sight of. I declare an interest, in that I sometimes feel that I lost some of my education along the way, and I certainly use the BBC to fill in some of the gaps. I probably would not be here were that not the case. Some hon. Members may think that that is a downside of the BBC, and perhaps in time I will as well, but I feel that it is absolutely essential.
Another reason why I would advocate retention of the licence fee is what it allows the BBC to do around the world. I believe that every week 372 million people across the globe tune in to the BBC, the bulk of them through the BBC World Service. That allows us to play a pivotal role in the world. It allows the message from Britain to be carried around the world, and people around the world look favourably on Britain as a result of the BBC’s informing, educating and enlightening people around the world.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although other means might become available in future, the licence fee, as he describes, has been fundamental to the success of the BBC and the respect with which it is regarded worldwide, and that to abandon it could undermine the quality and the range of programming—everything from “Mrs Brown’s Boys” to “The Blue Planet”—and put in jeopardy a valuable platform for new talent?
Indeed, and that is the point: we all have our favourites. Perhaps I will throw in “Line of Duty” as a programme that is worth the licence fee on its own. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: as soon as we start going down the road of considering a different model, all of a sudden those influences, in terms of output, will be there. We need to keep a high watermark. I think that a universal model works very well and allows the BBC to explain that some of its output may not be the most popular, but that is exactly why everyone is paying for it: collectively, there is something for everybody—even for those who love “Mrs Brown’s Boys”.
It is unfortunate that the BBC, because of its unique situation, can perhaps be attacked from all sides with regard to political bias when it comes to elections and, indeed, referendums now. I make a distinction between ordinary times and elections and referendums. I think that the BBC tries to play a very straight bat when it comes to elections; it has a heightened sense of trying to be fair to all. I think that, as politicians, we all have to admit that our antennae are not necessarily tuned in to neutrality. When one thing in particular grates on us, we tend to pillory the BBC for that. I will however add one caveat. I referenced elections and referendums, when I think the BBC is on a heightened sense of alert. I think it is fair to say—I hope I am being incredibly supportive of the BBC and this can be taken as a positive improvement point—that now that the BBC is in the business of 24/7 rolling news in particular, it needs to pay more attention and be very careful with its content, particularly as its presenters are increasingly moving towards becoming commentators. In doing so, there is the unfortunate perception of that one lone voice leaving a message that perhaps had not been intended. If the BBC is going to move more towards the model of having commentators who provide analysis, it needs to think very clearly whether there should be two guests on the show, ensuring that both sides of the argument are put, rather than what may be a throwaway remark appearing to listeners to be a particular position. The hon. Member for Warrington North mentioned that 57% of those who watch BBC News trust the content. If that is the case, the BBC has an even greater duty to make sure that that content is presented in a neutral way.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that questions we might have about BBC presentation are completely different from the principle that it is publicly funded? Not everyone has to pay the licence fee; if someone does not want a television, they do not have to pay for the BBC. Its journalism is respected worldwide, but that is a separate issue from the method of funding.
I apologise, Mrs Moon; I had not noticed that myself. Perhaps I should not have taken the interventions. I was making the point gently to the BBC that if it is in a unique position where people give it a certain level of trust, it needs to be very careful. I recognise the challenges facing the BBC, because there is now a need to provide so much content that it is quite difficult to keep up.
I noticed a feature on Saturday morning on the “Today” programme.” I will not turn this into a debate on universal credit, but the presenter made a throwaway remark about “another problem with universal credit.” That extends to the presenter of “Money Box Live,” who made a particular point, which lacked the spirit of Lord Reith and a lot of factual accuracy—and then that was it, as that point could lead news stories. People trust the BBC, as we have explained, and other news organisations feed from it. Lack of accuracy is particularly an issue for the BBC, and it needs to get that right. Other parties could make exactly the same point. However, these are just improvement points that I am making.
I maintain that the BBC is a unique institution. I understand the reasoning behind the petition, but I absolutely believe that the majority of people in this country support the BBC and the principle of the licence fee. It does not necessarily accord to much logic, and if we were inventing the process in 2017 we might not do it this way, but for me that is one of the great reasons why we should continue as we do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on putting both sides of the argument on the petitions. She touched on the issue that I will initially focus on, which is one of the disadvantages I see in the current licence fee arrangement—the enforcement on those who do not have a TV licence. I raise the matter on behalf of a constituent, who has been in contact with me recently to outline his concerns and experience. The Library briefing paper prepared for this debate neatly sets out the laws indicating when a TV licence is required. However, I would argue that the implementation of those laws, unlike other general aspects of law, appears to assume that someone is guilty of the offence of not having a TV licence unless they prove otherwise, whereas normally the law presumes innocence until it is shown otherwise.
My constituent is
“deeply concerned with the manner in which TV Licensing chooses to communicate with unlicensed occupiers; with the accusatory and extremely menacing tone they use in their letters; the relentless requirement for them to “investigate” unlicensed properties; and perhaps most of all by their assumption that those without a TV Licence are most likely guilty until proven innocent.”
He has forwarded copies of communication he has received. Some of the letters he has received contain headings such as:
“Official warning: we have opened an investigation,”
“Your address has been scheduled for a visit by an Enforcement Officer.”
Furthermore, the body of that letter states, “You know. We know.” As my constituent says, the text and headlines cannot be interpreted as anything other than threatening. The language is as bad as that of the rogue car park companies that we all receive complaints about.
The rhetoric ramps up further as the letters continue:
“Our Enforcement Officers visit an address every 5 seconds. Day. Evening. Even weekends. And if no one answers, they can come back.”
One has a bold blood-red stamp stating, “Enforcement Officer Visit Approved.” The next phase is a letter implying that a court case is imminent, with another implied threat:
“We want to ensure you have the information you may need before a hearing is set at your local court. Please read the information below carefully and keep it for your records. You will be allowed to take it into court with you.”
The letter then continues under the heading “What to expect in court,” before offering advice on how to avoid a court summons. It is quite clear that there are heavy-handed threats of court action. The solution offered effectively involves purchasing a TV licence, although there is acknowledgement at the foot of the letter that people can contact TV Licensing to inform it that they do not need one. Even that comes with the caveat:
“We may visit to confirm this.”
There is no doubt that that is extremely intimidating. It is certainly intended to make someone feel that they have to purchase a TV licence. I accept that there is a mechanism for people to highlight to TV Licensing that they do not require a licence. I am sure that is TV Licensing’s excuse for being so heavy-handed: it claims that it offers that alternative. However, that comes only at the end of the letter, and the general content of the communication is always about the requirement to have a TV licence and the threats associated with not having one. It is way too heavily skewed towards intimidation. I would like to hear the Minister’s view on that process and the companies involved in it. It is fine to target those who should pay, but it should not be by intimidation. Quite often it is those who are innocent who feel threatened, whereas people who are willing to deliberately evade often have no concern about such communications anyway.
I am also aware that many people do not know what their rights are regarding inspector visits. My constituent wrote to TV Licensing stating that he was removing its implied right of access to his private property. That was respected for a period, but the licensing authorities have now contacted him. The BBC states:
“We do not recognise this withdrawal in Scotland as different laws apply.”
My constituent is quite tenacious. He has contacted the BBC on that point and submitted a freedom of information request, but the BBC refused to release the information—it has had legal advice and will not divulge that information. I would argue that for the sake of transparency, it should release the information on why its understanding is that implied rights of access do not apply to Scotland because of different laws north and south of the border. Again, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that. It is an important point, because many people do not understand what rights an inspector has to enter their property. That goes along with intimidation and threats in letters, which make people feel that they must let an inspector into their home, but that is not actually the case.
I would like to make a few points about the BBC’s use of TV licence funding, which feeds into why so many people are against the current funding arrangements. As the hon. Member for Warrington North mentioned, there has been a well publicised scandal about the over-inflated salaries being paid and, of course, the inexcusable inequality of women’s pay, whereby a woman presenter is paid substantially less than a male presenter on the same show. That is utterly bizarre and, as I said, inexcusable.
If we look at how viewers in Scotland are treated, we see that only 72% of the licence fee raised in Scotland is actually spent in Scotland. That does not compare well with the situation in other devolved nations. The hon. Lady spoke about the BBC’s fantastic football coverage. I would point out that Gary Lineker gets paid more to present “Match of the Day” than the whole Scottish premiership gets for its highlights package. To me that is simple proof of the tunnel vision the BBC has at executive level.
The BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum was frankly woeful at times, and from what I can tell its coverage of Catalonia and the violence perpetrated by the Spanish state has also been sadly wanting. I say “from what I can tell” because I must put on record that I am actually one of the people in Scotland who does not hold a TV licence. I choose to withdraw my funding. It is all legal and above board: I do not watch live TV any more, and neither does my wife. That was a choice we made, but I think it shows how the current model might not be sustainable. Myself and my wife made that choice following the Scottish referendum. We no longer watch live TV, and we do not miss it. It shows that if a habit is broken, it can be hard to mend it.
Has the hon Gentleman suffered the trauma that many people who have ceased watching television have suffered of repeatedly getting letters from TV Licensing insisting that it gets access to the property to prove that they do watch?
Yes, I did suffer that. I alluded to what my constituent has had to put up with, and it was the same for our household, which was bombarded with letters that became increasingly threatening. My wife, who does all my paperwork, contacted TV Licensing and filled in an opt-out form online. That kept it at bay, although the letters have started again, so we need to go through the process again. That shows that people are continually assumed guilty rather than innocent.
From a Scottish perspective, the BBC has resisted calls for a “Scottish six” programme for years. It appears to have caved in to Unionist politicians who have pressurised it, in the fear that a national and international news programme created in Scotland, the same way as Radio Scotland is managed, would somehow create a nationalist nirvana. That is clearly an absurd proposition. Equally absurd is the UK Government’s resistance to devolving powers over broadcasting to Scotland. That is somehow seen as the Scottish National party trying to get its hands on control of output, whereas the SNP actually called for the measure when we were in opposition. It is a further example of Unionist parties conflating the SNP being in government and control being given to the Scottish Parliament. It is the Scottish Parliament as an institution that would control broadcasting powers if they were devolved to Scotland.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the BBC has a very difficult task when it comes to balancing the changing landscape of our institutions and politics? Some matters are devolved to Scotland, others are not. It is therefore difficult for the BBC to ride two horses, as it were—perhaps in the same way as it is for us.
Perhaps it is difficult, but with the respected journalism that we have heard about today, it should not be too difficult for the BBC to ride those two horses. I must say that it failed spectacularly during the recent general election in Scotland. It allowed too much of the audience participation debates about the general election in Scotland to focus on devolved matters, rather than on matters reserved for Westminster, and that clouded the issues. The BBC needs to work harder on drawing the distinction between devolved matters and reserved matters.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention—I must say that I anticipated it. I actually watched some of the key set-piece debates that the BBC showed at my parents’ house, so it became a family gathering. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes—that helped to spark internal family debate while we watched the television. It took shouting at the television to a different level.
To conclude, I have highlighted many issues with the current TV licensing system and the operation of the BBC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) beat me to that intervention.
I do not recognise the concerns of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) about the BBC’s performance in Scotland. Having been a councillor for 10 years and in Parliament for a short period, I have never had a complaint about BBC Scotland, and I do not see it in the way that he does. The public seem to value and appreciate BBC Scotland and the BBC in general. It may be a political perspective that he is giving this afternoon, but it is certainly not a public one.
I do not pretend to speak for the entire public. I am expressing a view, but it is one shared by many other people. It might be a political view, but politicians clearly have different views, and there are always two sides to an argument. I recall Ian Davidson calling “Newsnight Scotland” “Newsnat” and having a pop at the then presenters. It could perhaps be said that when the BBC annoys those on both sides of an argument, it is doing its job. I am not saying that the entire public share my view, but it is shared by many people who have the same kind of political allegiances.
With regard to the point made by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), in a study published by the UK Government around the time of the White Paper on the BBC, in 2016, Scots gave a score of 5.8 on general favourability towards the BBC, which was the lowest of any UK demographic.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. It certainly makes the case and is a strong rebuttal to the previous intervention.
I am trying to reach a conclusion, which all hon. Members will be grateful for. As I said, I have highlighted many issues with the current TV licensing system and the operation of the BBC. I do have sympathy for those who have called for the scrapping of the TV licence, but I am also well aware that we need to be aware of the Trojan horse aspect of some of the other vested interests, such as the Murdoch empire. We certainly want to allow true public broadcasting services to be able to continue and thrive—I mean that sincerely—so to that end, I appreciate that the TV licence still serves a purpose. However, as I started by saying, reform of the enforcement process is required, and as per the recent observations of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the licence fee cannot continue indefinitely as a funding model for the BBC. Certainly a different model will be required at some point in the future.
I would like to start by thanking the Petitions Committee for bringing these two e-petitions forward for debate, and the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for leading this excellent debate. I must also declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on commercial radio. I think that it is absolutely right that those 138,000 signatories should hear us discuss this matter fully, and obviously there are concerns that each one of them raises.
I am sure that colleagues will be aware of my former career in the media: I have a particular focus on radio, and in the past I have worked for the BBC. Having that badge was a real honour—we know how that feels—and I applaud those who do so much to bring us really great content. There are many people beavering away, doing really tough hours and working very hard, and they do not all have the telephone number salaries that we often read about.
The BBC has sent me to prison—for “Children in Need”, I hasten to add. Back in the day, in my Pudsey bear ears, I was down in the cells somewhere in Lewes Prison, where people had to find me and get me out quickly. It was all for charity. This debate gives me a wonderful chance to talk about Friday’s “Children in Need”, which raised more than £50 million—a whopping, record-breaking amount. One of the bravest parts—I do not know whether anyone saw this—was the singing by the “Countryfile” presenters.
BBC programmes include “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Doctor Who” and “EastEnders”, which we have heard about. “Peaky Blinders” is back, and for some people, “Match of the Day” is the absolute highlight of their week. There is also “Howards End” and “The Apprentice”. I was subjected to “Casualty” as a small child, with all that gore on the screen—my mother adored it. “Blue Planet” has really woken us up to the danger of plastics in our seas and the effects on our beaches, and I am so pleased that the Government are doing something about it. In some people’s minds, some of those programmes and that content will absolutely be worth the licence fee on their own.
I stress at the beginning of my speech that across my constituency people hugely appreciate and respect the role that the BBC plays as one of our leading media outlets. It is essential to recognise that the TV licence fee supports all manner of work carried out by the BBC, including its radio coverage, which is so important nationally and locally—I am not sure that there is an MP in the Chamber who would not be delighted to go straight on to their local radio station with a press release about the work they have been doing. The licence fee supports so much work good work in the community. BBC Radio Solent is a great news outlet. Many vulnerable people who are stuck in their homes more than they would like feel the benefit of their licence fee through the output and local content they hear from their local radio station.
In a digital age, however, it is crucial that we look at how the BBC progresses and reflect on people’s changing needs and attitudes towards media consumption. To that end, when we think about preserving the licence fee, I am keen for us to ensure that people feel that impartiality comes with it. As has been mentioned, we as parliamentarians absolutely benefit from scrutiny, as does the BBC. This Government have shed light on the gender pay gap, and what was unearthed is absolutely astounding. The BBC is most watched and most valued, and it must remain trusted. We have to look at the link between funding and perceived bias, because people will not pay if they do not feel that they are getting a good deal.
I agree that, in a 24-hour rolling news culture, the BBC might have to change its game. Balance and probing are vital. Importantly, people will happily continue to pay their TV licence if they honestly feel that the news is balanced. Having worked at the BBC, I know that it is a really difficult thing to do, because it is a gargantuan operation. Someone can be doing their best in one part, but what on earth are people in another part doing? The balance is very difficult. If people feel that the news is balanced, they will happily continue to support the BBC. In this era of fake news, concern has been raised that the BBC is in some way becoming about commentating—not explaining the process, but giving opinions—and when I worked at the BBC that was simply a no-no.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report in February 2015 setting out a number of ways that the TV licence, if it is to remain in place, could be improved. I will focus on two areas highlighted by the report that are key to any Government addressing the concerns that have led to so many people questioning the need for a TV licence in this new media age.
First, we simply must address the fact that people have no choice but to pay for a TV licence, even if some households have no intention of watching BBC services—unless they are at the in-laws, or somewhere else. We are fortunate to have a huge number of television channels available in the UK, combined with other services such as Netflix. Our constituents have the opportunity not to rely on the BBC, so we need to ensure that it is balanced and trusted, and that it remains a source of entertainment so that people continue to want to pay towards it, rather than it becoming something they resent. The system should therefore allow for adaptations and perhaps for greater flexibility in future, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on that subject. A level of flexibility on radio-only content is sincerely worth looking at.
Secondly, the current system means that everyone who gets a TV licence pays the same amount—£147—regardless of income and size of household. It is important to address that issue to ensure that all licence fee payers get the best deal for their money, perhaps by looking at multiple users, or even at how many people can fit on a sofa.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North for responding to the petition, and I thank the licence fee payers who signed the petition for making us come to the Chamber to consider the licence fee once again. As I said, I support the BBC and the important role that it continues to play in ensuring that we have so much great content and so many great opportunities to partake in that. However, we should look at flexibility in the licence fee, because that will allow us to work towards having a continued and better supported BBC, with further flexibility, which I think most of us want to see.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), the Chair of the Petitions Committee, on introducing the debate. Her speech was comprehensive and extremely well delivered.
I rise to support the BBC and the licence fee, which are often seen as interchangeable by their opponents. The licence fee is often used as a proxy to attack the BBC. The BBC is under attack, whether by the SNP, which is still smarting from the result of the Scottish independence referendum and looking for someone to blame; by activists on the far left, including their deplorable condemnation of Laura Kuenssberg, putting out fake news that she would speak at an event at the Tory party conference; or by those on the right of the political spectrum who say that the BBC is full of lefties—if only it was.
The BBC has to be defended. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is not in his place, talked about the licence fee being the least worst option. In a similar, semi-humorous way, I might suggest that if the BBC is being attacked politically from all sides, perhaps it is getting something right.
I have to say to my good friend, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), that he is missing out. He cannot watch everything, because the volume of output from the BBC, across all its channels and radio stations, is so great. There must be something on that he could enjoy and take something from. He is a good friend of mine, but he is cutting off his nose to spite his face. By not watching the BBC, he is missing out. He puts me in mind of the families who cut themselves off from the electricity grid in the 1970s and ’80s, because they did not want electricity generated by nuclear power. They would sit around a candle. I say to him, “Come back. Give the BBC a chance,” because there is some really good stuff on there.
When I last checked, I still had my nose, so I have not cut my nose off to spite my face. It is good of the hon. Gentleman to do the BBC’s bidding and implore me to come back, but I made a conscious choice and truthfully, I do not miss watching live TV. It is interesting that he says there is so much choice, but I do not miss that.
The hon. Gentleman has an excellent and an excellent nose and an excellent face. I am a big fan of Radio 6 Music. I know that politicians are supposed to listen to the “Today” programme, but I do not; I listen to Shaun Keaveny on the breakfast show on Radio 6. The BBC’s flagship programme at the moment is “Blue Planet”. I want to address the point made by my hon. Friend the Chair of the Petitions Committee about the ability to invest in programmes such as “Blue Planet”. There was a remarkable scene a couple of episodes back that involved filming a huge shoal of millions of groupers that were about to spawn, with sharks circling to eat the groupers as they gathered. The film crew went down, but the groupers had not spawned; they went down the next day, and the groupers had spawned and left. So what did the BBC film crew do? They waited a year, and then they came back to a similar area the next year. That level of commitment, investment and astonishing quality would not be possible without the security and certainty that the licence fee gives.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mrs Moon; I have been in a Delegated Legislation Committee as an Opposition Whip. My hon. Friend is talking about “Blue Planet”, of which I am an avid fan, as I am of Radio 5 Live. Does he agree with what my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee said about expert regional developments in broadcasting? That is true not only at a UK level, with programmes such as “Doctor Who” and “Casualty”, but in relation to S4C, which is funded by the licence fee. It is a very specific Welsh-language service that includes the great soap opera “Pobol y Cwm” and allows us to deliver regional and country-wide services that benefit Welsh broadcasters and viewers.
Living as I do in the Welsh border area, I have seen “Pobol y Cwm” a couple of times, although I do not claim to understand it.
My hon. Friend brings me to my next point, about the ecology of the broadcasting system. The licence fee underpins not simply the BBC—and S4C, as my hon. Friend mentioned—but much of the ecology of the UK broadcasting and creative industries. It provides training and career development that is then used by other broadcasters. The BBC is particularly instrumental in developing our music sector. When I was much younger, I listened avidly to the late and long-lamented John Peel, who gave so much to the development of new musical acts throughout the UK.
Many music acts that depended on the BBC for their launch now contribute through the UK’s successful music sector, which is not only a greatly successful creative sector but a huge earner for us globally. That is down to the BBC. If anyone went to the UK music sector to talk about diminishing the BBC’s ability to support it, I suspect that there would be consternation. The BBC underpins a huge amount of the UK’s creative culture, particularly in terms of the risk-taking that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North discussed, through the licence fee.
Let us be clear: there is a problem with collecting the licence fee, as my good friend the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned. However, that is not entirely down to the BBC. I remind hon. Members that Capita now has responsibility for collecting the licence fee. I challenge any hon. Member to find an area where Capita is doing well delivering any services for which it is responsible. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North did not mention the importance of children’s and educational programmes, from “Trumpton” in my day to “In the Night Garden” in my children’s days.
It was “Bill and Ben” in my day as well. I reflect as we have these conversations that we all have our favourites, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) observed. We are all laughing and remembering the effect that those programmes had on us in earlier days. That is the importance of the BBC, not just to individuals but to the national life: it brings the country together. If I were a marketing man, I would charge the BBC with using the phrase “Bringing Britain Closer”. It plays a role in bringing us together through the common basis of the licence fee.
In closing, there is a debate about individualism versus collectivism and whether it is right that everyone should pay for a service, and at the same rate; my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said that it was regressive, and she is right. The benefits that we get from having a collective service and the contribution that it makes to our education, learning, entertainment and economic, cultural and social national life are great, and I do not think that they are measurable. It would be a crying shame and extremely damaging if we were to move away from the licence fee.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. Thank you for your forbearance; I was playing a bit of hokey cokey when it came to whether to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on a good-natured debate rooted in her top-class opening speech, which elaborated on the benefits of the BBC to this country.
I spent five joyous years at BBC News, working in the economic and business centre. The hon. Lady mentioned diversity; I met some of the best and most intelligent people—people whom I consider lifelong friends—in that place, and it was an absolutely fantastic experience, but it was not perhaps the most diverse of places. My name is Julian. That name was quite unusual on my council estate in the north of England, in Chester; I am named after a Catholic saint. I had never met another Julian until I got to the BBC, and when I got there, it turned out that there were five of them working on my floor. I was like a meerkat every time I heard the name “Julian”; it was so unusual to hear that I would look up.
It was probably not the most diverse of places, but my word, what a superb repository of talent. We see that in the international respect in which the BBC is held. It is known around the world. When one travels around the world and sees other TV, radio and media offerings, one sees that the BBC is absolutely first-class. We have all mentioned programmes that we believe are worth the licence fee; mine, personally, is “Test Match Special”. Do not tell the BBC, but I would pay double the licence fee for it.
The BBC is an absolutely fantastic institution. If, as a result of this debate, we were to abolish the licence fee, hamstringing the BBC at a stroke, it would be nothing short of an act of cultural vandalism and would have enormous effects on the GDP and cultural aspects of this country, damaging our reputation. If we considered doing that, we would be making a serious error.
Over the past 20 years, the BBC has moved successfully from being a medium-sized European broadcaster—it is difficult to think of it in that way—to being a genuine global player among the top two or three in news media, content production and branding. It has done so through the expansion undertaken by Greg Dyke, with the tacit support of the Labour party, then in government. That involved a major expansion of the cost of the licence fee; I think that it was above inflation. It was a deliberate policy. The BBC launched new channels and new means of expression, using the licence fee to stake out new territory seemingly on a daily basis. That has led to its huge global success.
It has had other, less positive impacts as well. I am thinking of the BBC News website, which we must agree is in many respects excellent in content, but which has at times had a devastating effect on the commercial sector. We do not know how strong and vibrant an online commercial news offering we would have if not for the BBC. The Guardian website gives us a bit of an idea. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Guardian was a massive player in that space, and although it is still a major player, it has perhaps not grown to the extent that it would have if it had not been for the enormous impact of the BBC News website.
I come from Chester originally, but I represent the west midlands and live happily in my constituency of Solihull. In the west midlands, we have seen another impact of the BBC’s major expansion as it has become a bipolar organisation between London and Media City in Manchester. Although Media City can be deemed a success as a cluster of production, it has drawn away the financing and investment that we used to see in the nations and regions. Growing up, I remember a BBC news studio in Chester on Lower Bridge Street, which the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) spoke well about. Bob Smithies used to offer his pearls of wisdom, and we got regional and very local news. The impact of the bipolar BBC is that in the west midlands, for example, we get £12.50 from every licence fee, so we feel disenfranchised. Many parts of the country feel like that, which is why we are pushing so strongly for the relocation of Channel 4, to help bring back the essence of regional diversity and rootedness in our communities that the BBC has lost to a certain extent as part of the drive to scale up, which it had to do to achieve its goals.
On the licence fee itself, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) referred to a pretty ominous and unpleasant letter. If Capita is sending out such letters, that is poor form. We should also look at the fact that people effectively have to pay their direct debit six months in advance, which is a disincentive for them to sign up. Often, direct debits are the best way for people on lower incomes to budget. I know that system is effectively set by parliamentary statute, but I have always thought that it is a negative.
The hon. Member for Warrington North responded to the point about licence fee prosecution, but it is not quite the same as not prosecuting other crimes. There is a huge backlog in court time for rulings. It is another negative—a real downside—but, frankly, I cannot see any other way of doing it without abandoning prosecution full stop and decriminalising the offence, which would be a mistake at this stage. We should try to find quicker and more efficient means by which to bring about the result we all want—people paying what they are asked to pay on time or having a sympathetic hearing if they cannot manage to pay that sum.
BBC bias has been mentioned today. I have never believed that anyone has a meeting at the BBC and says, “We are going to be biased today”. No one ever does that. It is below the line—it is a cultural thing, because there are people with similar mindsets and from similar backgrounds. I remember in news meetings being struck that the two newspapers on offer were The Guardian and the Financial Times, and that was it. They were the news sources and leads for the day. I did not ever quite get the idea of story generation coming from a newspaper; it seemed behind the times, particularly in a 24-hour news environment. The hon. Member for City of Chester said the BBC was “full of lefties”, but there were some right wingers, some Tories, in there—I was one. We had to keep it rather quiet and sometimes meet by the coffee machines to whisper our disapproval at certain news lines.
There is a real longer-term difficulty with BBC impartiality, which it is reviewing right now as part of its producer guidelines. It is important that it does not over-editorialise and bring in too much comment. We have seen the way that it is trying to reach out, and many of the accidents that happen come from that effort, for example the appearance of “The Canary” on “Question Time”. I found the disgraceful story about Laura Kuenssberg that followed deeply alarming and unpleasant, and I raised it on the Floor of the House.
There is also what I call the “despite Brexit” coverage of economics stories. That does not come from people thinking that they need to do whatever they can to frustrate the will of the British people—that is not the way it has been thought about. Many people in the organisation felt a certain way about the referendum. Quite rightly, they realised that they needed to double down on impartiality at election and referendum times, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned, particularly after the criticism that they had following the Scottish referendum. They made a point of being utterly straight. I think many felt a sort of collective guilt that at the time of the referendum, they could have explained the difficulties that would ensue from areas such as our trading relationships or the differences between the single market, the customs union and things such as European Free Trade Association, but did not explain them enough. That guilt came across in the “despite Brexit” coverage that we had for several months. I have seen a bit of a turning of the dial on that recently. From conversations I have had with people at the BBC, I think they were aware that it was happening but they did not quite know how to pull it back. They have done so now, and it has improved considerably.
The wasting of the licence fee on multiple broadcasts has been mentioned. There is a degree of competition at the BBC. The opponents are never Sky News but the 1 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock news. When the people there are at their desks, all they have on is their own news channel. It is amazing, but they do not watch the other side, they watch their own side and compete in that way. That is why we end up with stories of three or four different news gathering operations going out to the same parts of the world.
I welcome Ofcom oversight. People in the BBC will feel uncomfortable at the culture shock, but they will also welcome it—it will bed down. Ofcom may be too big an institution—too big a quango, now—but the BBC can have a positive relationship with it. There will be bumps in the road, but it can do it. Let us monitor that closely and see where it goes.
Is the licence fee, that guaranteed form of income, holding the BBC back to an extent? There are things that can be made commercially for the BBC. For instance, what a fantastic back catalogue it has. Is that being exploited to the extent that it could be? In 2003, the BBC looked at putting it online almost universally and offering it free to use. That was under Ashley Highfield, who was also involved in the iPlayer. The back catalogue is a huge source of potential wealth for the BBC that can be effectively rebated to licence fee payers down the line for better investment. There is an idea of “iPlayer plus”, which would have a subscription element if someone wanted extra services.
As we come to the break point in the current charter very shortly, we should look at how the BBC is exploiting such commercial revenues. Is it getting ready for the challenge ahead? That challenge, as has been mentioned, is that very few people are consuming their news and broadcast media in the traditional way that perhaps we in this room do. That will hole the BBC below the water line. I want a BBC that is ongoing, strong and unafraid, and that is beginning to adapt to those changes at a pace that will allow it to reduce its reliance on the licence fee over time. The reality is that we are moving away from that model, whether we like it or not.
I join other hon. Members in thanking the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for introducing the debate. I declare a somewhat different interest, which is that I have been trying to hold the BBC to account for many years. I have had some limited success in recent years, but initially I struggled to get it to be more accountable and transparent.
Several hon. Members have alluded to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s February 2015 report, the tail end of which stated that
“we do not see a long-term future for the licence fee in its current form.”
That was almost three years ago, but given the transformational changes since then because of Netflix and Amazon, for example, we are now even closer to the point that the report predicted.
To paraphrase what someone said 70 or 80 years ago, an independent, impartial, fully accountable public service broadcaster sounds like a very good idea. Could we have one, please? I am afraid I disagree with much that has been said today. Some £3.8 billion of public finances go into the BBC, which produces some very good programmes and some that are not so good. Unlike the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), I have a licence fee, but I pay it very reluctantly, for reasons I will come to in a moment. I do not have a choice; even if I want to watch the BBC only occasionally or very rarely, I still have to pay.
The licence fee is a regressive tax, as the hon. Member for Warrington North said. The £3.8 billion arises from an out-of-date funding process that is fast becoming a redundant exercise. Over the past 10 years the number of viewers who watch via delayed broadcasting has risen from 2% to 14%; with other providers such as Netflix and Amazon transforming viewing habits, I do not know where we will be in 10 years’ time.
Let me move on to the side of the BBC that is not so good. I do not know what it is like for people in other regions, but when I ask the BBC how many complaints a programme has received—five or 500—it replies, “We can’t tell you; it’s commercially sensitive.” I do not see why that information is commercially sensitive. If I found out that there had been 500 complaints rather than five, I would ask why.
A few years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal in this place, I watched programmes such as “Question Time” with embarrassment whenever the presenter turned to senior politicians and Ministers—the present Minister excluded—and asked their salary, expenses and taxi fares. Each time I saw the politician squirm, instead of turning to the BBC presenter and saying, “Actually, my salary and taxi fares from the public purse are in the public domain. Are yours, Mr Dimbleby?” Of course, they are not, but I never heard anyone challenge the BBC on that.
The Minister might be able to clarify this point, but I believe that the BBC will now be required by Ofcom to provide details and an editorial view whenever it receives more than 100 complaints. I think I heard that on Radio 4’s “Feedback”, so we may need to establish the source, but the hon. Gentleman may get the increased transparency that he asks for.
Indeed, but why has that not been happening for years? Why did the BBC have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into revealing presenters’ salaries? When we discovered those salaries, there was outrage at the disparity between men and women, but was the BBC asked when it would lower the salaries of male presenters? No, it was asked when it would raise the salaries of female presenters. The BBC has a lot of questions to answer. I hope that it is moving, slowly but inexorably, towards greater transparency. If so, that is a very good thing.
May I introduce a note of hope? As the hon. Gentleman knows, the BBC now makes a declaration of talent pay, following a recommendation made by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, accepted by the Government and included in the charter. That shows that when we clearly voice the reform we want, it is possible to get it.
I am glad that has happened. Some of us have been campaigning on the issue for many years, so I am glad that there has been some success.
I have raised commissioning many times, privately and publicly, within the BBC and externally. As hon. Members are probably aware, there is a commissioning process in the BBC’s regions, under which independent media companies—small or large—are entitled to apply for commissions; so are people who work for the BBC, many of whose applications are successful. I have endeavoured to find out whether having worked for the BBC for some time gives people an unfair advantage because they know their way around the system—how the sound people work, how the video cameras work and so on—but once again I have found it difficult to get answers. Why do private companies find it difficult to get on commissioning shortlists, while internal BBC companies and individuals seem to get on them frequently? Can we have more openness and transparency about that? Will the BBC explain it? When I have complained to the BBC about the nature of commissioning, I have been told repeatedly that it has a robust and transparent internal process.
I agree totally. If a political party in this House were in receipt of public money from a variety of sources for commissioning opinion polls and so on, and the BBC said, “We would like to question you about your spending of public money, because there seems to be a lack of transparency,” just imagine its response if the party replied that it had robust internal mechanisms to ensure that the money was spent appropriately! Yet that is what the BBC tells me about its internal commissioning process and the complaints engendered by it: “Leave it to us; we know how to spend public money, and we have very efficient internal employees to ensure that it is accounted for.” That is not good enough.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case on commissioning, but does he accept that, apart from news programmes, all BBC programmes, whether new or repeats, require competition in the commissioning process? In fact, since the changes in the royal charter, the highest profile recommissioning case has been that of “Songs of Praise”, which the BBC has lost to a commercial competitor.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I come back to this one: whenever we complain about a commissioning process, it would be infinitely preferable if the BBC opened up its system. If it has a fully accountable and transparent system for assessing the commissioning process, we will be able to see it. We can analyse it, we can look at it and we can say, “Is that value for money for the licence fee payer, or is there something else at work?” I do not know that there is something else at work, but I know that there have been complaints and that there needs to be greater transparency.
In short, and to conclude, the BBC used to be a wonderfully independent and impartial public service broadcaster. I want to see it return to those days, because I think that it has fallen short in recent days—I had a debate in this Chamber only recently along similar lines. We need to keep pressing the BBC. We also need a wider debate: were we to move away from the licence fee, what would be a better way of doing things? I fully concede there are no simple, easy solutions, but we need accountability and transparency for almost £4 billion of public money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on leading this debate and the Petitions Committee on organising it.
This debate is on an extraordinarily important issue that we need to discuss, for the very reason that many tens of thousands of our constituents have signed these two petitions, which is as good a reason as any to debate it.
Before I go any further, I must declare an interest, as many colleagues have done in the past. I worked for the BBC for 17 years, so I probably hold the record among colleagues here for longest service with the BBC. That was from 1986 to 1997, and then from 2000 to 2006. There was a gap, and I shall come on to that gap in a minute, because it feeds into what I want to say about one of the alternative methods of funding the BBC as opposed to the licence fee. That was where I worked at the time.
Having said that, it is vital that we discuss what the petitioners say in the two petitions. I will just look at the wording of a couple of the sentences. Petition 170931 says that the BBC licence fee should be abolished, and states:
“It should be included through your provider for free.”
The difficulty with that phrase is that it completely misses the point that someone has to pay for the BBC. What it seems to suggest is that the petitioners believe that their provider—whether Sky, BT or Virgin—should somehow pay the licence fee, even though the petitioners still want to watch BBC services. Those services have to be paid for; I do not think that anyone will find a model that works whereby Sky, BT or Virgin will pay the BBC licence fee.
Petition 200239 says of the licence fee:
“It is unfair that one should hold one to watch Freeview channels.”
However, the Freeview channels include BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, CBBC, CBeebies, the BBC News channel and the BBC Parliament channel which, of course, is worth the entire licence fee on its own.
How do people believe that those BBC Freeview channels will be paid for? They still seem to want to watch them but without thinking that we need to fund them. I have scratched my head for some time; I am not the brightest guy in the world, but I cannot see how that would work.
The two petitions are our starting point; I believe that there are two very important issues that we need to consider: first, how the BBC is funded and, secondly, what the BBC spends its money on. The hon. Member for Warrington North quite rightly began to look at alternative models around the world for how public service broadcasters are financed. I have looked into those models. I have worked for one of them; that is where the mystery three-year gap comes in, which I am sure the Chamber is agog to discover more about. In my view, there is not another model of public service broadcast funding around the world that works as well as the BBC licence fee. In Germany, as has been mentioned, there is a broadcasting levy on every household. It is an incredibly blunt instrument and incredibly regressive. In Finland, the model is funded through personal taxation, and the same could be said of it.
However, I want to discuss the Australian model, which is where I worked for those missing three years; I worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in both Sydney and Melbourne. The system under which the ABC is funded in Australia is something that we must avoid at all costs. The funding comes out of direct taxation, then every three years the ABC goes cap in hand to the Government and says, “Can we have some money, please?” To me, that seems to be a one-way route to bias, and to too much political interference and meddling with the output of a public service broadcasting organisation.
I worked for the ABC when we had to do that cap-in-hand exercise. It is not a pretty thing to watch. They say there are two things that people should not know how they are made—laws and sausages. The funding of the ABC is the third thing; nobody wants to be involved with that. We talk about political interference, which brings me to the issue of bias, because petition 200239 specifically mentions the question of bias. In fact, it says that there should be alternative methods of funding the BBC
“particularly as it is commonly felt there is a high level of bias.”
I start to twitch rather nervously at the conflation of those two concepts—how the BBC is funded and the issue of whether or not it is biased. I do so for this reason: the BBC should not be biased, however it is funded. We should not question a method of funding just because we believe that the BBC might or might not be biased. The BBC, as a public service broadcaster, should not be biased.
Let me give hon. Members, looking at the clock, “The Six Minutes Past Six News”. The headline is, “Having worked as a journalist at the BBC for 17 years, I know that the BBC is not biased.” It is not institutionally biased and it does not deliberately set out to give one editorial line over another. I know that for two reasons. First, in all the years I worked at the BBC—first, as a junior journalist—not once did a senior editorial manager put any pressure on me to take a particular line in a news story, to include a particular guest on an interview programme or to write a news story in a particular way. Not once did any of those things happen. Secondly, years later I had moved up the greasy pole, and I am living proof of the BBC axiom that someone always gets promoted to just beyond the level of their ability. When I was at that level, not once did I dream of saying to any of the reporters working for me, “I want you to cover this story in a particular way”.
There is no bias institutionally in the BBC. I have sympathy for the view that has been expressed here that there is perhaps a cultural problem with the slightly narrow pool from which the BBC recruits its talent and its journalists. The BBC absolutely needs to be more diverse, and to look far more closely at where it recruits its journalists, reporters and editors, as they are from a slightly elite group. It is getting better, but it is not good enough.
There is another reason—I say this only slightly tongue in cheek—why I am sure that the BBC is not institutionally biased and does not deliberately set out to give a party line. That would suggest the BBC is capable of a level of organisation that, in my experience, it is not. I can tell Members from personal experience that it is nigh-on impossible to get one programme in the news department to talk to another, even on the simplest of issues, let alone, as a large corporation that puts out hundreds of hours of news broadcasting daily, be capable of organising itself to put out a particular editorial line. Oh no, it is not; of course not.
I have a story for you, Mrs Moon. When I was in charge of a programme at Radio 5 Live, I needed a particular piece of music to illustrate a news story. I was told by the BBC’s internal systems that it would take three days and cost my programme budget £15 to borrow that CD from the BBC’s gramophone library. I sent a reporter to the HMV store on Oxford Street and we bought the CD for £9.99. That is not an organisation that is able to arrange institutional bias. It does not do that. When people, like the petitioners, accuse the BBC of bias, what they have seen is a politician they agree with being given a hard time or a politician they disagree with merely being given the right to reply. That is not bias. There is another word for it: journalism. That is what the BBC does extraordinarily well. It does journalism, and we need to protect it, because that costs money. As has been said by other right hon. and hon. Members, the BBC gets an awful lot of that money—£3.78 billion this year—from the licence fee. If we add to that this year’s commercial revenue of about £1.16 billion—do the maths—that is nearly—
I thank the hon. Gentleman—he did do the maths. That is a lot of money, and the BBC needs to be held to account for it. I do not, for one minute, stand here and say that everything about the BBC is perfect. We absolutely need more transparency and more accountability, and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) made that point extraordinarily well. It frustrates me that the BBC seems to show an extraordinarily defensive attitude whenever complaints are made about it. Whenever a member of the public or, indeed, a Member of this House, raises a perfectly reasonable concern about something the BBC has done—how it has covered a story or how it has spent public money, for example—its first thought is defence: “Fold the arms and try to pretend it didn’t happen”.
There is sometimes a tendency, I think, for BBC managers not to be front and centre or, when they are, if they appear on a programme like “Feedback” or “Points of View”, the defensive attitude is the one that comes to the fore. What we need sometimes, just sometimes, is for the BBC to say, “We got this wrong. We didn’t do it right and we’re gonna do it differently next time”. I do not see enough of that.
When I worked for the BBC as an editor, and then again as a programme presenter, my manager would come to me once a week with a spreadsheet of the complaints I had received. He used to say, “As long as I’m getting about equal numbers of complaints, Peter, from either side in politics, you’re probably getting it about right.” That is probably as good a yardstick as any. The BBC does get stick from all sides.
The BBC is an organisation that gets a lot of our money and we need more analysis of how it chooses to spend it. There is one particular area of the BBC that I know best, and that is radio, particularly local radio, as that is where I worked. After all, I have the perfect face for radio. As has been mentioned, regional telly and local radio—in my area, BBC Radio Devon and “Spotlight”—do a fantastic job of covering news, which no other broadcaster would be able to do without that public service funding input. That is why I welcome the recent announcements by the BBC director-general at the Gillard awards, which celebrate local radio broadcasting. The first of the two main decisions he announced was that the £10 million of funding cuts he had asked the BBC to find from local radio will not now have to happen. He has found that funding from other sources, and I welcome that. Secondly, the national shared evening programme that local radio has had to have for three years now will be scrapped and local services restored. That is an example of the BBC listening, doing the right thing and saying, “We understand we have all this money and that we’ve got to spend it in a way that benefits the majority of licence fee payers”.
The alternatives do not stack up. Subscription or advertising would be extraordinarily retrograde steps. If we allow the BBC to take advertising, not only do we immediately raise questions about impartiality and neutrality but, frankly, come midnight most nights we will have a live roulette wheel, which is exactly what we have on ITV most nights.
On subscription services, I have been undertaking a text conversation with a constituent of mine in North Devon ever since I said I would be taking part in this debate. He said, “Netflix costs me half as much as the BBC and has five times the content”. Here is what Netflix does not have: radio, regional broadcasting, news and current affairs, and huge educational programmes. It does not put computers into schools or cover live sport. It does not have the huge community events that bring the country together, like Children in Need, which raised £50 million last Friday. That is what Netflix does not give us.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On advertising revenue, does he agree that, as brands have a finite amount of money to spend, if the BBC were fully commercial and accepted advertising it would be the biggest commercial hammer blow to independent television and radio in this country?
That is another perfectly good reason why we should not move to, or even consider, an advertising model for the funding of the BBC.
I will conclude with the animated conversation I was having with my constituent. Two programmes in particular have been mentioned in the debate—“The Blue Planet” and “Peaky Blinders”—and my constituent said he could watch them both on Netflix. Yes, but someone has to make them in the first place and, in my opinion, the only way they will ever be made is through a public service broadcaster being funded in the way the BBC is.
We are in a position where there is quite rightly debate about the funding of the BBC. It is right that we are having that discussion but, I believe, having worked for the organisation for 17 years and having looked closely at some of the alternatives, that the licence fee is the least worst option. That phrase was used earlier and it is absolutely right. If we try to move beyond that, we find ourselves opening up a hornet’s nest that could lead, as my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, to advertising or subscription, to a model that will not be the one we want the BBC to be.
I will say a couple of things in conclusion. I pay tribute to the Government and to the arrangement they have reached with the BBC for its charter renewal settlement. It is absolutely right that the BBC has been given a guarantee of income, and that it will rise with inflation. That is good and positive. The Government need to look further, as I know they are doing, at ways in which those who find it hard to pay the licence fee are able to do so, and I look forward to their working with the BBC on that. I have a great deal of sympathy with the concern that has been raised about some of the tactics used by those who collect the licence fee, about some of the letters that are far too threatening in the first instance. If someone does not have a television, that is their right, and they should not get threatening letters through the post because of it.
The licence fee and the BBC are, however, intrinsically linked and there is no viable funding alternative for our public service broadcaster. The BBC is a brilliant organisation but it has to be paid for and the licence fee is, in my estimation, the best way to do that. The BBC is known colloquially as Auntie. We have to hug Auntie close. She may be slightly eccentric but she needs to be fed. If we do not feed her, we will soon regret it, and we will miss her when she has gone.
I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate, particularly the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). I am pleased that there seems to be a consensus across the House that we should retain the licence fee, and that that is the model we should adopt. Along with the hon. Member for Warrington North, the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for Solihull (Julian Knight) and for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) also made that case, and I include my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who was eventually dragged, albeit kicking and screaming, to the pro-licence fee side of the debate. I am particularly pleased about that because the Scottish National party fully supports public service broadcasting and believes that the best way to finance the BBC is through the licence fee. Let me be absolutely clear about that from the outset.
We believe that the retention of a strong, well-financed, high-quality public service broadcasting sector is in the best interests of the people of this country. Public service broadcasting makes up an essential part of the television, radio and online landscape. However, we have serious reservations about how the BBC operates, in relation to the enormous gap between the money raised and the money spent in Scotland. We will continue to argue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun did, that the interests of Scottish viewers and listeners would be best served by powers over broadcasting being devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Although we welcome the new BBC Scotland channel due to launch late next year, we have expressed, and will continue to express, grave concerns about the budget for the new channel, which I believe will be completely unsustainable going forward.
Scotland has been the victim of an historically low ratio of money raised to money spent by the BBC in Scotland. As well as having a hugely detrimental impact on our creative industries, it has without doubt eroded public support for the BBC in Scotland. It was therefore not a huge surprise that the report published last year by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport showed that Scots had the highest dissatisfaction rates anywhere in the UK, with viewers in Scotland consistently being the most critical and least supportive of any group, regardless of where they live, their age or their social group.
I have absolutely no doubt that those figures reflect the depth of feeling that many had after the 2014 independence referendum. It would be something of an understatement to say that the BBC did not cover itself in glory in the eyes of many yes voters in Scotland. Members will be relieved that I am not about to reopen that debate this afternoon, but what is absolutely irrefutable is that many Scots felt that their views and opinions were not fairly represented by the BBC throughout that campaign. The anger felt during the referendum has not gone away. Judging by the most recent figures, for many Scots the trust they had in the BBC has not returned.
The hon. Member for Warrington North said that evasion rates were very low, but it is worth making the point that rates in Scotland are almost twice as high as those in England and Wales. They are the highest of anywhere in the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, that is not the same as people taking a principled stand by not watching live television and therefore not having a licence.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the same survey found that only 37% of Scots felt that the licence fee offered good value for money. Again, that is the lowest of any of the nations of the United Kingdom, and who could blame them for feeling that? In the financial year 2015-16 the BBC raised £320 million from the licence fee in Scotland, but spent just over half—54% or 55%—of that revenue on programming in Scotland. That is a ridiculously low figure, particularly when compared with the other nations of the United Kingdom. Almost three quarters of the money raised in Northern Ireland was spent in Northern Ireland, and an astonishing 95% of the money raised in Wales was spent in Wales. The BBC’s director-general, Lord Hall, was forced to concede that for Scotland, 2015-16 was “not a good year”. Indeed it was not, but neither was it an isolated year. For years the funding gap between what is raised and spent in Scotland has been unacceptably wide.
I wholeheartedly concurred with the sentiments of John Archer, the award-winning producer and former head of music and arts at BBC Scotland, when he argued recently that all the money raised in Scotland by the BBC should be spent from Scotland—not necessarily in Scotland, but from Scotland. He said:
“Scotland would still be paying its fair share towards the programmes that are made elsewhere and screened in Scotland. But Scotland would decide what is made here.”
I declare an interest as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for the BBC, and as a huge supporter of public broadcasting. I certainly welcome the commitments made to the nations of the UK during the charter renewal process, but does my hon. Friend agree with independent producer David Strachan’s comment about the importance of the BBC making programmes for Scotland and about Scotland? That is core to those commitments.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Tern TV, which Mr Strachan is heavily involved in, is one of the numerous examples of excellent independent production companies making excellent content for Scottish viewers. I wish them all the best for the future, because there is absolutely no reason why we cannot have high-quality, high-value network productions featuring Scottish stories, told with Scottish voices, made in Scotland and using the incredible talent that BBC Scotland and our independent production sector has.
To be fair, BBC Scotland recognises the problem. A spokesman recently said:
“We recognise that there’s a deficit in programming in Scotland; there’s no doubt about that”.
Everyone seems to accept that there is a problem, but how we deal with it is another issue completely. We had dared to hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel earlier this year, when the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—encouraged and cajoled by the redoubtable Mr John Nicolson—unanimously backed the idea of a bespoke Scottish “Six O’Clock News”. Trials were run, hopes were raised and rumours were rife before being unceremoniously quashed: the fabled “Scottish Six” was not happening. What emerged from the detritus, however—a new Scottish channel—seemed very exciting. It was as if the BBC had said, “You wanted a Scottish ‘Six O’Clock News’; we’re giving you your own channel.” It was immediately welcomed, because the SNP had been urging the corporation to do it for many years. Back in 2009, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission made the case and calculated that a new channel would cost around £75 million a year. That figure is less than half of the shortfall between what the licence fee raises in Scotland and what is spent in Scotland.
So far, so good. The new channel was warmly welcomed by the Scottish Government and across the Scottish political spectrum. Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, said:
“It’s vital that the new BBC Scotland channel has complete commission and editorial independence, and is provided with the funding needed to match ambition.”
Therein lies the rub. The simple fact is that the ambition of the people involved in creating and delivering the new channel simply has not been matched by the funding on offer from the BBC in London. In 2009 the cost of a new channel was calculated at £75 million a year. The new venture is being offered £30 million a year, with £7 million ring-fenced for news.
As someone whose career before arriving in this place was as a television director and series producer, I can say without fear of contradiction that an annual programme-making budget of £23 million is simply not enough to make a quality product. I reckon that the average hourly spend for the new channel will be £25,000. To put that in perspective, for the last series I made for BBC One from Scotland, my spend was £220,000 an hour. That was almost 10 years ago. I have absolutely no doubt that the people employed to deliver the new channel will be extremely able—indeed, I have worked with many of them—but they are not magicians.
What does the BBC director-general expect of the new channel? He told the Select Committee last week that he would judge it on the standard of content produced and that high production values cost money and high broadcast standards are not cheap. He cannot have both. We cannot make cheap television and demand high standards, so my question to him is this: how many of the programmes made for the new channel, as currently funded, does he expect to get a network outing on BBC1?
Scottish viewers rightly demand quality. After all, we pay for it through our licence fee. I do not believe for a minute that they will accept cheap low-production value TV simply because it is Scottish. It has been said by many people, both inside and outside the BBC, including by people with long experience of working in television, that this channel, with its current funding model, has been born to fail. I sincerely hope that that is not the case, but I fear that with such a low programme budget and with no current slot on the electronic programme guide confirmed, the Scottish content faces being ghettoised and people will turn off, allowing the BBC at some point in the future to throw up its hands and say, “We tried, but there simply was not the demand for a Scottish channel.” That is why people fear that this entity was born to fail.
As I said earlier, I and my colleagues welcome the channel, but as it stands the proposed funding model makes it unsustainable, so I urge the BBC leadership to look again at the funding model for the channel and fund it properly, thereby allowing the BBC Scotland staff and the wider Scottish indie community to—as the head of BBC Scotland, Donalda MacKinnon, said—“make something precious”, because that is how it should be. BBC Scotland has the expertise and the staff. The Scottish indie sector is more than capable of delivering high-quality programmes. All that the BBC leadership in London has to do is provide them with the adequate funding to do it. If they do not and the venture fails, there will be a lot of very angry people: viewers, independent producers and BBC Scotland staff. Scottish licence fee payers have been short-changed by the BBC for long enough. This is their chance to redress that. I urge them not to throw away this chance by failing properly to invest in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. The debate has been excellent, with a significant degree of cross-party consensus on the licence fee and the BBC. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and her Committee on presenting this debate for our discussion today.
My hon. Friend made an excellent speech at the outset of the debate, for which many Members have rightly paid tribute to her. She set out very clearly the terms of the debate and told us how other countries fund their public services. She pointed out right at the outset an issue that the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), raised later in an intervention, which is that there is a limited pool of advertising available if the BBC were to move to an advertising model. She also pointed out how the licence fee helps to preserve the independence of the BBC, although it is expensive to collect.
I disagree with my hon. Friend on one point, though. She was rather harsh about CNN in her remarks. In fact, CNN makes some excellent programmes here in the UK, including one of its new shows, which is on at lunchtime, called “CNN Talk”. I recommend it to hon. Members—I think it is on on a Friday. No, I am not on it and I am not being paid for saying that. I simply want to point out that the BBC exerts a positive gravitational pull on other organisations such as CNN in this country. It gives them the incentive to produce good programmes such as “CNN Talk”, which is a new programme that links up well with social media and is about British politics. We should welcome such quality programming being made here in the UK. It is significant to compare that with Fox News, which had to withdraw from the United Kingdom because it could not meet the standards that Ofcom requires for impartiality in our news programming, whereas channels such as CNN and CNN International were able to do so.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) told us how much he loves “Mrs Brown’s Boys” as well as “Blue Planet”. I was mentioned on “Michael McIntyre’s Big Show” on the BBC on Saturday night—fame at last. The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the growing use of pundits and political commentators in programmes, and I absolutely agree with him: why not simply ask us politicians on a bit more to give our opinions if people really want to know what is going on in politics?
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) does not watch the BBC any more, which is a pity because I always enjoy watching him—along with dozens of other people—on the BBC Parliament channel. He is also missing out on the excellent rugby coverage on BBC Alba, the Gaelic language television service that covers the PRO14 rugby very well indeed. I frequently watch that. I hope he chips in towards the cost of his parents’ TV licence, since he seems to go round there fairly frequently to watch the BBC safely outside his own home.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Parliament channel, and certainly many people in Scotland watch that. It is another advantage my wife sees in not having a licence fee, because she is not subject to having to watch BBC Parliament to catch me on it, so it certainly frees up a lot more time for her as well.
That may explain why the hon. Gentleman’s wife agreed with the decision not to have a TV licence.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) made an excellent speech and highlighted her previous career both in the BBC and in commercial local radio. I completely agreed with the point she made about BBC local radio. In fact, as you will be aware, Mrs Moon, there is a programme late at night on BBC Radio Wales presented by Chris Needs, which I think ought to be funded by the NHS or social services, because it draws in people late at night who might be lonely and have no one else to talk to. It is an extraordinary service to the nation. Sometimes we forget about the role of radio in bringing comfort and companionship to lonely people.
The hon. Lady also advocated flexibility around the TV licence. I understand the point she makes, but there is a danger that if we unpick the simplicity of the licence concept we could get into difficulties. It is already costly to collect. The more we complicate it, the more difficult it will probably be to collect, and that might undermine the whole principle in a way that she would not intend. We should beware of unintended consequences to a suggestion that she makes with the best of intentions.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) rightly condemned both the far left and the far right for their attacks on journalism and on individual BBC journalists. I endorse everything he said. He told us that he had watched “Pobol y Cwm”, the Welsh language soap opera that appears on S4C. He might be aware that the news on S4C is produced by the BBC. It is not parochial news only about Wales; it is an international news programme produced in the Welsh language by the BBC. It does not seek in any way to present the news in a narrow parochial way.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) described his childhood trauma at being the only Julian brought up on his estate. He said that to abolish the BBC would be an act of “cultural vandalism”. I completely endorse that phrase and those remarks. He said there had been a tendency towards “despite Brexit” coverage on the BBC around the time of the referendum, but there was a time when one could not turn on the BBC without Nigel Farage’s visage appearing at every turn. It is a debatable point whether the BBC has been unfair on that particular topic. However, the hon. Gentleman made a good point about Ofcom’s oversight, which I agree is to be welcomed.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about the value of the back catalogue in potentially raising more funds for the BBC. That is a valid point, but licence fee payers have already paid for the back catalogue, so people would be charged twice if they were asked to pay again to access the back catalogue. There is a fine line to be drawn between making public service broadcasting available to people in this country who have already paid for it through the licence fee, and being able to commercialise it in an appropriate manner, perhaps on an international basis.
There is some BBC content that has gone off the iPlayer because the original transmission was too long ago, but that can be watched through paying a subscription to Netflix or Amazon Prime, or through going out and buying a DVD. The principle that older content from the back catalogue that is not being broadcast must be paid for has always been there. In a new technological age, should there not be a “BBC Plus” subscription service that allows someone to buy that content directly from the BBC, as they would a DVD, rather than via an intermediary such as Netflix?
I do not deny that, but I must say that I hugely enjoy being able to access things such as the BBC “In Concert” series from the 1970s via YouTube. There is, of course, an element of advertising to watch that content, albeit a very small one in the case of YouTube. I am arguing only that the right balance needs to be drawn. The hon. Gentleman is right that the BBC needs to raise funds through other means than the licence fee, and some initiatives have been happening in recent years. For example, the BBC is a 50% owner of UKTV, which includes the channel Dave, on which I have appeared from time to time on “Unspun with Matt Forde”—I may be declaring an interest by saying that. My point is that sometimes people do not realise the extent to which the BBC seeks to raise funds—over £1 billion, as was mentioned in the debate.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has been a long-term critic of the BBC. He made similar points the last time we debated the BBC, in this room not so long ago. He knows that I agree with him on the issue of transparency, particularly with regard to salaries. I think it has been proved that that information is in the public interest and should have been revealed. I commend the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for recommending that that should happen, and I agree with the Government’s decision to include it in the charter review. In an intervention, it was pointed out that the BBC had lost “Songs of Praise” during the commissioning process. It reminded me of the great Welsh hymn, Mrs Moon, “Cwm Rhondda”, with the words:
“Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.”
“Songs of Praise” has unfortunately been lost to the BBC, but it will still air on Sunday evenings for us all to see.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) spoke about how he had worked for the BBC in his previous career. I have to say, for an allegedly lefty organisation, the BBC seems to produce an awful lot of Conservative Members of Parliament, as evidenced by the line-up in today’s debate. They are all excellent Members of Parliament; clearly a BBC career is not a hindrance to a career in politics on the Conservative Benches. The hon. Gentleman said that in his judgment, and from his experience working on the opposite side of the world, the licence fee system is the best system and we should maintain it.
I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Opposition this evening. I will not repeat much of what has been said during the debate, because hon. Members spoke very well. We on the Opposition Front Bench understand the concerns that have been expressed in these e-petitions. It is probably true that if we were to design a public service broadcaster from scratch in today’s media environment, we would probably not come up with a licence fee system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North pointed out in response to an intervention, it is rather like what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it is the worst system, except for all the others. It seems to me that the charge against the licence fee probably boils down to people saying that it works in practice, but not in theory. That is the wrong way round, in a sense; it is things that work in theory but not in practice that we should be concerned about. The fact that the BBC licence fee is a bad idea in theory does not mean that we should abolish it. It is actually a practical and pragmatic way to fund our main public service broadcaster, in a world where other public service broadcasters are funded by alternative means.
We should remember what the licence fee supports and pays for. The BBC is the most used media provider among people of all ages, and in all parts of the United Kingdom. As well as creating content, it creates jobs and often serves as a creative centre of gravity in the communities in which it is based. I have to say to my colleague from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), that the extra funding that has gone into Scotland provides a real opportunity. I moaned about it, because we in Wales did not get as much as Scotland out of that particular deal. We will always have those arguments, but it presents a real opportunity to create the kind of centre of excellence that we have created in Wales—for example, in Cardiff around the drama village. There was not a very good drama service there a few years ago.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as I said, achieving high standards and quality costs money? I congratulate the Welsh on securing 95% of the funding received from fees in Wales, compared with barely 55% in Scotland. That anomaly is a real hurdle, which cannot be overcome without funding.
If the shoe were on the other foot, the hon. Gentleman would say, “It’s because we have an SNP Government in Scotland. That’s why we’re doing so well.” I am not going to say that we are doing so well in BBC funding in Wales because we have a Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff, because that would be quite wrong. The BBC is independent and would not respond to that kind of political pressure.
There are excellent hubs around the country, whether it is Media City in Salford, in Greater Manchester, or the drama village that I mentioned in my own city of Cardiff. Those hubs create tremendous opportunities for people across the UK, with around £450 million going into small creative and independent businesses each year. With the creative industries urging further development of creative clusters across the country, the BBC provides a positive example, and a catalyst for the kind of success that the creative cluster approach can have. Through the diverse range of public service broadcasters that we have in this country, people can see others like themselves creating content, and telling stories they can identify with and relate to.
The stability of the licence fee model means that, as hon. Members have pointed out, the BBC does not have to rely on ratings for advertising, and is therefore freer to make content that is difficult for other broadcasters to produce. It is an advantage of our system that each of our public service broadcasters is funded differently, because it means that they are each distinctive, meet different challenges, and make different types of content. Some 95% of the licence fee goes towards creating content for licence fee payers, and only 5% is used for running the organisation of the BBC itself. Some 82% of households feel that the BBC informs, educates and entertains them successfully.
I will not go on much longer, you will be pleased to know, Mrs Moon, but I want to say one or two things about children’s content. We have already seen concerns about what can happen when a funding gap appears in a particular part of the broadcasting landscape. In recent years that has happened in children’s television, as was mentioned in the debate. The relaxation of the obligations on producing children’s TV has meant that spend on TV content for children has seen an almost 50% drop this century. As a result, children in the UK today are watching significantly less home-grown content. When the Digital Economy Act 2017 was passing through Parliament, Labour pressed for an amendment to give Ofcom the power to assign the commercial public service broadcasters, such as Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV, quotas on children’s content. As I understand it, Ofcom is currently consulting on that topic, and I look forward to hearing its findings.
That experience should serve as a warning of what could happen to public service broadcasters at large if we neglect the importance of continuing to fund the BBC in an appropriate way. We need to future-proof these precious public assets. I have quoted this before, but as Joni Mitchell once said:
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
That is certainly true of the BBC.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. This has been a generally cheerful and thoughtful debate. I would first like to thank the tens of thousands of people who engaged with the petition process and ensured we are debating this issue today. Whether hon. Members agree with them or not, we would not be having this debate if it was not for people signing the petitions. E-petitions are a relatively new innovation in this House—they are less than a decade old—and the fact that we are having this debate and airing these issues demonstrates that the process is working and that our democratic institutions are responding to the citizens we serve.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) is the embodiment of that principle. I thank her for her introduction. I was interested in how she would speak to the two petitions. She was clear that she did not agree with their thrust, but she faithfully set out the arguments and opened up the debate. If people a sign a petition, it is very important that their views are expressed, even though it is right that Members express their own views. The hon. Lady made an excellent speech. The Churchill quotation that she referred to—she said that the BBC is the worst system except all the others that have been tried from time to time—came up many times during the debate.
Most Members generously supported the BBC’s funding model. Others did so more grudgingly, but did not actually support the petitions. Some said that the BBC is full of lefties. That may well be true now, but it was not always so. The truth is that we fished out the best talent in the BBC, and they are now Conservative Members of Parliament. It is good to see so many of them here today. Perhaps there are only lefties left in the BBC.
Hon. Members raised the issue of diversity, about which every institution faces questions. The recent revelations, thanks to the transparency measures we introduced, demonstrated some of the concrete changes the BBC needs to make with respect to diversity and equal pay, but that is true for many institutions, including Parliament. It is a fact that, in this debate, there are as many white men from Chester as women.
My goodness! There are more people from Chester than women in this debate. What is it about the wonderful, great city of Chester that leads to so many people with an interest in one of our greatest national institutions? Chester, the city of my birth, is a great place. I was shocked to hear the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) describe himself as a leftie—he has never given any indication of that before. In this debate, like many others, he is probably closer to the Government position than to that of the leadership of his own party.
I am amazed at how much spare time the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) has to watch things on the BBC, to write texts about chaperoning Mrs Balls around the Labour party conference, to watch 1970s music programming and even to appear on Dave. I am delighted that he has spared a bit of time to turn up.
I am grateful that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) declared unambiguously the Scottish National party’s support for the BBC, but he made some unreasonable attacks because he was unhappy about what he perceived to be the BBC’s balance, which is a pity. He might be unhappy with the outcome of the referendum, but I think that the reporting surrounding the referendum truly demonstrated the impartiality to which the BBC is committed. When it comes to the BBC’s representation and its expenditure on programming around the UK, the clue is in the name: the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation, and it has a duty to spend money in—and, indeed, to reflect—all parts of the UK. Whether it is the west midlands or each part of Scotland separately, it does that. That is true for Wales, Northern Ireland, the west midlands and cities within Scotland—it is not just about Scotland as a whole. It is the British Broadcasting Corporation, and it rightly serves the UK as a whole.
I was just coming on to that. As the BBC’s new regulator, Ofcom will require the BBC to allocate its TV network spend and programme hours based on population, and in Scotland that will mean at least 8% a year. Because the Government represent and govern the whole UK, we are dealing with that point, but the way to do so is to help the BBC ensure that it reflects the whole nation, rather than make unreasonable and mean-spirited attacks on it.
Let me move on to some of the other speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) expressed her strong support for the BBC, and in particular for the increased transparency and accountability that we have brought to it. I have enormous respect for her—I consider her a friend—but I want to pick up one little thing. She said that people do not have a choice not to pay the licence fee, but as we discovered from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), they do have the choice if they do not watch TV or use the iPlayer. It is not a choice that many people exercise, partly because of how brilliant BBC content is, but they do have it.
Many hon. Members called for more flexibility. As part of the BBC charter renewal, we are introducing a contestable fund, which will ensure more flexibility on how licence fee money is spent on different programming. We will introduce details of the contestable fund shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) made an excellent speech, and he made a point that I want to pick up. He said that content should be neutral. I think that the language we use is incredibly important. I do not think that the BBC should be neutral; I think it should be impartial. There is an important difference between the two. It should not simply take a neutral position between two stated arguments and split the difference. It should carry out an active, muscularly objective, fact-based analysis of the arguments, then put forward an impartial point. That is actually much harder. It requires more judgment and probably more self-confidence. The BBC should be aiming for true impartiality, based on objective analysis of the facts before it. For instance, my hon. Friend mentioned the slip about universal credit this week. I think that, culturally, the BBC should be appalled when a slip or a factual error is made. It happens, although it is rare. We all make mistakes. The BBC’s attitude should not be defensive; rather, it should be open and responsive to criticism.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh and the hon. Member for City of Chester talked about “Blue Planet II” and the value that the BBC can put into productions, but there is a bigger point. Of course, the BBC has great production capacity and can set long-term budgets. The poor, poor producers of “Blue Planet II” had to go to the south Pacific twice in two years— we all feel their pain—because they missed those extraordinary scenes of the fish shooting up while they were spawning, which we enjoyed. But that is changing, and the context is changing—the length of the BBC funding settlement is not changing, which is a good thing, but the context is.
The nature of the internet means that people now reach global audiences quickly, with Netflix the best embodiment of that, so the BBC is increasingly competing against production budgets in the private sector that are predicated on a global audience. Hence Netflix can pay an enormous amount for a production, whereas the BBC relies on licence fee income plus commercial income, largely from Worldwide which is the commercial exploitation of BBC content. I agree, however, that the BBC has an opportunity to broaden where it gets such revenues from, and I was interested that the director-general talked recently about how to make the most of the amazing back catalogue and see whether the BBC could monetise it further in order to put more into production. That was discussed by several Members, and it was interesting.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), with whom I have debated this subject in the past, pushed hard for more transparencies, some of which we are bringing in, especially on pay. He also wants greater transparency in commissioning, and we have been through some of the detail of his concerns. As I have said in the past, the BBC must engage with those concerns and ensure that it listens to them, responding appropriately. Also, I always stand by to assist him in getting the responses he needs.
I come now to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who made a brilliant speech—a forensic dissection of the petitions worthy of a journalist of 17 years who trained at the BBC. It was also a brilliant exposition of the BBC funding model—he went further than the hon. Member for Cardiff West who said that if we did not have it, we might not invent it—and how, if it did not exist, we might want to invent it as it is. He also made the point, however, about the need not only for a broader range of people but, crucially, a broader range of people reflecting the whole of Britain.
The BBC has a special responsibility for diversity in its broadest sense, not only in the important protected characteristics such as gender, race, sexual orientation and disability. Those are important, but so is ensuring that BBC, in front of and behind the camera, represents and reflects back to us the nation that we live in. There is no doubt that the BBC is the finest mirror we have on our society. It is incumbent on the BBC, from the programme makers through to those who are on screen, to lead rather than to follow, and to ensure that they represent and reflect the whole of the country they serve.
I will touch on a couple of other points. It is clear to me that this debate has broadly reflected the views of the country. Recently we had a charter review, one of the biggest consultations undertaken by Government. We received 192,000 responses and engaged with more than 300 organisations and experts. The process was overseen by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) who is no wet blanket and by no means an instinctive cheerleader for the BBC, yet we have come up with a solution that has a broad consensus of support behind it.
The Minister is moving on from the contributions made by hon. Members, but may I remind him that part of my speech touched on the threatening nature of the letters from, and the harassment and intimidation by, TV Licensing? I was hoping that he might respond to that at some point.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that, because I had buried the relevant piece of paper underneath an extremely elegant and new description of who is sitting where in the Chamber. The Perry review found that the existing regime is broadly fair and proportionate. However, when it comes to ensuring that those letters are worded appropriately and to their tone, we expect the BBC board to keep that under review, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will help. Members across the House have spoken about the tone of the letters, and in no circumstances is it reasonable for people to be presumed guilty until they are proven innocent. The opposite is rightly true in the system we have in this country.
I was talking about the scale of the consultation. The existing model has wide public support: 60% of consultation responses indicated that no change was needed to the licence fee model and only 3% favoured full subscription funding. That has been reflected in today’s debate. We are committed to maintaining that model for the duration of the 11-year charter period, which will provide the BBC with the funding certainty that it needs.
There is also a commitment to considering whether elements of subscription have a role to play in future funding alongside the core licence fee model. It is for the BBC to set the scope of those plans, but we expect progress. The success will be appropriately reviewed to feed into the next charter review process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) pointed out, there are ways to add subscription funding on to the core licence fee—BBC Worldwide does that already—and the BBC’s existing content is a huge potential source of wealth.
In wrapping up, let me say that if we assess the value for money of the BBC, for approximately 40p a day we are offered an unrivalled range of services, including seven national TV services, more than 50 radio services and digital services including the iPlayer, as well as some of the further efforts that the BBC makes on education. That represents great value for licence fee payers. The introduction of the contestable fund; the need to consider the future of children’s content, which was raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff West; the need to ensure that local areas of the country are fairly represented; the support for local news; and, in this era of an increasingly disrupted and diverse range of news sources, the need for objective, factual news domestically and around the world, mean that the case for the BBC as funded by the licence fee is incredibly strong.
Ultimately, our democratic discourse and our freedom as a nation are underpinned by having a debate based on an agreed set of facts that can be objectively verified. In this disruptive digital world, the BBC plays a vital role in helping to improve the quality of that public discussion and in enhancing the quality of public understanding. Although I would push it harder on diversity of thought and distinctiveness of programming, the value that the BBC adds to our public debate and of course to our enjoyment, whether on a Saturday night or at any other time, is second to none.
Before I end, let me add that the support for S4C, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), is incredibly important. With that, I bring this lively debate to an end. I submit that we have faithfully debated the petitions and I look forward to continuing this debate in the months and years ahead.
The debate has not come to an end quite yet. I have learnt two important things from it: first, what frequently used to be called the Bolshevik broadcasting company is actually a nursery for Tory MPs; and secondly, that people from Chester obviously are very cultured, because there are four of us in the debate. It has been a very worthwhile debate, with some very interesting and informative points made by hon. Members. Even the SNP spokesperson still admits the value of the BBC. I hope that he will say very clearly that attempts to intimidate the BBC, particularly during the Scottish independence referendum, were wholly reprehensible.
By and large, it has been a very good-tempered and informative debate and it has made it clear that we all value the BBC, with all its imperfections and all the areas where we would like it to go further, and that it is an institution that is worth preserving and funding properly.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 170931 and 200239 relating to the TV Licence fee.